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The King of queen bees

by Angela Herring

In Feb­ruary, Lena King saw an open bee hive for the first time, and she was hooked. “There’s just some­thing cap­ti­vating about the way bees func­tion, the way they move,” said King, S’15, a fourth-​​year biology major at Northeastern.

King is the lab man­ager for Best Bees, an urban bee­keeping com­pany located in Boston’s South End neigh­bor­hood and founded by North­eastern alum Noah Wilson Rich, AS’05. While on co-​​op, she’s spent her days observing what she calls these “golden and beau­tiful” organisms.

Each day, King visits a handful of Best Bees’ 324 hives at res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial loca­tions spread around eastern Mass­a­chu­setts, Con­necticut, New York, New Hamp­shire, and Rhode Island. She dons her big, white bee­keeping suit and pro­ceeds to remove the wooden frames from the tiered api­aries. Each one con­tains an intri­cate hon­ey­comb struc­ture in which the queen bee lays her eggs and the worker bees pro­duce their honey. A few col­orful mosaics of dif­ferent pol­lens dust the sur­face here and there.

The goal of this exer­cise is to iden­tify signs of a healthy queen. If King sees recently laid eggs, she knows the queen is some­where nearby and rea­son­ably happy. Such evi­dence can suf­fice even if she doesn’t catch a glimpse of the queen her­self. But doing so is a treat of its own sort: “She’s got a dis­tinct shape, and the way the bees move around her is dif­ferent,” King said. “It’s very subtle, but they just make a little bit of space for her when she comes through, whereas the others are all on top of each other.”

If the queen is missing, that’s bad news for the hive; unless King and her col­leagues at Best Bees can suc­cess­fully intro­duce a new queen into the hive within a few days, the entire com­mu­nity will collapse.

Bees are one of the most pro­lific pol­li­na­tors on the planet, which means they’re extremely impor­tant for humans. One-​​third of our food must be pol­li­nated before we can eat it, and bees play an enor­mous role in that process. With increasing stres­sors on bees around the globe, that often over­looked rela­tion­ship is being threat­ened, King said.

In 2006, colony col­lapse disorder—a mys­te­rious phe­nom­enon in which all but a few female mem­bers of a hive sud­denly abandon it without leaving a trace—was a major global con­cern. “That problem has since sta­bi­lized,” King said, “but the bees are still dying.”

Var­ious things have been blamed—monoculture prac­tices, which limit bees’ pol­li­nating options; Nosema, a fungal infec­tion that seems to be run­ning ram­pant in bee com­mu­ni­ties around the country; Varroa mites, which transmit dis­eases to bees; and use of fungi­cides and insec­ti­cides like neon­i­coti­noids have all been assigned fault.

That’s why another big part of what King does at Best Bees is research. She works with res­i­dent bee sci­en­tist Kris­tian Demary to examine strate­gies for helping the hon­ey­bees sur­vive. They’re looking at Nosema in detail, as it has cropped up in some of their own hives. They’re also trying to iden­tify the best prac­tices for keeping a hive happy throughout the cold winter, an obvious hurdle for hon­ey­bees in the North­east. In addi­tion, King is working on a review article exam­ining the evi­dence behind var­ious apather­a­pies such as using honey to treat sea­sonal aller­gies and royal jelly for a slew of human ailments.

King was first intro­duced to the won­derful world of bee­keeping during a demon­stra­tion from another Boston-​​area bee­keeper orga­nized by the stu­dent group Slow Food NU back in 2013. She com­pletes her co-​​op at Best Bees this month, but she’s staying on to work there through July. While bees might not be part of her long-​​term career path, King is incred­ibly grateful that they’re now a part of her life.

“As long as I have a place for them,” she said, “I would like to keep bees.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on June 20, 2014

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