As problems attack the world’s bee population, Wellesley scientists jump into action

In the spring of 2020, Heather Matilla, a professor of biological sciences at Wellesley, was waiting for a shipment of honey bees for hives on campus.

Matilla lives in Boston, near the Arnold Arboretum. “I didn’t have them as practice at home before,” he says. But since the pandemic, I’ve had bees in my yard every year because they’re so comforting. It’s like watching a waterfall.”

Matilla grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He studied zoology at the University of Guelph, which for decades had one of the largest bee departments. He took a bee biology course and found his subject. He says:

I have always loved animals and I love social animals. I love watching human interaction. I love watching the interactions of the dogs we have had throughout my life. And honey bees are really an extension of that.

Heather checks Matilla's hive.
Heather checks Matilla’s hive.

At the beginning of the semester, Mattila takes the students in her introductory biology class to meet the bees. “Meeting bees is never easy,” he says. Not even for me. I wanted to put my hands in my pockets the first week I worked in the bee lab. But there is something about bees. Students who are new to bees are often surprised that the hives smell wonderful, and the sound of the bees buzzing – the hum of the hive – is soothing.

Honey bees are an ideal research topic for undergraduates, Mattila says. When you study animals, you want to see them in their natural environment, and bees can be kept and observed on campus.

Now that Wellesley’s beehives are back on campus, students are heading to Matilla’s lab to learn about these creatures, which serve as pollinators and are the centerpiece of the world’s food production. The world needs bee researchers because both domesticated and wild bees are in danger. Threats include climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, pathogens, pesticides and agricultural practices that affect honey bee diversity. Understanding bees has never been more important. We spoke with scientists who have left Wellesley to conduct research in the lab and field.

A cluster of bees