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The King of queen bees

In February, Lena King saw an open bee hive for the first time, and she was hooked. “There’s just something captivating about the way bees function, the way they move,” said King, S’15, a fourth-year biology major at Northeastern.

King is the lab manager for Best Bees, an urban beekeeping company located in Boston’s South End neighborhood and founded by Northeastern alum Noah Wilson Rich, AS’05. While on co-op, she’s spent her days observing what she calls these “golden and beautiful” organisms.

Each day, King visits a handful of Best Bees’ 324 hives at residential and commercial locations spread around eastern Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. She dons her big, white beekeeping suit and proceeds to remove the wooden frames from the tiered apiaries. Each one contains an intricate honeycomb structure in which the queen bee lays her eggs and the worker bees produce their honey. A few colorful mosaics of different pollens dust the surface here and there.

In a colony of honeybees, the workers make room for a queen as she passes through. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The goal of this exercise is to identify signs of a healthy queen. If King sees recently laid eggs, she knows the queen is somewhere nearby and reasonably happy. Such evidence can suffice even if she doesn’t catch a glimpse of the queen herself. But doing so is a treat of its own sort: “She’s got a distinct shape, and the way the bees move around her is different,” King said. “It’s very subtle, but they just make a little bit of space for her when she comes through, whereas the others are all on top of each other.”

If the queen is missing, that’s bad news for the hive; unless King and her colleagues at Best Bees can successfully introduce a new queen into the hive within a few days, the entire community will collapse.

Bees are one of the most prolific pollinators on the planet, which means they’re extremely important for humans. One-third of our food must be pollinated before we can eat it, and bees play an enormous role in that process. With increasing stressors on bees around the globe, that often overlooked relationship is being threatened, King said.

In 2006, colony collapse disorder—a mysterious phenomenon in which all but a few female members of a hive suddenly abandon it without leaving a trace—was a major global concern. “That problem has since stabilized,” King said, “but the bees are still dying.”

Various things have been blamed—monoculture practices, which limit bees’ pollinating options; Nosema, a fungal infection that seems to be running rampant in bee communities around the country; Varroa mites, which transmit diseases to bees; and use of fungicides and insecticides like neonicotinoids have all been assigned fault.

Lena King, S’14, is the lab manager at Best Bees, an urban beekeeping company founded by Northeastern alum Noah Wilson Rich, AS’05. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

That’s why another big part of what King does at Best Bees is research. She works with resident bee scientist Kristian Demary to examine strategies for helping the honeybees survive. They’re looking at Nosema in detail, as it has cropped up in some of their own hives. They’re also trying to identify the best practices for keeping a hive happy throughout the cold winter, an obvious hurdle for honeybees in the Northeast. In addition, King is working on a review article examining the evidence behind various apatherapies such as using honey to treat seasonal allergies and royal jelly for a slew of human ailments.

King was first introduced to the wonderful world of beekeeping during a demonstration from another Boston-area beekeeper organized by the student group Slow Food NU back in 2013. She completes her co-op at Best Bees this month, but she’s staying on to work there through July. While bees might not be part of her long-term career path, King is incredibly grateful that they’re now a part of her life.

“As long as I have a place for them,” she said, “I would like to keep bees.”