In spring 2020, Heather Mattila, professor of biological sciences at Wellesley, was awaiting a shipment of honey bees for the hives on campus when it became clear that normal academic practice was in jeopardy.
“We didn’t know what to do or where to go or what life would be like,” she says. “So I just brought the bees home instead of bringing them to campus.”
Mattila lives in Boston, adjacent to the Arnold Arboretum. “I’d never had them at home before as a practice. But ever since the pandemic, I’ve had bees in the yard every year because they are so relaxing. It’s like watching a waterfall.”
Mattila grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario. “At the time—you know, everything’s shifting now—but at the time, it was the northern limit of where people kept bees,” she says. “I remember seeing the hives at one particular house, but honey bees weren’t a thing for me until I was in university, the age of the students that we have at Wellesley.”
Mattila studied zoology at the University of Guelph, which for decades had one of the largest bee departments in the world. She ended up taking a bee biology course—and found her topic. “I’ve just always loved animals, and I love social animals. I love watching humans interact. I love watching the dogs we’ve had over my lifetime interact. And honey bees are really an extension of that,” she says.
At the beginning of the semester, Mattila takes students in her introductory biology class out to meet the bees. “It’s never easy to meet bees,” she says. “Even for me, it wasn’t. I wanted to shove my hands in my pockets for the first week that I worked in a bee lab. But there’s something about bees that just clicks with people.” Students new to bees are often surprised that the hives smell wonderful, and the bees’ buzzing—the humming of the hive—is soothing and peaceful. “You know how the students enjoy puppy therapy during exams? Bees can have that effect,” Mattila says.
Honey bees are an ideal research subject for undergraduates, Mattila says. “When you study animals, you want to see them actually operating in their natural environment—and bees can be kept and observed right on campus.”
Now that the Wellesley hives are back on campus, students are swarming to Mattila’s lab to learn about these creatures, which, as pollinators, are central to global food production. The world needs bee researchers, because bees, both domesticated and wild, are in danger. Threats include climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, pathogens, pesticides, and agricultural practices that affect bee diversity. Understanding bees has never been more important. We spoke to scientists who have gone out from Wellesley to conduct research in the lab and in the field.
Heather Mattila with the Wellesley beehives
Investigating a Murder (Hornet)
Over the last few years, it has been challenging to do bee research at the College, first because of limitations of space during the Science Complex renovation and then because of the pandemic. Over that period, Mattila’s lab switched to looking at digital data she had collected while on sabbatical in Vietnam. “That’s turned out to be super productive and very, very interesting,” says Mattila. “We’re still focused on that, even though we’ve brought bees back to campus. So my bee world has expanded, and what our students are working on has expanded.”
That expansion included a paper based on research Mattila did in Vietnam that was published in Royal Society Open Science. It reported on the alarms honey bees sound to alert the hive when a giant hornet—called a murder hornet—attacks. A giant hornet can destroy a honey bee nest in a couple of hours, so these defenses are crucial. The study was widely reported in the press and even turned up in a Saturday Night Live skit. (Since then, murder hornets have been renamed northern giant hornets, much to bee researchers’ relief.) The national attention surprised Hannah Kernen ’20, who is now studying at the Purdue Entomological Research Collection (PERC) in Indiana and was a co-author of that paper. It was Kernen’s first publication. “No paper I publish is ever going to do that again,” she says, laughing.
Kernen was drawn to Mattila’s lab by the opportunity to do hands-on research as a first-year. “I remember Heather saying, at one of our first lectures, ‘If you’re interested in research, you should come and apply to the summer research program. I’m in the bee lab. We always take first-years,” Kernen says. She started working with Mattila that first summer.
Kernen grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. “I wasn’t really big into bugs as a kid, but I just really enjoyed sorting things, and knowing the different order of things. I always played a lot of Pokémon as a kid, and the whole theory of that game is catching every single thing in order. The creator of that game is an [amateur] entomologist, actually,” she says.
When she was a sophomore, an apparent obstacle turned out to be a boon for Kernen. “They were due to demolish our old Science Center at Wellesley, and our hives were not going to be available during my junior and senior years,” she recalls. “So, Heather handed me this hard drive and said, ‘You can make a project out of this.’”
Kernen has become fascinated by the diversity of bees. “A lot of people don’t know how many species of bees there are,” she says. “In Indiana, for example, where I’m doing my research now, there’s probably upward of 400 different species of bees.”
Kernen and her colleagues at PERC are in the planning stages of a visualization of bee data. “I’m imagining maps of the range of bees over time. Some really cool data that we can get from bee collections is occurrence, because each bee is essentially a data point for a place in time. If we have a specimen, we know where it was, when. That’s a data point.” Using this information, Kernen envisions producing maps that show what flowers which bee species were found on, and how that behavior might have changed over time. Such data can be useful for identifying the plants that sustain bee populations.
Melanie Kazenel ’10 has been thinking about the relationship between bees and plants, too. At Wellesley, Kazenel was an environmental studies and Spanish double major. She was deeply involved in early planning for the now-thriving Edible Ecosystem Demonstration Garden on the hill below the Whitin Observatory. This fall, she took her newly minted Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico to North Carolina State University, where she will continue her study of bee ecology.
Kazenel worked in law for a couple of years after Wellesley, but it didn’t feel like a good fit. “I went back and talked to a lot of my Wellesley professors about how to pursue a career in ecology. Kristina Niovi Jones recommended a summer research program that I ended up getting into, and that kind of jump-started my career,” she says. (Jones, who teaches in the biology and environmental studies departments, is director of the Wellesley College Botanic Gardens.)
“I’ve long been interested in the ecology of plants and the organisms that they interact with, and how those interactions cascade to influence whole ecosystems,” says Kazenel. Her master’s research looked at how plants interact with fungi, and how those relationships affect the way that plants respond to climate change. “I gained a really strong interest in pollination as another mutualism, or beneficial species interaction, that plants engage in. And I became fascinated with pollination as a process that’s really important to sustaining human life, because it’s so important to agriculture.”
Kazenel says it’s estimated that North America has about 4,000 species of native bees. Her work looks at how climate change is affecting native bees in the Southwest. “I’ve been pairing long-term climate data, temperature, and precipitation data with long-term bee-monitoring data to look at how fluctuations in climate relate to fluctuations in bee abundance and diversity,” she says. While some species are doing just fine, she says, “44% of bee species have the potential to decline in the future as the climate becomes hotter and drier.”
Kazenel says she has enjoyed the collegiality of the bee research world: “The bee community is motivated by both a fascination with the organisms themselves and a strong desire to help preserve important ecosystem services and pollination. There’s a dual passion that bee people have,” she says.
Kazenel’s classmate and fellow bee enthusiast Morgan Carr-Markell ’10 is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. “We’re in the middle of an experiment trying to look at whether or not honey bees actually pay attention to the number of flowers in a patch that they’re visiting, to decide whether or not they should advertise it with a dance,” she says.
“I’d always been interested in insects as a kid, but I really was not set on bees until I joined Heather Mattila’s lab,” she says. “We were all working together on a lot of projects. That’s one of the fun things about doing field work in a bee lab—you get to see what other people are doing, too.”
That collaboration extends into the wider world of bee research. “I think there’s more and more talking between different researchers about all the work around what’s good for honey bees, but can we find things that work for a wide diversity of bees? I am more worried about non-honey bee bees that are declining. But I think there’s a big movement now to do better monitoring and think more strategically about how to conserve all these different kinds of bees,” Carr-Markell says. “I’m very heartened by the fact that there are so many people and organizations that really want to do good things for bees. There’s a lot of bridging from the cool research, which is definitely where I am, to the public and to agriculture.”
Marina Andreadis ’24 extracts a honey bee from the hive. A screen in the tube protects her from swallowing one.
Ecology and Industry
Hailey Scofield ’13 is engaged in building that bridge. Presently on leave from her Ph.D. program at Cornell, she is the co-founder and CEO of Combplex (beelasers.com), a start-up providing solutions to beekeeping problems.
Scofield grew up in Nome, Alaska, just south of the Arctic Circle. “It’s 4,000 people on the edge of the world, basically. We didn’t have a lot of insects, but we had charismatic megafauna, you know, moose, bears, and muskrats and all the wolves literally through our backyard all the time,” she says. “In high school, I was lucky to go to the tropics on a trip for bird ecology, and I really discovered insects.”
Back home, she started to notice bumblebees. “I ended up finding a book on bumblebee foraging dynamics called Bumblebee Economics. It’s a graduate-level book. I did not know this at the time. I read it through the summer and got really into how bumblebees can learn as individuals,” she says.
Scofield transferred to Wellesley as a sophomore and ended up in an accelerated biology class. “I was a really disorganized student and forgot to do my homework one day. It was just a five-minute presentation on something you really like about biology. With no other options, I stood up in front of the class and talked for five minutes about bumblebee foraging dynamics. Heather was the professor for that class. And so after that, she was like, ‘You should remember to do your homework, but also, you should probably join the lab.’ And that was kind of it.”
While pursuing her Ph.D. at Cornell, Scofield got involved with a National Science Foundation program that helps researchers become inventors and entrepreneurs. She and a classmate, Nathan Oakes, wrote a grant about a device to help beekeepers see inside their hives, thinking it would be wildly popular. “That turned out to not really be true,” she says. “They kept saying, please, please, please instead try and invent a new pesticide for this invasive parasite.”
Scofield knew of the parasite, the Varroa mite, but, “We didn’t really understand how detrimental it was to the industry. We were hearing from fourth- and fifth-generation beekeepers who are worried that their family business is going to go under on their watch because of this problem.” The researchers decided to investigate if it was possible to eliminate the parasite without chemicals. Oakes discovered that lasers worked.
“We put a bunch of parasites on the desk and ran the laser over them, and they all just basically popped. It was like magic. We were like, ‘OK, we might have something here.’ (The laser does not harm the bee, just the parasite.) Since then, we [have] been working on that,” she says. “We decided that we wanted to try and sit on the fence in between research and industry.”
Their work has been supported with a $256,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research award and other recognition, including the $500,000 runner-up prize in the 76West Clean Energy Competition. They’ve also received support from the New York Farm Viability Institute and others. The goal is to have industry, farming, and science work together to mitigate the threats to bees. “Moving toward those kinds of goals is what gets us up in the morning,” Scofield says.
Meanwhile, back at Wellesley, Heather Mattila spent part of the summer getting the Wellesley hives up and buzzing. Cynthia Gomez ’24 helped out. When Gomez, who is from Houston, began her Wellesley experience, everything was virtual, and her connection with bees was only through data. Back on campus this summer before leaving for a semester in Spain, Gomez helped with the hives. “I’m not going to lie,” she says. “I was a little scared at first. But it was really cool to see the bees. It was like, OK, here’s everything we’ve talked about, everything we’ve analyzed, and I’m getting to see it in person. It’s something real.”
For Wellesley’s growing community of apiologists, nothing could be more real than their mission to understand—and save—our bees.