I’ll admit right up front that the title of this blog post is misleading: there’s only one beekeeper in this story. But trust me, she’s a very good one and she appears twice in this tale, in two different settings.
In my role developing public programs featuring Penn State researchers, I immediately thought of Maryann Frazier as a speaker for spring semester’s Research Unplugged series. Maryann is Penn State’s senior extension associate in the department of entomology, as well as a seasoned bee researcher, and a spokesperson for the work of the University’s Center for Pollinator Research. I knew from a past interview with her for my feature on Colony Collapse Disorder that she could wax eloquent (bad pun, sorry!) on the topic of bees.
In her first Research Unplugged talk for us this semester, Maryann showed up at our new location at Schlow Centre Region Library looking more the professor than the beekeeper, wearing a tailored and professional-looking blouse and skirt. The cameras were rolling and there was a “standing room only” crowd of over 100 people in the library’s Downsbrough Community Room.
The crowd (a mix of community members of all ages) was riveted by her polished presentation and raised their hands to ask excellent questions during the Q&A portion.
Cut to Maryann’s second talk for us this semester, held at The Village at Penn State. Twice a year we bring a Penn State researcher into this nearby retirement community for an on-site Research Unplugged. Maryann graciously agreed to speak, but on the day of the event she found herself out in the field–in this case, literally a field–working among the University’s bee hives and running a little late. About 50 Village residents watched the clock with me as the program time approached. (Dare I say the room was abuzz with anticipation?)
We were all glad to see Maryann rush into the room right on time, apologizing for not having had time to change her clothing. In a khaki jacket and jeans, with a woodsy smell of smoke lingering around her from the bee smoker she’d just been using, Maryann literally brought the excitement and adventure of research right into the room with her. The residents were charmed!
Although she showed a few slides from the first talk, the attendees’ curiosity and enthusiasm led the conversation in some fascinating directions, with Maryann switching gears without missing a beat. We covered everything from how bees dance to communicate, the differences between European and so-called Africanized bees (Penn State researchers are studying them in Africa) as well as the work of carpenter and mason bees (“besides pestering us” as one attendee put it; they’re pollinators too, reminded Maryann.) We even discussed birds—as in “the birds and the bees”—when Maryann answered a question about bee reproduction by explaining that drones compete to mate with the queen bee in mid-air, and then immediately rupture and die in a dramatic example of “sexual suicide” in the insect world. “But I’ve heard he dies with a big smile on his face,” Maryann joked and the room burst into laughter.
So, let’s assess this tale of two beekeepers. In both cases, the talks were resounding successes. In the first, we had over 100 people, everything went as planned and Maryann delivered her complete talk on the suspected causes for the dramatic decline in honeybee populations. It was Unplugged but on topic!
In the second, we had about 50 senior citizens who really let their hair down (so to speak) and had a great time getting up close and personal with the researcher (did I mention they asked her all about her husband and how they met?) and we covered some unexpected topics. It was interesting to see how the same speaker and same topic could yield two very different styles of Research Unplugged events. Most importantly, we had many satisfied attendees! And the delicious honey cake–courtesy of The Village at Penn State kitchen staff–took the sting out of saying goodbye to Research Unplugged until fall semester.