In fall 2014, a black bear cub graced our campus. It materialized out of nowhere like a swath of New London mist before loping across the Quad and up a tree. We peered at it from our classrooms in Colgate Hall and took blurry iPhone photos.
It felt like a glitch. What was a bear doing on a college campus? Should we be afraid; should we laugh? Was Mama nearby? Nature met our gaze through a pair of frightened brown eyes.
If it ever comes back looking for honey, it might be in luck.
Evelyn Miller ’18, a biology major from Smithfield, R.I., was one of six Colby-Sawyer students who were part of an initiative to bring honeybees and bumblebees to campus this summer. It’s a sweet deal — research assistantships are hard to come by, and the chance to be part of an NH-INBRE project is especially valuable.
NH-INBRE, or New Hampshire IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, is a program formed in 2010 when the National Institutes of Health awarded a five-year, $15 million grant to 10 colleges in the state to create a biomedical research network. It is led by the state’s two research institutions, Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire, in collaboration with eight undergraduate institutions, including Colby-Sawyer.
This summer, under the guidance of Assistant Professors of Natural Sciences Jamie Jukosky and Joshua Steffen, students spent five weeks on campus simultaneously completing a 400-level biology course and a paid research assistantship. To begin, they caught bumblebees in Mason jars and hammered together a hive behind the library. The later weeks were filled with lab-based DNA analysis to sequence pollen gathered from the bees.
The DNA process is complex. Some skills, like pipetting, were new for Miller. She also applied skills she had learned in the classroom. “The process of DNA sequencing,” she said, “I learned in my genetics class.” Research assistantships are opportunities for students to see their coursework alive and buzzing in the real world.
The best is yet to come. According to Miller, “the project is still in its infant stages,” and students have a swarm of ideas to apply to future research. Which local bee communities are more active pollinators? Which flowers do they pollinate during different hours of the day? What about months of the year? Research will continue if all goes as planned, and Miller may study bees for her Capstone.
Miller also highlighted the environmental importance of bees. Dwindling bee populations worldwide is an environmental catastrophe, but student efforts on campus could make a difference one bee at a time. “We’re trying to rear our own colonies and release them to increase their populations,” she said. More bees mean more active pollinators in the New London area. There were no bear sightings this summer, although an electric fence surrounds the hive as a cautionary measure. If the neighborhood cub (or its relatives) ever visits again, maybe it won’t create a scene on the Quad. Maybe it will just grab some honey before lumbering back off into the woods.