BS, entomology; MS, entomology,
minor in plant pathology; PhD,
entomology, minor in microbiology
On the web:
National Honey Board
entomologist, pest control
technician or assistant, apiarist
assistant, or bee inspector),
integrated pest management
It’s common knowledge that honey bees collect nectar from flowers to make honey. But did you know honey is the only food we consume that is produced by insects? In addition, bees pollinate (fertilize) a staggering one-third of what we eat every day, including fruits and vegetables. Further, products of bees and their hives—such as honey and venom—are used internationally for antibiotic activity, bee-sting therapy, treating burn injuries, beauty products, and more. As an apiculturist, Eric Mussen studies honey bees and their relationships with the environment, people, and other organisms.
Describe this field.
As a subspecialty of entomology (the scientific study of insects), apiculture (the science of beekeeping) focuses on honey bees. Most apiculturists, or bee scientists, in the United States are researchers at universities or in one of the four honey bee laboratories run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Areas of research include: honey bee genetics and breeding; honey bee diseases, parasites, and their control; honey bee nutrition; crop pollination using honey bees; rearing queen honey bees and manipulating eggs and semen for prolonged storage in liquid nitrogen; and medicinal uses of honey bee venom, honey, royal jelly (protein-rich substance fed to larvae), and propolis (resinous tree sap used as hive “glue”).
A few of us have partial or full appointments in extension apiculture, serving as liaisons between researchers and real-world beekeepers. Those beekeepers may have one backyard colony (hobby beekeeping) or up to 70,000 colonies spread around the country in hundreds of apiary locations (commercial beekeeping).
Focus of your work?
As an extension apiculturist with the University of California, Davis, I enjoy helping real-world beekeepers keep their colonies as healthy and productive as possible. For instance, a colleague and I determined that a new antibiotic was useful for controlling a honey bee disease. Many commercial and hobby beekeepers now rely on our tested product to keep their bees alive.
Currently, I am involved in studies of various types of sugar syrups that are being fed to honey-bee colonies. Some of the syrups, which used to work well, now are toxic to bees. We have to find the reason behind the toxicity and prevent further injury to bees. In addition to working with researchers and beekeepers, I provide bee-related information to federal and state regulatory agencies and industry groups.
Products of the hive?
Honey is important to beekeepers as a source of income and is consumed by the general public (about 0.5 kg/person annually in the United States), mostly in processed foods. Honey is used extensively in foreign countries for burn and wound healing, and is being studied as a health food because of its antioxidants and possible help with cholesterol levels.
Bee-collected pollen is used as a human health supplement and fed back to the bees. Pollen is the “health food” for the bees, containing proteins, vitamins, minerals, and lipids essential for honey-bee growth and development. Although few studies suggest that pollen actually helps in human nutrition, it is thought to possibly reduce problems with hay fever if collected in the local area.
Propolis is sticky, resinous material bees collect from trees (e.g., pine pitch), which has very strong antibiotic activity against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The bees smear this gluelike substance on interior walls of hives for protection from the elements. The material is used quite frequently in complementary and alternative medicine for all sorts of maladies, such as gum disease.
Royal jelly is blend of sugar and substances secreted from glands in the heads of worker bees. The jelly—rich in proteins, B-complex vitamins, and antibiotic properties—is used to feed larval workers and drones, and is fed in large quantities to adult queens. Some studies show a potential for royal jelly to relieve human maladies and increase youthful appearance.
Although a few people develop lethal allergic reactions to honey-bee stings, a very large number of people rely on periodic bee-sting therapy, which uses venom to treat a variety of illnesses. Originally used for arthritis treatments in the United States, honey-bee stings now are used like “hot needles” at acupuncture locations on the body. One of the most controversial treatments is for multiple sclerosis (MS). Many MS patients taking bee-sting therapy claim the stings increase peripheral circulation and cause MS remission, but conventional doctors are skeptical.
Advice for students?
In general, students should take their education seriously because material and habits learned in high school will be used throughout life. If students have an idea of what they want to do in the future, they should begin to lay the groundwork. Because apiculture is a biological field, for instance, students should take a lot of life science courses.
Nearly all apiculturists have a doctorate in entomology or related science, with a research focus on honey bees. Most apiculturists are interested in insects fairly early in their lives and careers. I, however, did not think that honey bees would be my specific insect of focus. In graduate school, I was on the track to becoming an insect microbiologist when I was offered the opportunity to study virus diseases of honey bees.
Students interested in learning more about this field should contact scientists or professors and ask questions. When seeking advice or looking into undergraduate schools, institutions with entomology degree programs are good places to start. Also, colleges and universities close to USDA honey bee labs often form apiculture-research partnerships.
—By Megan Sullivan