or 27 years, he’s been the College’s resident expert on bees. He knows their behavior and biology, their main- tenance, their role in the economy and the ecology — even their role in history.
Now Dr. John Ambrose, Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Entomology, is leaving his highly successful apiculture program, described by Entomology Department head James Harper as a “perfect model” of harmony among the missions of research, teaching and extension. Ambrose is moving across campus to become assistant vice provost of undergraduate affairs and director of N.C. State’s First Year College program.
“No matter how well a program is doing, there comes a time when you should bring in someone else; fresh blood is the way to do it,” Ambrose says of his decision to make the change. “But I do hope some things I’ve set up will continue.”
Among these is the strong Master Beekeeper Program, a volunteer network he created in 1983 that is at the heart of many of his extension activities. And he has high hopes for the ongoing success of his teaching program.
“I don’t think I’d have been as happy here if not for my teaching roles,” Ambrose says. “You know, when I first came, my position was a research and extension split, but I made a case I wanted to teach. Of course they said OK, because there was no one to teach apiculture but me.”
Ambrose believes that the university has come a long way in its attitude toward the role of teaching.
“Actually the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has been a step ahead of the university in many ways, particularly in teaching and advising,” he says. “A lot of teaching in 1975 was done by teaching assistants. Teaching wasn’t recognized at the university as being as important as research, which was ironic in terms of our land-grant mission.”
However, he says, “I think that’s changed tremendously. Now undergraduate teaching has become much more recognized.
“And if teaching wasn’t fully recognized, neither was extension. Initially there was a feeling that if you were an extension appointee, it wasn’t as prestigious as being a research appointee. We’ve come a long way. All three areas are jointly respected now.”
And Ambrose has managed to blend all three with an efficient busy-ness traditionally associated with the insects that have been his focus since he pursued his master’s degree at Cornell University — and discovered he simply “loved beekeeping.”
Told that his program has been described by Harper as the “perfect model,” Ambrose modestly replies, “It’s a good model — mainly because the teaching, research and extension activities are tightly interwoven.
“I’m executive secretary of the state beekeeping association; therefore I am aware of problems in the field rather quickly and can research them,” he explains. “That research then moves to the extension side as I help solve the problems, and then I use a lot of it in my teaching to give the classes more relevance. I’ve also been able to involve undergraduate students in research and extension.”
Ambrose calls it a “program out of the box.”
“Two things set our program apart,” he explains. “First, linkages and loops. Our program here is a fairly closed loop, while most other programs spill across departments and colleges. In entomology our researchers work with other departments such as Crop Science and Food Science in killing insects. But with apiculture, we’re dealing with a good insect, with keeping bees and preventing them from dying. There are fewer cooperative activities, but more control and focus. Most of my cooperative work tends to be with horticultural folks whose crops depend on pollination.”
Second, he says, “Most of what we do is very applied, grass-roots level research.”
Ambrose explains that close to $100 million of the state’s commodities depend upon bee pollination: “Apples and vine crops — cucumbers, watermelons, squash, pumpkins. The commercial industries in those crops would disappear without honey bee pollination.”
And a threat is there. Since the mid-1980s, honey bees in the Southeast have been beset by the tracheal mite and the Varroa mite, pests that decimate bee colonies. In 1998, the equally destructive small hive beetle appeared in North Carolina. The combined effect of these pests over the past 15 years has been to eliminate approximately a third of the managed honey bee colonies and almost all of the feral colonies in the state.
Says Ambrose of the battle to control the mites, “We’re going to win, but it’s not going to be easy.
“We do have chemical treatments now. When organophosphates are used properly in a beehive, there’s no problem. It’s carelessness that begets problems. And pests are developing resistance, pushing us to use other chemicals. So the federal government needs to put more emphasis on developing safe pesticides,” Ambrose says. “We also have to show what doesn’t work.
“Eventually we will have tolerance between bees and pests and bees developing resistance to pests that will prevail through natural selection. But we do need chemicals in the short term.”
Ambrose emphasizes that “bees are important because they pollinate, produce honey and provide a pastime for citizens. North Carolina has a long history of beekeeping.”
In fact, he says, your typical beekeeper is a hobbyist, not commercial. In this state about 85 percent of the honey bees are kept by hobbyists.
“It used to be that most of the pollination was done by feral honey bees or incidental pollination by kept honey bees,” says Ambrose. “But because of all the pests decimating feral bees in the last 12 years, most of the pollination is done by hives kept by hobbyists.”
Ambrose estimates there are between 8,000 and 10,000 beekeepers in the state. The North Carolina State Beekeepers Association (NCSBA) is the largest beekeeping association in the United States, with more than 65 of the state’s counties organized into local chapters of the organization.
And, says Ambrose, “Every one of those chapters wants information.”
Before 1983, few people were available to answer those calls other than John Ambrose, so he decided to create a program to bring the news about bees, pollination and honey. “We needed a way to standardize information and to train people to train other people,” he says. That was the beginning of the Master Beekeeper Program.he North Carolina Master Bee- keeper Program is an educational and public service program in beekeeping that is sponsored by the College’s Cooperative Extension Service, the NCSBA and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It is now the oldest, continuously active Master Beekeeper program in the United States, with 3,200 members actively enrolled.
Participants can progress through various levels of proficiency in beekeeping: from Certified Beekeeper to Journeyman Beekeeper to Master Beekeeper to Master Craftsman Beekeeper. There are presently 800 journeymen, 50 Master Beekeepers and 12 Master Craftsmen in North Carolina.
“The Master Beekeepers are the people trained to actually do the presentations across the state,” Ambrose says. “We all talk about using volunteers. This is one of the more effective examples of how it can really work.”
So efficient is the program that “it costs less to the university to administer than what we were doing before — and we’re reaching more people,” says Ambrose. “Nobody has a Master Beekeeper program as large or as lasting as ours. Even if we stopped funding it now, it could run on its own inertia for two years.”
In fact, he adds, “I think one of the major achievements of my apiculture program was that I was able to give a hard money position back to my department head so he could reassign it to other needs of the department.”
Ambrose was able to reduce his paid staff through the use of trained Master Beekeepers to reach out to other beekeepers. “All of the Master Beekeepers are volunteers, so this is an example of developing and utilizing a volunteer program so that a paid professional could be assigned to other responsibilities,” Ambrose says.
“And my program was not reduced; it had just been made more efficient.”
A system of streamlined efficiency — not unlike the complex yet highly organized structure of the honey bee society — is Ambrose’s legacy to his apiculture program successor.
“I fully expect the apiculture program to maintain a high profile. Extension has to maintain prominence in order for it all to work. Extension is the driving force; that’s where the clientele are,” says Ambrose, who is staying connected to the program, even as he becomes director of the First Year College.
“I’ll continue teaching introduction to beekeeping. I think it’s important that I am still in teaching; it keeps me in the mainstream with students.”
As FYC director, Ambrose will lead a program created to facilitate new-student adjustment to campus life, direct first-year students through a year of general education study accompanied with major- and career-choice guidance and help them make careful yet confident decisions determining their college future.
As he begins his new job, he seems reinvigorated professionally, “There’s an uncertainty and excitement that goes with it,” Ambrose says. “I’ve enjoyed working with people from different disciplines. I might have retired within a year if I’d stayed [in entomology]. Now I probably won’t retire for at least another five years.
“Maybe I’d been in the loop too long.”