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Newark Life

Like a bee to honey

May 10, 2016 09:10AM ● By Richard Gaw

Ron Hazlett works his bees at the Planting Hope with Honey Bees apiary.

By Lisa Fieldman

Bees! Most people dread them, but Dr. Deborah Delaney is their number-one fan.

We have an instinctual response to a bee buzzing around us. We flap our arms, dodge and dance about. In this respect, we have a lot in common with the honeybee. Our movements send an alert to our fellow humans that a bee is close by. Honeybees perform their own bee dance, informing their hive mates where to find nectar, pollen and water. It’s a complex dance that acts as a GPS for fellow honeybees. The fuzzy little bee plays a very big part in our ecosystem.

Delaney is an assistant professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. Apis mellifera are her passion, and she could be considered Delaware’s own bee whisperer. Though Delaney is enchanted by honeybees, she is equally enthusiastic about all pollinators.

Delaney discovered her love of insects while in art school. “That’s right, I’m an art school dropout,” she said, laughing. “I found I preferred drawing insects to humans.”

She left art school and earned a B.S. in Natural Resources and her M.S. in Environmental Science at Oregon State University. It was during an entomology class that she was introduced to beekeeping.

“I immediately got a Nuc (a small honey bee colony) and a year later I had 100 hives,” she explained. Her magic touch with bees led her to start a small honey business.

While pursuing her Ph.D. in Entomology at Washington State, Delaney studied the genetic ancestry of honeybees. She also looked at the impact of their mid-17th-century importation to North America. “What’s so cool is that when you look at the mitochondrial DNA of honey bee queens, you are seeing the same material of their ancestor bees,” she explained. The topic of genetic diversity comes up often in conversation with Delaney, as diversity is critical for keeping the honeybee population healthy.

“Commercial bees are completely managed by humans,” she said. “As a result, they are losing their genetic diversity as queens are bred for certain characteristics.”

The queen’s fertility can be affected, along with a decrease in resistance to pests and disease for the whole bee community.

The feral bee population may hold the answer to honeybee survival. Feral bees are colonies that live in the wild with no human interference. At Cornell University’s Arnot Forest, research is being done on the feral bee population. “This bee population has not changed since 1978,” Delaney said.

Arnot feral bees that were sampled showed the presence of Varroa mites, but they have somehow managed to live in harmony with the deadly parasite. The mite is devastating the world’s commercial bee population.

Hoping to find a clue as to how the feral bees are co-existing with Varroa, Delaney, along with her research students, are looking at the genetics of the Arnot bees. “When you compare feral and commercial bee populations, you find very little gene flow between the two groups,” she said.

Closer to home, Delaney and crew have worked with commercial watermelon, strawberry, and cucumber growers. Due to the decline of honeybee populations, there is an interest in using alternative native crop pollinators. The bumblebee is one such pollinator that has been used with some success. But bumblebees have their own issues, and Delaney was called in to help determine the viability of using them. One problem to overcome was their life spans. The bumblebees were not lasting the length of the crop bloom.

“Bumblebees are ground nesters and we are keeping them in boxes like honeybees,” Delaney said. She wondered if hive temperature might be stressing them. “Do they spend a lot of time thermo-regulating instead of working?” she wondered.

Hives were moved from the middle of the fields to the shaded edges to keep the hives cooler and increase their productivity and life span. Bumblebee size and fuzziness makes them good pollen foragers, as does their ability to work in inclement weather. They use a technique called buzz pollination that is unique to bumblebees. The industrious bumblebee will pump its wings at a certain vibration to dislodge the pollen.

The result of the two-year study determined that bumblebees are a productive pollinator for watermelon and strawberry crops, but honeybees do a better job with cucumbers.

In 2014, the Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin partnered with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to study which native plant cultivars best attract pollinators. Beehives were set up in Mt. Cuba’s trial gardens and the University of Delaware’s bee gardens. Delaney and her researchers have been collecting pollen from the hives and examining it to determine which plants are favored and which are snubbed.

When complete, this study will help us understand the ecological value of a particular plant. Home gardeners will be able to determine not only which plant, but also the exact cultivar, to use to lure a specific pollinator to their garden. Also during this study, nectar and pollen are being analyzed to determine the level of nutritional value.

“I hope to create a website that will be a pollen library of flowering plants,” Delaney said. This database will help identify flowers based on the pollen characteristics. On the website, bloom time and nutritional values of plant cultivars will be available, along with photos of pollen grains. In Delaney’s office are photos of what appear to be meteorites, but are actually magnified pollen grains.

Delaney is also involved with Planting Hope with Honey Bees. This program is part of the Planting Hope in Delaware urban farm project. Located on the Herman Holloway campus in New Castle, the farm has community and therapeutic gardens as well as a farm market.

The urban farm was the inspiration of Faith Kuehn of the Delaware Department of Agriculture. The new apiary joins a sensory garden, a vegetable and herb garden, and a butterfly garden. Kuehn read about veterans finding therapeutic benefit from beekeeping and decided to add an apiary program to the urban farm.

Ron Hazlett of Edgemoor, Del., had always been intrigued by beekeeping, but had no hands-on experience. He learned of the program and applied to be the inaugural beekeeper. Chosen out of a field of ten applicants, Hazlett has embraced his new hobby.

“I think of beekeeping as a living feng shui garden,” Hazlett said. “I find it very calming to work with the bees.”

Hazlett served in the Marine Corps from 1998 to 2002. He has friends who are fellow vets with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and feels they would benefit from beekeeping.

“I’d like to eventually pass on my knowledge as a way to give back to other veterans,” he explained.

Hazlett started his beekeeping venture with four hives and expects to start the spring with at least 11 hives. Delaney has worked with him on dividing his hives and rearing queen bees. Hazlett’s first harvest produced 35 pounds of honey, and the outlook is good for a bountiful honey harvest this season. The honey is then sold at the farm market and all proceeds go back to Planting Hope in Delaware programs. Based on Hazlett’s success, Kuehn hopes to expand the veteran beekeeping program throughout the state.

Throughout the season, bees gather pollen and nectar from blooming plants on the University of Delaware campus and produce a superb honey. Delaney and her students extract the honey from the hives, then jar and label it as “Dare to Bee” honey. Drawing on her artistic talents, Delaney designed a logo and label for the honey jars.

The honey is sold at the UD Creamery on the Ag Hall campus, but it is so popular that it flies off the shelves. Dare to Bee honey fans can purchase the honey from mid-summer through fall.

Each spring on Ag Day, Delaney shares her boundless enthusiasm for bees. She and her students host open-hive demonstrations, talk about pollinators and will even teach you how to do the waggle dance. If you have a question about honeybees, Delaney will no doubt have an answer. She's always happy to share the buzz about her favorite pollinators.

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