The fight to find out what’s causing the global decline of honeybees requires dedicated students of science and an all-hands-on-deck mentality. Sarah McTish, an entomology student at Penn State, has been such a fighter since she was eight after attending the Penn State Great Insect Fair. “Up to that point I’d loved insects,” she said. “But I didn’t know you could study them for a living.” She even began keeping her own hives in high school, sparking her interest in honeybee pathology. With a major in agricultural science and minors in entomology and plant pathology, McTish has taken her lifelong passion and made a plan to learn as much as she can about honeybees theoretically and practically.
In addition to her coursework, McTish wanted real hands-on experience as an entomologist, which is how she began conducting research as a mere undergrad with members of the Penn State Entomology Department—including Christina Grozinger, a top expert in pollinators. With one of Grozinger’s grad students, McTish is working to develop methods to help beekeepers breed heartier and more productive stocks of honeybees, which is difficult because female queens and male drones mate in swarms—the cues for which are unknown and therefore not yet possible to control.
As part of her goal to unite application and theory, McTish is working to identify which pheromones trigger mating swarms, therefore helping beekeepers avoid the costly, time-consuming process of instrumental insemination to continue their honey-growing endeavors. “The grad student I’m working with placed pheromone lures at the top of a pole and took videos of the drones being attracted to the lures…Now I’m watching videos to determine which pheromones are most attractive to the drones.” This is one of many projects McTish has used to further her education: “When I do these projects, I’m applying what I learn in the classroom, seeing why I learned about it and how everything works.”
One of the many benefits McTish has seen for her growing knowledge is working with grad students, saying she “learn[s] a lot from them” and gets to “ask questions about what [they’re] doing and learn more outside the classroom.” In addition to learning on the job in the lab, McTish has the benefit of independent study credits, which allow students to apply their research experiences to their transcript and help balance their traditional coursework. Such a track allows McTish a better chance of retaining what she’s learned, making her a greater asset for honeybees later on.
Serving her role as the 2016 “Pennsylvania Honey Queen,” McTish will be promoting her home state’s beekeeping industry for the next year, travelling and talking to groups about the importance of beekeeping and the crucial role honeybees themselves play. This not only increases her own aptitude for honeybee advocacy, but also spreads awareness to others who may not know there’s a decline in honeybees at all. “Honeybees are very important for our food supply and for pollination. Without them, we would lose a lot of our fruits and vegetables.” One third of them to be exact, as the USDA reports.