For the Love of Honey (Bees)

Rooftop hives let Tech students research how to sustain the world’s threatened bee population.

Winter 2016 | by Melissa Fralick

If Jennifer Leavey, Chem 95, has learned one thing over the past four years, it’s that Yellow Jackets love honey bees.

In 2012, Leavey helped to establish honey bee hives on campus as a way to connect and focus a diverse range of students within the College of Sciences on a common goal. But soon, she started hearing from students, faculty and alumni from all across campus and beyond who also wanted to get involved.

“I had so much interest, I had to find a way to manage the enthusiasm for the bees,” says Leavey, a senior academic professional in the School of Biology and the integrated science curriculum coordinator for the College of Sciences.

So what started as a research project to investigate the effects of urban habitats on honey bees soon blossomed into something far broader. Today, the Urban Honey Bee Project offers monthly programming and education about beekeeping, provides community outreach, and even produces honey and lip balm made from Tech’s bees.

The hives, located on the roof of the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons, serve not only as a refuge for bees in Midtown Atlanta, but also as a living laboratory for undergraduate research and a hub for learning about the plight of pollinators.

This year proved to be a tough year for Georgia Tech bees. At its peak, the Urban Honey Bee Project has maintained as many as seven hives at once. But this year, four hives were lost and just one survived.

Unfortunately, these losses aren’t isolated at Tech. Leavey says that last year 40 percent of all managed beehives in the world were lost. That number is sobering when you consider that insect and animal pollinators like bees are responsible for the success of 75 percent of all food crops.

Parasitic diseases, as well as viral, bacterial and fungal infections, are partly to blame, Leavey says. And bees are also falling victim to pesticides, insecticides and toxinsused in landscaping and agriculture.

Recent concerns over the spread of the Zika virus have proved especially harmful to beehives in South America and, now, even the Southern United States. Why? Poisons strong enough to eradicate adult mosquitoes will also kill bees.

“Mosquito control is a huge issue this year,” Leavey says.

That said, scientists still don’t know exactly what is causing global bee populations to decline. It’s a big problem, and Tech students are stepping up to the plate to do what they do best: solve problems.

Student Arshiya Singh is part of an interdisciplinary research team using Big Data to search for answers.

If you’ve ever taken a photo of a bee landing on a pretty flower, you might be helping their cause. Tech students and faculty are using data collected from bee photos posted to the image-sharing website Flickr to search for patterns. And this semester, they’re working to build a mobile app that will make it fun for people to upload their images.

“We’re trying to create more geo-tagged photos with this app so it’s easier to map out where bees are currently,” Singh says. “Its gotten me more interested in how you analyze data and collect it—and how to engage people to help with important causes like this.”

A third-year computer science major at Tech, Singh is not exactly the type of student you would expect to be doing research on bees.

“You’d think it’s just a biology thing,” Singh says. “But it’s relevant to my studies because it’s about more than bees; it’s about collecting and analyzing and storing information.”

The hives are a great resource for research, but some people—both on and off campus—gravitate toward them because of their general interests in bees and sustainability.

While there isn’t a formal student club, there are lots of opportunities for students to volunteer, Leavey says. “We have a pretty established program and they can jump in and get involved in a variety of ways.”

Brooke Vacovsky, CS 15, was first intrigued by honey bees while studying abroad in Copenhagen. She was working with a community garden when she began looking into introducing a beehive as a way to improve crop yields.

“Everything I learned about them interested me more and more,” Vacovsky says.
Back at Tech, she started volunteering with the Urban Honey Bee Project to help maintain the hives and worked with Leavey as a student assistant. Vacovsky says she enjoyed handing out pamphlets and talking to people about bees while selling honey at the campus farmer’s market.

“That was my favorite part—teaching people about honey bees and making them more aware of their dire situation,” Vacovsky says, pointing out that if all honey bees were to die off, our food supply would be at great risk and flowering plants would be threatened as well.

“For some people, it’s still kind of a shock that pollinator populations are declining,” she says.

Vacovsky continued her passion for bees after graduation. This summer, she served as the assistant program coordinator for Bee-INSPIRED, a 10-week research and service program at Tech. Recently, she earned her beekeeper’s certification and started her own beekeeping company, called Southeast Beescapes. “I hope it’s a big part of my life moving forward,” Vacovsky says.

The Urban Honey Bee Project offers monthly outreach programs, including an intro to beekeeping class and hive inspections. Vacovsky says inspections are important to catch any issues and ensure that the hives are healthy. During inspections, you’re looking for signs of the queen, eggs and larvae, food stores like pollen and honey, and harvest honey if there is extra.

“Especially if there are signs of disease or virus, you want to catch that early,” Vacovsky says. “The worst threat, the most direct threat is called the varroa mite. It’s basically a tick for bees. It’s a tiny mite that stays on the back of the bee’s neck and can transfer diseases.”

The success of the Urban Honey Bee Project, along with the Institute’s overall sustainability push, led to Tech being named the nation’s second Bee Campus USA affiliate last year. Leavey says she couldn’t imagine four years ago how successful the Urban Honey Bee Project would be with students, staff and alumni. “It’s been really fun,” Leavey says. “For many who have participated, their curiosity about bees has turned into a passionate love for them.”