Finding the Hive – Emma Letcher

This summer I was excited to be added as an undergraduate researcher to Smyth Labs. I have always been interested in bringing aspects of social and natural sciences together, and this project was no different. The project was composed of two parts: a series of experiments to analyze the antimicrobial activity of honey, and a series of meetings with urban beekeepers and parks that promote pollination in New York City. 

Part 1: Hitchhikers in Honey

Our primary goal was to assess the antimicrobial activity of various honeys collected in the US. A decent amount of research has been done on honey and its topical application to wounds as well as the enzymatic activity that could make honey an ideal source of antimicrobial activity. The honey samples were diluted in water and incubated to see what microorganisms called the sticky substance home.

The microorganisms that developed were identified as bacteria through a 16S PCR, and some of them had incredible antimicrobial effects against Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis. The honeys that had the most inhibitory impacts against these gram positive bacteria were the Manuka honey from New Zealand, and a honey sample from Tennessee. 

Manuka honey is well known as an antimicrobial substance which is believed to originate from the nectar of a specific plant, Leptospermum scoparium, or simply, the Manuka Plant. What exactly makes this kind of honey such a good antimicrobial resource? Based on our research the bacteria that grew from the honey may provide insights into this. And this finding may even indicate a link between honey samples from across the globe. Of course that is simply a hypothesis of what could emerge from the sequencing that will be conducted on the honey samples of interest. Based on the literature on this subject, I am still expecting that the antimicrobial impacts of bacteria grown from honey is still just one piece to an incredibly complex ecological puzzle. 

This project was important to me for a few reasons. The most obvious was my own discomfort in the lab environment. Although I had taken a class that focused on a lot of the same skills I employed in this project, the lab still felt like a foreign place. It didn’t take long to figure out where things were and the general way things happen in the lab. Although I still feel like a trainee, so to speak, I feel far more equipped with microbiology lab skills than I did two months ago.  The second reason is because I love bees. I keep up with the latest news on colony collapse disorder and am very fearful that one day there will be a world without bees, leaving plants and crops vulnerable. Not only do I also love honey in my tea or on my toast, I believe that conducting research about the importance of bees and honey is essential to bringing attention to the problem and making a change. 


Part 2: Driving Pollination

New York is an enigma in many ways. It’s loud, it’s busy, and at times it can feel like everyone is on their own, fending for themselves. This mantra, so to speak, may be the reason many tourists get the impression that New Yorkers are rude. Anyone who has lived in New York knows this is not true, and after a few years everyone starts to grow the callouses to make it in this crazy city. Despite all the commotion, New Yorkers have a way of finding unique communities to make the city feel a little smaller and less chaotic. A community I have found extremely interesting is that of urban beekeepers. Although this may sound niche there are actually a lot of individuals from different walks of life that contribute to happy and healthy beehives that dot the cityscape. I spoke with a few different individuals to get a sense of the work that goes into locally sourced honey and creating a sustainable home for honeybees. 


Campos Community Garden, E 12th Street (btwn. Ave. C and D)

The Campos Community Garden, like many community gardens in the East Village offers respite from the concrete. The small patch of green sandwiched between a public school and social security office, is packed to the brim with plants. A wide variety of flowers and nearly ripe cherry tomatoes add color to the greenery. The day I went two patrons were chatting about their plants while they watered. In the back of the garden a small circle of benches and chairs was set up where a woman was instructing a few children about the plants in the space. I was there to speak with a man named Dan Rothschild, the owner of a few bee hives in the East Village. Dan and I spoke about his personal involvement with beekeeping as well as its importance within the greater food web. Most people understand that bees are important, but asking them why can lead to confusion. Bees make delicious honey, but they also serve as indispensable pollinators to plants and crops. Without bees, many plants would not be able to reproduce and would inevitably die. Dan also made an interesting point by saying, “Bees can help us understand what is going on in the environment, they’re kind of like canaries in a coal mine”. This was emphasized about 6 years ago when the Western honeybee suffered major die offs around the country. This phenomena was called “colony collapse disorder”, and although there is no definitive cause for it, beekeepers had to look at the environments that hives were in to assess what was contributing to the losses. Dan currently has 5 hives in gardens around the East Village. He tries to make urban beekeeping as accessible as possible and loves hosting workshops about the practice of beekeeping. 

Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn Navy Yard 

I spent about an hour at Brooklyn Grange Farm on the East River waterfront. This urban farm is well hidden and upon arrival I questioned how on earth an urban farm could exist in the industrial maze that is the Brooklyn Navy Yard. An elevator took me 11 stories up and with only two more staircases, I quickly found myself on an expansive roof that was covered with plants and vegetables. I met with the head beekeeper, Geraldine, to talk about what beekeeping at Brooklyn Grange is like. They have 20 hives of their own and manage another 20 around the city for consulting clients. We talked about the success of some of the hives that survived the last winter. This is a win in any urban beekeepers mind as the death of  a honeybee colony could indicate anything from disease, to starvation.

 I commented on the resilience of honeybees and Geraldine was quick to remind me that honeybees, at least the Western honeybee (Apis Melliferia, specifically), is not native to the United States. These bees were domesticated based on their usefulness in agriculture practices. That being said, similar to a domesticated dog, they need our help as much as we need theirs. Geraldine explained the complexities of determining the “health” of a colony and this is primarily based on winter statistics. If a colony does not survive the winter, an “autopsy” is performed on the colony to try to determine what contributed to their downfall. “It can be a lot of things,”Geraldine said, “Varroa Mites are a big concern as is starvation”. Brooklyn Grange offers a beekeeping training program that introduces anyone to sustainable beekeeping practices. The urban farm also hosts workshops focused on honey extraction and honey tasting that have been extremely popular. 

  Although the city offers a sanctuary away from pesticides, the lack of green space creates a concern in many beekeepers minds. According to statistics from 2018 there are 373 (registered) beehives in New York City, a number that is only predicted to increase. This does raise an important question, is there enough pollen for all these bees to forage for? There isn’t a direct answer but one thing Geraldine and I discussed was that you can’t save the bees by simply getting your own hive. Planting flowers to improve pollinator habitat and nutrition can go a long way in contributing to the ecological health of New York City. If you do want to develop a bee garden take into account that you have a wide variety of flowers that bloom in different seasons. Flowers like daisies and marigolds are especially good because they produce  a lot of nectar. You can consult The Honeybee Conservancy (here) for more information. 


Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

Washington Square Park is a hub of New York City. Any day in the summer you can expect to see hundreds if not thousands of people walking under the arch, splashing in the fountain, or laying out on the grassy lawns. The Washington Square Park Conservancy is proud of the parks appeal and particularly of the new work they are doing to increase pollination efforts. I spoke with members of the conservancy a few weeks ago when I was at the park. They emphasized that of course making the park beautiful is a priority, but they believe in making it beautiful for humans, insects, and animals alike. The park’s gardener explained his belief in circular ecology in the park. They have recently switched to using dried leaves as mulch instead of wood chips.


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