News & Politics

The Hunt for the Perfect Queen Bee: How a Team of Professors Is Trying to Save the World’s Crops

Photograph courtesy of GMU.

Germán Perilla, director of George Mason University’s Honey Bee Initiative, reaches his bare hand into a hive and pulls out a rack of honeycombs swarming with stingers. The bee whisperer, as his colleagues call him, holds an insect at the thorax, explaining its tiny anatomy to a crowd of onlookers zipped tight in full-body jumpsuits—elastic stretched over our boots, thumbs hooked into loops on our sleeves. Perilla wears only a hood.

He founded the Honey Bee Initiative with business professor Lisa Gring-Pemble in 2012. Half of their 50 hives live on campus, including the president’s-house grounds; others are spread across Northern Virginia.

The honeybee has been facing a crisis brought on by parasites and pesticides. From 2015 to 2016, 44 percent of the commercial bee population died—a dire statistic considering that more than two-thirds of food crops rely on bees for pollination.

To save the species, Perilla is on the hunt for “the perfect queen.” He’s mating bees from the most robust hives to create a genetic standout that can birth a hive resistant to pests and disease.

But the Honey Bee Initiative is about more than science. Perilla’s students have traveled to the Amazon to teach beekeeping to women entrepreneurs in poor areas. Others studying anthropology, education, public policy, and even art have done projects. This year, engineering students took part in a campus hackathon, building a custom “smart hive” to better monitor the bees.

Hunting for the queen back at the campus apiary, Perilla pulls out another hive rack, still barehanded. “We’re about to see something very special right now,” he says, pointing to a tiny newborn bee emerging from its larval stage. The insect gives its wings an inaugural flutter, then soon disappears into the surrounding swarm. Perilla shrugs off a sting on his thumb before finding the queen.

“Bees are the genesis of life,” he says.

This article appears in the July 2017 issue of Washingtonian. 

Staff Writer

Michael J. Gaynor has written about fake Navy SEALs, a town without cell phones, his Russian spy landlord, and many more weird and fascinating stories for the Washingtonian. He lives in DC, where his landlord is no longer a Russian spy.