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Why One Entomologist is Digging Deep Into Beekeeping Data

Rae Olsson, Ph.D.

Rae Olsson, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research associate at Washington State University, studying how a suite of environmental and management factors influence bee health and colony mortality. “My research is unique in that the dataset we are working with will be really large in comparison to most honey bee research, around 10,000 hives,” Olsson says. “And we are using spatial analysis, historical and real time environmental data, and a suite of statistical analyses to build a full picture of the issues being faced by honey bees and beekeepers.”

By Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Rae Olsson, Ph.D.

Rae Olsson, Ph.D.

Rae Olsson, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral research associate at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. They are currently studying how a suite of environmental and management factors influence bee health and colony mortality and using this data to create novel tools in support of beekeepers’ decision making. Rae completed their Ph.D. at WSU in the Crowder lab where they studied landscape ecology and pollinator communities across a variety of agricultural landscapes. In their spare time, they love gardening with their husband, knitting, and playing with their dogs.

Chakrabarti Basu: Tell us about you and your research.

Olsson: I am currently in my second year of a postdoc in the Hopkins lab at WSU. My research is focused on developing new tools for beekeepers to assess the health of their hives and using a massive amount of data being collected by our team, beekeepers, and through remote sensing to develop predictive models that will offer beekeepers management insights. My background is based in more landscape ecological work, so bringing that toolset into the honey bee research realm has given me a different perspective and approach to answering some questions.

Chakrabarti Basu: What makes your research unique?

Olsson: My research is unique in that the dataset we are working with will be really large in comparison to most honey bee research, around 10,000 hives. And we are using spatial analysis, historical and real time environmental data, and a suite of statistical analyses to build a full picture of the issues being faced by honey bees and beekeepers.

Rae Olsson, Ph.D.

“Entomology excites me because I love insects and also because my roots are in agriculture. We get to work directly with the people who are most affected by our work, and that means so much to me,” says Rae Olsson, Ph.D.

Chakrabarti Basu: What are some of the challenges that you face, and how do you approach these?

Olsson: Our biggest challenge is coordinating data collection between our team and the beekeepers we collaborate with. In a research setting, our methods are much more precise and slower, while commercial beekeeping happens at a really fast pace. Offering different sets of methods and understanding that the data our research team is collecting is quite finer, and on a much smaller scale, than the coarse data we are getting from thousands of hives collected by beekeepers can cause a statistical headache, but we want the work we do to reflect and support beekeepers, and that means offering tools and methods that fit into their business and work structure. Finding adaptive solutions has been a challenge, but we have great communication with our collaborators, and they’ve offered feedback so that each type of data collection will work for understanding different scopes of our research.

Chakrabarti Basu: Why does entomology excite you?

Olsson: Entomology excites me because I love insects and also because my roots are in agriculture. We get to work directly with the people who are most affected by our work, and that means so much to me. I’ve never been meant for an ivory tower; I need to see my system to understand it. Entomology is such a broad field with so many different applications, and I love that, in ecological and agricultural entomology, my expertise is so small compared to the field. It makes ESA meetings so much more exciting to know how many ways we use insects to study and understand our world.

Chakrabarti Basu: Tell us more about your other activities.

Olsson: Outside of work, I spend a lot of time caring for my pets and home and volunteering in my community. I love to cook, and the pandemic has given me an opportunity to really fall in love with where I live. My husband and I have gotten quite into wine and mead making using foraged fruit—Pullman is full of fruit trees, and most folks are more than happy to allow their neighbors to take as much as they want, because the fruit left on the ground becomes a great hangout for wasps. Some of the wine we make is even pretty decent! Beyond that, I love knitting and fiber arts, gardening, and helping out with our local farmers’ market!

Chakrabarti Basu: What are your thoughts on challenges for LGBTQ+ members in entomology?

Olsson: LGBTQ+ folks have challenges everywhere we go, ranging from persecution and violence to hiding our identities for fear of personal and professional consequences. That said, I think most entomologists understand what it’s like to be “different” in some way. I’m sure just about every entomologist has heard the phrase “Ew, you study bugs?!” And, while that comparison is really loose, I think the shared experience of having been cast as strange allows entomologists to be a little bit more empathic. I’ve seen huge changes in the number of LGBTQ+ members feeling safe to be out and open about their identities in the entomology world even in the short time I’ve been part of this community, and that makes me happier than I can express.

Rae Olsson, Ph.D., and Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, Ph.D.

Rae Olsson, Ph.D., and Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, Ph.D.

Chakrabarti Basu: Finally, if you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?

Olsson: What a great question! I think I’d like to be a mantis shrimp, because even though flying would be cool, I am obsessed with color, and having 12-21 photoreceptors and the ability to see so many more colors than I currently do seems amazing. Although, would I have the brain of a mantis shrimp? I suppose they don’t understand how incredible their sight is. If I got to keep my own mind but live in an arthropod body, that’s what I’d choose. Otherwise maybe a dog flea because I really love dogs, but I wouldn’t want to cause too much harm.

Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, Ph.D.,is an assistant professor of entomology at Mississippi State University and 2021-2022 vice-chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: pb1090@msstate.edu.

All photos courtesy of Rae Olsson, Ph.D.

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