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UGA professor brings expertise to honey bee research, education
Albany Herald - 11/29/2022
Nov. 29—ATHENS — No line of research is too big or small for Lewis Bartlett — literally. From mammoth extinctions to the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), he's published on a wide range of topics during and since his education.
Bees have always been an interest of his.
"Even prior to going to university, I was always kind of interested in bee stuff," he explained. "When I was a kid, I used to go out and catch them and put them in jars and all that."
Born in Leeds, Yorkshire, Bartlett graduated from Cambridge University's Selwyn College in 2013. He began his higher education on a biology and physics track, but pivoted from physics to focus more intensely on his zoological interests. At Selwyn, he became versed in disease ecology and the ecology of evolution, publishing his honors thesis on mammoth extinctions.
"Even throughout all of that, all of the bee stuff was very central," Bartlett said. "All my research projects were on bees. When I went and volunteered in labs, it was in honey bee labs."
But his honors thesis nearly dictated the course of his career.
"My first research job was on habitat fragmentation, large animal extinctions and more of this kind of landscape, functional, macro-ecological conservation biology," he said. "And I could have stuck with that. There was a very clear research path from my first two publications."
Then a friend sent him a Ph.D. listing seemingly crafted with Bartlett in mind, a fusion of disease biology, bees and agriculture that married his interests in conservation and farming. He called up the supervisors and told them, "This advertised Ph.D. looks like you scooped out my brain, put it in a blender and then extracted a Ph.D. from the mush."
When he sent his CV, supervisors agreed it was an excellent fit. With funding provided by the U.S.-based National Institutes of Health, the U.K.-based Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council, Bartlett came to the University of Georgia for his fieldwork — though most of his graduate studies were completed at the University of California, Berkeley, where his adviser was based.
After finishing his Ph.D., Bartlett took a post-doctoral position at the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, advancing the work he'd begun during graduate studies. This past summer, Bartlett began a faculty position as an assistant research scientist, jointly appointed between UGA's Department of Entomology and the Odum School of Ecology, and partially funded by the Georgia Beekeepers Association.
"I do a lot of beekeeper education and outreach," he explained. "I'm very active in that space."
His integrative background in theoretical, disease and insect ecology — and existing ties to the School of Ecology — made him a natural fit at Odum.
"The Odum School of Ecology is delighted to partner with the Department of Entomology in recruiting Dr. Bartlett to our faculty," interim Dean Sonia Altizer said. "As a leading expert on honey bee parasites and infectious diseases, he brings a unique combination of experimental and computational research approaches to shed light on host-pathogen dynamics and evolution."
Bartlett is uniquely poised to take on complex issues tied to the health of bees and their beloved household byproduct.
Honey bees exist in a confusing categorical intersection in the United States. Bees themselves are considered livestock, but their product, honey — since it's made from nectar — is classed as a plant product.
Bartlett had to learn the nuances of U.S. bee legislation fast.
"You get this tension between whether we're viewing the honey bee industry in the plant arena because honey is a plant product, or whether we're viewing it under the livestock arena, because it's honey bees or livestock," he explained.
And that has real ramifications on what kind of experiments Bartlett can conduct. But as veterinary scientists become more active in bee science, this tension may begin to resolve, Bartlett said.
And despite the confusion, the agricultural component of honeybee research isn't all bad. It engages people — something Bartlett enjoys.
The program is four-tiered, with certified, journeyman, master and master craftsman designations. The program is robust: The master craftsman track is designed to be equivalent to a master's degree.
UGA's Honey Bee Program offers the certified course — and in some cases, upwards — in Georgia's maximum security prisons. That training makes a measurable difference. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, participating in an education program reduces a prisoner's recidivism rate by 43%.
"Having UGA's stamp, and it being college-level, carries a lot of weight," Bartlett said.
Another point of professional pride to Bartlett is an industrial bees manuscript that flipped expected findings entirely on their head.
"Typically, we expect the crowding of individuals will exacerbate disease spread and epidemics," he said. "That's something everyone now intuitively understands, because we've been through a pandemic. We understand how distancing, and social distancing in particular, reduces that. But if we go back five or six years, I set out to try to unpack that theoretically in bees."
Researchers at the time were struggling to demonstrate, with experiments, that the crowding of bees made a discernible difference in disease outcomes.
Through mathematical theory, he and collaborator Carly Rozins found something surprising — it doesn't make a difference.
"We found that it really didn't matter," Bartlett said. "There is no amount of crowding or distancing that a beekeeper can do that will meaningfully change how many bees are infected with a typical pathogen."
It seems, in hindsight, like common sense: A hive's threshold for crowding is naturally high.
Packing hundreds of hives close together, as beekeepers might in large-scale industrial beekeeping, makes little difference. Even in small-scale beekeeping operations, millions of bees are packed in a very small footprint. In essence, epidemics, when they break out, are already as bad as they can get.
"That's probably my biggest contribution so far to the field I work in," Bartlett said.
There appears to be no limit to the demand for Bartlett's fusion of scientific and queer interests: He's organizing an entomology-themed drag show and queer mixer at the joint meeting of the Entomological Society of America, The Entomological Society of British Columbia, and the Canadian Entomological Society in November.
To keep up with Bartlett, visit https://www.bartlett.science/.
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