July 2018
Farm & Field

Protecting Our Pollinators

Auburn bee researcher Geoffrey Williams receives a grant to assist Alabama farmers.

 

Geoffrey Williams instructs a student on pollinator health.

Auburn University researcher Geoffrey Williams is one of 16 university and government scientists in the United States awarded $7 million in funding from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research’s Pollinator Health Fund, a nonprofit established in the 2014 Farm Bill.

According to Williams, researchers receiving Pollinator Health funding strive to solve social and economic problems of beekeepers, farmers and homeowners.

Williams’ project focuses on two major threats to honey bee health: pesticides and parasitic Varroa destructor mites.

He is investigating if beekeepers can use honey bees’ multiple-partner mating behavior to increase diversity within a colony and increase resistance to pesticides.

He was able to match funds for the grant from the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the California State Beekeepers Association and University of Georgia researchers.

Williams’ previous findings as a senior research associate at Switzerland’s University of Bern suggested two widely used pesticides act as unintended contraceptives in male honey bees. The research Williams and an international team of scientists published in "Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences" sought to explain the causes of disappearance of honey bee colonies.

Williams and an international team of apiarists have focused their research efforts on a single class of nicotinelike insecticides known as neonicotinoids to determine what effects field-realistic exposure to the pesticides have on male honey bees, known as drones.

"Environmental stressors such as parasites and poor nutrition can affect honey bee health," Williams said. "However, it’s possible agricultural chemicals also impact bee health."

During his research project, Williams and his team found the presence of neonicotinoids shortened drones’ life span and killed male bees’ sperm. Specifically, the research found drone sperm counts declined 39 percent.

A native of Canada, Williams said his passion for bee research has developed throughout the course of his career.

"As an undergraduate in animal biology at the University of Alberta, I was drawn to the areas of entomology and ecological parasitology," Williams said.

During his Ph.D. studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he studied an exotic parasite affecting Canadian honey bees, investigated pesticide risks to honey bees and monitored honey bee diseases in his country as well as in Minnesota and Arizona. These experiences allowed him to move to Switzerland as a postdoctoral research fellow. This is where he became a senior research associate.

He chose Auburn because the job was a perfect fit for his interests.

Williams is currently the only full-time faculty member focused exclusively on honey bees and pollinator health in Alabama.

Auburn faculty has been involved in bee work in the past; however, Williams is the first researcher solely assigned to honey bee research.

He has found himself in a unique position for an early career scientific researcher. He hasn’t had the advantage of walking into an established honey bee research and academic program. He’s had to build the program himself from the ground up.

For him, the task has been exciting as it is laying the foundation for the future of a respected apiculture program at Auburn and in Alabama.

"My goal is to make a lasting impression on students about the major importance of pollinator health and honey bee populations," Williams said.

According to Williams, his priority is addressing the needs of Alabama honey bee producers, farmers and homeowners.

Williams has gained support from Alabama beekeepers, Auburn University and Bee Campus USA in his research programs, particularly for projects focused on the colony-loss problem and on increasing honey production to protect bees.

Bee Campus USA announced in early 2018 that Auburn was the first university in Alabama to be certified as an affiliate of the Bee Campus USA program, a program designed to measure the strengths of educational campuses for the benefit of pollinators.

Auburn received the honor for advocating seven commitments focused on protecting pollinators and their habitats as well as promoting awareness of the roles the pollinators play and how the students can join efforts to support them.

The university is one of only 39 campuses nationwide selected for a program seeking to raise awareness of pollinators, food production, native plant species and integrated pest management; to stimulate the nation’s economy through species protection; and the services those efforts support.

The student organization Auburn for Bees is also making efforts to address on-campus awareness of bee health. The club members educate other students on the importance of bees to the campus and work directly with the Auburn University Laboratory of Insect Pollination and Apiculture, also known as Williams’ "Auburn Bee Lab."

To learn more about the development of Auburn’s honey bee and pollination program, follow the Auburn University Insect Pollination and Apiculture Laboratory on Facebook, or contact Williams at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 334-844-5068.

 

Rebecca Oliver is a freelance writer from Auburn.