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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New WSU honey bee lab studies bee health, nutrition and parasites

OTHELLO, Wash. – Riley Reed has wanted to be an entomologist since he was 5, when a professor from Washington State University brought a collection of pinned insects for a talk at his small Central Washington hometown library in Basin City.

“I always really liked bugs,” he said. “I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was almost 10 because there were too many bugs around, I would get distracted.”

Today, Reed is living his dream as a doctorate student just up the road at WSU’s new Honey Bee and Pollinator Research, Extension and Education Facility east of Othello, Washington.

WSU bought the facility in 2020, but due to delays from the pandemic, the facility has been slowly ramping up as they move in equipment and hire staff.

The university’s bee research program outgrew its space at the Pullman campus, assistant research professor Brandon Hopkins said, but the cost of a new building was estimated at $26 million. They found a more affordable existing building, a former Monsanto corn breeding station near the Port of Othello’s industrial park – two hours west of Pullman in Central Washington. The facility cost $2.5 million, paid mostly through donations and fundraising.

“This facility will increase collaboration and allow for enhanced short courses, demonstrations and classes for beekeepers – which will directly help the agricultural industry since honey bees are vital to our food supply,” said Steve Sheppard, Entomology Department chair and professor of pollinator ecology. “This facility will really help upgrade the work we do.”

A new bee research professor will be permanently based at the facility, while about a dozen faculty and graduate students will continue to go back and forth from Pullman.

The building has office space and a classroom, suiting it to host workshops and events like the Pacific Northwest Beekeeping Conference “JamborBee,” held earlier this month. The building also holds a warehouse, equipment for extracting and processing honey, cold storage and a molecular laboratory.

A small woodshop in the corner of the warehouse is used for building boxes for the hives.

“We spend a lot of time here in the winter,” Reed said. “It’s a lot cheaper for us to make the box ourselves rather than buying them preassembled.”

Eight removable frames of honeycomb slide into each box about the size of an apple crate. The crates are stacked four-square on a pallet, then as the colony grows, more boxes can be added on top. During the summer, when the bees are producing honey, the stacks can reach four or five boxes tall.

When they harvest the honey, they remove the upper boxes and move the bees down into the lower two layers, where the bees keep the honey they need for themselves for the winter.

WSU operates about 325 hives from Moscow and Pullman to Othello, Hopkins said. The new facility can hold up to 40 hives, about the most that can be kept at one location and still be healthy. Any more than that, bees will steal each other’s honey and spread diseases.

The program produces between five and six barrels of honey a year, which it sells at Ferdinand’s Creamery in Pullman and online to support the program.

The new lab will help researchers continue to study management practices and bee health with a focus on nutrition, parasites, pesticides and diseases.

Hopkins studies indoor winter storage, a method of keeping hives in a cold, but above-freezing, condition that induces a hibernation-like state. For commercial beekeepers in northern states, this can be an alternative to sending their bees to California for the winter.

A major threat to hives is the varroa mite, a parasite that latches onto the back of the bee. “If you scale it up to human size,” Reed said, “it’s the same as having a tick the size of a dinner plate chewing on your liver.”

The lab is testing methods to control varroa, including pesticides and fungi. “The varroa are pretty bad on their own, but they also spread a lot of viruses, which can devastate a colony,” Reed said.

Reed is studying nutritional supplements like “pollen patties,” which are artificial discs the size of a small burger patties made from brewer’s yeast and other ingredients. Along with sugar water for carbohydrates, the patties provide protein to complete their diet.

As a side project, Reed is testing ozone fumigation to kill diseases and harmful spores in honeycomb. Ozone gas is less toxic than alternatives and has been shown to break down pesticides into wax. This could save beekeepers from replacing honeycomb periodically.

“A complete success of that project would mean you could use the comb almost indefinitely.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.