SUPERIOR STORIES
Urban Honey Bee Project
TAKES FLIGHT

There’s something captivating about honey bees. Watching them fly from flower to flower on a bright sunny day is mesmerizing, and the honey and beeswax they produce are some of nature’s greatest gifts. Even more importantly, 75 percent of the world’s crops depend on these tiny laborers for pollination, a service valued at over $20 billion* annually in the United States alone.

Sadly, honey bees are dying at an alarming rate. Each year, approximately 50 percent of the world’s bees die prematurely, resulting in a net decline of about 33 percent between 2016 to 2018.**

While much is known about these incredibly complex creatures, even more remains to be discovered. That’s where biology professor, Dr. Edward Burkett and the UW-Superior Urban Honey Bee Project come in. Recognizing the importance and vast potential of honey bees, Doc Bee (as his students call him) began the Urban Honey Bee Project in 2016 and opened an apiary with over half a million bees on campus.

Superior Story: Honey Bee Research
“I wanted to find an area of focus with ecological significance that would be of interest to students and sustainable for a smaller university.”
– Edward Burkett, Biology Professor

The Urban Honey Bee Project has three components: education, undergraduate research and community service. Students interested in studying the bees and conducting research begin by taking an introductory course called Honey Bee Biology and Scientific Beekeeping, in which they learn principles of beekeeping and bee biology. If interested, they then have the opportunity to continue their studies through research and work in the apiary. They also join Burkett in providing information about beekeeping and honey bee preservation to the broader community.

“I wanted to find an area of focus with ecological significance that would be of interest to students and sustainable for a smaller university,” said Burkett. “I’ve been a beekeeper for years, so this seemed like the perfect fit.”

While still in its infancy, interest in the Urban Honey Bee Project and honey bee biology is rapidly increasing with 28 students taking the introductory course, five participating in undergraduate research with the bees, and two advancing to graduate programs to date.

If you are interested in supporting honey bee education and research at UW-Superior, please consider donating to the Urban Honey Bee Project. Your contribution will be used to help maintain and enhance the bee apiary, fund summer undergraduate work, and purchase equipment.

Urban Honey Bee Filler Image

EXTRAORDINARY CREATURES

The intelligence and complex social structure of honey bees is extraordinary. These tiny creatures have a sense of smell 300-times stronger than a dog. They fly up to three miles from the hive to collect pollen and nectar, remembering the scent of the flower they visited and the route they took. They communicate this information to other bees in the hive through a complex set of motions, called a “waggle” dance. These remarkable attributes and many others make research possibilities virtually unlimited and critically important, given the bees’ decline.

Undergraduate students are afforded graduate-level research opportunities with the honey bees under the guidance of Burkett. Students are investigating the use of honey bees as a way to monitor climate change, to determine the influence of pesticides on bees’ ability to learn and remember, and even to detect the presence of breast cancer.

“Our students are conducting research that is comparable to graduate-level initiatives at larger institutions,” said Burkett. “Students are encouraged to propose their own research topics rather than just what we assign them, which increases their preparation for graduate school. We get to know our students personally and focus on helping them attain their education and career goals.”

Urban Honey Bee Project Bee Keepers

The Urban Honey Bee Project at UW-Superior includes an apiary with over half a million honey bees.

STUDENT RESEARCH SOARS WITH BEES

Uday Patel (’19 Biology major, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) minor) approached Burkett with an interest in determining if bees could be used as a means to monitor global climate change.

“I wanted to see if bees could be used as an indicator of global warming,” said Uday. “I thought it would be the perfect way to combine my interest in Biology and GIS. But, Doc Bee helped me realize my topic was too broad to complete while I am a student here, so he helped me refine my research scope to a more manageable size.”

Uday spent the summer collecting pollen samples from bees, analyzing them under a microscope, and plotting them on a GIS map to identify the plants they were foraging on and their location. The database and map he is creating will form a basis to monitor phenology, the study of plant life cycles and how they are influenced by climate change.

Future students will continue Uday’s work to answer the research question he originally posed. In the meantime, his work will enable the Urban Honey Bee Program to inform area homeowners about what plants are important for honey bee health and hopefully encourage them to plant more.

Honey Bees Flying Around

Students interested in studying bees start by taking an introductory course called Honey Bee Biology and Scientific Beekeeping. As part of their studies, students harvest honey and beeswax, which is sold to help fund the program

Filler Image

Another student, Annika Saari is continuing a research study started by Jessica Buelow, who graduated this spring. Jessica first posed the idea of training bees to respond when exposed to the odor of breast cancer cells to Burkett. He then helped her formulate a training method for the bees. By giving them a reward – a small drop of sugar water – the bees learn to stick out their proboscis, which is like a tongue, when they ‘smell’ cancer cells. In the future, Burkett and his students hope their work will show that bees can be used to detect breast cancer in a manner that may be less invasive and costly.

In addition to biology and ecology-related education opportunities, students who take the honey bee biology course also learn beekeeping skills that they can use throughout their life as a hobby or for employment and entrepreneurial ventures.

For all of these reasons, honey bees have become welcome residents on campus. Students hope their work will help preserve these important creatures and ensure that they will be enjoyed by generations to come.

* abfnet.org/page/PollinatorFacts

** phys.org/news/2017-05-survey-honeybee-losses-horrible-bad.html