Dr. David Peck

We are proud to introduce our new Director of Research and Education, Dr. David T. Peck. David comes to us from Cornell University, where he has spent the last decade. His Ph.D. in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior was overseen by Professor Tom Seeley. After earning his doctorate, David continued to work at Cornell as a postdoctoral researcher, with a particular focus on varroa/bee issues in mite-free Newfoundland, Canada, as well as in Madagascar, where varroa mites were accidentally introduced only a few years ago.

Immediately prior to joining Betterbee, David was a fellow of Cornell's Active Learning Initiative, which is focused on radically reshaping and improving Cornell's courses, including the online classes needed during the coronavirus pandemic. This expertise in honey bee and varroa biology, as well as in teaching engaging in-person and online classes, makes David the perfect person to steer Betterbee's growing education program to success.

We sat down (virtually) with Dr. David T. Peck to learn more about his background and what he's got planned as Betterbee's new Director of Research and Education.

David, maybe we can start with a simple introduction. Briefly, who are you and what did you do before you came to Betterbee?

To be as brief as possible, I'm a beekeeper who's excited to teach other beekeepers about bees. I am coming to Betterbee from a postdoctoral position at Cornell University, where I'm helping the Department of Entomology reorganize and reimagine some of their courses to make them more interesting, more engaging, and more memorable for students. I just finished co-instructing Cornell's Honey Bee Biology course to nearly 200 students, which we taught entirely online due to the pandemic. I also did my Ph.D. work at Cornell, in the lab of Professor Tom Seeley. My dissertation research was focused on naturally occurring populations of varroa-resistant (or perhaps "varroa-tolerant"?) bees.  I also studied the behavior of the varroa mites themselves, as well as robbing behavior by bees (which is surprisingly understudied, given how important it is for disease transmission!). I’m really fascinated by how both bee and mite behaviors can allow mites to spread from one hive to another.

And you didn’t go directly from your graduate work to this more teaching-focused job at Cornell, is that right?

Correct. In the year between getting my doctorate and starting my position with the Entomology department, I spent 3 months in Madagascar helping a local non-profit teach beekeepers to cope with varroa mites, which only arrived in southern Madagascar in the last 5 years or so. I also worked with the beekeeping association of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador to develop a Varroa Action Plan. Their bees are the only honey bees in North America that don’t have varroa, and their island is one of only a few places on Earth that is still varroa-free, so we want to do everything we can to keep the mites out. I also did some work with a start-up that is trying to develop high-tech solutions to help fight varroa mites. So I kept myself busy.

Well, you’ve clearly done a lot of bee research, but do you also consider yourself a “beekeeper” in addition to being a bee scientist? 

Absolutely! I’ll admit that during a few experiments I’ve sometimes told people that I was a “varroa mite keeper.” But the best way to keep mites is just to be a really crummy beekeeper. I spend spring, summer, and fall in my hives, and then I spend all winter worrying about my colonies, analyzing bee data, and thinking about what I’ll do with the colonies the next spring. I think that makes me a “real” beekeeper, right?   

So what will you be doing now that you’re at Betterbee?

I’m really excited to join the Betterbee team in this new role because I’ll be able to continue some scientific research while also taking the helm of the company’s entire education program. We want beginning beekeepers to leave the final class in the “beginner” series with complete confidence that they can order a package or nuc of bees and keep them alive for multiple years. I’m also excited to develop brand new classes that should appeal to more experienced beekeepers. After you master the basics there’s still so much more to learn, and there are so many specialized topics that most other training programs don’t cover. What does it take to make money as a sideliner? What’s the best way to keep bears out of your apiary? How do you turn capping wax into scented lip balm? What does the most recent cutting-edge scientific research tell us about the prospect of producing totally mite-resistant bees? All of these topics are fair game for Betterbee’s expanded learning curriculum. 

Maybe next year’s catalog will need more than one page to list all of Betterbee’s beekeeping classes?

Well, we’ll see how many we can get organized this year. The first priority is having a beginner training program that simply can’t be beat, and that’s made more complicated by the fact that we can’t hold in-person classes and workshops the way we’ll be able to post-COVID. As time goes on we’ll be adding more and more classes to the catalog and to the website. And if any readers have a suggestion for a class topic, they should absolutely feel free to email me their suggestions. 

Maybe this interview will lead to a lot of new class ideas from our readers. Before we wrap up, let’s talk a little more about some of your beekeeping history. Like, what are the most times you’ve ever been stung in a day? 

I don’t know the most stings in a single day, but I can tell you the most I’ve ever had in a minute: I was collecting data in a remote apiary in Madagascar last year. It was from a colony on a very steep hillside, underneath some big tropical bush, and I was bare-handed because the work was very delicate. The hive had already been open for about 15 minutes when the weather suddenly shifted for the worse, and a slightly temperamental colony became an absolute nightmare. In the time it took me to replace the frame I was holding, set down my equipment, retreat from the hive, and put on my gloves, I had at least 40 stings in my hands. I think that’s the worst minute of beekeeping that I can remember.

Wow! How long was it until you went back to that hive? 

Well, if I was in my right mind I would have left them alone at least until the next day, but I’m a scientist and the experiment was on a strict timetable, so I took ten minutes to steel my nerves and then went right back in (with gloves!). It wasn’t the most fun day of beekeeping, but I got my data.

To close, can you tell us one unique thing about your beekeeping style? 

That’s a tough one… Well, I don’t think it’s “unique” but it’s not exactly typical: I would probably say the fact that I refuse to work bees without the bottom of my pant legs tucked into the tops of my socks. I look like a complete dork, but it keeps bees out of my pants. I’ve seen more “distinguished honey bee scientists” stop in the middle of a sentence, step away from a hive, and undo their pants to let a rogue bee out…  I know the underwear brands favored by three or four different bee scientists! It also prevents ticks from sneaking in undetected during a hive inspection, and I’ve seen a lot of friends struggle with the effects of Lyme disease. So, for both of those reasons you’re unlikely to see me in the apiary with loose pants cuffs.

Thanks for talking with us today, and hopefully this newsletter will carry announcements of all kinds of new classes in the coming weeks, months, and years. 

If you want to suggest a topic for a future beekeeping class, Dr. Peck can be reached at education@betterbee.com.