UW-River Falls biology department to encourage student research on bees

Posted March 30, 2016

The UW-River Falls biology department is making plans for a new line of research on the health of bees to push a more integrated and hands-on lab experience for students.

Biology Professor Brad Mogen teaches a freshman biology course that requires students to create unique research projects related to honeybees. He has been working on a new line of study to track the comings and goings of the bees in and out of their hives. To do this, a radio-frequency identification chip will be glued to the back of a bee, which will trigger a sensor located at the hive entrance each time she crosses the threshold.

Talen Rabe is in his fourth year as a physics and mathematics major at UWRF, and he is doing the preliminary work with the radio frequency chips.

“Essentially,” he said, “I’ll be laying the groundwork and figuring out the research methods to be used in the following summers to do more in-depth studies of specific stress factors.”

With the tracking chips, Rabe and others involved in the project will be able to collect a wide variety of data, such as how often a bee goes out and comes back every single day, the correlation with weather or temperature, and whether bees make more flights as they get older. The data can in turn be used to examine specific questions related to bee health, such as whether exposure to pesticides reduce a bee’s ability to find her way back to her hive?

These questions need to be addressed because honeybees are a very integral part of U.S. agriculture and their population appears to be in decline. Bees are pollinators — meaning they fertilize flowering plants and allow them to bear fruit or seeds — and a Cornell University study estimated that they contributed a total value of about $14.6 billion in crop improvement in 2000. Research from 2008 further estimated that between 750,000 and 1 million honeybee colonies died between 2007 and 2008 — a trend that, if it continues, could be damaging to the agriculture industry.

The plan, Mogen said, is to let students decide for themselves what to research.

“I don’t want to just tell students all the time, ‘Here’s what to do,'” he said. Mogen said he wants students to follow their own interests, using that to design their own experiments during the freshman biology course with the common goal of learning about and enhancing honeybees.

It is all part of a larger plan to make lab experiences more realistic for students, Mogen said. Students are able to tackle real-world problems over a two-course period (the freshman Biology 160 course is followed by Biology 195, in which students can carry over work on a long-term project), and the radio-frequency tags will potentially draw in students from different majors — biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics — to work together on bee-related research.

“We’re trying to work more towards that so that students get a more realistic experience‚Ķon what laboratory research is,” Mogen said, an experience where students from various fields doing different projects will have a chance to talk together, share knowledge, and help one another with work. “That’s how ideas are shared.”