Kerry Lynott, Pennsylvania State University
There are many days when I wish my laboratory was as organized as a honey bee hive. If only my routine were dictated by a delicate bouquet of chemical signals rather than a series of list-serve emails and dense protocols. Imagine a staff whose patterns were linked by a superorganism mind set receiving instructions with one interpretation and a common goal. We could rise above the petty disputes over smelly boots left in the field truck or whose turn it is to count frames of bees and simply function. Collecting data would be perfectly uniform and natural.
However, this level of intuitive collaboration would put me and my fellow research technicians out of jobs. It is because we are clumsy, conflicted humans that the job of the research technician is so critical.
Whether it’s wiring electrical circuits, plumbing the guts of ultra-low freezers, or fixing geriatric trucks, the daily jobs of a successful research technician describe a true “Renaissance” person. Though we are at the bottom of the research project “totem pole,” we are frequently the front lines standing between the success or failure of a project. We take instructions from the top, supervise the bottom, and work feverishly to bridge the gap between the ideal in the mind of the primary investigators and the practical out in the real world.
Our true gift, though, is in managing the organized chaos otherwise known as field research. In this month’s installment of the Managed Pollinator CAP Update, we pause from examining the science behind the CAP and instead focus on the art of managing a massive, multistate field project. This article seeks to provide the reader with an insight into the one of the biggest initiatives of the CAP – the Stationary Apiary Monitoring Scheme – from the viewpoint of, if you would, its “worker bees,” the Research Technicians, Graduate Students, and Undergraduate Students who make it all happen.
The goal of the stationary apiary project is to monitor all of the possible variables affecting the survivorship of the colonies. This is a great idea in theory, but the practice of that level of data collection on thirty colonies in seven states is intense. So a group of some of the most brilliant minds in honeybee research came together to discuss how this would be accomplished. They wrote protocols for every variable to be analyzed. Their work was detailed and exacting, but still incomplete. The various persons charged with completing the tasks will interpret even the most exhaustive protocol slightly differently. There is also no guarantee that the protocols will work effectively in the field when applied to the project at hand. Now multiply this problem by seven states and seven teams of researchers; this is the Stationary Apiary CAP.
This kind of differing interpretation is a serious problem when trying to collect standardized data in a major, multi-state, multimillion-dollar research project. The confusion escalates as a fluctuating group of summer undergraduate workers are taught the protocol in a “whisper down the alley” style. Finally, it is nearly impossible to predict what will be the most effective protocol for a given project without doing test runs, which take additional time and money.
This is where the research technicians step in and earn their keep. As members of the Stationary Apiary project, we are familiar with the protocols and work with the primary researchers and other research technicians across the country to standardize our work and our staff. We also work to write “mini” protocols that fill in the unforeseen gaps between instructions. For example, it was hard to predict what the best method for collecting various castes of bees would be for each research team. Therefore, the individual research technicians were responsible for responding to this issue and leading their staff. Most importantly though, we figure out what works for our data collection and what does not. This allows us to mold the protocol over time into its most effective and efficient form. As we face our second summer of the Stationary Apiary CAP, we can reflect back on the myriad challenges overcome during our first season. What follows are a few examples of how the Penn State University research team worked to do just that.
The Stationary Apiary project can be broken down into two main technical components: the fieldwork and data collection done in seven apiaries around the country and the molecular and diagnostic data collection done in the lab. Many of my days are spent in the lab running honeybee samples and analyzing their molecular components from which some of our most frustrating issues have arisen.
In order to give outsiders an idea of project scale, I explain to them the number of samples that pass through my hands during our peak beekeeping season from April through September. From seven apiaries around the country, a maximum number of thirty hives are sampled each month. Each hive has five different honeybee samples taken of which four are delivered to the Penn State laboratory. Over a six-month period I could inventory a maximum of 5,040 honeybee samples. These samples are not, by the way, space-efficient as they arrive in 50-milliliter tubes jammed inside a Ziploc bag. To make matters more insane, the samples can never thaw to a temperature higher than -80 degrees Celsius (-112 degrees Fahrenheit). This means that the samples must be shipped on dry ice and upon arrival be immediately stored in one of our laboratory’s ultralow freezers. The process of shipping and receiving Stationary Apiary Project samples is relatively cut and dried until you factor in ultralow freezer space.
In molecular laboratories around the world, the value of ultralow freezer space is reckoned somewhere near an original Renoir or Van Gogh. I have seen distraught graduate students wandering the halls of our department begging for a drawer in someone’s - anyone’s - ultralow freezer. As the Stationary Apiary samples began arriving last summer, it became immediately apparent that we were out of space. Fifteen thousand dollars and much grinding of teeth later, we had a second ultralow freezer. One month later this freezer, too, was full to bursting. My undergraduate team became adept at stuffing something in the freezer and slamming the door shut before anything could fall out. Thankfully, no fingers were lost in the process. We were back at square one and I was having nightmares in which, when I arrived at work the mailroom was filled with samples for me to stuff into non-existent freezer space. In order to maintain at least a façade of sanity, I devised a plan to “archive” the samples thus taking up much less space in the freezer. I could grind the frozen bees into pooled samples and store them in smaller tubes – tubes that fit neatly into an easily accessible box. To my absolute astonishment, it worked. I began to see my freezer compartments closing with ease, missing that threatening bulge. There are many, many more samples to archive, but the promise of freezer space drives me forward. Perhaps we will have so much extra space that the whole four years of the Stationary Apiary Project will fit into the two ultralow freezers we have and I will not have to deal with obnoxious freezer sales people ever again! Probably not – but a girl can dream.
Moving over to the field data collection, one of the factors we are analyzing includes the pollen bees bring back to the hive. This seems entirely reasonable, as the pollen is the bees’ protein source. We should know if the pollen our bees are consuming is laden with pesticides or other foul substances. So how hard could pollen collection be? Lots of beekeepers do it. It turns out that pollen is one of the most challenging substances to move from one place to another. Those perfect little pollen balls crumble if you touch them incorrectly, and if the pollen gets even slightly wet you end up with slimy pollen mess over everything. So our beekeeper and technician Jeremy devised a contraption to get the pollen out of the pollen traps and into the sample collection tubes without destroying the pollen’s structural integrity or his patience. Presenting the “water bottle pollen funnel!” By taking an average plastic water bottle, cutting out the bottom, and duct taping it to a wide mouth funnel you have the perfect size opening to pour pollen into a sample tube. Simply take the pollen trap basket, pour the pollen into the funnel on top, and collect the pollen pieces in a sample tube held under the mouth of the water bottle! Of course! The reality of this process was not as simple as it may seem in writing. This mini-protocol took months, three to be exact. Three months of botched pollen sampling and disheartened looks. We got there, though, and no undergraduates were harmed in the process. We were further instructed to collect adult worker bees in sample tubes with 95% ethanol for tracheal mite and Nosema load analysis. Our team has done this many times and so felt that no additional protocol brainstorming was necessary. I have discovered in my short time as a research technician that this feeling of security with a new protocol should not be trusted. I now always assume that a micro protocol is necessary. Because as it turns out, ethanol leaks out of our expensive sample tubes when they are shaken up in the mailing process, thus rendering any “permanent marker” tube labeling useless. So I purchased parafilm, a stretchy plastic-like material, to seal the tubes before I mailed the second batch. Again, I was foiled by the low viscosity of ethanol and my tubes arrived without labels. No more messing around; I purchased fifty-five dollars worth of ethanol-proof, laboratory grade markers. The third round of tubes were labeled, wrapped in parafilm, and put in separate Ziploc Baggies. Our samples arrived intact with clear labels. During our monthly conference call with the other Stationary CAPs participants, I proudly announced that I had found a solution to our labeling problem. There was silence as I explained the details until someone asked, “Why didn’t you just write the information in pencil on a piece of paper and put it inside the tube. Ethanol doesn’t remove pencil.” Lesson: Someone else will always have a better solution than you do. Make sure you ask. Then, as we entered spring and temperatures began to warm, we made our hardest discovery during our first year on this project. One colony, one colony out of thirty brand new colonies, survived the winter. All of that work feeding, watching, and counting was for naught. I was at a beekeeping conference last year when one of the other researchers offered that it is much easier to be a bee researcher than a beekeeper. When our bees die it’s data. When a beekeeper’s bees die its his livelihood. But any beekeeper knows that feeling of approaching a dead hive. You feel it deeply. As you open the lid and peer down into darkness you think, what could I have done differently? The smell of decaying bodies and the weight of a hive box still filled with winter stores serve only to fuel the feeling that you’ve let your girls down. And though my monetary investment may be different from a beekeeper’s, my emotional investment is strong. Primary Investigators tend to see data in dead bees. I see that too. But beyond that I see an area of agricultural research that is sad and tough. I feel very close to the beekeepers with whom I share stories and clasp calloused hands. We are all part of this sense of loss tinged with feelings of failure. When I started this job two years ago I was awestruck by the exciting research surrounding my field. Now I am fueled by an impatient determination.
There are many handprints on the Stationary Apiary CAP. I am proud to be a “worker bee” sorting through the chaos to find answers. And though bureaucracy, miscommunication, and vague protocols frequently frustrate me, I am bolstered by the importance of our goals.
I had the pleasure of meeting many of the principal investigators, technicians, and graduate students working on this CAP at the American Beekeeping Federation national meeting in Orlando, Florida this past January. I felt relief spreading through my veins toward my extremities and back toward my heart during our closed-door session on Wednesday. These researchers are brilliant and invested. I felt the old whispers of my awestruck self as they spoke about our project and its future. We are all in good hands. Here is my Stationary Apiary CAP update. We in the beekeeping community, whether researchers or apiculturalists, have a long road ahead of us. Many of you have been traveling this road for some time. Take comfort in this. Every single member of the Stationary Apiary CAP team from the very top with Keith Delaplane and the other Primary Investigators to the very bottom with Jeremy, myself, and our motley crew are working together to find answers. Our progress will be slower than you or I might prefer, but we will never stop moving forward.
My laboratory will never function as well as a honeybee colony and I don’t expect anyone to sacrifice themselves for the wellbeing of the project. But as worker bees we are loyal. We have your back, and we are not flying away from a fight.