MIT Apiary Project: Notes from a Scientific Beekeeper

October 27, 2016

Beekeeper peering through a frame full of developing queen bees

When I was told my work at The Best Bees Company was going to start including work on a research project with MIT, I was beyond excited. Over the winter, at home in New York I formed a very complete idea of what I thought I’d be doing. The first day, these expectations were shattered as I drove with my coworkers Jessica O’Keefe and Rachel Diaz-Granados well beyond MIT campus, to near the Alewife T stop, and pulled into the parking lot of a warehouse. Outside was the blistering cold of January, an old decommissioned food truck that was up for sale from the time we began this project to the time it ended, and a few cars belonging to the people who worked in this warehouse in an unrelated glassblowing shop. The inside was unassuming too; we entered through a side door into a hallway, then through another door. Suddenly the entire environment changed. Rachel and Jessy had been there before and were a lot less bewildered by the thin cloth enclosure and the stark whiteness of the room. This is where we put on our bee suits and prepared to go meet the bees.

Our work at MIT

Bees in the wild are beset on all sides by environmental challenges. They face pesticides, parasites, both internal and external, and the challenges of a harsh environment. Recently, seven species of bees in Hawaii were added to the endangered species list (see more on this on our sister blog). In the winter of 2013-2014, 80% of hives in Massachusetts did not make it through the winter. The synthetic apiary project by MIT Mediated Matter lab was an attempt to mediate these problems by allowing bees to exist solely in an artificial environment. The bright white room in this warehouse, draped with cloth to keep the bees from escaping to the rest of the building, was an attempt to provide bees all the resources they need to survive and propagate while sheltering them from the myriad of threats they face in the wild. It is the first of many steps necessary for understanding, and ultimately saving, the honey bee.

Our work mainly consisted of keeping the environment suitable for the bees. Rachel, Jessy and I cleaned the space and observed each hive to take note of their productivity and overall health. We made sure the bees had access to sugar water, which was their primary food source, pollen, and checked the temperature and humidity of the environment to make sure the bees were given the best chance of survival. As a student, the experience of working with the Mediated Matter lab was hugely eye opening, and I was able to learn about the world of research in a very different context than I ever had before. I learned a lot about how projects are conceived and how ideas are formed at a very preliminary level. I got the experience of being stung by a bee in February, which I’m sure has similar probability to winning the same lottery multiple times. Most importantly, my coworkers and I were able to help people trying to make a safer world for bees everywhere, a mission The Best Bees Company has been on for years, and one we have all adopted since.

Check out the Mediated Matter website for more information on the project.


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