WILBERFORCE — A Central State University (CSU) researcher is leading the university’s first apicultural program, emphasizing the importance of beekeeping and pollination in Ohio and the United States.
“You have to realize that one-third of the food you’re eating is pollinated by honey bees,” said Dr. Hongmei Li-Byarlay, CSU researcher within the College of Engineering, Science, Technology & Agriculture. She added that 80 percent of floral plants need pollinators.
Li-Byarlay leads the research within the CSU Apiculture Program, focusing on the fields of sustainable apiculture (technical term for beekeeping), genetics, behavior and physiology of honey bees.
Li-Barlay started her research at CSU in October 2017, but spent four years working on her postdoctoral research at North Carolina State University in the department of entomology. Before she was hired, she said that there wasn’t anyone leading this type of program at CSU.
“In Ohio, our major goal it to initiate a bee breeding program for sustainable apiculture,” said Li-Byarlay. “In doing bee breeding, we can help control the source of the queens and drones and help to promote more mite-biting behavior population.” Mite-biting behavior means how well a bee fights off a mite.
Within her basic research, she focuses on genetics, epigenetics and social behavior, including how genetics affect the aggression of a bee. She also studies chemical modifications of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) which she said plays a significant role in gene regulations and behavior. Epigenetics is defined as the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.
Studies on physiology and life spans of honey bees also fall under the scope of her basic research. One of her students is working on a project, comparing the physiology of pharaoh honey bee colonies (wild colonies, without human management) and honey bee colonies managed by people.
She also studies honey bee viruses, such as the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, but one of the main focuses at CSU has been studying mite-biting behavior of honey bees.
“The number one enemy or most severe cause for weakened colonies and colony loss are these parasitic mites,” said Li-Byarlay. These mites are called Varroa destructor, an external parasitic mite that attaches to honey bees, causing disease and weakens honey bees and their colonies.
“Imagine you are the size of a bee and you put your right hand into a fist — that’s how big a mite is,” said Li-Byarlay. She explained that Asian honey bees have evolved the ability to groom the mites off of their backs. They have had these mites for many years and have become more mite-resistant.
However, that’s not the case with European honey bees and bees in the United States. These mites traveled from Asia to Europe in the 1950s and eventually made their way into North America in 1987, which resulted in bee colony losses, referring to managed colonies.
She said at that time almost half of the population quit beekeeping because the mites made it too difficult.
“Since 2007, we have seen more losses,” said Li-Byarlay. “Each year we are still seeing 30 to 40 percent of the annual loss in the country.” She said that in some areas of Ohio, this number might even be 70 percent.
“One way we can tell or measure the mite-biting behavior is to put a board at the bottom of the hive, and we can see how many mites dropped,” said Li-Byarlay, explaining studying how well bees are fighting off mites. They also determine if mites are missing legs or body parts.
She described how weak colonies can cause mite bombs. Healthy honey bees will rob honey from weaker colonies.
“It’s busy in those big colonies and the mites are happy when they see those bees coming,” said Li-Byarlay, explaining that the mites will get onto the bees and fly with them back to their healthy colonies, thus weakening the strong colonies.
“This is why we call it a bomb — there are so many mites and they are dispersed by those forager bees and go back to the good colonies nearby,” said Li-Byarlay.
New beekeepers and packaged bees
Li-Byarlay advises people interested in beekeeping to not order packaged bees, and instead work with their local beekeepers. She also suggests that if a new beekeeper decides to order packaged bees, order them from California instead of southern states.
“In general we are trying to encourage people and promote using local resources. If we have Ohio bees that are better…same thing for local foods,” said Li-Byarlay. “We want to promote sustainable agriculture and use local business.”
Li-Byarlay said that packaged bees comes with problems, including bacteria, mites and even aggression. These packaged bees are not from Ohio, making it more difficult for them to adapt. She added that there is a 30 percent chance that the queen will be killed and not accepted into the colony.
The national average loss of managed bee colonies is around 40 percent. Using bees from local apiaries (bee yards) with low loss rates is best, she said.
Li-Byarlay has applied for several research grants which would go toward developing the bee breeding program at CSU, in addition to possibly providing classes to local beekeepers.
Obtaining grants will also enable Li-Byarlay to teach more classes and hopefully expand the program in the future. Currently she has four students in the CSU Apiculture Program and two are staying on campus for the summer.
Currently the program has one locally-borrowed bee colony on CSU campus, consisting of between 20,000 to 30,000 honey bees, which Li-Bylarlay said is a healthy colony. Bee colonies can have up to 50,000 bees. CSU obtained 8 additional bee boxes in late May.
CSU also participates in the Heartland Honey Bee Breeders Cooperation, which involves sharing of information, techniques and disease-resistant genetics between queen producers in the states of Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Illinois
Li-Byarlay grew up in China and has been studying bees since 2010. She has also studied fruit flies and insect genetics. This summer she will be visiting China for a couple weeks to study the mite biting resistance of Asian honey bees, working with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
For more information on the CSU Apiculture Program visit: http://www.centralstate.edu/academics/cse/ns01.php?num=43