OSU hires Texas A&M entomologist to study honeybee health

February 4, 2009
Ramesh Sagili

Oregon State University has hired Ramesh Sagili to study the health of Oregon's honeybees and help the state's beekeepers. The entomologist from Texas A&M University will start his new job on Feb. 27. Photo: Bradley N. Metz.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has hired a honeybee researcher from Texas A&M University as part of an initiative to help ensure that there are enough healthy honeybees to pollinate Oregon's crops.

The appointment of Ramesh Sagili, who will start his new job as an assistant research professor in OSU’s horticulture department on Feb. 27, means that Oregon State now has the first honeybee expert on its faculty since Michael Burgett retired in 2002.

Sagili's position was created at the request of Oregon agricultural groups worried about the health and supply of honeybees, which are crucial pollinators for many of the state's crops, including blueberries, pears, cherries, apples and vegetable seeds.

The funding for his salary comes from a $215,000 appropriation approved last year by the state legislature's Emergency Board. That money will also support a faculty research and extension assistant to aid Sagili in gathering and analyzing data about honeybee health, diseases and pests in Oregon. Their positions are funded for one year, but the university is working to identify additional funding to extend their employment.

Sagili, who earned a doctorate in entomology from Texas A&M, has two main duties: helping the honeybee industry through the OSU Extension Service and conducting research.

Sagili said his first action as Extension's honeybee specialist will be to meet with beekeepers and industry representatives to find out what problems they face. He also plans to provide educational workshops at locations convenient for agricultural producers and to develop a Master Beekeeper program that would provide training to novice and experienced beekeepers. Furthermore, he plans to create a honeybee Web site that will provide the latest information on research, management practices and pest control.

As for research, Sagili said he intends to investigate how honeybee health is affected by Varroa mites, pesticides and stress resulting from the migration of hives. He also plans to compare how locating hives near only one source of pollen (like an apple orchard) versus several different sources affects their physiology, learning behavior and colony growth. Additionally, he aims to design a field test that beekeepers can use to determine if their bees are consuming enough protein.

As part of his research, Sagili plans to investigate the use of brood pheromone, which is secreted by honeybee larvae, to stimulate bees' consumption of protein supplements during the winter so they're strong and healthy when the busy days of spring pollination roll around.

He also plans to explore the use of brood pheromone to decrease infestations of Varroa mites, which are parasites that suppress the immune systems of drone and worker honeybees, thus making them more susceptible to diseases and possible death.

Sagili said Varroa mites, nutritional deficiencies or other factors might be the cause of colony collapse disorder, which occurs when adult honeybees abandon a hive. The phenomenon came to light in 2006 when beekeepers on the East Coast began to see their honeybee colonies dwindle.

"Colony collapse disorder is so complex that it will be a long time before we arrive at a conclusion as to what is causing it,” Sagili said. "But meanwhile, beekeepers need to take steps to maintain healthy and strong colonies."

It's unclear if the disorder has spread to Oregon, said OSU entomologist James Young. Young mailed voluntary surveys to beekeepers last year to find out what diseases and pests were affecting their honeybees. Of the 43 beekeepers who returned surveys, 12 reported losing 2,036 hives to what they thought was colony collapse disorder between January 2006 and March 2008.

Young emphasized, however, that this doesn’t mean that colony collapse disorder exists in Oregon. An apiary inspector would need to visit the hives and verify the beekeepers' self-diagnoses, said Young, who oversees OSU Extension's Honey Bee Diagnostic Service. The service was added to OSU's Insect ID Clinic last year in response to concerns from farmers, apiculturists and the general public about honeybee health. It checks for the presence of non-viral diseases and pests, including American and European foulbrood, chalkbrood, stonebrood and Varroa mites.

Young's survey did confirm that American foulbrood and Varroa mites continue to be what he called "a serious threat" to apiculture in Oregon. Young and Sagili plan to conduct a more comprehensive examination of the health of Oregon's honeybees.

Author: Tiffany Woods
Source: Ramesh Sagili