Honeybee decline inspires students and faculty to act

The U.S. honeybee population has been dying at a high rate each winter—an alarming 30 percent during the 2010-11 winter. That matters because pollinating bees are responsible for 15 to 30 percent of the food U.S. consumers eat, scientists say. Possible contributors to this "colony collapse" include environmental change-related stress, potent pesticides, pathogens and insect diseases, cell phone radiation and genetically modified crops.

Faculty and students at Appalachian State University are working to be part of the solution through the Bee Informed Partnership, a $5 million program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture and led by Penn State. The team hopes their efforts will reduce national losses in honeybee populations by 50 percent in the next five years, by identifying common bee management practices and determining the best management methods on a regionally and operationally appropriate level.

Participants in the project are:

  • University of California
  • University of Illinois
  • The University of Georgia
  • The University of Tennessee
  • University of Minnesota
  • North Carolina State University
  • Lincoln University
  • Florida Department of Agriculture (and Consumer Services), and
  • NASA

"We would like to reduce honeybee mortality, increase beekeeper profitability and enhance adoption of sustainable management systems in beekeeping," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, senior extension associate with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture who will lead the project. "At the same time we want to increase the reliability of production in pollinator-dependent crops and increase the profitability of pollinator-dependent producers."

Appalachian's Department of Computer Science was awarded $729,736 through the project to create and maintain a honeybee health database with an interactive web-based interface that will provide valuable feedback to beekeepers as well as information for future research. Appalachian's funding will support full-time research associate Mark Henson, who also is a beekeeper, as well as undergraduate students who will work on various aspects of information technology support.

Department chairman James Wilkes' experience as a beekeeper and his desire to blend computer science with the science of beekeeping led to the university's involvement in the project. "Personally, I had a horrible winter this past year with my own bees," he said. "I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do, but something happened and I lost a lot of bees. That's what's been happening in the beekeeping world for the past several years."

Appalachian students have already gotten involved with the issue. They have been working with Dr. Jay Fenwick, professor of computer science, to develop an Android mobile phone application that will help beekeepers keep track of maintenance of their beehives. The application provides a mobile, secure way for beekeepers to store their records and will provide alerts of needed maintenance. Fenwick and his students presented this project at the 2011 National Conference for Undergraduate Research in Ithaca, N.Y., this past spring.

"I have benefited from this project by seeing the students use the concepts and theories they have learned in their classes in a real-world setting," said Fenwick. "The students benefit from an exposure to the culture of research as well."

Appalachian's response to the honeybee concern has provided students with hands-on experience with an issue affecting their community and the world around them. With more than 10,000 beekeepers and more bee hives than any other state, this is an opportunity for Appalachian students to make a real difference in North Carolina.