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UCR Bees and Beekeeping - Full Length Interview

A beekeeping student holding up a beehive frame covered with honey bees

Intern reporter Allison Wang interviews Professor Boris Baer and PhD student Genesis Chong about UCR's Bees and Beekeeping course and CIBER, the Center of Integrative Bee Research

Allison Wang: With 91.9 KVCR News, I'm Allison Wang. Currently I'm a sophomore at UC Riverside and this spring quarter, I'm taking a fascinating hands-on course called Bees and Beekeeping, where we get to take care of our very own hives for 10 weeks while learning about bees and their importance in the ecosystem. Right now, I'm in the entomology building, minutes from the UCR apiary with my professor Boris Baer, and my TA Genesis Chong, thank you so much for being here with me today.

Boris Baer: Thanks for having us. My name is Boris Baer and I'm part of the Center of Integrative Bee Research and I'm teaching the class Bees and Beekeeping, which is highly popular, and I teach that twice a year.

Genesis Chong: My name is Genesis Chong, I'm an international student in CIBER Lab. I'm a PhD candidate working with honeybees. And I'm the TA of beekeeping course.

Allison Wang: Could you guys tell me a bit more about this course?

Boris Baer: So Bees and Beekeeping is a class that we offer here at UCR that has the aim to prepare students that are interested in beekeeping, to give them the necessary skills that they will be able to keep their own bees.

Allison Wang: What made you want to teach a beekeeping course at UCR?

Boris Baer: Oh, that's a good question that well, first of all, I'm excited to teach this beekeeping class because it allows me to train a new generation of students to learn beekeeping and to enjoy bees, because I love bees, I have done research on bees for a very long time, and I'm very concerned about their well-being. So seeing students getting fired up and becoming passionate about bees is something that is really rewarding for me.

Genesis Chong: It's really nice because most of them are afraid and they are so scared about the bees, to get stung or anything. But then when they learn how to deal with the bees and how to treat them, they get like a certain respect of the bees, and then that fear is just like vanish away.

Allison Wang: How and when were you first interested in bees?

Boris Baer: I was first interested in bees when I was a really young boy. Because I grew up in the house of my grandmother. I'm a country boy. So, she had a house in the countryside, and that was in Switzerland, and it was cold and miserable. And I hate winter. And I hate rain. And so, my grandmother had this garden with all these plants, cherry trees, and apricots and pears, and apples. And so every spring, all of these trees went into bloom, and you went in front of the house and you could smell the trees, but you could hear the bees, they were buzzing in the in the trees, you could observe them. And afterwards we had bumblebee nests in the garden and I could look after them. So, from a very early age onwards was a sign of spring and of the end of misery. And so I got attached to these animals and one of the reasons why I started to study biology and then like already for my PhD then, I did research on bee health and trying to see what parasites infect bumblebees and how the bumblebees could defend themselves. So it's ingrained really early onwards.

Genesis Chong: I really love nature. When I was doing my undergrad I was working with leafcutter ants. And then in my work environment, I met Boris Baer and he was the one that introduced me to this amazing bee world. So I decided to do a PhD with Boris here in Riverside. And since then I've been working with honeybees. It's just amazing how like these little creatures can just like get your heart. Yeah.

Allison Wang: What would you say is the greatest challenge facing bees and beekeeping these days?

Boris Baer: Well, we know that the bees are not really healthy any longer. And that applies for honey bees, but it also applies for native bees that are around us. We kind of have a good idea of why the bees are unhappy, and I call them the four evil, and the four evil are pesticides that the bees are exposed to in urban areas, but also in agricultural landscapes. They don't kill the bees, but it has what we call sublethal effects so the bees cannot learn and communicate any longer. So pesticides, big problem. Parasites, we have unusually high numbers of parasites now in honeybees and we have very little to actually kind of control them so far. So Genesis is one of the PhD students that actually is looking for what could we do better to help those bees. The third thing is what I call environmental change and it has two aspects, it's the loss of habitat for bees that they can recover when we for example, pull them out of pollination. In combination with climate change because as climate change, the bees are exposed to extremely hot weather. So environmental change. And the last thing is like I think how we treat bees and how we keep bees. My grandfather had, I don't know five or six peas in his backyard, right? A lot of people kept a few bees in their backyard. Today we have commercial beekeeping, that's 80,000 hives, we transport them around on highways over tens and thousands of miles, Bees are not really made for that. It's a very sophisticated, it's a very, kind of, complex creature. And so I think the way we commercialize that, the way we kind of industrialized beekeeping, the bees don't follow that, and so we need to find different ways how to deal with that. So that's a four- I call it my four evil, right, which are the main, the main, I think, kind of reasons why we see bees declining. So at this point, the beekeepers in the US, so we report that they lose about 40% of their hives per year.

Allison Wang: Wow.

Boris Baer: That is just, that's about double of what we can really afford to lose each year. So we are basically dwindling down on hives. And if you look at the US, when the US came out of the Second World War, they had about I think, something a bit over 6 million hives, and we are now I think down at 2.8 or something like that and so we need to kind of counter that.

Allison Wang: Yeah, and as we know, bees are super important to the ecosystem. And I was just wondering if you can elaborate on how they play their role in the world at large?

Genesis Chong: Well, since bees got domesticated, they have become like a really important and crucial part of pollination. They help to pollinate, almost like 80% of the thing that we eat.

Allison Wang: Yeah. And their decline is like really harmful for the environment.

Genesis Chong: Yeah, it's it's really harmful. And then, since, but you know, something that is amazing here that despite that they have so many stressors around like as Boris said the four evils. We also see like some hope in there. That's why I love what we're doing here. Because we are trying to understand like, what are the mechanisms, and all these little agents that the bees have within their immune system to defend themselves.

Boris Baer: There is a increase in interest to keep bees again, and some people kind of, quite a few people, they say, "Yeah, my grandfather had bees, right. So I want to take this up again." If you look at what is happening as most of the food gets more expensive, a lot of people now google how to make honey. And so I think I think what we want to promote is what we refer to as responsible beekeeping, right? If you have a beehive, you have a responsibility for this animal, it is complex, you have to really learn and you have to really look after that animal. It is a responsibility like a horse and the dog is well, right? And, of course, like bees are venomous, so we have to make sure that no one gets hurt in the process. And experienced beekeepers, of course, they can they have that knowledge and they can pass that on, right? So that's where they come in. Basically what this beekeeping classes as well as like, what is responsible beekeeping and that people are able to do that.

Allison Wang: Yeah, it's such an important class. Let's move on to talking about CIBER, the Center of Integrative Bee Research based out of UCR is Department of Entomology. So what is CIBER?

Boris Baer: So CIBER is a platform where researchers at UCR, and there are entomology scene there, but we also have like engineers, we have people from economy, from the molecular sciences, where they put their heads together, and they interact with beekeepers. And what the aim is, is we develop new tools, how we can keep bees healthier, and how we can avoid in the future that we lose all these bees. So we safeguard the bee, that means we also safeguard the production of human food. And then there's two aspects is like food availability so that it's there, but also that it remains affordable for a large proportion of the population, right. And pollination costs have gone up right, the beekeepers have to get hundreds of dollars for beehives. And that goes up as we lose bees. So what we do is like these tool development, one, for example is to have like a breeding program for resilient, naturally resilient bees. So we're not throwing things on hives all the time, we actually kind of find those bees that can cope with those stressors by themselves. So it's a breeding program, they want to set up, we develop new medications, because if you have these resilient bees, we can also use those components that occur naturally as defense mechanisms and feed that to bees that are kind of become really sick. So we have some medications that are now have been developed. We realize if you look at any domesticated animal, a dog, a cat, a cow, we look after them really well right and you bring them to the vet and if the animal is sick, we have like a huge variety of different medications that you can use to treat them. We don't have that for bees. For bees, we have about three or four medications at the end of it. And the veterinarians never really took up bees you can't bring your beehive to a vet. So we tried to convince them to do it, they were not kind of to kind of interested in this. So what we did is basically develop an electronic veterinarian, so we develop little sensors that we put inside beehives, and these sensors pick up what the hive is doing. This could be temperature, humidity, and machine learning algorithms can actually learn of, okay, this, this hive is healthy, or oh, there's something coming. And then depending on how many sensors you have, you can actually figure out, okay, they don't have food, they lost the queen, or there's a parasite coming.

Allison Wang: Right.

Boris Baer: But that's kind of the type of things we work with. I think at the same time, we really try hard to stay in contact with the local beekeepers, and we engage them into the research that we do we have because whatever tool we develop here, that only makes sense if the beekeepers are aware that it exists, that they know how to use it. And they say, "Yeah, this is really helpful." That is really, really crucial.

Allison Wang: Yeah.

Boris Baer: So every year we hold a conference or workshop, where we invite the beekeepers from Southern California to UCR. And we show them what we have done. We also mainly listen to them. It's like, what are you worried, what is going wrong? And we then translate those concerns or those issues into new research projects. And then a year later, they're coming back and say, "Look, here, this is what we have done. Is this working for you?" We give them some sensors, or we give them some queens or we give them some something they can try out. And then we see like whether it actually works in the real world scenario, rather than in this academic kind of environment, right?

Allison Wang: Right. Yeah. Well, this is all just like really amazing research that you guys are doing. CIBER recently moved to UCR in 2017. What was the reasoning for that move, and why was Riverside chosen?

Boris Baer: So first of all, UCR has a very long history in entomological research. So I knew about Riverside long before I knew that I would move here. It's ranked second in the world in entomological research. So I was very well aware of Riverside and UCR. When we got the phone call, and we were asked to move here, really a no brainer. Because we were living in Australia, we were working with the beekeeper there. Australia has still very healthy bees. So you can say okay, that's really fine, but from a research perspective is boring, because like all these major issues that we see in in the United States or in Europe, they haven't really caught up with Australia. Now in Riverside, you have this, you have to close connection to the growers in the Central Valley, California is the largest producer of agricultural goods within the US. You see the high demand in pollination, but you also see all the problems around this with the transportation of hives and all this kind of the evil forces that I mentioned before. But I think one of the key reasons to move here were the survival bees. This is absolutely unique. I always say like California was lucky four times in a row. First California gold, then it had oil, then it had silicone, and now it's bees, we have these survival bees. They are hybrid between bees that escaped from a lab in Brazil. They're very defensive, but they are very tolerant against heat and parasites and pretty much everything, right. But they're defensive. So people don't like them very much. But here they hybridize with the bees that we bring in for pollination purposes. And that creates a melee of different genotypes, we have probably the most genetic, the genetically most diverse species in the world here. Now, there is a draw every time, right. So some of them are defensive. So we don't like them very much. But others are not that defensive, but they still keep those traits that allows them to defend themselves against the diseases, or they can really tolerate high temperatures. So we just climb into the trees, we get them down. And we make a new deal. Right? We say like, "okay, we are nice to you, if you're nice to us. Tell us how you do it. And you could kind of provide us with the pollination services." There is a very narrow band between I would say San Diego and maybe Los Angeles, maybe Fresno. So this is just this, this very little kind of narrow band on a global scale right? Where these bees occur. And so it's like, where else do you want to be? You have people that are really well aware of the problems, but is the solution to the problem is already hanging in the trees. We just have to climb up. But that's what people did 40,000 years ago, we just do the same again.

Allison Wang: Wow, California is an amazing state. That all those factors like combining into the reason why it moved is really fascinating. So is CIBER funded through the university? Is there any way for us to support it?

Boris Baer: So CIBER is funded through the usual kind of pathway so we apply for funding on the national level or state level, and that is project specific. We have a donors account where if people want to support us

Allison Wang: How can we donate?

Boris Baer: There is a, on the website or the CIBER website, there is a link where people can provide donations if they want. We get donations from the beekeepers. They support us in certain things. It shows a lot. They're not generating the amount of funding that you get from the National Science Foundation, but the fact that they support us; it shows that they trust us and that they believe in our research. I think the main support for the beekeepers fast is more like their knowledge. They know their bees extremely well, because I keep them here for six years. They keep them for 10 or 15 years, and they're very successful. So what's in their head, in their brain, is worth more than any financial donation they could ever give me, right? They have years to decades of knowledge about these bees, which I think is a huge asset, they teach new beekeepers, there is no degree that you can take in beekeeping. So they train new beekeepers, they offer classes, they have a buddy system where they look after new beekeepers, they remove hives if they are unwanted. And so the beekeepers provide a lot of expertise, they provide a lot of services. And I think like that is not really fully appreciated in a broader public, of the importance of beekeepers and the importance of the things they do apart from just keeping bees that provide pollination.

Genesis Chong: Yeah, because at the end of the day, all the investment and all our investigation, the work that we are doing is not only for the bees, it's just to give the beekeepers tools for them to make easier their job.

Boris Baer: They of course support us with bee stock, right. So if we want to get access to the survival bees, yes, we can climb into trees and every time try to figure it out, but they already have in the box. And they offer us to go to their boxes to get it out. So that these are contributions that are extremely valuable for us, the expertise and the bee material. I normally rather kind of say if you want to support the bees, buy your honey from the beekeepers, because you directly support the beekeepers and they have businesses that are really at risk, like supporting them also help to support the bees and pollination.

Allison Wang: To close this out. I have to ask what is your favorite thing about the bees?

Genesis Chong: Oh, that's a hard question. There are so many stuff that I really love and enjoy about the bees like just started when you go to the apiary and you open the box and you started looking them like yeah, they're just doing their stuff, how clean they are, how organized they are. It's something so therapeutic, you will know when you start working with your hive. Yeah. Yeah, I really like everything about them. Like I remember the first time that I like actually were with a bee, I got stung and it hurt so bad! But it was my first time. And I didn't want to show like, you know, like, oh, look her first time and then she got stung, she's crying. But I was just like holding my breath. And just like, you're tough, you're good. And then it's kind of like I just I've been learning that you just need to be like, relax, breathe and everything. Because they sense when you are uncomfortable, when you are not that good and they kind of like get like, fussy and you know, just like uncomfortable too and I don't know, I love everything about them. I really enjoyed to work with them. It's just something like really nice. Yeah. Thank you for asking.

Allison Wang: And of course, the same question to you.

Boris Baer: Well, bees are so like complex creatures. So it is like, I had dogs I had, like.. pets, I had- and you interact with them and you build a relationship with them. And you know, your pet at some point, I would say like, I never completely understand bees because they surprise you all the time. Because it's such a complex creature, it's a superorganism. It's is like the accumulation of like 40,000 bees, you can open a hive, you can see something new. And every time you open a hive, it's to a certain degree, a mirror of our own societies. And it's always like flying into a new kind of galaxy of a new world, right, and how they, how they cope with this and what they do and how they interact with each other. I'm in the business now for 25 years, and they never bore me. Okay? And I am pretty sure like, to the end of my life, they will still find new stuff that, where you say like this is just nuts. This is just crazy. Right? So I think that keeps the fascination of, for me, for the bees going. Right?

Genesis Chong: Yeah. And also like, you can see like, depending on the hive, they have their own kind of personality. Because some day they can be like so chill and some gentle but then if there is something in the weather, they can be a bit more grumpy. But it's just like, you know, as Boris was saying, like that super organism. Like with a dog or a cat, you know what your pet doesn't like, but then with a bee it's not that easy to know and they're like really hardworking in inserts like, wow.

Allison Wang: Yeah, just from the first couple of weeks of class. I'm just amazed how complex they are and how there's so many of them but they're all working together as a as its own unit. I don't know, there's something very special about that. Yeah.

Genesis Chong: May I ask you a question? Yeah. Why are you taking beekeeping course?

Allison Wang: Okay, so I took this course because I heard this is one of the like those classes that it's like a hands on class and I actually asked you I remember the first day, is there any more classes kind of like this? Because I think it's very unique. If I wasn't in college, and there wasn't this opportunity to take it, would I ever just randomly decide in my adulthood, hey, you know what I want to do? Try out beekeeping.

Boris Baer: Yeah, yeah.

Allison Wang: You don't really have opportunities like that presented to you anymore. And I just figured that this is such an interesting class that, and it was open to me like as a political science student. So I just, I had to hop on that. I really just wanted to learn something that was different than my course of study, because I've done so much political science stuff or like public policy things that this is different. And maybe it's an avenue into something else that I'm interested in. I think it's really interesting that this class is open to every UCR undergraduate student, because that means that all different people can learn about bees and become involved in this... advocacy, even.

Boris Baer: As you might have realized, bees is it's own universe. We don't only need scientists, we need political scientists, we need engineers, we need economics people to solve this issue and to to understand the bees you need so many different brains and different kinds of approaches to crack that. So it brings actually, these people together and a lot of the students that we have that stay with us, they're not biologists, they're coming from very different fields. But the survey that we did with the beekeepers a couple of weeks ago that we published now, we basically asked them on the one side, like what they do, how many colonies they maintain, we also ask them about, like, what their worries are. So we get a bit of an overall idea about where the local beekeepers stand. That was done by some social scientists. The person that developed a questionnaire is from economics, the sensors, of course, built by engineers, but then we have software engineers that develop the algorithms. And in the past, we had dancers, so they did some artwork on bees . So bees bring together people from different fields. That's why it's so cool that the class can go beyond STEM. I think that gives it is cross-disciplinary touch, right? And I think people really like that.

Allison Wang: It's all just a web and we all just have to work together to solve a problem. Yeah.

Boris Baer: I think like if you look at the huge problems that human mankind faces, right, whether it's a pandemic, whether it's now like warfare between systems again, global climate change, a single creature cannot fix that anymore. It will have to come out to like these, like, cross-disciplinary teams that address that and look at this in a systemic way. I think it is really good that a class like this exists.

Genesis Chong: Yeah. And also I feel that that pushes you to collaborate with other fields. And learn like beyond your expertise. And it's kind of like the bees is teaching us to collaborate and to be like a super organism as well, with all these expertise. It's just something really valuable and amazing to have.

Allison Wang: So we're like our own beehive.

Genesis Chong: Yeah!

Allison Wang: Yeah!

Boris Baer: I think I say at some point, it's like, it's a bit of a mirror. Just they are successful, because they are here for a 120 million years. I don't know whether our species makes it 120 million years, but surprise me.

Allison Wang: Well, we're gonna try our best. That concludes our interview. Thank you so much for both being here with me. For anyone interested in this class. I'm happy to remind you that it's open to all UCR undergraduate students as a general education course. Check it out! For KVCR news, I'm Allison Wang.

This is the full length, web exclusive version of this interview. This interview was aired as a shorter two-part feature. You can see the two parts that made it to air in the "Related Content" below.

Allison Wang is an honors student at UC Riverside, double majoring in political science and public policy. She began working at KVCR during the Spring 2023 quarter through the UCR political science internship course, POSC198G - Field Work.
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