When Bees Become Canaries: UNL Research Leads to Important Discoveries

Healthy, busy bees at Kimmel Orchard provide hands-on experience for beekeepers seeking to improve their skills.

It’s a tale of two sites for discovery. Since 2018, in Kimmel Orchard outside of Nebraska City, Nebraska, beehives have flourished in a meadow surrounded by apple, cherry and pear trees. At the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center (ENREC) near Mead, Nebraska, seeping, invisible toxins caused dead bees to spill out of hives for three summers, halting promising research and mystifying scientists.

The connection between these two very different places? It was the work of Judy Wu-Smart, Ph.D., assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Entomology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

In the orchard, a collection of white beehives, some decorated by children, hosts thousands of industrious bees waiting to help pollinate delicate, fragrant blossoms each spring. In the summer, rows of trees will be heavy with fruit, and visitors of all ages will harvest the bounty. Add in beekeeping classes and research, and this place buzzes with life.

Judy Wu-Smart, Ph.D., assistant professor and extension specialist int he UNL Department of Entomology, is with some of her research subjects.

It’s a favorite spot for Wu-Smart, who enjoys teaching beekeepers at every level, from the beginner to the professional.

“I really love engaging with the stakeholders and translating complicated science into relatable, practical solutions,” said Wu-Smart. “Our applied research feeds into our beekeeper and landowner training programs.”

Bees are not only crucial to the agricultural economy and food stability, but their numbers are also declining, so sharing the latest research is increasingly urgent. Wu-Smart developed a Master Beekeeping certification to help do just that. Beekeepers from local and regional beekeeping organizations in a four-state region take classes to discover what works and then bring back up-to-date information to their local groups, helping more than 800 people become more effective beekeepers.

Kimmel Orchard not only provides space for the Bee Lab’s apiaries (and fruit trees with pollen for those bees), but the Richard P. Kimmel & Laurine Kimmel Charitable Foundation also awarded the lab a $100,000 grant in 2020. Wu-Smart made careful use of that gift, pairing it with funds from her own resources to present a virtual Bee Fun Day, a Girl Scout workshop and, most importantly, fund two graduate students and their research projects.

One of those students is Courtney Brummel. As part of her work toward her master’s degree in entomology, she’s exploring ways to integrate pollinator conservation with education at Kimmel Orchard.

Brummel said that she is “eternally grateful” for the grant.

“Without the Kimmel Foundation, I wouldn’t be getting my master’s,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to take my next steps in my career, but also in my life, because of the self-discovery I’ve had through this journey. I am passionate about food security and the importance of education. And I’m realizing that people want to help — they just don’t know where to start.”

This spring, Brummel and her fellow graduate students planted pollinator gardens with carefully chosen native plants, providing food for bees. Brummel designed signs to share more about bees, the pollinator gardens and conservation practices with visitors. These signs will be installed at the pollinator gardens, which border a walking trail, and also in other places around the orchard. Brummel hopes visitors will see how beautiful native plants are and maybe give some of them a try. It turns out that with bees, what you plant matters.

“People think growing petunias is helping bees because they are flowers, but native bees cannot pull pollen and nectar from a lot of these non-native plants, because they have not coevolved,” Brummel said.

She explained that the shape of the flower and the shape of the pollinator have to match. Some plants are only pollinated by one type of insect, while others aren’t so particular. On the flip side, some pollinators feed only on one type of flower. Brummel is excited to create signage to share information like this with the Kimmel Orchard’s many visitors. It’s one more way Kimmel Orchard can be a place of discovery.

Discovery is not always so joyful, even when it is crucial to the health of people and the local ecosystem. Sixty-four miles away at the extension center, Wu-Smart and her students discovered something grim and unexpected.

The original question Wu-Smart hoped to answer at that site was: Can locating beehives behind windbreaks help protect the bees from wind-borne pesticides? But instead she was faced with a much more pressing question: Why are these bees dying? For three years, while bees thrived at Kimmel Orchard, she couldn’t even keep her colonies alive through the summer

Wu-Smart knows bees. She’s been studying them since 2006, when she helped with a study of orchid bees in Florida as part of the Student Conservation Association Program through AmeriCorps and all throughout her research in graduate school. She knows exactly what to do to keep them happy and healthy. So why were thousands of dead bees spilling out of her hives?

She did what scientists do: She collected data. To make sure she wasn’t double counting dead bees or losing them in the grass when she wanted them under a microscope, she invented a simple beehive monitoring device that any beekeeper can make with 2x4s and an old sheet or tarp.
It’s a bee trap, and it’s probably one of the cheapest pieces of scientific equipment after the question mark.

With the help of a tenacious graduate student, she collected soil, air and plant samples for analysis. But the lab results made no sense.

“We contested with the lab for two years, because we thought there was a spill,” Wu-Smart said “We’re like, there’s no way milkweeds could have this much pesticide. Check again.”

When the second batch of tests came back again with results among the highest ever collected in field samples, the research team started to look for the source.

It turned out that the bees were part of a larger pattern in the area that included sick humans and dead wildlife. The pattern pointed to AltEn, an ethanol plant that used seeds coated with pesticides to produce ethanol and sold one of the byproducts to farmers for fertilizer. Area residents had complained, but federal and state regulations only covered how pesticides are applied at the factory, not what happens to the seed after it leaves the factory. There are also laws designed to protect bees, about how farmers can spray chemicals on their fields — but these chemicals weren’t being sprayed.

“People have always commented about how bees are the canaries in the coal mine of our environment,” Wu-Smart said. “If they’re not healthy, then there’s something else going on. This is a perfect example where, yes, my bees were the canary.”

Once she confirmed what was happening, Wu-Smart found herself in a role she didn’t expect: testifying before the Nebraska Legislature.

Wu-Smart’s voice joined the chorus of Nebraskans who were and are concerned and upset about AltEn. In April, the Nebraska Legislature passed LB507, prohibiting the use of pesticide-treated seeds in the production of ethanol if the byproducts would be too toxic for use as livestock feed or fertilizer.

Now Wu-Smart and her students have joined forces with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to assess the impact of AltEn. This effort includes assessing the situation holistically, working across disciplines to measure human health impacts as well as the effects on water, soil, animals and insects.

Student research will continue at ENREC. Rogan Tokach, one of the graduate students partially funded by the grant from the Kimmel Foundation, wants to learn more about the impact of pesticides on queen bees. He will use contaminated material from ENREC beehives as a key part of his study, which will eventually become his master’s thesis.

Tokach is grateful for the gift that helped make his studies possible.

“Their donation has allowed me to do this research project, and then hopefully make a career out of working in the honeybee industry,” he said. “I’ve been a beekeeper since I was about 12 years old. And I’ve loved every second of it.”

The honeybees Wu-Smart studies typically travel 1 to 2 miles, maybe 5 in a pinch, looking for lunch for themselves and their hive mates. But her work has a far wider impact. She mentors 10 to 15 UNL students each year through their work at the UNL Bee Lab. Members of the public also benefit through the Bee Lab workshops, which in 2020, despite pandemic restrictions, provided introductory courses to 673 people, some of whom joined the Great Plains Master Beekeepers Program started by Wu-Smart. She and her students do research published in national journals and partner with a wide variety of community organizations and nonprofits, including not only Kimmel Orchard but also Girl Scouts, the University of Nebraska State Museum-Morrill Hall, Pheasants Forever, Nebraska Game and Parks Schramm Education Center, Lauritzen Gardens, the Center for Rural Affairs, Nebraska Beekeepers Association and the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

Wu-Smart appreciates the donors who help make her work possible and for the Kimmel Foundation’s grant to the Bee Lab.

“I think it’s an incredible, generous offer to help support the bee students,” she said. “it speaks to Kimmel’s commitment to education and training. It’s wonderful the way they have opened up their farm to allow our students to learn how to professionally engage with the public and develop these educational training skills. Having partnerships like Kimmel — it strengthens us all around.”

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