Research affords undergraduate student closer look at honey bees

April 21, 2016

Since the time she was 8 years old—after attending the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Great Insect Fair—Sarah McTish knew she wanted to study entomology at Penn State. 

“Up to that point I’d loved insects, but I didn’t know that you could study them for a living,” she said. 

An Agricultural Science major, McTish is also pursuing minors in Entomology and Plant Pathology. On top of her extensive coursework, she also wanted to get real-world experience as an entomologist. That’s how she ended up conducting research with members of the Department of Entomology. 

Beginning last fall, McTish began working with Christina Grozinger, professor of entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research. Grozinger is one of Penn State’s top experts in pollinators and honey bees. 

“When I do these projects, I’m applying what I learn in the classroom, seeing why I learned about it and how everything works.” 

Together with one of Grozinger’s graduate students, McTish is working to develop methods that can help beekeepers breed heartier and more productive stocks of honey bees. However, because female queens and male drones mate high up in the air in swarms, and the cues that trigger the formation of these swarms is unknown, it is impossible to control which queen mates with which drone.

Instead, beekeepers have had to rely on instrumental insemination to selectively breed stocks—a costly and time-consuming technique. McTish’s work aims to identify natural bee pheromones to help control the timing and location of the mating swarms.  

“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,” she said. “Now I’m watching videos to determine which pheromones are most attractive to the drones.” 

Before joining Grozinger’s lab, McTish also served as a research assistant in Associate Professor of Entomology John Tooker’s lab, where she studied the effects of pesticide run-off on aquatic insects.  

Incorporating research projects into her undergraduate experience has helped enhance her education, she says, through connecting theory and application. 

“When I do these projects, I’m applying what I learn in the classroom, seeing why I learned about it and how everything works.” 

Working with graduate students is another benefit: “I learn a lot from them,” she said. “I get to ask questions about what we’re doing and learn more outside the classroom.” 

Independent studies credits allow students to apply their research experiences to their transcript and help balance that with their traditional coursework. 

“At the end of every semester that I do an independent study, I write a paper about what I did and what I learned, and how I plan to use that in the future,” said McTish.

McTish’s interest in bees began as a high school student, when she began keeping her own hives of honey bees. Today, she keeps two hives at a nearby family farm, visiting frequently to ensure bee health and treating for mites or disease when necessary. 

She also serves as the 2016 Pennsylvania Honey Queen, a role devoted to promoting the state’s beekeeping industry.

“I’ll spend the next year traveling the state, talking to groups about the importance of honey bees and beekeeping.” 

Much of McTish’s work has one underlying purpose: to help everyone understand the importance of honey bees. 

“Honey bees are very important for our food supply and for pollination,” she said. “Without them, we would lose a lot of our fruits and vegetables.” 

Last Updated September 23, 2020