New U.C. Davis Extension Apiarist
by M.E.A. McNeil
The quest started years ago, when Eric Mussen began to contemplate retiring from his job as the only fulltime extension apiarist west of the Rocky Mountains.
But it was not a job search; it was a struggle to keep the job itself. The breadth and importance of Mussen’s work was widely appreciated; the danger of his position disappearing was just as widely dreaded. Everywhere in the country extension programs were being gutted, if not snuffed. The decision makers at U.C. Davis were faced with making heavy budget cuts, and extension was on the chopping block.
California is the state with the largest beekeeping industry, where more than 50 varieties of orchard and field crops as well as seed crops are being pollinated, where most of the Mainland queens are bred, where large numbers of the nation’s migratory hives come for almond pollination, and where commercial beekeepers are outnumbered by backyard beekeepers. California once had an expanded apiary program that included bee inspectors: Mussen was the last full-time person directly serving beekeepers, a “one man show”, as bee broker Joe Traynor respectfully described him.
A typical month for Mussen could include a university lecture, media interviews, science editing, technical assistance to commercial beekeepers, participation in studies, review of scientific literature for a bimonthly newsletter, talks to beekeeping groups from local to regional, evaluations and recommendations for pesticide labeling, and fielding calls from the public – like the man covered in bees who turned out to be on a bad meth trip. The State could use a platoon to do his job. Yet with Mussen going, it looked like his appointment would go too.
“If it made sense to have an extension specialist in bees, this would be the place,” Mussen said, when he was faced with the potential demise of his job. “Our state produces half of the queens and bulk bees sold to the rest of the beekeepers in the U.S. Practically all the commercial bees on wheels have to be out here for almonds. I can write all that down, but it doesn’t matter.”
As he approached the end of his career, it helped that Mussen was landing on his feet, after 38 years of negotiating wildly diverse interests. A flood of letters arrived at Davis in support of preserving his role from every enterprise that had been touched by his work – from those managing vast apiaries, breeding queens, doing research or keeping a couple of hives in a backyard.
What helped preserve the position in the end was that response, its volume and its diversity. And it is that diversity, so often at odds with itself with passionate discourtesy, which makes the job so difficult. It attracted a wide pool of well-qualified applicants. At first glance, some stakeholders blinked when the choice for that tough gig turned out to be an amiable young woman just finished with her post-doc work and expecting her first child. But the typically undemonstrative Eric Mussen could not have been more delighted with the choice of Elina Lastro Niño.
Niño’s credentials are what matter. “Elina is a very accomplished scientist,” said Mussen, who is guiding her smooth and informed transition into his role in the Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Smiles could well have rippled through the labs of female entomologists nearing the end of their careers; they have lived through a seismic shift in the attitudes that once permeated their field. The Cornell bee program, in their memories, did not admit women, and their own positions were hard to come by. Diana Sammataro, recently retired from the USDA, once remarked, “What did they think, that we couldn’t lift a bug?”
That, it seems, is history. Niño’s credentials are what matter. “Elina is a very accomplished scientist,” said Mussen, who is guiding her smooth and informed transition into his role in the Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.1
The two turn out to share an uncanny similarity of character: It is not easy to put a finger on it, but each has what could best be described as an implacable core. Mussen, who gets along with about everyone, came by the skill as a child, when his father and brother talked politics. “We had ultra-right versus ultra-left at the dinner table. I couldn’t side with either of them – I respect people’s opinions. I’m not telling anybody they are right or wrong. I am happy to talk about consequences of decisions they make.”
If a verbal fracas was enough to forage Mussen’s central anchor, consider that Niño grew up in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a small nation where conflict raged with gun battles in the streets, sabotage, and retribution against sympathizers of rivals. The area, between Croatia and Serbia, has been disputed since the 14th century: In the 1992-95 conflict, over 100,000 died and 1.8 million were displaced. Among the displaced was Niño’s family. For their safety, they retreated to their vacation cottage in the country where they had to grow their own food and insulate the house against cold. When Niño was 17, she moved to New York to live with her aunt and uncle. Her parents still live in Bosnia.
Her path to apiary science was guided by mentors that she chose by taking exploratory positions. At Cornell, she initially wanted to become a vet and got a BS in Animal Science. Work with two veterinarians changed her mind because she found the days repetitive. “I like a variety of things to work on,” she said.
In looking for a more challenging goal, she said “It sounds a little silly, but at the time I was watching forensic shows on television, CSI type stuff, and I said hey, I want to be a forensic scientist.” Her advisor at Cornell suggested the emerging science of forensic entomology. “I thought, “What does entomology have to do with forensics?” A lifetime of investigation, she soon learned.
As an undergraduate, she worked in the lab of veterinary entomologist Phil Kaufman. “That was pretty much it, I was hooked! You get to study bugs, and it’s actually applied, and it’s useful for agriculture.” She worked on studies in poultry houses, pig farms, and dairy farms on darkling beetles, mosquito collection, and flies.
“Both times before I started a graduate degree, my Masters and my PhD, I worked with the [professor] for some time before starting the program. I think that is a good thing for students to do,” she said. She was directed to the graduate program of Wes Watson in veterinary entomology at North Carolina State University, where she worked in his lab and did applied research for her Master’s degree: She examined the effects of an insect growth regulator on dung beetles, which are useful in recycling the nutrients from manure back into the soil.
“It was a great experience,” she said. It stimulated her curiosity; but to dig deeper, she realized that she would have to go beyond applied research to underlying basic research – down to the molecular level. Once again, she chose a mentor – Christina Grozinger who was at NCSU at the time. Grozinger was working on the genomics of chemical communication in honey bees as well as collaborating with David Tarpy on understanding honey bee queen post-mating changes. “I was hooked once again,” she said. “I thought, ‘Bees are awesome, this is what I want to be doing’.”
When Grozinger went to Penn State University, Niño followed her mentor to finish her doctoral work. “It was the spring of 2007, right after the whole CCD thing was identified. It was the beginning of a great honey bee hub”.
Niño’s doctoral research can prove important in her work at Davis. She studied queen bees, which she described as “egg-laying, pheromone-producing machines” whose pheromones regulate the social organization of the hive. Although it was known that social context in the colony regulates social behavior, little work had been done on the genes involved.
In her research, she examined a chain of events: post-mating changes in queens, their effects on worker behavior and physiology, and how they alter colony social organization which can, in turn, influence colony productivity and survival.
It’s a relevant pursuit. As late as 1996, Mussen reported in his newsletter, “From The UC Apiaries” that requeening every two to three years was adequate. But by 1998, he reported a 30% annual turnover in queens, and he continued to follow a downward trend, with yearly requeening for some beginning to seem like the good old days.
“Knowledge of the fine details of reproductive processes can be harnessed to improve queen quality to extend their longevity and productivity and therefore the productivity of the entire colony,” wrote Niño in the September/October UC newsletter.2 At Penn State she had begun to assemble clues to how that might come about. She studied changes in mated queens on different levels as they reached ovary activation – behavioral, physiological, and molecular — in order to understand the interrelationships of flight behavior, pheromone changes and gene expression. She examined various possible influences on these post-mating changes: oviduct manipulation that mimics natural mating, volume of semen, and insemination substances as well as instrumental insemination anesthesia with carbon dioxide (CO2).
The results helped define some pieces of the puzzle. At the gene level, oviduct manipulation triggered greater changes in brain gene expression, while insemination substance and volume produced differences in the gene expression of the fat body, a place where egg-yolk proteins and proteins involved in immunity are synthesized. With instrumental insemination, CO2 caused queens to stop attempting mating flights and prompted egg production.
Niño and her colleagues also studied queen mandibular gland pheromone, which mediates reproductive dominance of queens – its absence prompting the activation of worker ovaries. They found that physical manipulation, insemination substance and volume have long lasting effects on queen mandibular pheromone profiles. They used microarrays to examine genome-wide expression patterns in the queen mandibular glands of virgin and mated queens, as well as queenright and queenless workers with or without activated ovaries. They found approximately 2554 transcripts differentially expressed among these groups, and determined that caste and social context were the main regulators of gene expression patterns, which, in turn, shape social environment. Workers were found to be sensitive enough to these differences to form a greater retinue around slides smeared with mandibular gland pheromone in paired samples: semen vs saline and high vs low volume insemination.
They also found that instrumental insemination triggers changes in Dufour’s gland, presumably signaling a queen’s mating status. In addition, they uncovered genes that help explain disparate biosynthetic pathways for queens and workers as well as other genes that suggest that the queen mandibular gland has broader functions than pheromone biosynthesis.
Niño investigated another aspect of queen fecundity as a USDA-NIFA-AFRI post-doctoral fellow at Penn State. She used evolutionary and functional genomics to conduct further investigations into which specific seminal fluid components are involved in regulating which specific changes in mated queens.
She credits Grozinger for actively supporting her research. For example, she sent Niño to a conference in Israel to confer with international researchers – particularly to understand how to model her honey bee work on what had been developed in Drosophila (fruit flies). Understanding the seminal fluid in fruit flies makes it possible to silence genes so that pests cannot reproduce, but Niño had another purpose.
“With honey bees, I’m hoping to use what I learned about seminal fluid proteins to improve queen quality,” she said. “This is a project in its toddlerhood now, I wouldn’t call it infancy anymore. I worked with Christina [Grozinger] and David Tarpy on first characterizing the post-mating changes in queens, starting to parse out specific seminal proteins that might be driving these changes: Changes in pheromone production, changes in gene expression, behavioral changes.” Those changes in queens include the cessation of mating flights, initiation of egg laying and the transformation from sexually receptive to non-receptive. “My goal is to start narrowing down potential candidates in the seminal fluid that are driving which behaviors.” For now, she sees the possibility of using this knowledge to enhance instrumental insemination. “Down the road I can see it working with naturally mated queens as well.”
“What I’ve learned from my research is that what we have learned about pheromones is not the whole story.” She cited the examples of the queen mandibular pheromone and queen retinue pheromone, thought to contain five and nine components respectively. “But when I looked at the pheromones, I found not only five or nine; there were not a limited number of components – a lot more than what we are using.” She mentioned one use by beekeepers: queen-presence pheromones used to temporarily stabilize a hive if, for example, it is queenless, making it easier to introduce a new queen. And, she conjectures, there may be other applications for enhancing pollination.
“What difference does it make if you know which proteins are driving which behaviors?” Niño asks. “It’s always good to know what you’re working with, you want to know what’s happening. For example, when we figure out what is going on – it could be any component – we can maybe add it to the insemination process which might boost queen fecundity. This is why basic science is really important. We still really don’t know. Fecundity is related to longevity: a queen would not necessarily produce more eggs, but produce eggs for a longer period of time. It’s not a heritable trait, so it would not affect her daughters; she would just have more daughters. So if, for example, you are doing a breeding program, and you have a queen with qualities that you want, she could produce more daughters.
Grozinger summed up Niño’s findings: “She showed that queens signal their mating status and mating quality to worker bees through their pheromones, and workers preferentially respond to well-mated queens.”
For her work at Davis, Niño said, “There are a lot of potential venues for connecting basic research and applied research. A lot of the work that I have been doing so far with queens was basic – genomics, gene aggression, pheromone production – and a lot of more applied studies. You really need basic research to drive live research. It goes hand in hand.”
Niño arrives trailing laurels. Among many: Several prizes for distinguished conference posters including the ESA President’s Prize; Outstanding MS Student of the Year from the North Carolina Entomological Society; numerous scholarships and fellowships including those from the Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees and Center for Pollinator Research and the prestigious USDA-NIFA postdoctoral fellowship; many travel awards including those from the Entomological Foundation and the Women in Science and Engineering Institute; and recognitions of excellence such as the Comstock Graduate Student Award from the Entomological Society of America, The Student Recognition Award in Insect Physiology, Biochemistry, Toxicology, and Molecular Biology from The International Congress on Insect Neurochemistry and Neurophysiology.
Niño comes to the Davis program with her husband, Bernardo Niño, whom she met in the entomology graduate program at North Carolina State. He worked with social insects, both on wasps as an undergrad and termites for his Master’s degree, and focused on honey bees for the last five years in the apiary at Penn State. He has taken on a mix of duties: among them managing the Harry H. Laidlaw Honey Bee Research Facility and teaching extension classes. He shares the title Staff Research Associate with Billy Synk, who also manages and does outreach. Doctoral student Cameron Jasper has joined the team as well, and a student from the Netherlands is scheduled to come for research.3
Another of Niño’s post-doc projects is germane to her work planned at Davis. Her goal, “to aid breeding efforts necessary for developing disease resistant and hardy bee stock,” will be pursued in multiple ways. In addition to her queen fecundity research, she will continue to study molecular mechanisms that underlie responses to specific honey bee pathogens in order to help inform beekeeping practices. Thus far, she has examined the effects of Israeli Acute Bee Paralysis Virus, Deformed Wing Virus and Nosema.
Toward the same goal, she plans to work toward the understanding of synergistic effects of pesticides on honey bee health and to collaborate on research evaluating alternative Varroa mite control. For policy issues, “It would be very important to be involved in conversations to drive regulations that can make or break the honey bee.”
At PSU, she conducted a survey to assess the needs of local bee breeding programs and subsequently developed a queen rearing workshop, which she held successfully for four years and will offer at Davis. 4 She participated in a cooperative program with Pennsylvania beekeepers to evaluate bee stocks with the aim of selecting bees better acclimated to their conditions; she hopes to be in conversations about such efforts in California. “I think it’s possible. Micro environments may govern success, but you have to stick with it. It’s very complicated. Your genetics can be diluted. This process has to be done over and over. The limiting factors are time and money.”
Niño’s many goals are also limited by time and money, a fact that has not escaped her. She plans to multiply her efforts, in effect to extend extension throughout the State through a Master Beekeeper Program. It would certify trained, knowledgeable beekeepers who could become mentors and sources of reliable information.
One unforeseen asset to Niño’s arrival is the interest Christina Grozinger has shown in creating a consortium with Penn State, Davis, and the University of Illinois. She has written a white paper to propose it and is moving forward with plans. Niño sees it as a way to strengthen all three programs by sharing research and creating a platform to drive governmental policy changes on pollinator health.
“We have been in a rebuilding mode for the past few years,” said Michael Parrella, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Nematology at Davis. Niño will join several colleagues who work with bees: Neal Williams, who specializes in pollination ecology and bee biology; Brian Johnson, who works in genetics, behavior, evolution, and health of honey bees and Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology who studies bumble bee behavior and systematics. Mussen will keep his office and continue in an emeritus role.
Niño is learning on the job. “There’s a lot that grad school doesn’t prepare you for,” she said. “I don’t think they prepare you enough for being a manager.” But Mussen has proven to be a valuable mentor, and she is making her way – already planning, speaking, organizing a 70/30 extension/research schedule.
She is reaching out to stakeholders for their concerns and ideas as she formulates plans to address their needs. “I think that a lot of the issues that are affecting the commercial and small scale beekeepers are very similar. We want to work together with the beekeepers across the State of California.”
“I know, I know, I have some big shoes to fill, but I’m thinking I have the next 38 years to do so. So we’re getting started.”
M.E.A. McNeil is a journalist, organic farmer and Master Beekeeper. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1For a list of Niño’s research papers see: http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/Faculty/Elina_L_Ni%C3%B1o/
2“From the U.C. Davis Apiaries” see: http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/Faculty/Eric_C_Mussen/Apiculture_Newsletter/
3The Niño Lab website is: http://elninobeelab.ucdavis.edu/
The Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/elninolab
4A workshop schedule will be posted on the Lab website: http://elninobeelab.ucdavis.edu/