Posted: December 21, 2016

Penn State Bee Research Pollinates the Next Generation of Scientists


Elina Lastro Niño's curiosity about honey bees dates back to her childhood in Bosnia, where her father kept bees for a time. After perhaps one sting too many, her father gave up his bees, and Niño's interest in honey bees waned--but not her fascination with insect biology.

Fast forward several years to Niño's time as a master's degree student in entomology at North Carolina State University, where she studied dung beetles. While looking for a research program in which to pursue a doctorate, she visited with N.C. State entomologist Christina Grozinger, whose lab was becoming known for its research on honey bees and other pollinators.

"I thought the work she was doing with bees was amazing, and that's when I really got hooked on bees," Niño said.

When Grozinger, now a Distinguished Professor of Entomology at Penn State, left for State College, Niño followed. There, she conducted research on honey bee queen reproductive health, earned her doctorate, and served as a USDA-AFRI postdoctoral fellow. She parlayed that into a position as an apiculture researcher and extension specialist at the University of California, Davis, where she has worked since 2014.

Holly Holt
Holly Holt removes a frame of drones (male bees) from a honey bee hive as part of her doctoral research at Penn State.

While Penn State has developed a reputation as a leader in pollinator research, the experiences of Niño and a fellow entomology Ph.D. alumna, Holly Holt, illustrate another key contribution to pollinator health. Penn State is playing a critical role in training the next generation of scientists to address problems--such as parasitic mites, diseases, and pesticide effects--that are likely to take longer to solve than the duration of a research grant or even an entomologist's entire career.

Compared to Niño's, Holt's journey into pollinator research was more circuitous. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, she was fascinated by disease and its movement in social systems. She studied coral sea fan immune responses to a fungal pathogen, and after graduating, she worked in the orthopedics department of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, looking at the cost-effectiveness of different medical interventions for knee osteoarthritis.

"This broader view of studying both the etiology of diseases and how stakeholders come to the table to deal with the problem got me interested in honey bees," Holt said. "At the time, colony collapse disorder had just hit the news, and everyone was trying to figure out what was causing mysterious honey bee losses."

So with support from a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship, Holt pursued her doctorate at Penn State to learn more about how diseases contribute to honey bee decline and how beekeepers, scientists, farmers, government regulatory agencies, and agribusinesses can move forward to preserve pollinator populations.

"Today, we know that colony collapse disorder actually is not the biggest problem that honey bees and other pollinators face--it's likely a combination of insecticide, fungicide, and herbicide exposure, disease, poor nutrition, habitat loss exacerbated by climate change, and in some cases, reduced genetic pools," she said. "That means that, now more than ever, it's important for all stakeholders to work together."

Penn State's Center for Pollinator Research, which Grozinger directs, helped prepare Holt and Niño to collaborate with diverse stakeholders by exposing them to a variety of perspectives and providing valuable cross-disciplinary training.

"I learned from researchers across a wide spectrum in entomology, ecology, the social sciences, and other fields who looked at things from different angles," Niño said. "I also had the luxury of doing extension work alongside Maryann Frazier (Penn State Extension honey bee specialist), who is amazingly respected by beekeepers. So working in Christina's lab was a holistic experience, and I learned from the best."

That training is proving invaluable for Niño in her current position. California agriculture has an immense need for managed pollinators. For instance, the state grows more than 900,000 acres of almonds, which require two honey bee hives per acre for pollination. So every February, nearly 2 million hives are moved into California almond groves to pollinate that crop.

"Then you have a lot of other fruits, vegetables, and forages, as well as vegetable and forage seed production," Niño said. "To provide these pollination services, we have huge beekeeping operations, some with tens of thousands of colonies."

To serve the needs of beekeepers, growers, and others, Niño has a comprehensive applied research and extension program. She studies the potentially harmful synergistic effects of miticides when combined with other agrochemicals that bees are exposed to during pollination, and she is researching potential biopesticides for the control of parasitic varroa mites, which beekeepers have told her is their biggest challenge.

In addition, she uses pollinators as a vehicle to teach science to school children, and she is launching a Master Beekeeper program to recruit volunteer beekeepers who can help spread research-based knowledge to others. "I like to call them 'the extension of my extension work,'" she said.

Elina Lastro Niño
Elina Lastro Niño demonstrates techniques for using a smoker to calm bees as part of her work as an apiculture extension specialist at the University of California, Davis.

Holt also benefited from the well-rounded experience she gained in her Penn State doctoral program. As the science coordinator for the Monarch Joint Venture, based at the University of Minnesota, she works with partners to advance scientific understanding of the drivers behind monarch butterfly population declines. The project aims to enact landscape and other environmental changes that foster pollinator population growth and to enhance policy guidelines that promote conservation of monarchs and other pollinator species.

"Penn State offered a fantastic environment for learning about factors impinging on pollinator health," she said. "Although my Ph.D. studies were focused on the effects of two damaging fungal pathogens on honey bee gene expression, physiology, and behavior, being a part of Penn State's entomology department and the Center for Pollinator Research introduced me to the broader picture of pollinator declines and their drivers. Exposure to other research fields related to pollinator health, beyond disease, was invaluable in preparing me for my current position."

One of Holt's primary responsibilities is to collaborate with the Monarch Conservation Science Partnership, which is a group of scientists from academic, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations. The partnership is developing an integrated framework for monitoring monarchs and their habitat.

"This program is currently in a pilot testing phase," she explained. "Once protocols are finalized, we hope to expand this program broadly within the contiguous 48 U.S. states--or even tri-nationally with Canada and Mexico--across the monarch's range in North America. We know that many factors likely are contributing to monarch declines, including habitat loss in breeding and overwintering grounds, chemical exposures, climate change, disease, introduction of invasive species, and natural predation and parasitoid pressures.

"Because monarchs have a complicated migratory life cycle that spans three countries with multiple generations per year, one of the challenges of conserving monarchs is figuring out how regional stressors scale up to affect total population numbers," said Holt. "Tracking monarchs and their habitat across their broad range will help us to identify regionally appropriate conservation actions."

Niño and Holt agree that science can't operate in a vacuum and that researchers, government, industry, and the public must work together to support programs, education, and funding aimed at pollinator health.

"I think the single most important thing I learned at Penn State was that academics have so much to learn from other stakeholders," Holt said. "We scientists aren't going to solve the pollinator problem by ourselves. We need to bring everyone to the table to have success."

--Chuck Gill