Major Fellowship Goes To Honey Bee Investigator at MSU


MSU grad student Laura Brutscher has received a three-year fellowship to investigate honey bees and the pathogens that infect them. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

Earlier this year, Laura Brutscher helped young Montanans become "honey bee investigators" during a summer camp at Montana State University. The MSU graduate student has now received a major fellowship to expand her own honey bee investigations.

The Project Apis m.-Costco Fellowship will give Brutscher $50,000 a year for three years to research honey bees and the pathogens that infect them. Her mentors as she continues studying the role of microbes in honey bee colony health and how they relate to the recent surge in honey bee deaths are Michelle Flenniken in MSU's Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology and Carl Yeoman in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences.

"I'm extremely glad and surprised I was awarded this fellowship," said Brutscher, a doctoral student in microbiology and a Molecular Biosciences Program Fellow. "It's definitely a great financial support, and it certainly adds fuel to the fire in terms of my drive to perform better research. I'm excited for the future opportunities to interact with beekeepers and other bee scientists and to share my findings with the beekeeping community."

Flenniken said, "I'm grateful for the Project Apis m.-Costco Fellowship support and very happy that Laura was selected. She is a very deserving and dedicated student."

It's not unusual for businesses and nonprofit organizations to team up to address issues related to food production, Flenniken said. Project Apis m. – a title that incorporates the scientific name for the western or European honey bee -- is a national nonprofit that supports honey bee research, infusing more than $2.4 million into research programs over the last eight years. Costco recently partnered with the nonprofit and is using some of the proceeds from the sale of Kirkland Signature honey to support honey bee research, including the "Ph.D. Fellowship in Honey Bee Biology" awarded to Brutscher.

"It is a natural partnership between Costco, a business that sells a large amount of honey and food produced from crops that require pollinators, and Project Apis m., an organization that works directly with beekeepers and bee scientists to support efforts aimed at maintaining the health of this U.S. pollination force," Flenniken said.

The committee that interviewed Brutscher consisted of a Costco representative, a Project Apis m. representative, a commercial beekeeper and two scientific advisers. They met Brutscher at the Costco headquarters in Issaquah, Wash., and selected her out of four finalists.

"I felt like we had a really good, friendly conversation," Brutscher said. "The interview committee did ask serious questions about the feasibility of my research and how applicable it would be in helping the beekeeping community."

Christi Heintz, executive director of Project Apis m. and a member of the selection committee, called Brutscher a great young scientist who represents the future in bee research. She said Brutscher, in addition to having great potential to help solve challenges in the bee industry, is friendly, enthusiastic and has many qualities that will contribute to her certain success.

"Her capacity to help us with what ails the bee is tremendous," Heintz said. "We are pleased to have funding from Costco to help her pursue her exciting bee research. She's on the cutting edge."

Brutscher's research will incorporate both field and laboratory studies, including the use of advanced molecular biology techniques to identify which honey bee genes are most important for warding off viral infections. Her research will involve honey bee colonies in Montana-based commercial operations, as well as honey bee colonies at MSU.

For the studies involving commercial operations, Brutscher will work with one Montana beekeeper who trucks his hives to California every year to pollinate almonds. She will select study sites in Montana and then focus on 15 hives at each site. She will sample the hives to look for bacteria, viruses and fungi, and monitor the hives' health over time to see if there is a relationship between certain microbes and colony health.

"It's kind of neat being able to work so intimately with the bees in such a wide range of levels from the colony and individual bee down to the molecular level," Brutscher said.

Brutscher grew up on a dairy farm in Little Falls, Minn., where her main exposure to honey bees came from the commercial colonies that were kept near the family's sunflower fields. Since coming to MSU in 2012, her exposure has increased. Not only does she research honey bees, but she helps maintain the honey bee colonies near MSU's horticulture farm.  In June, she shared her knowledge with "high ability/high potential" students who took the Honey Bee Investigators class at MSU's Peaks and Potentials Camp. The summer camp is open to students entering fifth through seventh grade.

Flenniken said honey bees are a critical component of agricultural production, pollinating numerous crops, including almonds, apples, blueberries, citrus and melons.

"Interestingly, Montana is a beekeeping state," she added. "It ranked fourth in honey production in 2011 and has ranked in the top seven over the last decade. The wildflowers and some of the agricultural lands in the state provide important summer forage for honey bees."

State Entomologist Cam Lay said commercial beekeepers in Montana manage more than 180,000 colonies, most of which are transported to California to meet the demands of almond pollination each February.

He noted that Montana is the "summer 'rest and recovery' location for an awful lot of migratory beehives. Those are the guys that go to California every year to pollinate almonds. Many of them also make their way up the coast to Oregon and Washington to pollinate fruit trees, and then return to Montana for the summer."

Unfortunately, Flenniken said, "The U.S. pollination force has suffered increased annual losses since 2006."

Laura Brutscher (right, in full beekeeping suit) shows a hive frame to students who became "Honey Bee Investigators" during the 2013 Montana State University Peaks and Potentials Camp in Bozeman. (Photo courtesy of Laura Brutscher).

According to the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), honey bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value per year in the United States. However, the total number of managed honey bee colonies has fallen from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today. From 2006 to 2011, annual losses averaged about 33 percent per year, with some of those losses attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

As a result, Brutscher and Flenniken are among the many scientists in the country who are conducting research to better understand the reasons for honey bee deaths. They are also working toward developing strategies to mitigate bee colony losses.

Brutscher and Flenniken gave presentations during the annual convention of the Montana State Beekeepers Association, Oct. 17-19 in Butte. Flenniken recently gave a Montana Institute on Ecosystems lecture on her findings.


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