As the honeybee goes, so goes much of our food, and the honeybee is not doing well at all—in fact, it’s dying off at alarming rates. Noted bee researcher Noah Wilson-Rich, AS’05, may just be its savior.

For more than seven years, honeybee research has been a consuming passion for Wilson-Rich, an urban beekeeper, entrepreneur, teacher, and TED speaker whose quest to make a healthier honeybee has suddenly become a matter of worldwide significance.

Imagine life without the honeybee—the heavy lifter of the pollinating world. No honey. Almonds, lemons, limes, blueberries, broccoli, avocados, and cucumbers would become scarce, even nonexistent. The honeybee is responsible for fertilizing more than one-third of the food that we consider vital to a healthy life, in addition to the feed crops that put meat, milk, and eggs on our plates.

Noah Wilson-Rich harvests honey and beeswax. (Photos by Doug Levy)

Noah Wilson-Rich harvests honey and beeswax. (Photos by Doug Levy)

But since 2006, honeybees have been disappearing from hives in what researchers call “colony collapse disorder.” There are no dead bees in the hives; they’re just gone. During the winter of 2012–2013, approximately one-third of the colonies in the United States disappeared.

It’s not just CCD that’s devastating hives, either. When researchers do find dead bees in hives, they can’t agree on the cause. Is it pesticides, fungicides, habitat destruction, disease, the dreaded varroa mite, or some toxic mixture of them all?

But this isn’t the question Wilson-Rich has set out to answer. Unlike many scientists in the field who are searching for a cause, he’s trying to adapt the bee to this harsh new world.

“Regardless of what’s killing them, how do we save them? How do we make them healthier?” he asks.

Today, he’s in high demand for his expertise on bee health and for the vaccines he’s developing to protect bees against a cruel environment—in essence, finding ways to build a better bee.

A Company is Born //

In 2010, Wilson-Rich founded The Best Bees Co., an ingenious combination of entrepreneurship and scientific inquiry. After finishing his doctorate in 2011 at Tufts University and realizing that federal grants and private investment would be hard to come by in his esoteric field, he took a novel approach to financing his research—he became his own venture capitalist.

Wilson-Rich sells and manages about 200 privately owned hives, pumping the profits into research to improve honeybee health. From his Urban Beekeeping Laboratory & Bee Sanctuary inside Best Bees in Boston, he’s been advancing his research into how bees resist disease and formulating a vaccine to fight Nosema, a highly contagious fungal infection. The theory that Nosema is responsible for colony collapse disorder is gaining momentum in the scientific community.  

The vaccine has passed laboratory testing; Wilson-Rich and his Northeastern co-op student Kelly Allin, S’14, started field testing last fall on four of his research apiaries—one in Boston, one in a suburb, and two on Cape Cod. He’s also partnered with Rick Reault, president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association, to study his collection of hundreds of hives.

“My research focuses on what makes bees healthier through vaccines and probiotics [beneficial bacteria],” he says. “We bring bees to an area where they are thriving and find ways to make them healthier before they get sick.”

His approach includes an innovative vaccination technique, Allin explains.

The Best Bees team checks the health of rooftop hives. (Photos by Porter Gifford)

The Best Bees team checks the health of rooftop hives. (Photos by Porter Gifford)

“We make edible pollen patties, starting with an all-natural powdered pollen, which we mix with sugar and water,” says Allin. “Then we make ones that have the pollen, sugar, water, and probiotics, and other ones that substitute an antifungal vaccine for the probiotics, and place them in the hives.”

At one-month intervals during the course of a year, the team measures survival rates, production of honey and stored pollen, and how many eggs the queen is laying. They also test for Nosema levels and other diseases, and for hive beetles and varroa mites, two dangerous pests that prey on honeybees.

All field data is input into company iPhones loaded with “Bzzz,” a custom piece of software written by Best Bees chief operating officer Sean Cahill. The data-management tool has allowed Wilson-Rich to track stats for four years on overall bee-health trends and the status of specific hives.  

Even though Nosema is now being touted as a main culprit in bee deaths, many researchers still point the finger at pesticides, in particular, a class called neonicotinoids, which interfere with bees’ immune systems, leaving them susceptible to disease.

“Yes, neonicotinoids are found in hives, but so is everything else—pesticides, chemicals, viruses, and mites,” says Wilson-Rich. “The bees go out and bring everything back to the hive, which is leading to more Nosema fungal infections.”  

Wilson-Rich believes big U.S. corporations will successfully block a growing public demand to ban neonicotinoids. But with his expertise in making a healthier, more resistant bee and the development of the anti-Nosema vaccine, he’s confident he can help prevent the infections that are wreaking havoc in hives.

A Happy Accident //

Like so many people who stumble upon their true calling, Wilson-Rich’s unusual career path began with an offhand conversation—in his case, while on a co-op at Boston Children’s Hospital.

He had entered Northeastern on a pre-med track, not because of any particular passion for medicine, but because it’s what his parents expected. He tried to make it work, completing two co-ops at Children’s, one in a nursing clinic and one in the gastroenterology division. But becoming a physician just didn’t feel right.

One day, while he was doing clinical research in the gastroenterology department, he struck up a casual conversation with one of the doctors.

“At the end of an exhausting day, I remember talking to one doctor, who said, ‘I wish I had become a naturalist and had a job where I could work outside, in nature.’”

That wistful comment began to shift Wilson-Rich’s career trajectory away from medicine. It took the influence of a Northeastern faculty member to complete the transformation. But it wasn’t a complete U-turn. In essence, he merely substituted the study—and health— of one social animal, humans, for another, honeybees.

The Mentor //

He first heard of sociobiology—the branch of biology that studies the social organization of animals in the context of their evolutionary history—when he enrolled in a class at Northeastern taught by associate professor of marine and environmental sciences Rebeca Rosengaus. It was there that he became fascinated with how social animals resist diseases, and the last, lingering thoughts of a medical career vanished from his mind.

Rosengaus recalls telling Wilson-Rich, “‘You can be a doctor of insects.’ I guess that stuck.”

She invited him to work in her termite lab, where they studied the effects of microscopic worms on termite behavior. As an undergraduate, he co-authored and published a paper with Rosengaus in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology. He had caught the research bug.

Rosengaus encouraged Wilson-Rich to enter the doctoral program at Tufts. There, he came across an overlooked 2004 USDA research paper validating the use of probiotics to strengthen the immune systems of bees.

“Why was no one doing anything with those results?” he asked himself. Not only did that paper spur his own research, it also underscored his belief in open access to research data—a concept that’s abhorrent to some researchers who want to keep their data proprietary.

City vs. Country //

Wilson-Rich’s research has also revealed an unusual fact: Urban bees are healthier than rural bees (see sidebar, “City Bee, Country Bee”). Urban beekeeping has become a hot trend among do-it-yourselfers and professional businesses, and Best Bees is reaping the benefits—and channeling them right back to the bees by funding the research.

The company charges less than $1,000 per hive, which covers delivery and installation in the spring and monthly checks to prevent swarming and disease. Clients own the bees and the byproducts and can have Best Bees harvest the honey and beeswax, or they can opt for instruction on how to do it themselves.

The company has already been instrumental in transforming some prominent Boston rooftops into lush urban gardens. The Fairmont Copley Plaza, the Fairmont Battery Wharf, the Taj Boston, and the Four Seasons have all hired Best Bees.

Wilson-Rich has also harnessed the power of technology to promote his research. In addition to his TED Talk, lectures, podcasts, and blogs, stories about Best Bees have made it into the online media, including Yahoo Finance, Bloomberg Businessweek, Earthtimes.org, and Science.

And he has written a book, The Bee: A Natural History, to be published this year by Princeton University Press (U.S.) and Ivy Press Ltd. (U.K.), with Northeastern co-op student Allin as co-author.

That he could fill a book with his knowledge and research is hardly surprising. In interviews, he’s a passionate, funny, and erudite talker, barely taking a breath before moving on to another idea. The latest reflects his belief in open access to information: Wilson-Rich wants to share his expertise by founding the first-ever global honeybee laboratory.

“Beekeepers from around the world would send us a sample of their bees, and we’d run them through a complete series of tests for viruses, bacteria, and fungal diseases. We’d send a report back detailing the condition of their hives and recommend a treatment,” he says.

He has, after all, become a doctor to the insects.

Joan Lynch is managing editor.