Bert’s Bee Project: From Byfield to the USDA

Bert’s Bee Project: From Byfield to the USDA

Donned in rubber gloves, a group of students in an Advanced Placement Environmental Science class mixes pollen and sugar in large buckets. Around the lab table, they pick up vials and add distilled water to rehydrate freeze-dried probiotic bacterium found in the gut of honey bees (along with placebo samples). But this isn’t a typical high school science lesson. The “Bee Project,” brought to Govs by biology teacher Roberta (Bert) McLain, is a federally funded study to explore ways to boost honey bee health. 

“Around 2006, a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder started capturing the attention of beekeepers around the world,” explains McLain, who manages the Academy's apiary of four honey bee hives along with two of her personal hives. Colony Collapse Disorder is a phenomenon in which bees mysteriously disappear, sometimes leaving the queen behind with just a few worker bees remaining in the hive—not enough to sustain the remaining colony. “There are a number of different theories as to what causes it, but among the top contenders are parasitic varroa mites and nosema fungi that attack the bees’ immune system.”

Why does honey bee health matter? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) reports that “about one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.” The worker bees from the Govs apiary, for example, help pollinate the Academy's community garden, which provides a harvest used to prepare meals served in the dining hall. 

McLain says that honey bees with an enhanced immune system are better equipped to fight off and ultimately not succumb to Nosema Disease. Govs is partnering with the USDA ARS on a research project to explore ways to help do that.

“Researchers know there is a probiotic parasaccharibacter apium bacterium found in the gut of most honey bees that is effective in helping control the nosema fungus,” McLain explains. “The USDA is hoping to supply the bacteria in a form that farmers and beekeepers can easily feed to bees in order to boost the bees’ immune system. I wanted Govs students to be able to participate in that important work.”

Protecting Our Pollinators
“Bert’s Bees” may be a play on words based on the popular Burt’s Bees beauty brand, but for McLain, it’s serious business. After taking over the management of the Academy’s apiary in 2016, she became a passionate honey bee enthusiast with an interest in the plight of the honey bees. And since she always makes a point to find hands-on educational opportunities for her students, she explored research opportunities and eventually connected with the USDA. 

It made sense that AP environmental science teacher Lisa Borgatti would be McLain’s faculty partner for the project. Borgatti manages the Academy’s community garden next to the apiary, and the teachers often collaborate on how the bees and plants could best thrive and support each other: the plants providing nectar and pollen to feed the bee colony and the bees spreading the pollen from flower to flower to help the plants reproduce.

When McLain first proposed the Bee Project as part of the AP environmental science curriculum, Borgatti says she was “over the moon” at the possibilities for students, for honey bees, and for agriculture. “It is Incredibly related to what I teach because we do a significant amount of learning on agriculture, food supply, and the ecosystem, including the role of pollination. That’s where I bring in Bert as the bee expert to speak to my students.”
For students to carry out a scientific experiment firsthand versus reading about it in a textbook, Borgatti adds, “is huge.”

“I want to go into the environmental sciences in college and I'm very passionate about the conservation of our ecosystems, so this was right up my alley,” Rori Nugent ’21 says of first hearing about the project during class. “The issues surrounding bees had concerned me prior to this project, but I had felt a bit helpless. One of the main reasons why I got so excited about this project was because it felt like I was finally able to help in an impactful and meaningful way —way beyond what I was doing beforehand.” 

Nugent and Chloe Therrien ’21 were among the first student cohort to work on the project in fall 2019. 

“I was so excited to learn last year that my class would contribute to preparing the bee pollen patties for the hives,” Therrien says. “It was so amazing for me to be a part of a USDA project. I cannot believe my class could contribute to bees and beekeepers everywhere and potentially help stop the plight of bees.” 

The students had plans to feed inoculated patties to the bees the following spring; but unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campus before that happened. A second student cohort continued the experiment in fall 2020. After perfecting the patty-making process, they will feed the pollen patties to the bees in the spring and later remove larva samples from the hives to spin in a centrifuge to determine the amount of bacterial growth. 

“Our hypothesis is that the digestive tract of the larva from two of the hive samples will have produced more p. apium than the other two,” McLain says. “That would mean that the probiotic survived the freeze-drying and reconstituting process, which will provide an easy way for beekeepers to introduce healthy bacteria to their hives and, most importantly, protect the honey bee population.”

The USDA project is a double-blind study; the experimenters do not know which hives will receive the medicated pollen patties, which makes it all the more exciting for Borgatti, McLain, and the students. 

“I have students who graduated last spring who are calling to ask me for updates about the study and the health of our hives,” Borgatti says. “As a teacher, I couldn’t ask for anything more than knowing that what I teach in the classroom is a life lesson versus something that ends when they take a test or leave Govs. Every single student involved in the Bee Project has had an aha moment.”

Creating a Buzz
It was 2016 when McLain was approached by Govs student Sophia Duplin ‘16, who was interested in starting a Bee Club to support a professionally managed hive on campus. The student organization needed a faculty advisor, and would the biology teacher be willing?

“I wasn’t particularly passionate about bees, but I said ‘yes’ and got sucked right in,” recalls McLain, whose scholarly interest focuses on zoology. “I went to bee school and ended up purchasing my own hive to learn about beekeeping before taking over the school’s apiary.”

Today, McLain is at home among the Govs bee colony—more so if she has students by her side in the apiary or can connect some learning aspect in the classroom. The USDA project was a big opportunity to do both. 

“This isn’t your average biology lab; students are actively engaged in federal research,” McLain says. “In addition to learning a number of really important scientific techniques, they recognize that they are doing something that could potentially be impactful in nature. That’s so meaningful.”

COVID-19 also presented a lesson, McLain adds. “The fact that the experiment got cut short due to the pandemic taught students that scientific research doesn’t always go the way you want it to go.”

Borgatti reiterates that the Bee Project was a huge teaching moment in regard to the big picture. “My students really see the reality of climate change and pollution, including the fact that we just can’t afford to lose honey bees. They get it.”

“My biggest takeaway from working on this project, even though it was cut short, is that there are solutions to every problem,” says Nugent, who is still curious as to how the research will turn out. “And regardless of whether or not individuals feel as though they can make an impact, putting in the effort is always the first step towards success at any level.”

It also boosted Nugent’s optimism about the future of the Earth’s ecosystems. “It's a really rewarding feeling to know you are part of something bigger than yourself; and for me to be part of a USDA project that has the potential to help the bees is beyond anything I've been able to be a part of before.”