The science of saving honeybees
Associate Professor of Chemistry Bill Collins, this year’s Featured Scholar, researches the health of honeybees, which are under threat worldwide.
What holds a beehive together is not the perfect hexagons or sticky globs of honey. It’s not even the queen or her workers abuzz with purpose, though let’s give them some credit. The glue that holds everything together for honeybees is propolis, a quite literal bee glue.
Associate Professor of Chemistry Bill Collins researches the chemical makeup of propolis and the ways its natural elements help honeybees survive, which has become increasingly difficult for them to do.
“We like to think we are the only species that medicate ourselves, but honeybees self-medicate by finding plants and various chemicals in plants, called propolis, and coat their hive in it, which protects their colonies,” Collins says.
Honeybees, some of the world’s most important pollinators, have been suffering die-offs and colony collapses in increasing numbers as a result of myriad issues—decreasing crop diversity, parasitic infestation, and decreasing genetic diversity. This has led scientists, like Collins and his students, to look to propolis for answers to this global problem.
In the on-campus research apiary—managed bee colonies—and in chemistry labs, Collins and his students test various plant molecules for positive effects against bee pathogens. By discovering which chemicals can stop the pathogens, this team of researchers at FLC may find a way to help save the honeybee.
"One of the great things about working in this field is there are a lot of people who are passionate about protecting pollinators. And the students here at FLC are passionate about wanting to tackle a real-world problem and maybe even change the world."
“One of the great things about working in this field is there are a lot of people who are passionate about protecting pollinators,” Collins says. “And the students here at FLC are passionate about wanting to tackle a real-world problem and maybe even change the world.”
For his world-changing research and student mentorship, Collins is recognized as this year’s Featured Scholar. Since he began at FLC in 2013, he has mentored more than 40 students, been awarded nearly $1 million in research grants, and authored or coauthored eight peer-reviewed articles, five of which he wrote with his students.
“One of the most pivotal moments in my life was when I was an undergrad, at a small school like FLC, and after Organic Chemistry, the professor pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to perform research,” Collins reflected. “I never thought I would pursue something like that for a career, but it changed my direction. I knew I wanted to provide that same experience and engage my students in that way.”
Collins is providing not only Chemistry students research opportunities, but those interested in Ecology, Biology, Environmental Studies, and Microbiology. Collins’ projects also span the interests of his colleagues, who are as excited about research and student mentorship as he is.
“It’s pretty wonderful to work here with so many people who are passionate about doing a good job and engaging students,” Collins says. “Getting the Featured Scholar award is an honor and I feel it particularly because there are so many people here who work so tirelessly to get grants, recruit and train students, publish, and bring people to conferences. There really are so many high-quality scholars on this campus and I’m honored to be recognized in this way.”