“Oh yeah, that looks gorgeous,” Symes said as she and fellow IU student Alex Sodeman lifted a frame from one of the hives. “That’s definitely a good hive.”
There wasn’t a lot of activity outside the hives, just a few bees buzzing around. But when it came time to check out the second hive, Symes spotted a problem.
“This is pretty bad stuff,” she said, pointing out what she would later determine was chalkbrood, a disease caused by fungus that can seriously weaken a bee colony. “We’ll have to do a treatment.”
Symes is one of a growing network of IU students, faculty and Bloomington residents who have taken up the plight of the bees. Through Symes, dozen of students have joined the Beekeeping Club at IU to help establish hives on campus and raise awareness of the ongoing demise of bee colonies.
Retired IU microbiology professor and longtime beekeeper George Hegeman has served as a mentor to students and continues to educate others in the area.
In the lab, IU researcher Irene Newton and her team continue to study the role that gut bacteria play in the honey bee's metabolism, how commercial practices may or may not affect honey bee health and what this might mean for the big picture of honey bee colony loss.
For Symes, the past few years have made her familiar with the highs and the lows of being a beekeeper.
“You can see the bees coming in and out so you know they’re active, and you can see the bees on the clover when you’re walking up to the hive,” said Symes, a first-year Master of Public Affairs/Master of Science in environmental sciences student at IU Bloomington who began beekeeping a few years ago. “But it’s not until you open the hive that you get the big surprises.
“It’s been good surprises -- like today we saw some really good stuff. Then there’s sometimes where you get those surprises and it is discouraging. But as a beekeeper in today’s world, you can’t let yourself get defeated. It’s more about, 'OK, what’s the next thing I can do to help the bees battle this?'”
Her attitude is one many beekeepers have had to adhere to following an ongoing struggle to maintain hives.
What’s happening to the bees?
For the past decade, beekeepers in the U.S. and Europe have been reporting annual bee and hive losses that are considerably higher than what would be considered normal or sustainable. The term "colony collapse disorder" was coined in 2006 for the unexplained phenomenon of dying bee colonies.
U.S. beekeepers lost more than 40 percent of their colonies in 2014-15 -- the second-highest loss since the Bee Informed Partnership -- a partnership with the USDA and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture that studies bee declines in the U.S., began recording losses nine years ago.
In Indiana, the total colony loss last year was 49 percent.
Not only were losses reported during the winter, the typical time for such loss, but a higher number was also reported throughout the summer.
The problem affects more than bees and beekeepers. Bees are the most important pollinators of flowering plants that, along with other insects, directly or indirectly produce one of every three bites of food we eat.
And honey bees -- the bees kept by beekeepers and used to produce honey -- are the most efficient pollinators; they enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in North America and are responsible for adding more than $15 billion a year to the value of U.S. agricultural products.
Non-native to North America, honey bees were introduced here in the 1620s by some of the first European colonists. Native Americans referred to the bees as “white men’s flies” because bee colonies would appear as the frontier advanced.
Bees were originally kept in wooden boxes, straw skeps and other containers. But it wasn’t until the 1800s, after the invention of the moveable-frame hive, that beekeeping became possible on a larger scale.
Beekeepers say that the hive or colony functions as a single organism. Individual bees, with their differentiated functions, are like specialized cells in a human body. When a single bee dies, it’s like a skin cell dying and flaking away.
While native bees and other insects are also important, honey bees are the most prized because of their large colonies and their tendency to be “flower faithful," meaning they visit the same variety of flowers over and over, making them effective pollinators.
They are also valuable as producers of honey and of beeswax, used in crafts, and of bee pollen and a resinous substance called propolis, used as dietary supplements.
But changes in U.S. agriculture affected bees and beekeeping even before the recent conditions that have threatened bee numbers. In the 1940s, there were approximately 5.7 million honey bee colonies in the U.S., according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Today there are about 2.7 million colonies.
One person at a time
Symes’ love affair with bees started three years ago when, bored working as a lifeguard, she decided to take up some type of environmental volunteerism. She found a position online for a beekeeper assistant and fell in love with the process the first day on the job.
Once she returned to IU for the fall semester, Symes got involved with Garden Corps through the campus garden initiative and was encouraged to start her own project. Her idea: Bring bees to campus.
Her first year as a beekeeper was not without its ups and downs.
“There was a lot of trial and error,” she said. “Once you’ve got the basics down, from there it’s about paying attention to what’s going on. If you see something that’s not normal, then it’s taking a picture, researching it and finding out what the remedies are.”
But Symes’ first hive was plagued by problems, including pests and a wayward queen. Eventually it suffered the fate of many U.S. hives: The bees did not survive the winter.
The loss was devastating for Symes, who has a real affinity for the flying insects.
“I can tell you, I honestly would get emotional when there were problems with the bees,” she said. “When they died this spring, I really did sit there and reflect on it because I felt like I was nurturing a living being. I felt responsible.”
While the bees did not survive, Symes' passion for beekeeping and for bringing hives to IU thrived.
During her intitial project, Symes connected with IU Kelley School of Business associate professor David Rubinstein, whose Managing and Behavior in Organizations class took on Symes’ project by coming up with ways to manage and maintain hives on campus.
That class triggered interest from other students who helped form the Beekeeping Club at IU and who are now learning the ropes of beekeeping.
And to learn to take care of the hives, the students found a mentor in George Hegeman, a retired IU microbiology professor who has been Bloomington’s go-to expert on beekeeping for decades.
IU’s go-to bee guru
Hegeman, 77, developed an interest in beekeeping as a boy on Long Island.
“I had a neighbor who kept bees,” he said. “I used to go over and bother him, and eventually I reached the stage where I could help him out a little bit. He taught me what it was all about.”
In addition to keeping several beehives at his property north of the city, he helps care for hives at the Bloomington Community Orchard, keeps a hive at Hilltop Garden and Nature Center for teaching and public awareness purposes, and is a consultant for a live beehive display at the WonderLab children’s science museum.
Beekeeping is an ideal hobby for someone who likes to be outdoors but doesn’t want to be tied down by daily chores, he said. It’s not terribly demanding -- “not like keeping chickens or cows."
“But mostly it’s just getting outside and seeing what the bees are up to. It’s a way to keep in touch with the natural world,” said Hegeman, who also earns some income from his hobby by selling honey at Musgrave’s Orchard north of Bloomington.
An occasional sting is part of the price that beekeepers can expect to pay. “It’s like getting a splinter if you’re a woodworker,” Hegeman said. “It’s part of the work troubles that normally beset you.”
Of course for the approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population who are allergic to bee stings, experts recommend against taking up beekeeping. But for the vast majority, it’s an increasingly popular hobby.
With decades of experience, Hegeman sees today’s interest in beekeeping among sustainability-minded young people as something new and different. A beekeeping course that he and Symes taught as part of the City of Bloomington’s People’s University program drew considerable interest in fall 2014.
“There’s a lot of interest in permaculture, in back to the land,” he said. “And as soon as you think of having an orchard, you have to think about pollinators. Anyone who is interested in gardening will be well-served with having pollinators.”
And the sense that bees are threatened may have raised awareness and created a sense of beekeeping as a mission, Hegeman said.
“I think the fact that colony collapse disorder has come to the fore has brought this to everyone’s attention,” he said. “You can’t just ignore the insects while you’re busy saving the rest of the Earth.”
The disappearing bees
The last three decades have become more complex and challenging for beekeepers.
Sharp colony declines occurred after the introduction of an external parasitic mite in 1987 that feeds on honey bee blood, according to the White House’s strategy to promote honey bees and pollinators. Hive beetles, other predators and new fungal diseases have also caused losses.
But the phenomenon labeled colony collapse disorder has brought greater attention -- and even alarm -- to the plight of honey bees.
A term used to describe the mass disappearance of worker honey bees from the hive, colony collapse disorder first made headlines after commercial beekeeper David Hackenberg found that about 80 percent of his 3,000 bee colonies in Pennsylvania and Florida had died.
Hackenberg contacted scientists at Pennsylvania State University, who learned the problem was happening in other places. A name was given to the problem, and media coverage soon followed.
Today, colony collapse disorder is still making headlines, and reasons for the mass number of colony loses have been attributed to exposure to pesticides, poor nutrition, exposure to pests, disease, bee biology, genetics, breeding and a combination of all of these things. However, no scientific reason for the disorder has been proven.
Meanwhile scientists are studying bee biology to, in part, gain a better understanding of their vulnerabilities and why they are disappearing in large numbers.
An inside look
At IU, the scientists working on this issue are on the second floor of Jordan Hall, where Freddy Lee recently could be found leaning over a lit Bunsen burner and petri dish, isolating bacteria from a honey bee’s gut.
“We’re making these samples so we can study the role that bacteria play in the honey bee’s metabolism, how they contribute to breaking down the plants from their diet,” Lee said, explaining the experiment.
The primary investigator of the lab is Irene Newton, an assistant professor in the department. She is also the faculty advisor for the Beekeeping Club at IU and a beekeeper herself, a skill she picked up from a colleague at Wellesley College, where she worked before IU.
“We don’t usually think about our bodies playing host to millions of microorganisms, but in fact everyone’s got a microbiome, honey bees included,” Newton said. “And more and more we’re finding out it plays an important role in our health.”
The microbiome comprises all the microorganisms in the body, including the digestive tract. Recently, Newton, along with fellow scientists in North Carolina and Western Massachusetts, published a study in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology finding that the microbiomes of queen bees aren’t the same as their worker bees.
The paper shed light on the way in which differences between the diet of queen bees -- who feast on nutrient rich “royal jelly” -- and worker bees -- who consume “bee bread” -- leads to differences in the microbiome. The study also investigated common queen rearing practices and found that moving queen bees during development does not alter their microbial communities. Shifting queens between hives is a common practice among commercial beekeepers, although they typically don't stray far from their home in nature.
In addition to studying honey bee gut bacteria, Newton’s team is also conducting experiments on how other commercial practices may affect honey bee health, including the use of antibiotics and breeding practices that affect genetic diversity.
Newton said there is concern that the overuse of microbe-killing antibiotics could destroy good bacteria in honey bees along with the bad -- echoing similar concern about the high use of antibiotics in people. With breeding, Newton’s team is studying whether the practice of rearing baby bees using the genetic material from a few fathers is harmful. Queen bees typically mate with many different drones, giving birth to genetically diverse offspring, she explained.
“The more genetically diverse the colony, the more diverse the microbiome,” she said. “We’ve also found … more beneficial organisms in hives where the queens reproduce naturally.”
In addition to working in the lab, most of the members of Newton's team stay active in the field by helping maintain several research hives off Bayles Road on the IU Research and Teaching Preserve.
Much like Symes' bees, they also experienced die-offs over the winter -- a stark reminder of the worldwide decline they’re hoping to play a role in solving.
“There are lots and lots of research groups around the world looking at honey bees,” Newton said. The honey bee crisis stems from a range of factors, including climate changes, pesticides and hive infestations. Unfortunately there’s no one “magic bullet,” she said.
“One of every three mouthfuls of food in our diet has been touched by pollinators like the European honey bee; it would be very bad if they suddenly disappeared,” Newton said. “Our work is focused on just one small part of the puzzle.”
Continuing the efforts
Regardless of the challenges, Symes' project continues to thrive.
The Beekeeping Club at IU is up and running. This summer, two more hives were established at Hilltop Gardens; the hives are managed not only by Symes but by fellow students like Alex Sodeman.
“Initially the goal was ‘I like beekeeping so let's do this and it will help our garden,’” Symes said. “Then it really evolved. Colony collapse disorder became a hot issue in the news, so it became more of ‘Now I want to share my passion with other students and I want other students and other people in the community to realize how easy it is.’ This is an opportunity for anyone in Bloomington who wants to try it out and see if it’s a hobby they want to take on.”
Sodeman got involved after hearing about Symes’ work while volunteering at Hilltop. A geology major, Sodeman has had an affinity for bugs since he was a child and enjoys the complexity of a bee’s life.
“They are all eusocial bugs, so they have that hierarchy; there’s a queen, there are workers, and then there are drones,” he said.” I always thought that was interesting. Plus keeping bees is a cool thing because you can have your own hive of bees in your backyard.”
Although an old pro at handling insects, Sodeman has spent the summer getting used to handling bees, whose stingers present a new challenge. While picking up a frame one summer afternoon, he was convinced he had been stung when it was actually just a bee crawling up his arm.
With Symes’ help, Sodeman has learned that bees pick up on nerves, so he’s worked to keep his anxiety in check when handling the small creatures. It’s just one of the many things he’s been learning this summer.
“You do learn a lot when you are right up close next to them -- when they poke their heads up out of the frame, when they catch on that you are spraying smoke on them and that nothing is actually wrong, when they are at the front entrance of their hive and they stick their tails up to let the other bees know that this is an entrance," he said. "Also, if you pick up some frames you can see bees sticking their heads into the cells, and that means they are actually cleaning the cells and making honey or feeding babies.
“Just little things like that are cool. You don’t really see that so much in a video, but you see that when it’s right up in your face and there are bees crawling all over the place.”
Beyond her peers
In addition to students, Symes’ activism has spread to others in the IU community.
Both James and her partner, Mark Blaney, were interested in bees, and Symes’ enthusiasm pushed them toward obtaining official beekeeping status.
“Ellie, who we call the bee whisperer, was so excited about bees, and we thought this is the perfect time to go ahead and get a hive,” James said.
The couple lives on five acres of land that features an organic farm with blueberries, blackberries, kale and other veggies; a worm farm; more than 100 chickens; and a handful of dogs.
They started out with one hive last summer. Like Symes, James and Blaney had numerous issues with their hive and ended up losing the bees last winter. They have started over this summer with three new hives they hope will become established and eventually lead to more hives.
Also like Symes, in addition to simply being interested in bees, the couple’s main goal for keeping hives is to make a difference, no matter how small, on behalf of bees.
“I have great concern about climate change issues, and this seems to be a little tiny way I can contribute,” James said. “This feels like one little something we can do. I would like to have more hives so at least in our little tiny corner of the world we can have a healthy, safe place for the bees.”
It’s all about having a positive, proactive approach, Blaney added.
“It’s like the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “How goes the bees is a sign of how goes the long-term culture of humanity. Instead of being depressed about how spiraling it seems to be, it gives me a sense of participation and a hopeful approach.”
Leaving a legacy
A little more than two months after installing new hives at Hilltop, club members Wyatt Wells and Simon Kuntz, both seniors studying at IU Bloomington’s Kelley School of Business, came out for a regular check-in with the bees.
“Beautiful,” Wells said as he lifted a frame crawling with bees from one of the hives. “That makes me really happy.”
But with that initial high came some disappointment when Wells and Kuntz opened up the second hive -- which had been thriving, other than a possible chalkbrood issue -- to find that the queen Wells installed a few weeks ago may have fled.
“I assume she is gone,” Wells said. “She might be in the other hive. I’m not sure.”
Though he majors in sport marketing and management, Wells has always had an interest in environmental issues and is one of a number of students who have jumped on board with Symes’ mission to bring more awareness and bees to campus.
While his studies at IU do not directly address environmental issues such as beekeeping, it was his “we can do something to make an actual change” mentality that pushed him to be more involved.
“Most of all, I've learned that collaborating with like-minded and goal-oriented people can create a legitimate cause out of a basic idea,” Wells said. “I'm encouraged not only because I found a niche where I belong, but because IU had the resources for us to formally establish and grow our niche -- which I believe is something all students should engage in.”
With two years left as an IU student, Symes is hoping not only to have established hives but to garner enough interest from students to continue to maintain them.
This fall, she and her fellow club members plan to work with other student groups and IU administrators to push for a more bee-friendly campus. She’s also fielded interest from others on campus to potentially start additional hives outside Hilltop Gardens.
But for now, Symes is focused on creating established hives and continuing to raise awareness about an insect that plays such an essential role in humans’ lives.
“I explain it to people as humans and bees are totally in sync,” Symes said. “We need them for our survival, and they really need us because they have been groomed by us for hundreds of years. Who knows if they would still be on this planet without us?”
Written by Kevin Fryling, Steve Hinnefeld and April Toler