Honey Bees on the University Rooftop

Honey Bees on the University Rooftop

The Columbia campus is home to several honey bee colonies that are managed by Professor Jonathan Snow from the Department of Biology at Barnard College. Learn about his research on honey bees, his views on global scientific collaboration, and his beekeeping activities and teaching on campus and how they are affected by the Covid-19 lockdown in this interview with Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Director of Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai on May 14, 2020. 

RA: Why should we study honey bees?

JS: Honey bees are important to humans because they provide us with honey, and they also provide us with wax. Both of those were extremely important products before we had other sources of sweeteners or waxes. And then of course, the pollination services bees provide are the most important. One of the interesting things about honey bees is the social structure of their colony. They have lots of amazing behaviors that individual bees within the colony use to work together to make the colony function somewhat like an organism that people often call a Superorganism.

RA: Could you tell us about your research on honey bees?

JS:  In my lab, we study two big topics in honey bee biology. One aspect of bees that we study is their cell stress responses. We look at how honey bees respond to different stressors in the environment at the cellular level and the idea behind this is that we know that there has been increased pressure on honey bees due to multiple interacting stressors. We're focused on Apis mellifera but it's probably true for all honey bees, all bees, and even all insects. We are trying to understand how they respond to different stressors at the cellular level. We think it is important to understand how some of these stressors might synergize to affect the health of bees. The other topic that we study is infection of Apis mellifera honey bees by microsporidia, specifically Nosema ceranae, which is also helping us to learn a little bit more about microsporidia biology. 

RA: Do you think a comparative perspective on different bee species is relevant to your work? 

JS: There are a lot of reasons why looking at different bee species is important. There are over 20,000 bee species on our planet and while they range from solitary bees all the way up to the social bees, I think it's really important to understand the biology for all of those to really help pollination services, both for agricultural and natural habitats. If you're studying the social bees it is very important to not just focus on one of the species of Apis but to look at all the different honey bee species. When we're doing comparisons to try to understand what's happening in the Apis mellifera honey bee, we're always interested in how that might be the same or different in other types of honey bees, but also in some of these other semi-social bees like the bumblebee or solitary bees, like the alfalfa leafcutter bee. But the first step would be to examine the other types of honey bees like Apis cerana. This is especially important for my work because we look at Nosema ceranae, the microscopic pathogen that can affect honey bees and probably originated in Apis cerana and then jumped into other bees. But beyond just the infectious disease piece, we're also interested in understanding how the biology is the same or different between the different types of honey bee species. So, we almost always use the genomics from the other honey bees when we're doing comparisons.

RA: Is collaborating with international researchers important for you?

JS: I think one of the best parts about the scientific endeavor is the focus on working with other people and making connections and collaborations in not just your institutions but also across the country and across the world. That's something that I've really focused on as a bee biologist and as a professor working on bee biology because you can get a lot of different expertise that you can bring together and a lot of viewpoints that can be really helpful in making science look forward. The current situation with COVID-19 is just a great example of the potential for collaboration between scientists across the world. Hopefully, it even emphasizes how we should be doing that more in our research all the time. 

RA: As a New York beekeeper and professor, you have consciously developed a curriculum where students practically engage with hives. Tell us about that experience. 

JS: Where I went to college, I had really great mentorship in learning how to be a scientist and how to teach and I wanted to emulate that at Barnard. What that means is that most of the work that we do in the lab and with bees involves undergraduate researchers and that's really exciting! And partly because you're exposing these younger students to the practices and culture of science but also because you're exposing them to honey bees, which is not something that everybody would be exposed to. It's exciting to watch them learn about honey bees and learn about beekeeping while they become scientists. Some of them just want to stay in the lab and would rather I just bring the bees them. But many of the students are so excited to get up on the roof with the bees, every time we go out there, and I think that they will always remember their experiences while researching honey bees and some of them may even become beekeepers. 

RA: How are you managing your colonies during this Covid-19 lockdown?

JS: Spring is probably the most important time in terms of bee management because you need to make sure they’re coming out of the winter in a healthy way and that they’re going to build up well. And we also need to make sure they’re not thinking of swarming because people in cities really do not like that. I’m going to campus once a week to take care of them. One of the things we’re doing this week is re-queening some of the colonies. I ordered some queens through the mail. They arrived yesterday and they’re actually sitting in my lab. So today I’m going to put them into some of the colonies that need queens. 

RA: You’re very proactive in giving public talks on science to expand the outreach and impact of your work. How does that help drive the message of conservation?

JS:  I don't know if it's true globally but here we have a very active beekeeping community that has its local clubs or associations. I actually just gave a talk on Tuesday to the Barnstable County Beekeeping Association. This had to be a remote talk but they have something like 500 members in Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Those kinds of monthly meetings where people get together to talk about beekeeping are very important. They disseminate the latest knowledge of the beekeeping practices, talk about current topics in beekeeping, talk about the importance of habitat for other bee species, especially ones that are native to the area. These meeting often have an outside speaker come in and talk about research. That doesn't necessarily happen in science in other contexts. When I was working in biomedical research, I don't think I ever was asked to give a talk to a lay audience. Just having these small collectives of lay people who are interested in the biology of bees, but aren't necessarily experts, gets a nice force together around the country that can try to help protect bees and insects. That's a really good way to share an interest but also get information out there and then have the local groups make the impact in their community with teaching people about bees and helping impact policy about things like pesticide use and land management.

RA: One of the problems we face in outreach in India is that people are so scared of honey bees that they sometimes do not want to visit natural areas or parks where bees are found. From your experience in America, is it different?

JS: I would say here we struggle with that as well and even the people who want to promote bees get concerned about liability issues or how dangerous they are. The idea that the bees will just sting you for no reason is out there or that they're just somehow dangerous and vindictive. I think just constant promotion of bees is really the only way around that and having more people involved, like the hobby beekeepers here in the US, can be really beneficial in this. They help make bees seem normal and just a typical part of the community. In Barnard's campus, right across the street from the main Columbia campus, there are a lot of bees on campus, because I have six colonies on the roof. Sometimes there can be a little friction within the community about the bees. But I think the majority of people like having the bees and see them as an important way that Barnard is trying to help the environment. Sometimes, people might have to get up from their table if a bee likes their lemonade but on the other hand, we've got this great program where we have bees and we are helping the environment here in New York City by bringing pollinators to campus and pollination to people's minds. I would also like to share that I do give a lot of honey away to people who work at Barnard to help sweeten the deal.

RA: When we meet on campus, we should have a cup of tea with honey from your hives.

JS; Definitely. I’d be very happy to give you some honey, too.

RA: And I’ll bring you some from India.

JS: I’d really like that! 

Jonathan Snow

Dr. Jonathan Snow, Assistant Professor of Biology at Barnard College, has been working on the cellular and molecular causes of organismal disease since 1998. Dr. Snow received his Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Francisco, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School. His graduate and postgraduate work focused on signal transduction, regulation of gene expression, and organismal stress responses in blood development of mammals. He subsequently became fascinated with the honey bee and changed his research focus to the study of these same biological processes in the honey bee, especially in light of the epidemic of colony collapse. After beginning this research while a visiting faculty member at Williams College in 2010-2012, he joined the Biology Department at Barnard College in 2012. He continues his avocation as a bee-keeper while teaching and maintaining an active research laboratory focused on cell stress responses and infectious disease in honey bees.

Visit the Snow Lab website to know more.