Student researcher trains bees to avoid herbicide-infected plants

BY SHIRA KIPNESS ’15
Staff Writer

Eric Mellis ’13 conducted research which focused on combating Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) among honeybees at F&M’s Baker Campus Apiary. The research was done in conjunction with Sarah Dawson, director of the Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment, and built upon the work of a former F&M student.

Mellis’ research focused on combating CCD, a pandemic currently killing between 30 to 90 percent of the world’s bee population. His research built upon the work of Veronica Thomas ’11.

As part of his efforts to fight CCD, Mellis decided to see if honeybees could be trained to avoid plants treated with herbicide. Mellis accomplished this through positive associations.

“My processes for testing were two-fold,” Mellis said. “Firstly, I had to create a positive-scent association with a pheromone. I chose an orange scent and for weeks fed the bees sugar water next to cotton balls of the scent. I worked with the bees on the distance they would have to travel to get the sugar water.”

Finally, I used this positive scent association to test to see if the bees could choose one plant with the scent over one neutral plant and one plant with an herbicide,” he continued. “I discovered that the bees naturally avoided the herbicide but gravitated towards both the positive variable and the neutral control.”

The research began after Mellis took several classes with Dawson and asked if she was looking for a replacement for Thomas; she was, and Dawson agreed to conduct research with Mellis. He also felt he should serve as an advocate for bees.

“I have always been an advocated for animals big or small,” Mellis said. “In high school, I was president of my school’s Protecting Animal Welfare (PAW) Club and was an assistant adoption counselor at my local humane society.”

The study reveals that, contrary to popular belief, bees are more than just simple creatures. It also shows that CCD can be combated from both a behavioral and scientific standpoint as well as laying the groundwork for bees to be trained to avoid herbicides and pesticides in the future.

Mellis also learned something about himself during the study.

“It is comical, and possibly inspiring, to note that I discovered about one-third of the way through my research that I was allergic to honeybees,” Mellis said. “Regardless of this fact, and the possibility for one of my limbs to explode in inflammation, I persevered through my research and collected mostly significant figures.”

Mellis elaborated on the importance of the study by pointing out the role bees play in society.

“Honeybees are super important to us as a society,” Mellis said. “The US earns 14 billion dollars annually from honeybee pollination. Also, apples, America’s fruit, are 90 percent pollinated by honeybees. Other important vegetables and crops that are heavily or solely reliant on honeybees are almonds and onions among others.”

After he graduates, Mellis will work with Teach for America as a teacher for underprivileged children.

“I am going to be doing Teach For America next year, teaching first grade,” Mellis said. “For now, I am just going to be an advocate for the bees, thankful for the opportunity Dr. Dawson provided me.”

Questions? Email Shira at skipnees@fandm.edu.

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