honey bees on a honeycomb

In pursuit of the best practices for the organic beekeeping industry

Dr. Brenna Traver is part of a team of Penn State scientists comparing different honey bee management systems on the largest scale ever undertaken to help alleviate colony losses.
By: Susan Andrews
Brenna Traver

Dr. Brenna Traver, assistant professor of biology, poses for a quick photo while conducting research in her lab.

Credit: Samantha Bower

“I began studying pathogens in honey bees at the beginning of my Ph.D. program in 2009,” said Brenna Traver, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Schuylkill. “Specifically, I study the Nosema spp. pathogen in a typical honey bee species that you would find outside called Apis mellifera [“bee” and “honey bearing” in Latin],” she said.

Traver was stung by a bee as a child (as most of us were at some point as children) and did not have any unusual type of reaction. So, you can imagine that it came as a surprise to her when she discovered things had changed when she was sampling honey bees during the winter as a Ph.D. candidate.

This is how she explains it.  “Right before Christmas, a blizzard hit Virginia with a mountain of snow. Three feet to be exact. I was all bundled up and the snow was up to my hips. I noticed a bee walking on my neck as I sat in the truck at the bottom of the hill where we parked and readied ourselves and our equipment for the trek uphill. I did not move, but I was still stung.

My feet started itching, and I knew that was a more systematic reaction. Off to urgent care I went followed by a visit to the ER. I called my Ph.D. advisor and explained that I was packing and that my parents would soon be on their way to pick me up.” She said that her advisor urged her not to make any hasty decisions and that he would see to it that they would work together and she would earn her Ph.D.

And, now, eight years later, Traver is part of a team of scientists comparing different honey bee management systems on the largest scale ever undertaken to help alleviate colony losses.

Since joining the Penn State Schuylkill faculty in 2014, Traver has exhibited the finest qualities of a faculty member. She exemplifies the Penn State mission through her focus on teaching, research and public service. This story highlights a new and exciting aspect of her research.

Traver is a co-project director along with Penn State’s Margarita López-Uribe, who serves as the project lead, and Robyn Underwood, research associate in López-Uribe’s lab. The scientists are conducting a study to assess best practices for the organic beekeeping industry. A recently announced grant for nearly $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will support their ambitious project.

The grant was awarded based on a proposal prepared by López-Uribe and Traver titled “Working toward Best Management Practices for Organic Beekeeping: A Side-by-Side Comparison of Management Systems.” The scientists will study organic, treatment-free and conventional management systems.

In this study, they will quantify colony performance, immune competence, and parasite and pathogen levels. Specifically, López-Uribe will research honey bee immunity, Traver the Nosema spp. pathogen, and Underwood the Varroa mites. Underwood also will lead the management of the colonies.

The goals of the three-year project include generating evidence-based knowledge for best management practices that will improve honey bee colony health in a sustainable, organic beekeeping system, and to increase economic returns of beekeepers. The trio hope results from this study will help to improve organic agriculture while creating a profitable economic opportunity for beekeepers and organic growers.

“If there is no difference in pathogen and pest levels among the three management systems, there could be a real cost benefit to the beekeeping industry in time spent managing them and cost of treatment,” Traver said.

A portion of the grant will go toward the purchase of bees and hive bodies and frames to house them. A three-pound box will hold approximately 12,000 honey bees, which will double in approximately two months. “For this study, we may work with 50,000+ bees along with a queen bee at peak time,” Traver said. The grant also will fund the large quantity of sugar that will be used to feed the honey bees.

There has been much ado about bees in the news over the last few years as the number of colonies are dwindling. A recent nationwide survey revealed that even with intensive disease treatment, beekeepers are averaging losses of almost 38 percent annually.

“Bees are essential pollinators and bring diversity to our diet,” Traver explained. “We would not starve without them because we have staples, such as rice, wheat and corn that are wind pollinated. She added that with the staples we would still need vitamins, but emphasized that bees are easily managed and transported and thereby great pollinators.

“This is a big professional accomplishment for me as it represents branching out and collaborating with colleagues whom I have not worked with before,” Traver explained. In addition to Underwood, former collaborators of Traver include researchers from Texas A&M University, Powdermill Nature Reserve, the Urban Beekeeping Laboratory & Sanctuary, and Virginia Tech where she earned both her master’s and doctoral degrees.

“There are many great faculty researchers on the Schuylkill campus, and Dr. Traver is among this dedicated group that leads the way in world-class research,” said Darcy Medica, interim chancellor at Penn State Schuylkill. “She is dedicated, hardworking, and meticulous in her various research endeavors.”