Zac Lamas is the 2019 PAm-Costco Scholar. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, studying at the vanEnglesdorp Bee Lab. Zac started his career as a beekeeper and queen producer, and recently switched his focus to honey bee research. PAm recently caught up with Zac to hear more of his story. We are excited to be investing in researchers like Zac, who bring unique experience and insight to the fold of scientists that are supporting honey bee health.
Zac started his beekeeping career with one colony that he bought in 2009 to pollinate a pumpkin patch on his biodynamic farm in Central New Hampshire. After some failures and successes with his colonies, Zac closed the farm and started keeping bees in Upstate NY, Vermont and North Carolina. His work for Beekeeper Michael Palmer, along with keeping his own (up to 400) colonies and successful queen production business have given him an excellent foundation and understanding of beekeeping. Zac’s ability to overcome challenges and become a successful queen breeder and beekeeper helped him get a position as a PhD candidate in Dr. vanEnglesdorp’s lab.
PAm: When you were primarily a beekeeper, what was your experience with the research community? How did you interact with researchers, and how did that affect your business?
Zac: As a beekeeper I actively reached out to some researchers because they were prominent on the internet and I thought they might respond. For example, David Tarpy and Tammy Horn Potter were two people from the South who would reply to an email or a phone call. I knew nothing about beekeeping in the South when I zipped down to North Carolina and then Georgia to keep my own bees, and [those relationships] were instrumental in my success. As a farmer and getting into research, I found that as a beekeeper there seemed to be a demarcation between beekeepers and researchers.
It feels like researchers and beekeepers almost speak two different languages, though sometimes it just depends on the personality of the beekeeper or the researcher. The majority of the researchers I've met have been phenomenal about respecting beekeepers and understanding the work that they do. Many researchers actually have a lot of field knowledge and experience that they can share and take advantage of in their work.
I'm naturally drawn to researchers who were beekeepers first. I was particularly inspired at a Virginia State meeting where Kirsten Traynor was presenting, and said she was a beekeeper first and a researcher second. That was really when I said to myself; “yes, this is the path - you can do this.”
PAm: What prompted you to shift your focus from beekeeping to research?
Zac: I've always been interested in getting involved in policy change and it seems often the farmers and beekeepers don't necessarily have the same influence that a researcher or a policy maker gets to have on a policy change, yet we are the ones affected by it. I thought, if we can affect things on a landscape level, maybe I should position myself to help drive policy change; not just for honey bees but on behalf of all pollinators. That was definitely a driving factor in my decision to enter graduate school. As a student - the pay is not great, you tend to have to room with a bunch of people because rent is high near universities, and you now have a boss and meetings. I left a life where I had no meetings whatsoever, but I was really driven to position myself to be able to influence the industry and be involved in policy change. That was definitely the impetus for switching paths.
PAm: Can you tell me a bit about your research and why it’s important?
Zac: I actually have two separate topics I'm pursuing. I do research on the effects of pesticides on queens as a collaboration, which I'm extremely excited about. I also have an interest in Varroa behavior. For the Varroa behavior I entered UMD at a serendipitous time, just overlapping with Dr. Samuel Ramsey. He likes to think about general parasitism and behavior. One day we were walking down the hall and I made a comment that I think Varroa are much more mobile than we give them credit for inside the hive. I think they have more preferences or respond to cues more than we assume, I told Dr. Ramsey that I think they feed on multiple bees. That observation came from me just not believing that Varroa could be this damaging on my personal colonies with such low Varroa counts. So, I got creative. I paint queens all the time, and I started painting and numbering worker bees in the lab and we quickly saw that Varroa are actively switching from a one bee to another. As we have continued this research, we are finding a lot of other surprising and relevant information about mite behavior.
PAm: If you better understand this behavior, what can we do about it? How does this information help us manage Varroa?
Zac: I think it helps us in two ways. First of all, the more information people have and the more knowledgeable they are, they can make better decisions. Making assumptions about the behavior of Varroa leads to a lot of misinformation. The internet makes this easy to find and we essentially have bad information getting circulated. But if we can post specific, verified information on Varroa, whether it's how they feed, how they damage bees, or their behavior, then people are more apt to make better decisions. So, I think getting better information on Varroa can lead to behavior change and better management decisions.
Secondly, if something has a behavior, then that means there's going to be a threshold for that organism to act on the behavior. And in the case of Varroa it’s responding to cues. If you and I are sitting in a theater, we're going to sit and watch the movie, but if someone yells “fire” we're going to get up and run to the exit. In this example, fire was a cue for us to change our behavior. Since Varroa are switching from bee to bee, we want to know what the driver of that behavior is and what is the threshold for them to act. When we figure out that threshold, that's where I believe we could create Varroa traps within a colony. This has been tried before, with no success, but maybe there is a time of the year or a hive state that would make a trap effective in the right conditions.
PAm: As a beekeeper and a researcher, can you give us insight into how beekeepers can help inform the research community, and have their voices and priorities heard?
Zac: I think one thing that everyone can benefit from, whether you're a beekeeper or a researcher is very good grounded beekeeping experience. When I started working for Michael Palmer, that work helped me to become a very structured and observant beekeeper. I worked hundreds of colonies as a system, and only then was I was able to notice details from one hive to another. That repetition and experience with someone very structured like Mike really launched me ahead. But when I work with other commercial beekeepers who might have several thousand colonies and I can see that they're uncomfortable working across their brood chamber, or if you're working with researchers who are really lab heavy, but aren’t field heavy and have the same discomfort, neither of them are able to ask the questions that they might otherwise be able to ask. I think that's what we really need. If I run a lab, I want to have a great feeder program to create excellent scientists, but also excellent beekeepers, so they can ask the questions they need going forward into the future.
Data vs. the ‘Bottom Line’: I do want to say, everyone talks about how much money they make in almonds and how many hives we're sending out to almonds. But what doesn't get mentioned very often is that someone might send 1500 colonies out to almonds, and yet at the end of the year, they're asking a family member for a business loan because it's gotten so expensive to keep our colonies alive. A beekeeper may be only one or two bad winters away from running out of their nest egg. That's something that researchers don't experience, and I think that does drive a divide between what beekeepers want to see out of research and what scientists have a focus on.
PAm: Do you still keep bees outside of your research colonies?
Zac: I do, but I'm going to cut it down after this year so that I can take advantage of the real value of the PAm-Costco scholarship and focus on developing myself as a researcher. I naturally love rearing queens and I keep all my cell builders in my backyard. I'll graft in my backyard even before heading into school and then I'm just on a schedule to go catch queens or make nucleus colonies. This year we did about 140 or so nucs and twice that many queens. I'll probably still keep 80 colonies going forward, and however many queens I end up doing.
Zac Lamas has participated in honey bee extension work in the US, Canada, Cuba and Mexico. He is a contributing author to a peer-reviewed publication and has written articles for the American Bee Journal, The American Beekeeping Federation and Bee World. Zac presented at the Eurbee 8th Congress of Apidology in Ghent, Belgium, at the 2018 American Beekeeping Federation, Reno, NV and at the 2018 American Bee Research Conference, Reno, NV
The PAm-Costco Scholar Fellowship was awarded to Zac in the amount of $50,000 per year for three years, totaling $150,000 to support his research as he works towards earning his PhD at the University of Maryland.
Article By: Sharah Yaddaw,
Communications Director, Project Apis m.