STORY

The Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary, Inc. is a Boston-based, 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, on a mission to improve bee health. We are launching an innovative new public-private partnership linking corporate sponsored honey beehives with communities in need of access to ample pollinators. Our campaign is to raise $750,000 total by the end of 2017. These funds go directly to our research to improve bee health.

Anyone who eats food, needs bees. As pollinators of over 70 fruit and vegetable crops that we humans rely upon, bees contribute over $15 billion to the United States economy annually. That amount scales up to $100 billion globally each year. Honey bees, Apis mellifera, in particular are relied upon for scientific research, providing us with information about the greater environment. However, these are just one species of nearly 20,000 bee species worldwide.

Pollinators are struggling in both agricultural and wild environments.  There have been a wide range of theories blaming pesticides or fungicides, migratory beekeeping practices, climate change, mono-cultured landscapes and habitat loss, and an array of honey bee pathogens. . Within the beekeeping community some have begun to rename the epidemic “multiple stress disorder,” as it is clear that a combination of many stressors on the bees have made it difficult for their populations to succeed.

RESEARCH

At the Urban Beekeeping Laboratory & Bee Sanctuary, we know that honey bees are endlessly fascinating creatures. Beyond the captivating intricacies of their colony system and the delicious honey byproduct they produce, honey bees are also uniquely vital to our natural surroundings.

 

As pollinators of more than 100 fruit and vegetable crops in the United States, honey bees are an integral contributor to a sustainable natural environment.

 

And yet, honey bees are dying at an alarming rate. Owing to disease, mounting exposure to pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, as well as continued habitat loss, honey bee colonies throughout the world are suffering unprecedented devastation. This decline is one of the single greatest threats to our natural environment today.

 

Our mission is to raise funding for our research to improve bee health. The research projects range widely, and involve the collaborative efforts of our staff beekeepers, multiple Ph.D.’s, and student research interns. We also regularly collaborate with outside laboratories in both academia and industry, and within the United States as well as abroad.

 

The Urban Beekeeping Laboratory focuses on basic science research. These focus on testing hypotheses to better understand the natural world, as it pertains to bees.

CURRENT PROJECTS

  • Synthetic Biology

In collaboration with Prof. Neri Oxman at the MIT Media Lab, our research teams collaborate to understand how bees are inspired by design, and how design is inspired by bees. These investigations involve advance technologies including 3D printing with a variety of materials, data sensors (see SmartHive™ details, below), and so much more.

  • Heritability of Immunity

In collaboration with Prof. Rebeca Rosengaus and her laboratory at Northeastern University, we are studying the heritability of immune strength from parent to offspring. Bees make an excellent model system to test hypotheses relating to the evolution of immune benefits because of their social nature and genetic structure. Our Ph.D. researchers, field beekeepers, and student interns are collecting eggs from honey beehives, freezing them in liquid nitrogen, and storing them until the running immunology and microbiology assays in bulk. We predict that there is vertical transfer of immune benefits from queen to egg, indicating heritability of immunity.

  • Formula for Overwintering Survival Rate of Honey Bees in MA:

A comprehensive equation to help determine overwintering survival in beehives in Massachusetts. The equation will ultimately factor in nosema, varroa, population size, pesticides, and other factors as well as their relative importance to hive survival.

Knowing exactly what type of honey your bees produce adds value, both on the markets and in the experience. Identify the floral source of honey with our new, state of the art product, HoneyDNA. We send you a bar-coded test tube for privacy, along with a stamped return envelope to our laboratory. You fill the test tube with 10mL – 20 mL of honey. Our research team analyzes the DNA of all the pollen found in your honey. We then compare the pollen genomes to our comprehensive database of known plant families. Within six to eight weeks, we will deliver to you the results in the form of a custom infographic, with hand-painted illustrations of the flower families found in your sample of honey.

These results inform the general public about exactly which plants contribute to bee health and nutrition. Our research team is compiling the plant data, overlaying them with geographic information system (GIS) mapping software, and comparing the qualitative and quantitative forage data with our ongoing measures of bee health (e.g., honey production, population ecology, and overwintering survival). Combined, these data will help test the hypothesis that diverse floral habitat is the primary contributor toward good bee health.

  • SmartHive

The “internet of things” is pushing outdoors, connecting live beehives with big data and cloud storage. Our SmartHive links beehives with real-time data sensing and 2-way communications, allowing for remote beekeeping. Our first SmartHive deployment is at the Museum of Science Boston, on exhibit now. Our second deployment is at Booz Allen in Washington DC, complementing their innovation hub. Each SmartHive is an extra $995 per hive each calendar year, plus a one-time $500 installation fee.


Our patent-pending SmartHive™ connects beehives to the Internet of Things by incorporating data sensors inside the nest. SmartHive™ continuously gathers data on any environmental variables of interest, including temperature, humidity, sound, light, video, and more. SmartHives™ have data parameters that can be set at exact levels, such as high- or low-temperature, to alert the beekeeper for when each beehive is at a critical environmental point, using text messaging, phone calls, or e-mails. Two-way responses are now being developed, so that the beekeeper can text, phone, or e-mail the SmartHive™ back, saying to turn on the heat, open a vent, or even move its position. These data are available in real-time through our online portal, and also stored in a device with 4 hubs for customizable sensor options. The data can be downloaded to CSV spreadsheets for analysis, making it an especially useful tool for to conduct research relating to bee health. Be sure to check out the Museum of Science, Boston for the SmartHive™ live bee exhibit, or order one of your very own by contacting us at (617) 445-2322 or info@bestbees.com.

  • Queen Rearing

Work by Marla Spivak and colleagues at the University of Minnesota showed that honey bees have a genetic basis to hygienic and aseptic behavior. As such, it is possible to breed honey bee populations that favor these traits to benefit bee health in the long term. Our research team tracks genetic lines of bees with favorable traits, such as low Varroa mites, low Nosema spores, gentle behavior, repeated overwinter survival, and good honey production. We mark these queens with a special purple color, for research tracking purposes. Our goal is to rear locally adapted queens across each of the eight regions where The Best Bees Company provides beekeeping services, and further, to partner with David Tarpy’s lab at North Carolina State University to develop genetic markers to track each of these genetic lines of bees in the future, for the benefit of beekeepers, honey bees, and food systems.

  • Bats & Bees

In 2006, bees started disappearing in what became known at Colony Collapse Disorder. The first beehive reporting vanishing bees were in Pennsylvania. That same year, a few hundred miles away in Howe Caverns, New York, bats became infected with the fungus we now know causes White Nose Syndrome. Offshore in oceans around the world, an unprecedented number of unexplained mortality events lead to mass die offs of marine life. What happened in 2006?

This investigative writing piece examines ecological connections from our backyard beehives, to underground caves, to underwater mysteries, all bound through the ties of life, death, human impact and climate change. What can we learn from these events? And how can we prevent this in the future, before it’s too late?

  • Disease Testing

Multiple Ph.D. researchers and a rotating group of elite student researchers work to analyze samples of honey bees collected from beehives under management by The Best Bees Company. We are constantly monitoring for all of the most common pests and pathogens of honey bees, at our Urban Beekeeping Laboratory in Boston’s South End. These diseases include Varroa mites, Nosema fungus, deformed wing virus phenotype, and others. Data are recorded in our proprietary software, Bzzz, for which our in-house software engineers wrote the code. Bzzz stores disease data on beehives across the national landscape, for analysis by our research team routinely.

  • Apitherapy

Results from the honey bee genome sequencing project revealed fewer immune-related genes compared to solitary insects, such as mosquitoes. In the absence of individual immunity, these social animals rely on external forms of disease resistance, including mutual grooming and excretion secreting. Bees create products as a function of their genetic code. As such, bee products can be considered external phenotypes. An extended phenotype is the manipulation by an organism, or more specifically its genes, on their environment.  Honey bees can be considered a keystone species that has a strong impact on its community through their extended phenotypes that relate to disease resistance.  Honey bees extended phenotypes of honey, propolis, venom, beeswax, bee bread and royal jelly confer pathogen/pest resistance.  This impacts the community within the hive.  In addition, humans can use these honey bee products as well for pathogen resistance.  The implications of this is that honey bees, through their genes, can manipulate the community structure both within and outside of the hive. Humans can breed honey bees to increase their disease and pest resistance.

  • Overwintering Surveys

Winter is a harsh time for honey beehives. Our bee research team analyzes data both retrospectively, from The Best Bees Company’s records going back to 2010, and prospectively, using proprietary mobile app software for beekeepers to use in the field. Our mission is to elucidate which environmental and behavioral factors contribute to the highest overwintering success of beehives. Each student intern receives the opportunity to create their own research study by asking a unique question based on existing data collected. These research reports are submitted to each student’s academic program for credit, and the very best projects are presented at conferences or beekeeper meetings, and also published in writing, either in our blogs or professional journals.

  • Mapping Survival Hotspots:
    • Rural vs Suburban
    • Height off Ground
    • Protected Lands

Geographic information systems (GIS) provide an incredibly powerful software tool that allows our research team to test hypotheses relating to bee health across landscapes. Our research affiliation with universities enables our laboratory to engage student researchers with GIS and our unique data sets from The Best Bees Company’s records, dating back to 2010. Current mapping projects include comparing survival hotspots across rural, suburban, and urban population density; height off the ground and elevation above sea level; and proximity to protected lands.

GET IN TOUCH

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

Subject

Your Message