She is staffing one of five interactive learning stations assembled in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology's bee garden, the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, to teach third-graders from Amador County the importance of bees and other pollinators.
Brutscher discusses the residents of the hive: the queen, worker bees (females) and drones (males). The third-graders, sitting, standing or kneeling in the garden, listen to her wide-eyed.
“Who knows what the job of a drone is?” Brutscher asks.
A hand shoots up. “The drones protect the queen!” a boy declares.
“The drone's only purpose is to mate with the queen,” Brutscher tells him. “The worker bees or females guard the hive.”
The students learn that the honey bee colony is a matriarchal society. The females do all the work, performing specific tasks with job titles such as nurse maids, nannies, royal attendants, builders, architects, foragers, dancers, honey tenders, pollen packers, propolis or "glue" specialists, air conditioning and heating technicians, guards, and undertakers. The queen can lay up to 2000 eggs a day during peak season.
The third graders then suit up, donning assorted beekeeper protective gear. They pose gleefully in oversized suits while adults on the tour--teachers, parents and mentors--photograph them.
Overall, it was a honey of a day at the haven, a half-acre public garden installed in 2009 on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus. Divided into small groups, the students excitedly buzzed from one learning activity to another, not unlike bees buzzing from one flower to another.
Statewide Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology faculty and director of the California Master Beekeeper Program, explained pollination and how honey bees differ from such generalists as bumble bees and such specialists as squash bees. She invited the students to build their own bee, using pipe cleaners of various lengths to mimic how they are able to pollinate flowers. The youngsters also tasted apples, blueberries and almonds. Honey bees, she told them, pollinate one third of the food we eat.
Charley Nye, beekeeper and manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, zeroed in on the products of the hive. “When we see bees flying around, what are they doing there?” he asked.
“They're out gathering nectar and pollen,” responded one youngster.
The students and adults liked the meadowfoam the best. “It tastes like cotton candy!” one girl said, slowly savoring the flavor she found reminiscent of a county fair. Most considered the almond honey "a little bitter and acidic," Nye said, but a few favored it because "it's not so sweet."
Wendy Mather, California Master Beekeeper Program manager, showed the youngsters a bee vacuum device and how to catch and release bees. “They gently collected, viewed and released the bee specimens,” Mather related. The other half of her group crafted seed cookies, decorated pots, and planted seeds for pollinators. They also viewed the bee and syrphid (hover) fly specimens loaned by pollination ecologist Neal Williams, UC Davis professor of entomology. The hover fly, sometimes called a flower fly, is a major pollinator.
Another station focused on solitary bees: leafcutter bees and blue orchard bees. The students painted nest boxes and learned how the native bees differ from honey bees. Honey bees are not natives of America; European colonists brought them to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1622. Honey bees did not arrive in California until 1853, the year a beekeeper installed colonies near San Jose.
Marcel Ramos, lab assistant in the Elina Niño lab, opened a hive inside a netted enclosure and showed the students the queen bee, workers and drones and pulled out frames of honey.
The event received financial support from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Programmatic Initiative Grant, the Scott and Liberty Munson Family, and matching funds from Microsoft.
“This program was developed to ensure that our young scientists and future voters are aware of the importance of pollinators to our food production and ecosystems," Niño said. "We are also very excited to partner with programs across the university to recruit and support UC Davis students in becoming interns and mentors for the program. This program has already generated so much excitement with the kids and we want to provide this opportunity to as many schools as possible.”
Ron Antone, chair of the Farms of Amador and an Amador County Master Gardener, coordinated the Amador County visit, which drew third-graders from four schools: 67 from Plymouth and Sutter Creek elementary and "about the same number" from Pioneer and Pine Grove elementary. “The tour was coordinated and funded by Farms of Amador,” he said. “We are also associated with the Amador County Farmers Market Association."
“The program presented by Elina and the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven team was an incredible experience for all involved: students, parents, teachers and mentors from Farms of Amador and Amador County Master Gardeners," Antone said. “I could not have imagined a more successful trip."
Neither could the students. It was all that it was cracked up to "bee"--and much more.
- Elina Lastro Niño website
- California Master Beekeeper Program
- E.L. Niño Bee Lab, Facebook
- Amador County Master Gardeners
- Farms of Amador
- Amador County Farmers Market Association
As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he enrolled in an introductory entomology class. “I remember seeing the research technician standing in and indoor flight cage, surrounded by bees,” Nye said. “They were flying from the hive to a feeder stand and completely ignoring her. We covered the long history of beekeeping in that class around that same time and I was just amazed at how much knowledge had been collected. I applied for a job and started working as an assistant to the research technician I saw that day that spring. I spent the next three summers working for the lab of Dr. Gene Robinson and learning as much as I could.”
He went on to spend eight years in Illinois working with the bees—three as an undergraduate assistant and five years as the facility manager and research technician. He joined UC Davis in December 2015.
“Adapting to the California ecosystem has been a bit of an adjustment,” Nye said. “A big part of beekeeping is understanding the ecosystem you live in. If you've got a bee yard that doesn't have a water source close, you may need to move water in during dry periods. Different flowers provide nectar and pollen at varying quantities, so being aware of what's going on in the environment can give you some insight into whether or not you might need to assist your bees with some sugar to make it until the next bloom. That has honestly been my favorite part of moving here, learning about all the trees and shrubs and wildflowers and when they bloom. It's a constant process through the year, and being my first year here it's been really enjoyable to watch the seasons progress."
Nye welcomes the worldwide interest in bees and the crucial role they play. “I think people are starting to understand the complex role bees play in our food system, and I hope in the future we could help educate people about how the agricultural system is helped by natural areas,” he said. “Here in the Central Valley, there is very little unused space. We are able to bring in honey bees on trucks from distant areas to pollinate our crops, but it's a very precarious system that we are relying on to make that work. Having some natural corridors for pollinators year round would really help increase the population of native bees, help the health of honey bees, and keep us from worrying about losing the delicate balance we are keeping between honey bees and agricultural production.”
"I think the general public's knowledge of bees has made amazing advances in recent years. The shortage of bees for agricultural purposes here in the Central Valley really brought beekeeping into the news, followed by a lot of documentaries and things that made people want to be beekeepers or at least plant pollinator friendly gardens. Lots of people bring up beekeeping documentaries they've seen, and I don't think beekeepers were experiencing that 20 years ago. Overall, I'm mostly impressed with the amount of bee related knowledge out in the world right now.
Myths and misconceptions about bees? Often people associate bees with stinging, and falsely claim they have an allergy. “I've been doing this long enough that I don't laugh at people when they tell me they are allergic, but I think people don't completely understand what allergic means,” he said. “Only one or two people out of 1000 are actually allergic and have a life threatening reaction--most people just experience pain and swelling. I try to point out to people that when it hurts and makes their hand swell up, that might not mean they have a bee allergy, but most of the time I just nod my head and move on. I worked a booth at a local fair and half my conversations were people telling me they were allergic because it hurt. I get stung every day, and I can attest that at no point does it stop hurting.”
Nye divides his time with the labs of Extension apiculturist Elina Niño, pollination ecologist Neal Williams, and Brian Johnson, who studies the behavior, evolution and genetics of honey bees. “My responsibilities are pretty spread out,” he said. “The majority of my time is spent keeping the bees healthy enough for experiments.” In peak season, “it's pretty common to just have a few weeks' notice that we need any number of healthy full sized colonies, and like other animals, you can't grow a calf to a full sized cow with any magic tricks, so we try to buffer that by keeping a tight schedule for disease monitoring and making sure all our colonies are as robust as possible.”
What does he like the best about his job? The least?
"My job has a great balance between working out in a natural setting going through bee hives, and coming back to the lab and getting involved in research," he said. "I think doing either one of them by themselves would get a little tedious for me, so I feel really lucky to be able to split myself between the two. The least? It might be kind of a strange complaint, but foxtails. I spend a lot of time walking through tall grass and those foxtails burrow into my shoes and make me crazy. And I'm told I have to worry about them going up my dog's nose? I would say it's an urban myth but the seeds ability to get into my shoe and under my sock is practically magic."
(Editor's Note: For a list of the 2017 apiculture courses that the Niño lab is offering and teaching, see this page.)
Participants may register for one or both courses, according to Extension apiculturist Elina Niño, who is coordinating and teaching the courses with Bernardo Niño and colleagues at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility.
Each course will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Laidlaw facility, located on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus. The maximum number of participants per course is 25.
Planning Ahead for Your First Hive
The course, “Planning Ahead for Your First Hives,” taught by Elina Niño, Bernardo Niño, Charley Nye and Tricia Bohls, will provide lectures and hands-on exercises. The course is described as “perfect for those who have little or no beekeeping experience and would like to obtain more knowledge and practical skills before moving on to the next step of owning and caring for their own honey bee colonies.”
Lecture modules will cover honey bee biology, beekeeping equipment, how to start your colony, and maladies of the hive. Practical modules will zero in on how to build a hive, install a package, inspect a hive and monitor for varroa mites.
Participants will have the opportunity to learn about and practice many aspects of what is necessary to get the colony started and keep it healthy and thriving. At the end of the course, participants "will be knowledgeable about installing honey bee packages, monitoring their own colonies and taking on possible challenges with maintaining a healthy colony."
The $95 registration fee covers the cost of course materials (including a hive tool), lunch and refreshments.
Working Your Colonies
For the short course, “Working Your Colonies,” instructors are Elina Niño and Bernardo Niño. The course, to include lectures and hands-on exercises, is described as “perfect or those who already have beekeeping experience and would like to obtain more knowledge and practical to move on to the next step of managing and working their own honey bee colonies.”
Lecture modules will include advanced honey bee biology, honey bee integrated pest management and products of the hive. Practical modules will cover queen wrangling, honey extraction, combining colonies, splitting colonies and monitoring for varroa mites. The $150 registration fee covers the cost of course materials, lunch, and refreshments.
For each course, participants are asked to bring a bee suit or veil if they have one (the lab has a limited number). Lodging is not provided. For more information on registering for the short courses, contact Bernardo Niño at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 380-BUZZ (2899). See lab's Facebook page.