Student Highlight

Nathan Oakes at Hiatt Honey
Nathan Oakes, Comp Bio graduate student, at Hiatt Honey

Nathan Oakes, fourth year student in the Messer Lab
Despite its size, Cornell graduate school is a close knit and collegial community. As a result, its easy to find yourself on interdisciplinary projects that you never dreamed you would be involved in.  I learned the hard way “That sounds like a neat project; maybe I can help” are words you need to be careful saying at Cornell. You might accidentally find yourself surrounded by millions of honey bees if you utter that phrase too loudly on the ag quad.

Recently a collaboration with bee behavior researchers in the Neurobiology and Behavior department transformed from a “wouldn't it be cool if …” idea into a science startup.  Over the summer our project was recognized and awarded a $50K grant from the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. This grant allowed me to leave my computer over the summer and travel to meet our customers in person – commercial beekeepers – around the United States. These face-to-face conversations enabled us to learn about commercial beekeeping first hand and gain an intimate understanding of the challenges in their industry.
On my travels I was fortunate to hear how these beekeepers do their best to manage their bees and keep them healthy. This photo shows me in a bee yard owned by Hiatt Honey, one of the largest beekeeping operations in the world. This family-run operation has been managing honey bees for five generations and today maintains approximately 20,000 colonies across the country. What struck me was the reverence with which all beekeepers I met there spoke about honeybees, and how even within such a large-scale operation as Hiatt, people involved in various aspects of the business view themselves as stewards of the land.
Hearing directly from beekeepers across the country and across all sizes and styles of operations is helping us to better prioritize the relevant problems we’d like to solve and to maximize the good we can do in bringing our research to a commercial market. We have already integrated much of the feedback into our recent designs, and as time allows we will continue to travel in the coming months to learn more. If interested, please follow us on our journey, and get in touch if you or someone you know might be willing to support us on our mission to help honey bees and their beekeepers.