By Meredith Fidrocki
Imagine a quiet community of workers who support a key cog in a billion-dollar industry that produces goods used in every corner of the Earth.
They are tireless.
They are essential.
And they are disappearing.
Meet the honeybee.
Honeybees are among the vital pollinators of the world’s crops, and their decline translates to decreased food supply and increased food costs. As noted by environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev, author of an earth-shaking United Nations report on ecosystems and biodiversity: “Not a single bee has ever sent you an invoice. And that is part of the problem—because most of what comes to us from nature is free, because it is not invoiced, because it is not priced, because it is not traded in markets, we tend to ignore it.”
For Holy Cross biology majors Anthony Criscitiello ’17 and Mary Patrice Hamilton ’17, the value of the honeybee—and the implications associated with its decline—could not be ignored. In the face of this global problem, these two students discovered a passion and a team at Holy Cross willing to support it.
For Mary Patrice Hamilton ’17, of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, the germ of an idea began during her first year at Holy Cross in the Montserrat course “Visions of Difference.” As part of the community-based learning extension of the course, she volunteered in a kindergarten classroom in Worcester. “I was always in the classroom during snack time, and I saw the children interact with common foods like apples and oranges with confusion and apprehension; some of the kids had never eaten these foods before. I started researching why fresh and organic foods are so expensive in this country and that’s when I learned about the decline of the honeybees.”
She notes that while “some people won’t notice the price surge, for others it will be the difference between giving their kids an apple or a processed snack.” Classmate Anthony Criscitiello ’17, of Ridgewood, New Jersey, came to Holy Cross with an interest in beekeeping after a family friend took it up as a hobby. He began talking with Hamilton about the issues of food justice and access raised in her Montserrat course. They wondered, “What can we do to supply underprivileged people with quality produce?”
Enter: the bees.
With more questions than answers, they felt that access to a honeybee hive would give them an opportunity to study factors potentially contributing to this global crisis.
Criscitiello and Hamilton’s first explorative step was both collaborative and undeniably liberal arts in nature. Hamilton describes: “It started by shooting articles back and forth and reading about beekeeping in primary literature, blogs, U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, historical accounts and even classical poets like Hesiod. We developed our philosophy of beekeeping before the honeybees even got here.”
Criscitiello mentioned their early research and interest in studying honeybees to Justin McAlister, an assistant professor of biology at the College, who encouraged them to pursue the project.
McAlister describes his early role with the students: “The main advice I gave them was essentially that if they wanted to do it, they could do it! Yes, we would need to figure out the logistics and funding and science, and yes, some initial ideas would have to be cast aside for various reasons, and yes, it was going to be a bit of an uphill climb at times, but if they were passionate about setting up hives on campus, then I thought that there had to be a way for us to make it work.”
Bee School and The Hives
The next step took McAlister and his students back to school—together. During the 2015 spring semester, all three enrolled in beekeeping school, Bee School, through the Worcester County Beekeepers Association, which is the oldest county beekeeping organization in the United States. McAlister and his students attended the courses weekly and made key contacts with experts in the beekeeping field.
Criscitiello and Hamilton pursued and were awarded internal Holy Cross grants from the Marshall Memorial Fund, the Student Grant Program and the Dr. Charles S. Weiss Summer Research Program, providing critical financial support for the project.
The students then took a road trip to Connecticut to a vendor who sells honeybees. They picked up a small cardboard box containing the nucleus “nuc” hive, and the beekeepers and their new bees made the car trip together back to Mount St. James. The bees even got a taste of dorm life before settling in to their home on the edge of campus behind Kuzniewski Field. “I kept the ‘nuc’ in my dorm overnight,” Criscitiello recalls. “The next morning, we carried the box to the back of campus and transferred the bees into the hive body [wooden frame of the hive].”
At that time, no one else at Holy Cross was studying honeybees.
Since the establishment of that first hive in 2015, Criscitiello and Hamilton have donned their beekeeper veils and shepherded the hive’s growth from one, to two and now six hives. Criscitiello notes that his initial fears around the bees “transformed into respect and awe at their complexity and beauty.”
Hamilton echoes this reverence: “Honeybee colonies are fierce, collaborative and mysterious products of evolution,” she says. “They are organized in a fearsomely awesome matriarchy, which I find particularly cool. It is easy to come up with good hypotheses about honeybees; the hard part is designing experiments to test them.”
Most recently, Criscitiello and Hamilton did just that. They each developed and launched their own projects as part of the 2016 Weiss Summer Research Program, with Associate Professor of Biology Karen Ober serving as adviser.
With a willingness to cross disciplines, ask questions and push through intellectual roadblocks, the students flexed their analytical muscles and mirrored their hives’ exponential growth with their own development as researchers.
For Criscitiello, a cellular and molecular biology major in the honors program with concentrations in biochemistry and premed, it was paramount to approach his research with an integrative slant. He notes, “I had to apply much that I had learned about biochem, cell bio and critical reading in order to wade through the scientific literature on honeybees [...] to hone my hypothesis.”
Criscitiello chose to investigate potential factors that lead to colony collapse disorder—when the majority of the bees desert the hive—and why certain hives do not succumb to this disorder. He is exploring changes in pheromones released from diseased or dying honeybee larvae and how this relates to the capability of nurse bees to identify and remove these damaged larvae, a key measure to curbing the spread of diseases that could contribute to hive collapse. Criscitiello explains the greater implications of his work:
“Populations of native pollinators have seriously declined, forcing a reliance on domesticated honeybees. These honeybees do not live on the farms they pollinate. They live on trucks that drive from farm to farm. Colony collapse disorder and the plethora of honeybee diseases have made these mobile pollination services increasingly expensive—an expense that is ultimately carried by the consumer, making produce less available and more expensive. I believe that understanding the dynamic within the honeybee colony will give us the insight we need to find novel solutions to the problems that honeybees are facing.”
Hamilton, a cell and molecular biology major, centered her research on the experienced beekeeper’s truism that honeybees are attracted to particular families of herbaceous plants, particularly those in the mint family: oregano, thyme, lavender, basil and mint. Common to all of these plants are compounds that are reportedly antiviral, antibacterial and fungicidal in nature. Hamilton’s project probes whether these properties of the plants are what attract the honeybees to the plants’ nectar.
She hopes that her research will add to the current fund of knowledge around plant-pollinator relationships. Her findings could help convince large apiaries housing hives to incorporate specific herb gardens as a preventive step to avoiding hive collapse and to look at best practices around how much honey they harvest from hives. It could also offer evidence for conservation work around expanding and preserving spaces that are beneficial to pollinators like the honeybee.
Both students praise Ober, their adviser, for mentoring them through these summer research projects. They credit her for helping them to internalize the
value of building their own confidence and autonomy as researchers while knowing when to seek guidance and expertise from others. “I learned when I needed to ask for help and when I needed to work harder to figure out a better solution,” Hamilton says.
Like the collaborative honeybee hives they have grown to revere, these students understand the power of harnessing the sum of the parts to achieve something greater for the whole community. The nature of studying a topic as unique on campus as the honeybees fostered independence, while at the same time highlighted the breadth and power of academic collaboration and support at Holy Cross.
Professor McAlister witnessed both Criscitiello and Hamilton grow from inquisitive first-year students to proficient researchers.
“At this point, Anthony and Mary Patrice are both at a graduate student level of thinking when it comes to this project,” he says. “They’ve worked through many of the steps that graduate students work through when starting a new project. It’s quite impressive and it’s been a real joy to watch them develop and mature in their thinking.”
McAlister highlights that not only are Criscitiello and Hamilton thinking at a graduate level, but that his colleagues have allowed for an academic team to develop that also parallels a graduate-level research environment.
The entire biology department, including Professor and Chair Robert Bellin, Associate Professor Ober, Assistant Professor Geoff Findlay and Associate Professor Ann Sheehy, offered guidance and direction throughout various phases of the project. Assistant Professor of Chemistry Amber Hupp also provided lab space and background on the chemical components of Criscitiello’s research. This dynamic group of professors on campus supplied the diversity of expertise necessary for studying such a unique topic.
Bees and Beyond
For the 2016-2017 academic year, Criscitiello and Hamilton will begin planning not only for their own futures but also for the future of the honeybees. The students will prepare the hive for the upcoming Worcester winter and will start training new beekeepers to tend to the bees after Criscitiello and Hamilton graduate.
The beekeeping duo will also continue to showcase the honeybees to anyone interested in learning more about the project. Hamilton notes that “every visitor engages and connects with the hive in some way, and it is beautiful to be able to facilitate that interaction.” She even hopes that her role in a new campus club that mentors young female science students in Worcester will provide an opportunity to share the honeybees with an even wider community.
Criscitiello and Hamilton have both short- and long-term goals for continuing their bee research and education. With so many hypotheses and questions to explore, one fact remains: This project and experience at Holy Cross has been a transformative one for both students. They take with them a gift rivaling the sweetness of their bees’ honey:
“When people say ‘I discovered my passion’ it’s hard to explain what that is like,” Hamilton shares. “It felt like I had always loved bees and now I just knew. It was simple.” ■
Read more stories about the liberal arts education in action through our Center for Liberal Arts in the World. Visit holycross.edu/hcm/liberalartsworld. And look for more coverage of the Center’s work in an upcoming issue of HCM.