Honeybees and humans have an ancient relationship. There’s evidence of honeybees being kept in clay pots in North Africa roughly 10,000 years ago. On Twitter, we’ve even discussed the bizarre twists and turns of how honeybees were studied up until the 1800s. We’ve never discussed how honeybees became a central part of our agricultural system, one which we take great care to work around.
Of all the topics related to honeybee biology, the one which seems to have justifiably captured the most concern is how pesticides effect honeybees-or, honeybee toxicology to put it in the language a scientist would use. Although honeybees are more or less livestock, the issues which harm them also harm the more vulnerable bees. For better or worse, honeybees are the model for bee biology (although this is quickly changing).
We’ve been studying this for years, with the USDA leading the charge of figuring out how insecticides harm honeybees. If you’re interested in the topic of bees and pesticides, it makes sense to know a little bit of the history about how we began studying honeybee toxicology.
A huge portion of this story revolves Lonnie Standifer-a black entomologist who was in charge of the Carl Hayden bee research center in Tucson Arizona in the 1970s.
The early studies at the USDA revolved mainly around making the transfer of bees around the US a simple affair, and how to fight diseases. Things like the Benton box were invented at the USDA, and much of our understanding of how bee diseases worked were discovered in the early 1900s. However, a honey shortage during WWI and a legume shortage during WWII led to a realization that we need to understand how honeybees actually work on a physiological level.
Lonnie Standifer earned his PhD in 1956 from Cornell University. He studied the toxicology of organochlorine and phosphate compounds on houseflies. These are the same kinds of compounds as DDT and Malathion, and this information went a long way to developing our modern insecticides* and put him in a prime position to understand the effects of different chemicals on honeybees.
After graduating from Cornell, Standifer taught at a few universities and eventually ended up at the USDA in 1956, where he studied honeybee nutrition and physiology.
During this time, we gained a better understanding of how plant pollen effected honeybees. This included the effect of wildflowers, weeds, and crops on their physiology, but also information about what pollen was made of. This information was invaluable to the creation of the first honeybee artificial diets, which allowed beekeepers to sustain their colonies during harsh times.
Relatively late in his career, Standifer began to lend his assistance to the field of honeybee toxicology. His research in these days focused on when to remove honeybee colonies out of farm fields, and what kind of watering devices would shield them from exposure. Shortly before his retirement, he wrote an influential review about what was known about the topic. He even did work ranking pesticides in terms of how dangerous they were to bees.
Dr. Standifer stepped down as the leader of Carl Hayden research center in 1981, and retired in 1983 mostly because of health issues. Due to all the heavy lifting, beekeeping is a career very hard on an entomologist’s back. He spent time with his family in retirement, and passed away in 1996 after a career that any modern scientist would be envious of.
Dr. Standifer’s research laid the groundwork for many of the feeding studies we do today. Thanks to his research, we understood the beginnings of why bees needed certain types of pollen. This research was used to create artificial, supplemental diets for bees, which allowed us to do the kind of feeding studies which have driven the field of honeybee toxicology.
*Well, in the case of Malathion, anyways.
Note from Joe
The recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor shocked the nation, as well as us here at AaE. Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. 1 in 1,000 black men can be expected to be killed by police. This is a horrifying statistic, especially in America where we like to pride ourselves on freedom. Unfortunately, this American dream does not apply to many people. These are not isolated incidents; they’re a part of a larger pattern.
We have a problem with systemic racism in this country, and much of our country’s infrastructure was explicitly designed to keep minorities-but especially black people-from being able to access economic opportunities which are available to people who look like me. Being a white male in this country gives you a certain amount of privilege, and that needs to stop. Immediately. We need to tear this system down.
We need to tear this down, because black people deserve the same opportunities I have. We need to tear this down, because the so-called American dream should be real and accessible to everyone. We need to tear this down, because it’s not fair that so many people live knowing that any random traffic stop could be their last moment.
We need to tear this down, because black lives matter.