Ontogeny of a Beekeeper

Noah Wilson-Rich strides confidently onto the stage in front of a packed auditorium, natty in his tailored black suit, crisp white shirt, and red bow tie. He is apple-cheeked with a broad grin and twinkling eyes, puckish and professorial, with close-cropped honey-brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard. The twenty-foot tall screen behind him shows the projected image of a man with a very different kind of beard, what Wilson-Rich calls a “bee beard.” The man’s face, neck, ears, his whole head, are crawling with bees—and he’s smiling. “I want to open your minds,” Wilson-Rich says, beaming at the crowd, “and change your perspective on honeybees.”

Wilson-Rich wants to talk to you, and me, and everyone he can about honeybees, not because they produce honey, but because they pollinate plants, plants that produce fruit we use to feed ourselves, plants we use for textiles, and plants we use to feed our livestock. Much of what we wear and eat—a third of all our food, some 130 different crops—depends on honeybees, and the bees are disappearing.

In 2006, a third or more of the country’s bees vanished, practically overnight. They didn’t die—they left, abandoning their queen and their hive. The syndrome was quickly labeled Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Almost just as quickly, a quarter of all commercial beekeepers in the US went out of business, food prices spiked, and bees became national news.

To this day, the cause of CCD remains unknown. New theories come out every few months, though the prevailing view is that CCD isn’t caused by any one thing but by a synergistic mixture of things—fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, parasites—that makes bees lose their navigational ability due to Alzheimer’s-like dementia. But while scientists around the world scramble to figure out why bees are dying, Wilson-Rich is taking a different approach: he’s doing something about it.

To Wilson-Rich, the cause of CCD almost doesn’t really matter. Something is weakening bees’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to the pests and pathogens that cause disease. But whatever that something is, if he boosts bees’ general immunity, if he makes them healthier, maybe he can increase their resistance to everything, including whatever’s causing CCD. Maybe, he thinks, he can stop the bees from dying.

Wilson-Rich first became interested in social insects when he studied biology as an undergrad, and in 2005 he entered the PhD program at Tufts University, working with an advisor who studied wasps and honeybees. A year later, everyone was talking about colony collapse disorder and Wilson-Rich found himself in the right place at the right time. “This weird bug program suddenly became relevant,” he says. He narrowed his research focus to honeybees and, in 2007, took a class on beekeeping. 

The thing that interested Wilson-Rich the most was understanding how insects packed into colonies stayed healthy. Animals living in such close proximity to each other ought to be devastated by the rapid spread of infection, but they aren’t—there is no bee equivalent to the flu or smallpox. “Why don’t diseases wipe insects out?,” he wondered. “What’s the insect equivalent of a doctor?”

Digging into the existing research, he realized how little was known about bees’ ability to resist disease. The prevailing theory of bee immunology was that, as with humans, when a bee ages, the strength of its immune system wanes. But Wilson-Rich had a different idea.

Bees pass through distinct developmental stages as they get older, each one with a defined role in the colony. Brood, baby bees confined within a cell of honeycomb as they grow, are the future of the hive. They’re fed by nurses, young bees who have recently left their cells. Nurses are fed by the older, more experienced foragers who gather nectar and pollen from flowers outside of the hive. 

Wilson-Rich suspected that a bee’s immunology was influenced, not by its age, but by its developmental stage. At each stage, a bee encounters new environmental stresses; a forager out in the world is exposed to pathogens unknown to a nurse who has never left the hive. A bee’s immune response should improve as it gets older.

To test his theory, Wilson-Rich pioneered new methods for measuring bee immunity and was able to show that, as a bee ages, its ability to resist disease doesn’t decline—it gets stronger. In 2008, he published his findings. His paper fundamentally changed scientists’ understanding of invertebrate immunology and became potentially important to understanding CCD, which is characterized by the absence of foragers. “The implications at the time were pretty big,” he says. One implication of Wilson-Rich’s paper was that if foraging bees were running into something harmful in the outside world, like a new pesticide, younger nurse bees would be forced to assume food-gathering responsibilities prematurely, before their immune systems were ready, increasing the entire hive’s susceptibility to disease. This was, perhaps, one step in the kind of collapse that could wipe out an entire colony. 

Over the next few years, multiple studies by other researchers focused on the role of a class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, in CCD, many of them citing Wilson-Rich’s paper. Neonicotinoids came into widespread use in the late 1990s, just a few years before CCD. The EU has recently banned the use of neonics for two years. They’re currently under review in the US.

In Wilson-Rich’s mind, the next step after his research into immunology was logical: if unprepared immune systems were the problem, boosting bee immunity was the solution. Human cities used to be breeding grounds for disease; measles, mumps, whooping cough, smallpox, typhoid, were endemic to dense, urban areas where people were packed in like, well, insects, until vaccines were created to immunize people against those diseases. Following a similar line of thinking, Wilson-Rich did something that had never been done before: he made a bee vaccine.

The process of creating a vaccine for bees might have seemed simple in comparison to the challenge he faced afterward: how do you actually vaccinate a bee? The scientist and the phlebotomist in him said to do it hypodermically, and so he did, anesthetizing and injecting bees individually. But after one too many late nights pricking small insects with an even smaller needle, Wilson-Rich had a head-slapping moment when the beekeeper in him realized he could feed the bees their vaccine instead. Commercial beekeepers often feed their bees with pollen patties, small cakes of pollen, sugar, and water, and some scientists have added pathogens to that recipe, for experimental purposes. Wilson-Rich realized that, rather than infecting bees with diseases, he could feed them something that would instead boost their immunity. He created an oral vaccine. He added probiotics, beneficial bacteria and other natural ingredients, hoping it would boost bee immunity. Though he hasn’t yet published his findings, he says his data show that his approach works.

In 2009, Wilson-Rich won the grand prize in Dow Chemical’s Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge for his work developing a vaccine, not just for bees, but for any invertebrate, including shellfish, silkworms, and other economically import animals. He used the money from the award to patent his vaccine.

In 2011, Wilson-Rich finished his PhD shortly after winning another prize for his vaccine in MIT’s Entrepreneurship Competition. But despite his credentials and awards, despite publishing thirteen papers in six years, despite the recognition of his peers, despite growing concern among scientists, corporations, and the public about bee health, research funding was to come by, and so he decided to leave traditional science behind and start his own business.

The Best Bees office is in an industrial area of Roxbury that borders Boston’s South End. It shares the open basement of a body shop with two other tenants. The hives are in the parking lot. The modest lab is screened off from the neighboring construction business by floor-to-ceiling industrial shelves stacked with scientific books, tools, parts, and paint cans. The teal green floors are cement, the white walls cinderblock, the ceilings low, and the pipes exposed, but all of this is obscured by jumbles of equipment: metal desks, a chest freezer, large plastic buckets with spouts, a rolling clothes rack full of beekeeper suits, and stacks and stacks of Langstroth bee hives, nearly two hundred of them. A pallet holds pieces for a hundred more. The only noticeable scientific equipment is a small microscope. When Wilson-Rich and his staff of co-op students moved into the office there was no light or electricity. Two winters in, there’s still no heat.

Best Bees sells and manages bee hives. Wilson-Rich’s customers are private homes, restaurants, hotels, bakeries, farms, a bed and breakfast—anyone who wants to support sustainable agriculture or who would just like a supply of fresh, local honey. The company is a kind of subterfuge; Wilson-Rich sells hives so he can use the income to fund his research, bootstrapping a business modeled after a pharmaceutical company. With enough money, and enough research, he plans to develop a marketable product based on his vaccine. He will share the science and sell the product.

“It’s frustrating for us that we have to go out and sell beehives, but it’s hard to get funding that doesn’t directly benefit human health,” he says, adding that what money there is goes mostly to large universities with full-time fundraisers. Still, he has trouble letting go of that world. He continues to submit applications for grants, but, so far, nothing has come through. “My father says, ‘Why do you do this? You’re wasting precious company resources on grant funding. It’s so dumb’—I have this little part of one foot in the traditional science way, but it’s a waste of time.”

Best Bees has been growing steadily, though it’s not yet profitable. Currently, no one gets paid. Wilson-Rich has been making up the difference between income and expenses out of his own pocket, but recently got laid off from his teaching job.

Despite the financial challenges he faces, Wilson-Rich remains committed to research as a way to save bees, and he has become an advocate for urban beekeeping because one of things his research tells him is that bees do well in cities. Out of all the hives he manages, the top three honey producers last year were in the city, two in Boston and one in Cambridge. Fewer bees also die over the winter in the city. The reasons are still only hypotheses: maybe there are fewer pesticides, maybe the heat island effect means they have to spend less energy fighting the cold, maybe, Wilson-Rich speculates, trains coming into the city covered in pollen from trees along the tracks deliver extra, more diverse pollen to the bees. 

But cities can also be bad for bees, he notes, in that children growing up in an urban environment aren’t exposed to them. They fear bees and don’t understand that their food comes from a flower that depends on bees. Wilson-Rich is promoting urban apiculture to change that. He’s certain that, if he can share some of his passion for bees, if he can teach city dwellers and kids not to be afraid of them, if he can convince more people to be beekeepers or even just to plant a few flowers, if he can help people understand where their food comes from, if he can just talk to enough people, then the bees might be all right. And in June of 2012, he got a chance to reach his biggest audience yet.

TED is an organization that identifies passionate people who are approaching old problems in new ways, compelling speakers with revolutionary ideas that could change the world. TED films short talks by those speakers in front of a live audience and puts them online, where they’ll be seen by millions. Past speakers have included luminaries like Bill Clinton and Bono. TED’s regional arm, called TEDx, seeks out local innovators who aren’t yet on a global stage but should be.

Wilson-Rich gets their call more or less at the last minute. They want him to talk about urban beekeeping, the importance of bees, and challenges to bee health. On the day of the talk, he hasn’t prepared anything other than a few slides. He has no paper in his hand, just a few ideas in his head. Though he doesn’t know it then, his talk will eventually be viewed almost 400,000 times, putting his name and his ideas in front of a whole new audience. NPR is broadcasting the talk and his mom is in the crowd. He’s nervous, sweating lightly. 

They call his name and Noah Wilson-Rich walks out from behind the curtain, onto the stage and into the spotlight.

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