- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
(Collaborative history of the UC Davis bee biology program.)
George Haymaker Vansell (1892-1954) was a student at UC Davis who eventually helped with the instruction of entomology and apiculture beginning in 1920 and ending in 1931. In 1922 he became the first instructor to establish residence in Davis. This marked a turning point for entomology at UC Davis and reflected the growing popularity and importance of teaching in the discipline. Vansell's appointment was “Instructor in Entomology” as a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employee in the Davis Experiment Station.
In October of 1931 Vansell published the first edition of “Nectar and Pollen Plants of California (Bulletin 517, through UC Berkeley). That publication was later revised by Vansell and Eckert in 1941. Vansell also took an early interest in reports of colony poisoning by California buckeye (Aesculus californica Nuttall). He published the early UC Berkeley Agricultural Experiment station Circular 301, titled “Buckeye Poisoning of the Honey Bee,” in 1926. As a co-author with Frank E. Todd (USDA Bureau of Entomology), they generated two publications in 1932: “Data concerning one method of apiary management for use in the California buckeye area” and “Resistance of Hybrid Honeybee to a Plant Poison in California.”
In 1936 Vansell was an author on “A Search for a Method of Producing Honey in the Poisonous Buckeye Area in California,” in conjunction with E.L. Sechrist and Frank E. Todd, who were with the Bureau of Entomology with the USDA. The same year, Vansell joined C.E. Burnside of the USDA Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine to publish “Plant Poisoning of Bees,” reporting national and international reports of bee poisonings. In 1940, Vansell teamed with William G. Watkins and Lee F. Hosbrook to publish another combined UC Berkeley and USDA report on the topic: “The Distribution of California Buckeye in the Sierra Nevada in Relation to Honey Production.” The publication contained a list of “Plants in the Sierra Nevada Providing Nectar, Pollen, or Honeydew, with their Elevation and Blossoming Period” as well as 18 local maps of the natural distribution of buckeye plants.
Vansell conducted additional research on fruit tree pollination at the USDA Pacific States Bee Culture Laboratory, Davis, California. Vansell passed away unexpectedly in his lab in 1954. A student scholarship in the Department of Entomology and Nematology bears his name.
Frank Edward Todd (1895 - 1969) was assigned to the USDA Pacific States Bee Culture Laboratory at UC Davis from 1931 to 1942. He served as head of the USDA apiculture research branch until retirement in 1965. Following his retirement, he was affiliated with UC Davis Bee Biology during the 1960s and ‘70s when he modified Norman Gary's original device and claimed the well-known “Todd Dead Bee Trap” that still is used in honey bee poisoning research.
Edward Lloyd Sechrist (1873 - 1953) was an associate agriculturist in the USDA Office of Bee Culture. Sechrist published “Transferring bees to modern hives” (Farmers' Bulletin 961) in 1918. Sechrist apparently was the first to propose: United States standards for honey: Recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture (Department circular / Unites States Department of Agriculture) in 1927. He published a “Preliminary Report on Apiary Organization and Honey Production in the Intermountain States in 1928.”
In 1930 Sechrist conducted studies on how much weight a honey bee colony gained and lost on a daily basis and reported that a colony could increase in weight by 20 pounds a day. He wrote the textbook “Honey Getting” in 1944. “Amateur Beekeeping” appears to have undergone revision in 1955, and reprinted in ‘58, '71, and ‘76. Sechrist conducted some of his studies with personnel from the Davis bee lab.
John Edward Eckert (1895-1975) joined UC Davis as a professor of entomology and apiculture in 1931 and eventually assumed the title of “Local Chairman” – this was the title of the administrator of the department up to 1934 when the official title of vice chairman, Berkeley-Davis, was established. Eckert finished his appointment as department chairman in 1946. As a master's student, Eckert published a paper on “The Flight Range of the Honey Bee” that remains the definitive statement on the topic. Eckert conducted early studies on effects of pesticides on honey bees and worked very closely with the beekeeping industry on matters of colony management and beekeeping politics. Eckert also conducted studies on potential resistance to buckeye poisoning by various races, and crosses between races, of Caucasian, Carniolan, and Italian stocks. The results were published in 1933 as “Buckeye Poisoning of the Honeybee – A Progress Report.”
Eckert published many articles on beekeeping, edited a California column in "Gleanings in Bee Culture" for decades, and he published the first iteration of “Beekeeping in California, Circular 100,” in 1936. This publication is the basis for many revisions and title changes by various authors over the decades, including one version Eckert titled: “A Handbook on Beekeeping for California (Manual 15, 1954).” He also published a more concise, four-page publication titled “The Home Apiary” in 1943.
Harry Hyde Laidlaw, Jr. (1907-2003) joined UC Davis as a Professor of Apiculture in 1947. His research resulted in his being called the “father of honey bee genetics” and he was the first to develop a functional instrument for artificially inseminating queen honey bees. Laidlaw pioneered research on visible mutants of honey bees (including eye colors, wing lengths, hairlessness, and pigment-free ((blind)) drones). His genetic stocks of eye color mutants led to determination of biochemical pathways for development of eye colors and early genetic mapping of the honey bee genome. Laidlaw garnered campus, national and international awards for his research efforts. His service to the university included being appointed the first dean for research in the UC Davis College of Agriculture. The current Bee Biology Facility is named for Laidlaw, and his family established an endowment fund (student scholarships) in his name. (See In Memoriam)
Norman E. Gary (1933- ) joined UC Davis as a professor of apiculture in 1962. In the 1960s he spearheaded grant funding to construct a new bee research facility and designed our current Bee Biology facility, now the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. Gary specialized in honey bee behavior. He did the most comprehensive research on flight range and dynamic distribution of foraging honey bees in almond orchards and various field crops by developing a novel method to recover magnetically approximately 90 percent of foragers tagged with ferrous metal ID tags, enabling the highest recapture percentage ever recorded for any insect species. During honey bee mating behavior research he was first to identify queen mating pheromones and also first to observe, describe, and photograph aerial mating behavior of queens and drones, develop aerial traps for drones, and make an award winning documentary film on mating behavior. He designed an efficient hive entrance dead bee trap that enables accurate monitoring of bee mortality inside the hive, e.g., bees killed by pesticides and diseases.
Gary led a research team to determine possible effects of microwaves on honey bees and invertebrates, as a part of the Solar Power Satellite project. In the 1970s he spearheaded the organization of the Western Apicultural Society and served as its first president. Since his retirement in 1994, Gary has written chapters for several honey bee text books as well as a book (“Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees,” 2010). For more than 40 years, he consulted with TV and film companies as a bee wrangler and stunt coordinator for producing educational documentaries and entertaining productions, resulting in 17 movies, 6 commercials, and more than 50 television programs. He is also a lifetime professional musician, performing and recording on clarinet, tenor and alto saxophones, and flute.
Robbin W. Thorp (1933 - 2019) joined UC Davis as a professor of apiculture in 1964. Thorp specialized in pollination behavior of honey bee and native bees. Thorp devoted a good deal of time to almond pollination and contributed information that still is applicable in this national, Herculean, single-crop pollination effort. But, he also maintained an interest in non-Apis bees. He published the book “Bumble Bees and Cuckoo Bumble Bees of California (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in the Bulletin of the California Insect Survey, with Lorry Dunning in 1983. As emeritus professor (retired 1994), Thorp continued to work avidly with native bees until his death on June 7, 2019. In 2014, he co-authored a“Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide” (Princeton University Press) and another titled: “California Bees and Blooms, a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists" (Heyday).
Ward Stanger (1913-2000) shifted his extension responsibilities from Extension entomologist to Extension apiculturist when the honey bee researchers were being overwhelmed with requests for beekeeping information during the age of counter culturalism in the 1960s and ‘70s. Stanger was readily adopted by the beekeeping industry as a spokesman for their concerns. In 1971 he joined forces with the Davis researchers and California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) representatives to publish “Manual 42: Fundamentals of California Beekeeping.” This publication was revised and retitled “Beekeeping in California,” but the basic information remains pretty similar to the original. In 1969 Stanger co-authored, with Dr. William C. Roberts from what is now known as the USDA-ARS Baton Rouge Bee Lab, an article in the American Bee Journal titled “Survey of the Package Bee and Queen Industry.” It was the first comparison of how the northern California and southeastern Gulf States bee breeders conducted their businesses. Stanger became involved in research of honey bee nutrition, since most honey bee colonies kept commercially in California require some supplemental feed to increase brood rearing for various reasons. Together with Harry Laidlaw, Stanger fed 40 colonies feeds containing various concentrations of pollen, Wheast, and sugar syrup. The results: “Supplemental Feeding of Honeybees” were published the year he retired from the university, 1974.
Christine Y. S. Peng (1944- ) joined the Department of Entomology as a professor of apiculture in 1975. Peng was an insect physiologist and she devoted her studies to searching for solutions to honey bee problems. She spent a good deal of time searching for a replacement antibiotic for oxytetracycline hydrochloride (Terramycin®) when American foulbrood was becoming resistant. With Drs. Terrance Leighton and Eric Mussen, Peng selected tylosin as the top candidate, which is being used internationally today. Peng also provided considerable knowledge on the topic of honey bee nutrition, including determining the best times of the year to provide supplemental feed to the colonies. Peng retired from the University in 2005.
Eric Carnes Mussen (1944- ) joined University Cooperative Extension as extension apiculturist in 1976. Mussen became involved in many different honey bee studies, often in conjunction with one of the department Professors. He became fully integrated into the world of non-commercial and commercial beekeeping. As his experiences broadened, he became a recognizable voice for beekeeping matters with county farm advisors, agricultural organizations, California agencies, NGOs, and the EPA. Mussen retired in 2014, but still remains in contact with industry matters.
Robert E. Page, Jr. (1949 - ) completed his doctorate in entomology at UC Davis, with a strong emphasis on insect genetics. After a couple years as professor at Ohio State University, Page returned to UC Davis in 1989 to further his research in honey bee genetics. During his 15 years at UC Davis, including an appointment as department chairman, and 11 more at Arizona State University (ASU), Page published hundreds of papers, four books, and led to the discovery of many fundamental tenets of honey bee behavior and population genetics and the focus of his current research is on the evolution of complex social behavior. Using the honey bee as a model, Dr. Page has dissected their complex foraging division of labor at all levels of biological organization from gene networks to complex social interactions. Page served as Foundation Chair of Life Sciences at ASU and provost (now emeritus) at Arizona State University.
Current Faculty Members
Neal Williams joined the department in 2009 as an assistant professor, coming from an exemplary background in college teaching to a position that would allow more creative research. Williams is now professor of entomology and a core faculty member with the Agricultural Sustainability Institute. His work ranges from basic research in bee biology and pollination to applied research on native bee conservation and crop pollination. He investigates the evolution and ecology of pollen specialization (oligolecty) by bees and how such specialists contribute to plant reproduction compared to generalists (polyleges). He also explores the role of habitat connectivity for the persistence of bees in agri-natural landscapes and how pollination service by native bee species is affected by land use change and human disturbance. Finally, he is working to develop native plant mixtures to bolster populations of the honey bee and wild bee species and promote sustainable pollination in different agricultural systems.
Brian Ricky Johnson joined the department as a bee behaviorist in 2012. Johnson continues studies on the genetics, behavior, evolution, and health of honey bees. Approaches to honey bee health studies incorporate a combination of genetics, epidemiology, and physiological approaches. His current work focuses on the evolution and genetic basis of social behavior using comparative and functional genomics, task allocation using behavioral and theoretical approaches, and honey bee health using a combination of genetics, epidemiology, and physiological approaches. He also is attempting to better determine where genes from Africanized honey bees have gained entry into the regional bee populations around the state.
Elina Lastro Niño joined the department as Extension apiculturist in 2014. She arrived with a very strong background in bees and beekeeping, and she immediately began visiting beekeepers throughout the state to become familiar with California beekeeping. Niño devotes her major research focus to queen honey bees and the physiological changes they undergo as they mature, become inseminated, and begin laying eggs. But she also is concerned about the pesticide problems vexing honey bee colonies and is conducting research in that area. She established the California Master Beekeeper Program in 2016. She is the bee biology program's third Extension apiculturist and the only Extension apiculturist in California.