Buzzing into Research

  • Ronnie Thomas ’11  
  • Thomas uses nail polish to mark honeybees during her research at F&M's Baker Campus.

The scene would have frightened many people, but it put a smile on the face of Ronnie Thomas ’11.

Parking her car at Franklin & Marshall’s Baker Campus last fall, Thomas noticed a few visitors on her windshield—nearly a dozen honeybees. There were several cars in the parking area, but the bees went exclusively to the car driven by Thomas. They knew it was mealtime.

“The bees learned to recognize my car,” Thomas says. “They knew the sugar water was about to come out, so they came straight to my car. I think they’re just the cutest things. You wouldn’t expect it, but they’re very smart.”

Thomas has become quite familiar with the bees during her yearlong independent study with Sarah Dawson, director of F&M’s Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment. Last spring, Thomas proposed the creation of a honeybee apiary at Baker Campus to study honeybees and the causes of their worldwide collapse. The apiary is now thriving, and so is Thomas’ research.

The F&M senior is exploring how bees can be trained to prefer certain plants and avoid others. She gained inspiration for the project when Dennis vanEnglesdorp visited campus as part of F&M’s Environmental Speakers Series last spring. One of America’s leading bee experts, vanEnglesdorp talked about the worldwide collapse of honeybees—the cause of which is still up for debate—and encouraged students to work with local beekeepers to help solve the problem.

That is when Thomas sprung into action, making contacts with beekeepers in Lancaster County, attending workshops and reading as much as she could on the subject. She applied for the Dean of the College’s annual Sustainability Award, and was awarded enough funding to get the project started. She worked closely with Dawson to purchase the bees and establish a colony at F&M.

“Ronnie designed this project from scratch, and she has been an amazing research student,” Dawson says. “She was so intrigued by Dennis vanEngelsdorp’s talk that she wanted to contribute to the existing literature on honeybees. She’s motivated, has great insight and is a joy to work with.”

The project is only the latest adventure in wildlife for Thomas, who majors in biological foundations of behavior: animal behavior. She has worked as a seasonal employee at the Bronx Zoo for several years, and last summer traveled to Namibia for an internship with the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Thomas’ research at Baker Campus began in earnest last fall. Using sugar water, she trained bees to avoid plants that contained herbicides and pesticides. She used non-toxic nail polish to mark the bees to see which ones had been exposed to the training procedure. The research showed that bees could be trained to avoid the harmful agents.

“If pesticides are turning out to be a problem for bees, we’ve shown that they can be trained to avoid them,” she says. “We plan to do additional experiments in the spring.”

However, bee research is not without its dangers. Thomas has been stung on several occasions, even though she wears protective gear. “The bees are pretty chilled out, so as long as you’re calm, you should be OK,” she says. “One time a bee got stuck in my helmet and stung me in the head. But they’re very relaxed for the most part.”

A few stings would not deter the budding researcher from working with bees in the future. “I’d definitely be interested in continuing the research after I graduate, and working with bees again,” she says.

Both Thomas and Dawson hope the honeybee apiary remains a research tool for future F&M students. Students interested in working with the bees should contact Dawson at 358-5870 or sarah.dawson@fandm.edu.

Patrick Thomas, Ronnie’s father and general curator at the Bronx Zoo, will visit campus to deliver a lecture on Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 11:30 a.m. in the Bonchek Lecture Hall in the Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building. The talk is titled, “The Bronx Zoo’s Mission to Conserve Species.”

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