By AnneMarie Hunter
“The WSU Honey Bee Research, Extension and Education Facility in Othello is an amazing research and development opportunity for pollinators that is relevant and responsive in the heart of Washington agriculture–and unprecedented in WSU’s history.”
— Laura Lavine, Professor and Chair
Washington State University Department of Entomology
“The first time I looked into a honey bee colony, I was blown away,” said Kelly Kulhanek, postdoctoral researcher with Washington State University’s Honey Bee and Pollinator Research and Education program. “I watched thousands of bees in organized chaos, all working toward a communal goal of keeping their colony healthy. Once you see into the world of honey bees, it’s very common to get hooked.”
From her first glimpse into a thriving colony two years ago, while working for the U.S. Geological Survey in South Dakota, Kulhanek’s passion was born. She followed that passion to the University of Maryland where she completed her PhD in entomology in 2020.
“Bees are at the intersection between agriculture and people,” Kulhanek said. “In my work, I get to help bees, people, and agriculture all at the same time.”
After completing her PhD, Kulhanek travelled west to WSU’s honey bee program.
Since the 1990s, this program has been a hub for global honey bee research. In March, 2020, the program acquired the new Othello Honey Bee and Pollinator Research, Extension, and Education Facility.
The move was an epic step in furthering the group’s mission.
Today, this team includes renowned pollinator scientists, including Steve Sheppard, P. F. Thurber Endowed Professor of Pollinator Ecology in WSU’s Department of Entomology, Brandon Hopkins, Nick Naeger, and Jennifer Han.
Together, they share a vital message about honey bees and pollinators with the world.
People need honey bees. And, honey bees need people. Healthy, flourishing land is needed to support both.
HONEY BEES IN CRISIS
Within their colonies, honey bees share an interdependent relationship. That life-sustaining connection is echoed in the relationship they have with us–and the land that nurtures both their lives and ours. Bees provide a critical link of survival between people and agriculture. Their well-being is vital to the safety and future of our food and global ecosystems.
“As world population increases, affordable, nutritional food will increasingly be required at reasonable prices,” said Tim Hiatt, commercial beekeeper, legislative chair of the Washington State Beekeepers Association (WASBA), and donor to WSU’s honey bee program. “Honey bees and other pollinators naturally and affordably provide pollination services these crops must have.”
Of all pollinator species, honey bees are the greatest contributors to the world’s food supply. Yet, during the past decade, 30 percent of colonies have died each year. Countless colonies have been lost because of mites, viruses often proliferated by mites, environmental change, habitat loss, mono-crop agriculture, and more.
Scientists, industry partners, environmentalists, farmers, and community members are all on the frontlines of these challenges to share ideas and experience with the Othello research community.
Contributions from donors, including the WASBA, the Hiatt, Christianson, and Olson families, Wilbur-Ellis, Bayer Crop Science, Northwest Farm Credit Services, Jonathan and Kathleen Altman Foundation, and many individuals help Othello scientists save the bees.
Together they live the WASBA motto: “Keeping the bee in business.”
WASBA members also make their hives available to WSU scientists for research. The group supports the research by raising awareness with the general public and state legislature.
“Public support for the honey bee program will help convince legislators and others to work with the bee program to improve honey bee health and vitality, which is an integral part of food production,” Hiatt said.
The Othello facility is near the pollinator-dependent region of central Washington, which simultaneously benefits the beekeeping industry, regional agriculture, and bee research.
“Washington state has the second greatest number of acres requiring pollination in the U.S.,’ Hiatt said. “The berries, seed crops, and fruit trees which depend on pollination need strong, vigorous hives to make production possible. Both small- and large-scale beekeepers depend on accurate, practical research to help overcome the problems of viruses, parasites, lack of forage, and insufficient nutrition.
“The WSU Honey Bee program is listening and responding to those issues. Beekeepers support WSU’s programs with the hope of practical solutions to the worst problems we have.”
A big part of our mission is to help beekeepers,” Kulhanek said. “Commercial beekeepers are the last migratory farmers in the U.S. They’re incredibly hardworking and huge supporters of our work and this facility. A lot of our work is a result of beekeepers’ questions. We try to get to the bottom of issues for them whether they have two colonies or 20,000.”
However, obstacles to the health of pollinator systems are multi-layered and complex. And, so are the solutions.
“Many people want a simple, straightforward answer to the problems facing honey bees and native pollinators,” Kulhanek said. “But, these aren’t black and white problems. It’s a complex situation solved one step at a time.
“We work on many different projects in our lab because these issues are all interconnected.”
A SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS
From the outset, the Othello facility was intended to be a multi-purpose setting for pollinator research and extension across Washington, California, and other states. The space will house hundreds of honey bee colonies for research on a commercial scale.
Othello researchers address today’s honey bee challenges through a wide spectrum of projects.
Currently, the single worst problem the bees face is Varroa mites whose far-reaching devastation leads to colony collapse and the spread of viruses.
Metarhizium fungus, an alternative to pesticides and other damaging chemical treatments, is being studied as a possible biological control for Varroa mites. Mite control is also being explored through managed CO2 levels within controlled environments.
Othello scientists are also exploring mushroom mycelium extracts to combat viruses and microbial diseases.
The facility has been operating a breeding program for more than two decades. It also houses world’s first honey bee genetic repository which supports increased genetic diversity and vigor in honey bees.
Temp-controlled storage for indoor wintering and mite management is being developed to fight colony collapse. Othello is also a community resource and offers classroom space for extension workshops and hands-on training for beekeepers and other stakeholders.
A COMPLEX RELATIONSHIP
“Commercially managed honey bees are not native species and depend on the management of people to survive,” said Kulhanek. “There are also native pollinators on the brink that need support as well. There’s a very delicate balance for all pollinator species.”
During the past two decades, the plant diversity essential for pollinators has been severely diminished. This includes the loss of nutrient-rich native prairies which have been converted into monocrops, such as wheat, soy, and corn.
“This is where it becomes complex,” Kulhanek said. “On the one hand, commercial beekeepers are dependent on crop pollination to stay in business. On the other hand, they know the monocrops aren’t the best for the bees because they offer limited nutrition.
“Beekeepers don’t necessarily want the system to change, but the lack of plant diversity and our intensive agriculture system put strains on pollinators. It’s a fine line to walk. Beekeepers work in a system that’s not ideal for their bees, but it’s what they need for their livelihood.”
Kulhanek believes communication is key to addressing the dilemmas of pollinators. Knowledge and education can also inspire action and change.
“I do a lot of applied research which can be utilized on a practical day-to-day application by the world at large, especially beekeepers,” she said.
“My research is designed to be immediately handed to beekeepers. So, if I’m not communicating that work in accessible language, there’s no purpose, because the beekeeper is the purpose. The ability to communicate these ideas and research to them is key.”
Kulhanek’s journey to communicate with beekeepers has also had its challenges.
“When I started to communicate with people who’ve being keeping bees a lot longer than me, I thought, ‘Who am I to be giving advice?’”, she said. “But, I’ve learned to be confident in giving advice and understand the limits of my knowledge.
“Being aware of strengths and limits in the roles of researchers and beekeepers are both important. I do a lot of talking, as well as a lot of listening, taking in others’ experience and knowledge.”