Maryann Frazier loves bees. That’s why she kills them.
Frazier, a Penn State senior extension associate with the university’s Center for Pollinator Research, is part of a team of scientists studying the effects of pesticides on honeybee colonies.
Honeybee populations across the United States and globally are under siege from colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees disappear. Unchecked, the phenomenon could have profound consequences for economies and ecosystems.
Frazier and others at Penn State, a leader in bee research, are trying to determine why the bees are declining — and to save them.
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Habitat loss from development, leading to less food, could be a factor. So could agricultural pesticides controlling, among other harmful insects, varroa mites, the external parasites that sicken and ravage bee populations.
“We have really good survey data from all across the country that show the bees are coming into contact with pesticides,” Frazier said.
But in order to examine the impact of pesticides, and pinpoint which ingredients are harmful, she must subject the bees to doses in controlled settings — in other words, poison them.
And so, on a recent sunny morning perfect for bees and beekeepers, she visited the Wiley Apiary, Penn State’s honeybee research station.
Tucked away in a shady grove near the Animal Diagnostics Lab, the apiary contains 26 colonies, each with a queen and about 35,000 workers.
Frazier, however, checked on smaller hives.
On a picnic table were a few boxes called “nucs,” short for nucleus colonies: small versions of the full-size hives.
Opening one, Frazier showed visitors a frame with rather languid inhabitants.
“These are baby bees,” she said, noting they were less than 12 hours old. “They just emerged from their cells.”
She had plans for them.
“I’m going to put a queen in here, too, and I’m hoping we’ll have a very young colony with bees all the same age,” she said.
And an equally dismal future: They were to be treated with pesticide to observe how long a generation lives with tainted food. That could be as little as two days, compared with a normal 20 days or so for control groups.
“It’s very hard,” Frazier said. “It’s very depressing to someone who’s worked for 30 years with bees, to try to keep them alive, and who’s interested in their welfare.”
But she does it for science, for bees, for humanity and for nature. According to Penn State, honeybees and other pollinators play a crucial role in annually producing more than $30 billion worth of crops.
“This is why there’s so much focus and enthusiasm on bee research right now, and pollinator research, because we’re worried about losing them,” Frazier said.
“If they drop out of the equation, then pollinated foods are potentially, at worst-case scenario, unavailable or become less available and more expensive because growers can’t get the bees to pollinate them. Or some of our ecosystems are damaged, or are in jeopardy, because, just like the food web, an important piece falls out. And then who pollinates those plants that wildlife depend on?”
Fascination overcame fears
Growing up in North Fayette Township near Pittsburgh, Frazier didn’t love bees.
They scared her, thanks to an early bumblebee sting. But her feelings began to change one day on a shopping expedition.
“I remember very clearly seeing a beehive, an observed beehive, at a farm market and being interested,” she said.
As a high school senior in 1976, she attended a Youth Conservation Corps camp in the state. A counselor there kept bee hives. One day during the camp, the counselor burst in and excitedly reported that her brother had caught a swarm in a record player case.
“I was like, ‘Why on earth would you do that?’ ” Frazier recalled.
Curious, she talked with the counselor about bees for an hour.
“She told me the most amazing things,” Frazier said. “I thought she was making them up.”
Frazier learned, for instance, that honeybees dance for each other to communicate the direction and distance to pollen sources. She also found out that worker bees, if necessary, can transform a fellow worker bee into a queen by feeding it “royal jelly” over a period of time.
She left with a thought: If presented with an opportunity to learn more about bees, she would take it.
Two years later, that chance came at Penn State.
She discovered the university offered a beekeeping course, signed up and fell in love with bees.
“To this day, I’m surprised I took the class,” she said. “Once I did, my fascination overcame my fears.”
After graduating in 1980, she earned a master’s degree in entomology at the university, then worked for two years as a state apiary inspector in Maryland.
Another two years followed helping to foster honeybee production in Sudan with the Near East Foundation, a development organization based in Syracuse, N.Y., that helps Middle Eastern and African nations.
“It’s like the Peace Corps, but much smaller and you get paid,” Frazier said.
She enjoyed her time abroad working along a narrow band, the fertile Nile River corridor.
“Unfortunately, most of north Sudan is desert, which is a tough climate for bees,” she said.
She returned to a more favorable one, intending to work temporarily at Penn State for her graduate adviser, but ended up staying and eventually marrying entomology professor Jim Frazier. He’s also involved with the pesticide research.
She has watched bees in captivity and the wild, on two continents, for almost four decades. They haven’t lost their appeal.
“The bees and their behavior, what they’re capable of, continue to fascinate me,” she said. “Even their ability to resist pesticides, to be able to survive in the face of the kinds of pesticides that we know they’re being exposed to, is, to me, amazing.”
And the field keeps her humming like the bees.
“You never stop learning,” she said. “It’s just one of those fields where there’s hundreds of papers each year about new discoveries about bees and their behavior.”
Spotting the queen
Wearing a beekeeping hat and veil, Frazier lifted a box off Colony No. 20 at Wiley Apiary to reveal the bottom layers.
Bees milled and flew about her bare hands. She avoids gloves because they decrease her tactile sensitivity when working. Besides, by now, being stung is no big deal.
“Many, many times,” she said. “It’s not that you get immune. It still hurts me when it stings, but it doesn’t last.”
On display was a bustling community.
“This is exactly what we want to see,” she said. “This is beautiful.”
Among the workers, an undertaker bee dragged out a dead hive denizen and flew away to discard the body.
Frazier saw much evidence of other labor.
“They’re making some honey, too, yes,” she said, noting the full comb cells and glistening nectar.
At last, she spotted the queen, sporting an identification dot placed on her large abdomen and trailed by her retinue of attendants. Frazier examined the brood comb with approval.
“It’s good,” she said. “She’s got lots of eggs, lots of brood. She’s doing a good job.”
Filling in the gaps
Frazier hopes her research will lead to more healthy hives.
“Bees are under stress,” she said. “And they’re so important for our pollinated food, as well as other plants in our ecosystems.”
Currently, she’s engaged in three projects. One is to study the effects of common pesticides, particularly those of so-called “inert” ingredients in products that manufacturers aren’t required to name.
Along with her husband, the other primary researcher is entomology professor Chris Mullin, a toxicologist who works closely with agrichemical companies and industry regulators. Graduate student Julia Fine and Ryan Reynolds, the manager of the university’s Mullin/Frazier Lab, also contribute.
Mullin said Maryann Frazier has been “the key” to bringing researchers, manufacturers and honey producers together to achieve progress, breaking down barriers with “her knowledge of bees and how to introduce chemicals into the hive, as well as her interface with the beekeeper associations.”
“We’re trying to assess: Are we missing some major gaps in knowledge that don’t allow us to make an assessment of the total load of toxins that bees are exposed to in their environment?” Mullin said.
Another focus of Frazier’s work examines the difficulties bees face while overwintering. “Which is when we lose most bees,” she said.
Working with her are entomology professor Christina Grozinger, the director of the Center for Pollinator Research, and graduate student Mehmet Ali Döke.
“We’ve been looking at different kinds of queens,” Frazier said. “There’s been a lot of interest in: Are queens in the North better for colonies in the North than queens in the South? Are queens that are reared locally better?
“And what we’ve found out, after two years of research is that, no, it doesn’t really matter where the queens are reared. It just matters if they’re good-quality queens.”
Lastly, Frazier, Grozinger, Penn State professors Harland Patch and Jim Tumlinson and graduate student Alex McMenamin have been collaborating with Kenyan researchers on a project to study African bees and their greater tolerance to diseases and the varroa mite scourge.
The Penn State scientists are also helping their Kenyan counterparts develop strategies for more sustainable honey production in East Africa.
Some day, Frazier said, scientists might be able to use genetic knowledge of African bees — which can be aggressive but are more tolerant of diseases than their temperate cousins — to breed stronger European honeybees finally after past unsuccessful attempts.
“It’s all about trying to help us keep honeybees healthier,” she said. “It’s all about trying to decrease this downward spiral, these decreasing bee populations: what’s causing that and how do we mitigate it. That’s the big prize.”
She welcomed branching out her research from strictly pesticides.
“Because all you’re doing is seeing what kills bees, what kills bees, what kills bees,” she said. “Now the work is a little more rounded, since I’ve been engaged with people like Christina and others, on what keeps them alive.”