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By Evan Dresser

LEWISBURG, Pa. For a second, the Bucknell-emblazoned minivan is a space shuttle, and the four of us are astronauts in white jumpsuits, rocketing past open expanses of Central Pennsylvania farmland on the way to “the Natural Area.”

From the copilot’s chair, lead astronaut and assistant professor of biology and animal behavior Beth Capaldi is looking over her shoulder, explaining why I should care about a bee’s spatial memory. I can’t tell whether her voice has a sense of urgency, or she is just straining to talk over the flood of summer air through the open windows.

“As pollinators, bees are extremely important to agriculture.” We pass yet another roadside produce stand. “Entire crops have become almost completely dependent on them.”

She and Marie Pizzorno, associate professor of biology and department chair, had recently spoken to Pennsylvania’s Fruit Industry Task Force, and there was quite a bit of talk about “colony collapse disorder,” an issue that is causing concern for beekeepers and growers alike. In Pennsylvania, the $45 million apple industry depends heavily on bees. This explains the stamps.

Importance of bees
On the way, we had stopped at the post office where, dressed head to toe in a beekeeper’s outfit, I got my first honey-tinged taste of just how important bees are.

It started just after professor Capaldi had entered the post office, when a woman came over to talk to one of the two undergraduate researchers, Christie Wiest ’08, who was piloting the van. A professor’s wife, she made small talk and then mentioned that she had a colony of bees in her back yard that she couldn’t bear to remove. “Tell Beth to come over and study them!” she chirped, walking away to finish her errands.

Seconds later, the other researcher, John Cullum ’08, spied something bee-like inside the van, which he promptly caught inside an empty spring water bottle. The two examined it. Was it a bee? The wings didn’t look quite right. Something, something “thorax.” Scientific terms were tossed around. Maybe it was an insect that just looked like a bee. “It’s a sweat bee,” said Capaldi, returning to the passenger seat of the van. “Lasioglossum.”

'Save the pollinators'
Then there were the stamps she had just bought. They said, “Save the pollinators,” and had colorful artwork depicting butterflies, bats, hummingbirds, and, of course, bees. Of course. I was going to see a lot of bees that day.

After twists and turns along the tortuous country roads, the van banks right and lands at the Chillisquaque Natural Area, a 42-acre former farm property bequeathed to the University. “Do you have your gloves?” I did. “Do you know how to put on your hat?” I did not.

A few snaps, zips and tugs later, I am fully protected against the dreaded Apis mellifera. But, as I soon would found out, these honeybees are not the sting-happy scoundrels I had envisioned — in fact, I would call them downright hospitable as Capaldi and her team went about pulling out the various sections of the hive like vertical drawers, searching for the queen.

One sting wonders
Turns out, bees get blamed for a lot of the stings that yellowjackets, stripey imposters that are actually wasps, are responsible for. Yellowjackets can sting multiple times, but bees get just one shot at it.

Once they find the queen and plunk her into her new quarters — a small wood and wire mesh cage — they had to find faithful attendants to keep her company. These lucky members of the royal court are hand-plucked by John, who delicately pinches them at the wings in what is probably the most suspenseful moment of the afternoon. It’s a bit like “the crane game” at arcades, only the animals are not stuffed, and they can sting (albeit just once). Luckily, John had practiced the crane game at a local diner yesterday, so his skills are still sharp.

After the attendants are in place, the queen is hung.

Her little cage is hung on pole just outside the hive, which, thoughtfully, has a flat white roof on it to protect her from any rain.

Natural swarm cluster
“When bees can’t find the hive, they seek the queen using her odor,” explains Capaldi. “Once they’ve found her, they behave as though in a naturally occurring swarm cluster.”

In what is probably the second-most suspenseful moment of the afternoon, the three brush the bees off of the frames and carefully transport the now nearly empty hive up the grassy path. A puff or two of beekeeper’s smoke helps keep the bees docile during the disruption.

The displaced bees will soon swarm around their queen, which will allow Capaldi and her team to set up the next part of the experiment—seeing how the bees adapt to new surroundings. At what point do they feel at home? How much information do they retain about their old hive? Apparently, bees tend to have nostalgia for their old digs.

After some brief clean-up, the whole ordeal is done. There is just one small detail that Capaldi hadn’t mentioned: The leftover bees in the old hive will be riding back with us. They are forced to ride in the back, and the hive is screened shut, but I still keep my bee suit on the whole time, even when we stop at the roadside produce stand.

Honeybee research
Grabbing some veggies and dropping a few dollars in the slot of the unattended wooden “cash register,” I start to wonder: Just how much money would I have to drop in there for apples one of these autumns if the honeybee population bites the dust? I contemplate sending a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to urge them to keep supporting honeybee research.

But first, I’ll have to get some of those nifty pollinator stamps.

Contact: Office of Communications

Posted Aug. 13, 2007

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