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Bee-ing the best: Passion for bees leads to practical research, help for beekeepers

For everything related to bees, turn to Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch entomologist Zachary Huang.

December 25, 2012

MSU AgBioResearch entomologist Zachary Huang

For everything related to bees, turn to Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch entomologist Zachary Huang. His email address even has the word "bees" in it. However, it was somewhat by accident that Huang became a bee expert.

“When I took the graduate entrance exam, I checked off entomology and bees because I thought it sounded interesting, but I had never tasted honey and knew nothing about beekeeping,” said Huang, an associate professor in the MSU Department of Entomology. He cured those oversights by tasting honey and working for beekeepers in China before embarking on graduate studies at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, where he received a Ph.D. in honeybee behavior and physiology.

His primary research interest at MSU is honeybee biology. He uses computational, behavioral, physiological and biochemical methods to understand the social organization of bee colonies. A quick check of his website showcases his love for bees.

“They are so lovely, and studying bees is fun,” Huang said.

Huang is working on finding ways to control or eliminate varroa mites, devastating pests that are a serious threat to honeybees and agriculture worldwide. Varroa mites invaded the United States from the eastern hemisphere in 1987 and can kill an entire honeybee colony within one to two years, feeding on bee blood and transmitting viruses.

He also has invented a device for varroa mite control. The device is called the MiteZapper and is now commercially available.  

"These mites are a big, big problem for agriculture," Huang said. "Nearly 80 percent of food crops depend on pollination, including nearly all fruits and vegetables.  Only grains do not need bee pollination."

Not surprisingly, even Huang’s hobbies even relate to bees. He is an avid “beetographer,” a word he coined, and his photos have won international awards.

“I couldn’t afford to pay for the film and processing needed for bee photography for a long time, mainly because you get one to two good shots out of a whole roll,” Huang said. “The digital cameras have made a big difference in the kinds of photos you can take.”

His website not only has hundreds of close-up photographs of bees, which can be used by Extension agents and teachers, but contains instructions for others who want to get into beetography.

Huang saw a huge surge in interest in bees and beekeeping about six year ago, when the media started talking about the colony collapse disorder (CCD) and how the beekeeping industry might not survive.  The cause of CCD remains unknown.

“More people want to take up beekeeping as a hobby,” Huang said. “So the problems that bees are having have made people more aware, and that’s good.”

Question-and-answer profile:

Q: What’s your title?
A: Associate professor of entomology

Q: When did you join MSU?
A: Nov. 1, 1998

Q: What’s your hometown?
A: Yintian, Hunan Province, China

Q: Who’s your muse?
A: I learned many things about science and bee biology from Dr. Gard Otis, my Ph.D. adviser at the University of Guelph, and Dr. Gene Robinson, my postdoctoral supervisor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Q: What’s your favorite food?
A: Thai, spicy and exotic

Q: Best song or group?
A: "Fields of Gold" by Sting

Q: A book you’d recommend?
A: "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter

Q: What do you think is the coolest gadget?

Q: What’s the best invention?
A: The Internet 

Q: The worst invention?
A: Computer viruses!

Q: What’s one thing on your bucket list?
A: Hawaii -- I want to see the many different types of flowers that honeybees forage on.

Q: Who’s someone you’d like to meet?
A: Jane Goodall

Q: What was your best vacation or favorite trip?
A: Driving through New Zealand with my wife in 2009.

Q: On a Saturday afternoon, where are you most likely to be found?
A: Working at home on my computer or checking the bees in my backyard. 

Q: What’s a research breakthrough you’d like to see in the next decade?
A: A method for controlling the honeybee mites.

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