New WSU honey bee lab studies bee health, nutrition and parasites

OTHELLO, Washington. – Riley Reed has wanted to be an entomologist since she was 5 years old, when a Washington State University professor brought her collection of stinging insects to perform at his small library in Basin City, Central Washington.

“I’ve always loved bugs,” he said. “I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was almost 10 because there were too many bugs around to distract me.”

Today, Reed is living the dream as a doctoral student at WSU’s new Honeybee and Pollinator Research, Extension and Education Facility east of Othello, Washington.

WSU purchased the facility in 2020, but the facility is slowly expanding as it moves in equipment and hires staff due to delays from the pandemic.

The university’s bee research program has outgrown space on the Pullman campus, said research professor Brandon Hopkins, but the new building is estimated to cost $26 million. They found a more affordable existing building, a former Monsanto corn breeding station, two hours west of Pullman in Central Washington, near the Port Othello industrial park. The facility cost $2.5 million, paid for mostly through donations and fundraising.

“This facility will increase collaboration and allow for short courses, demonstrations, and classes for beekeepers—which will directly help the agriculture industry because honeybees are so important to our food supply,” said Steve Sheppard, chair of the entomology department and professor of pollinator ecology. “This facility will really help improve what we do.”

A new bee research professor will be permanently based at the facility, while about a dozen faculty and graduate students will continue to commute back and forth from Pullman.

The building has office space and classroom space suitable for holding workshops and events, such as the Pacific Northwest Beekeeping Conference JamborBee, held earlier this month. The building also houses storage, honey extraction and processing equipment, cold storage and a molecular laboratory.

A small wood shop in the corner of the barn is used to build boxes for the beehives.

“We spend a lot of time here in the winter,” Reed said. “It’s cheaper for us to make the box ourselves than to buy it pre-assembled.”

Eight removable honeycomb frames slide into each box the size of an apple crate. The boxes are stacked in four squares on a pallet, then more boxes can be added on top as the colony grows. In the summer, when the bees are producing honey, the piles can be four or five boxes high.

When they collect honey, they remove the upper boxes and transfer the bees to the lower two layers, the bees save the honey they need for the winter.

WSU operates about 325 hives from Moscow and Pullman to Othello, Hopkins said. The new unit can hold up to 40 hives, many of which can be stored together and still be healthy. In addition, bees will steal each other’s honey and spread diseases.

The program produces between five and six barrels of honey a year, which it sells at Ferdinand’s Creamery in Pullman and online to support the program.

The new lab will help researchers continue to study management practices and bee health with a focus on nutrition, parasites, pesticides and disease.

Hopkins studies indoor winter storage, a method of keeping hives in a cold but super-frozen state that induces a state similar to hibernation. For commercial beekeepers in northern states, this may be an alternative to sending their bees to California for the winter.

The main threat to hives is the parasitic varroa mite, which clings to the bee’s back. “If you grow it to human size,” Reed said, “it’s the same as having a tick the size of a dinner plate in your liver.”

The lab is testing varroa control methods, including pesticides and fungi. “Varroa are pretty bad on their own, but they also spread a lot of viruses that can wipe out a colony,” Reed said.

Reed studies food additives such as “pollen patties,” artificial discs about the size of small burger patties made of brewer’s yeast and other ingredients. Along with sugar water for carbohydrates, meatballs provide protein to round out the diet.

As a side project, Reed is experimenting with ozone fumigation to kill disease and harmful spores in honey beehives. Ozone gas is less toxic than alternatives and has been shown to break down pesticides into wax. This can save beekeepers from changing the hive from time to time.

“The complete success of this project means you can use the comb almost indefinitely.”

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