The GW bees are now producing honey for Founding Farmers, and have become the subjects of research studies and classroom learning; students will use Dr. Doebel's newly built observation hive (above), to study “the language of bees.” (Photo by William Atkins)
Studying Nature in the City
GW’s rooftop bee farm doubles in size and serves as a launch pad for student research.
On a scorching July day, Hartmut Doebel was standing on the roof of Lisner Hall showing off his flock: nearly a dozen bee hives, the airspace around them thick with the bustle of an insect metropolis. Bees were coming and bees were going in all directions, bees were clinging en masse, like a living paint job, on the hive boxes; bees were just about everywhere.
“Where there’s a lot of activity it’s kind of a good sign,” says Dr. Doebel, an entomologist and assistant professor of biology. To outside eyes, then, things were looking pretty peachy.
By all measures, the GW bee colonies are thriving. The once small contingent of hives, which first arrived last year, has recently more than doubled in size as a result of a high-profile partnership, and the bees have sparked a handful of new research and teaching endeavors that will dovetail into the Science and Engineering Hall.
“This is such an opportunity,” Dr. Doebel says. “Just to see the sparkle in the kids’ eyes when they handle them; I think that’s really cool. And they work with something alive, they see it,” in contrast to much of biology lab work, he says, which often focuses on the molecular level. “We do that so much now in biology, sometimes the context to life seems to be so removed.”
Last month the university announced a partnership with nearby sustainable food-focused restaurant Founding Farmers that added six hives and created what’s said to be the nation’s largest restaurant-owned apiary.
The combined 11 hives now at GW will produce honey for the restaurant, just two blocks away. Founding Farmers also established a $5,000 scholarship for an undergraduate student to oversee the apiary.
“This venture provides an opportunity to not only further expand the university’s research goals and enhance our students’ educational experiences, but play an active role in encouraging local sustainability and green living,” says Peg Barratt, dean of GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
While the bees work on producing honey, a number of research studies have been launched using the apiary’s inhabitants to study aspects of bee health and behavior.
Rising senior Heidi Wolff, who received the new scholarship from Founding Farmers, will be looking for differences between city bees and rural ones by studying the pollen they collect.
For the project she’ll study bees from urban and rural apiaries, then identify the types of plants from which their pollen is gathered and analyze the pollen samples for their protein content, which provides insight into its nutritional quality. With the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bee Research Laboratory, in Beltsville, Md., the study will also include analyzing pollen for the presence of pesticides.
“My idea,” says Ms. Wolff, “is that in a city environment there might be more biodiversity and therefore dietary breadth for the bees.”
Ultimately, Ms. Wolff—a biology major who plans to stay at GW for a master’s or Ph.D.—foresees using the current study as a starting point for a long-term study of the health of city bees versus rural ones.
Ms. Wolff’s study will incorporate the work of another student, who is identifying a reliable technique for determining protein content of pollen grains as part of a separate study, says Dr. Doebel. That research project will go on to explore the impact of pollen quality on a bee’s venom.
“Venom is composed of quite a few different molecules,” Dr. Doebel says, “and up to this date nobody knows exactly why it’s different from bee to bee and from hive to hive.”
“We’ve studied these creatures for so many decades now and we still don’t know for sure what makes the venom composition change; I think that’s pretty cool,” he says. “And some of the substances are not even identified.”
A third student researcher will be observing bees infected with viruses and bacteria common to the species in an attempt to elucidate tell-tale behavioral changes that occur, and how pollen quality and pesticides may impact the bees’ response.
Dr. Doebel also plans to use the bees in the classroom. He’s built an indoor, glass-walled observation hive for thousands of bees, which is connected to the outside by a pipe that pokes out a second story window. Biology students will use the hive in their labs next April to study “the language of bees,” he says.
Bees have—and this is actually the technical term—a “waggle” dance that tells others the distance and direction of good sources of the pollen and nectar bees use for food. Interpreting the motion, students will look for the exact waggled-about flowers.
“I wanted to get students excited,” says Dr. Doebel, “to show them in a city environment that this social species can really thrive and function well and has a lot of things to tell us about behavior and chemical communication, too.”
All of this budding bee activity, he thinks, will parlay well into the new Science and Engineering Hall. Whether the bees will move to the new roof remains to be seen, but the building’s greenhouse could be a nice home for the observation hive, he says.
And not unlike the concept behind the see-through observation hive, Dr. Doebel says he’s excited about the building’s glass-enclosed classrooms that will allow visitors and students to “see scientists teaching and at-work.”
||What’s really unusual for humans is the combination of an extremely long life and a large brain.
—Anthropology professor Chet Sherwood, explaining research that suggests these beneficial human adaptations come at a unique cost: the shrinking of our brains as we age. In the study
, appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Sherwood and colleagues found that chimpanzees—mankind’s closest animal relatives—do not show significant age-related changes in brain volume.
Science and Engineering Hall Location