An Examination of Honeybees

December 7, 2011

GW professor lectures at front of room

By Magdalena Stuehrmann, Class of 2015

On the first day of his Introduction to Biology class each semester, GW professor Hartmut Doebel takes apart a hive full of honeybees.

Dr. Doebel doesn’t wear a beekeeper’s suit, and he doesn’t sedate the honeybees.

As his students stand as far away as they can, Dr. Doebel calmly performs his operation – in a t-shirt and shorts.

“If you know how to handle the bees, you won’t get stung,” said Dr. Doebel, an assistant professor of biology in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Doebel, who studies bee health and behavior, and Heidi Wolff, a GW senior, presented their research Tuesday at a special event, An Evening with the Honeybees. The event was sponsored by GW’s Urban Food Task Force, the Department of Biological Sciences and the GW Food Justice Alliance.

George Washington’s hives, which not only produce honey but also serve as research subjects and classroom aides, are located on the roofs of Lisner and Bell halls. Dr. Doebel, who works closely with Ms. Wolff, also has an observation hive in his lab inside Bell Hall. This hive contains eight frames for holding the bees’ combs and is enclosed on two sides with heavy-duty glass to allow observation of the hive.

“We added the observation hive to interest and draw in the students,” said Ms. Wolff.

Ms. Wolff received a $5,000 scholarship last year from Founding Farmers to oversee the apiary. The sustainable food-focused restaurant added six hives, bringing GW’s total to 11. These hives, which are said to be the nation’s largest restaurant-owned apiary, will produce honey for the restaurant, just a few blocks away.

Ms. Wolff is researching differences between urban and rural bees by studying the pollen they collect. According to Ms. Wolff, the protein contained in pollen is a significant source of nutrition for bees, but bees seem to be healthier with a diet of varied types of pollen. For her research, she will take samples of pollen from six urban D.C. hives and six rural hives and compare the biodiversity of the plants that the bees feed on. Ms. Wolff will also compare levels of pesticides and other pollutants in the pollen.

“There will probably be more biodiversity of plants in the city because of varied plantings,” said Ms. Wolff.
She hopes her research may help solve the mysteries of colony collapse disorder, which affects hives, causing the bees to mysteriously die off.

The event featured honey-themed food including baklava. Members of the GW community were invited to examine beekeeping equipment, such as a beekeeper’s suit, gloves and hive cleaning tools, an empty hive and the hundreds of buzzing bees within Dr. Doebel’s observation hive.

“We have a commitment to restoring much-needed pollinators to the area,” said Sophie Waskow, sustainability project facilitator in GW’s Office of Sustainability. “Bees play a really important role in our eco system, and research in a lab, which universities are really good at, is very important to learning more about that role. We are looking at how to enhance the urban system that we are a part of to help make our campus healthy and thriving for all.”

Dr. Doebel and Ms. Wolff hope that having students in close contact with the bees will help people understand and appreciate them more.

“Maybe in a future society it would be OK to have the hives on the ground where people can walk past them and say, ‘Wow, look at those bees, they’re so cool.’ But we’re not there yet,” said Dr. Doebel.