The secret life of honeybees

Repost from UNCG Research and Engagement.

Dominick Defelice is an undergraduate biology student working on honeybee research with Dr. Olav Rueppell. Dominick sat down with UNCG Research to tell us about his work, how he got started in research, and how it changed his life.

Tell us about your research

You can describe my project two ways. One is the easy version and one is the hard, complicated, biologist version, so I will go with the easy one. My project basically looks at honeybee queens: how many times they mate and when they go out on their mating flight.

What queens typically do is go to a congregational area, where there are lots of males, and mate with between seven, ten, and fifteen or so males. The queens store all of that sperm and then use it to lay their eggs in the colony. After that, the eggs give rise to all the workers.

What we are looking at is, does geography affect how many mates the queen selects? So when the bee colony is on the island, would that queen mate with more or less males than when a bee colony is on mainland or a coastal area? Essentially, we are looking at geography and queen mating behavior.

How did you get started in this research?

It started with my Freshman Biology teacher. He forwarded our class an email from biology professor Olav Rueppell, who works with social insects. Dr. Rueppell was looking for a younger student who could take on a project that might take a couple of years.

Since he was looking for a freshman or sophomore undergrad and I knew I wanted to do some undergraduate research when I came to UNCG, I responded. I met with Dr. Rueppell, and he talked about what he wanted to do, and I was still interested. He interviewed other students, and we all had our chance to test out stuff in the lab and learn new lab techniques. Eventually, I got the project, and since then I’ve been working with it for almost three years.

During your research, what was the most challenging thing and what was most unexpected thing?

Most challenging would probably be doing things over. In research, there are always mess ups and mistakes that happen, especially when you are working with a bunch of dots of DNA on a plate and you might miss the wrong dot and have to do a whole plate over. So that kind of stuff, the little tiny mess up that can mess up your project, that’s been really the most challenging. But that’s part of science, because it’s bad to make mistakes only if you don’t learn from it. So making these kinds of mistakes, errors, is good thing; you learn how to do better next time. So that’s been the most challenging, but also a learning experience too.

Who have you collaborated with and what was that experience like?

My favorite thing has been collaboration, so I could talk about this all day. We are not the only ones who do Honeybee research, so I collaborated with folks from four or five specific schools in North Carolina, There’s a really big group at N.C. State that does honeybee research, because they are involved with the agriculture and zoology fields, which they have a big lab for at N.C. State. Wake Forest has another group, and I’ve been to each of these schools and met with their professors and their students doing research.

I also did work with people in other disciplines here at UNCG. I participated in in the Math-Bio program, where one Biology student and one Math student pair up, and they work on a project together. So I’ve been able to do computational things with data that I would never have understood without this other student, and she’s been able to understand things about DNA and cells that she may have not understood without me. I mean, she is a very smart person (she probably would’ve figured it out) but I would’ve never figured out the math behind everything.

And then, there has been collaboration with other professors too. I mean, when we go these conferences, often other science professors are members of the organization that put it on, like at the North Carolina Academy of Science (NCAS) meeting. I worked with students at other schools, professors at other schools, and then students and professors here, so that’s been interesting. That is why I really like collaboration, because it’s really all about sharing the information.

Prospective student researchers might wonder how the logistics of traveling works, in terms of going to conferences. Are they covered by the department? How does this work?

That depends. There’s couple of different options, and one would typically prepare everything beforehand. You get all of the prices laid out (flights, hotel rooms, etc.), and then you can take it to Biology office and say ‘How much of this can I have paid for by the Biology department?’ Or you could go through your professor, and they may have grant money that he/she can use to send you to conferences. In other cases, you might have to pay some if everybody is kind of broke. I mean, you might have to buy you own flight or drive yourself. Typically with driving, if it’s an in-state conference, and it’s just like two hours away and you can drive, you have a form that you fill out afterwards. You say ‘I drove X amount of miles, I stayed in this hotel and this was the price,’ which the department takes care of it, so it won’t be too much of a burden on the student’s finances. Usually, the professor or whatever department the student is researching in can take care of it.

How do you think your current research has impacted you and how will it impact you in the future?

I started my research not knowing a whole lot about it. I mean, in the beginning I didn’t know how to do the lab techniques that I am doing now. I also didn’t know the real importance of primary research and getting your findings out there so that other people can build upon it.

So what I’ve learned is A) the importance of empirical evidence, finding your results, and answering your question, and B) the collaboration with other people.

Once we put an article out there, whenever that maybe, other people are going to be reading it. And this will be giving them ideas. It’s impacting me because I want to go in medicine one day and in medicine, of course, there’s lot of lab work, research that goes into finding cures of diseases or identifying new disease organisms. The skills I’ve learned from here set the basis for what I may end up doing in the future. I believe it’s really important for me to have that kind of experience now when I’m young and learn things faster than I can in the future.

What made you to come to UNCG?

UNCG really stood out to me when I was visiting colleges during high school. I went on a weekend trip with my dad and we went to some of the bigger schools like NC State, Chapel Hill, Wake Forest, App State. And then, kind of towards the end of our trip, my dad said ‘Why don’t we stop by this school here? I remember them sending you a thing in the mail’, and that was UNCG. So we stopped by, and it was by far most beautiful campus I had visited that day and it really looked like it had the nicest people and nicest buildings. I mean, it looked like everyone here really cared about the school and about what they were doing here, whether working as professor or taking classes as student.

Touring the landscape around the campus, everything here kind of knit together in a way that I didn’t see it in any other school. So when I was applying, I picked maybe four schools and this was the one that I was like ‘if I get into this school, I’m gonna go here.’ Another reason why I chose to come was because I got full-ride scholarship, UNCG Guarantee, which gives debt-free education to undergrads from low-income families.

Do you have advice for new and prospective students?

For the high school kids looking at which colleges to go to, I would say that it’s good to read the brochures and everything they send you. But I’d say it is even better to visit the campus and just see how it hits you.

Try to talk to a few people on campus when you visit. I would also look into more details on the school’s website when you are trying to pick a school. So, for example, if you are interested in doing research, look what kind of research is going on.

Definitely look at the professors there. What did they do when they were in school, what are they researching now, what are they interested in?

For the students who are in college, there are clubs, research, jobs on campus. It’s all about finding what’s right for you and what you want to do. So I would say if you are interested in sports, go talk to whoever the head of rec center; if you are interested in research, talk to professors.

How does the Office of Undergraduate Research support students?

The Office of Undergraduate Research really has been with me since the beginning. They are the ones that, more or less, hire you or allow you to be hired by the department that you work in. They also give out award-stipends for people doing research. There’s something called an Undergraduate Research Assistantship (URA) that is $1,500 per semester for your research to support you. When you do URA, you get financial support and you get to present your work at the UNCG Undergraduate Research Expo – presenting is a requirement.

The EXPO is fantastic. You can do either a poster or presentation on your research, and that’s another thing where collaboration kicks in. Because you’ll meet students from all sorts of different departments like Nursing, Mathematics, Chemistry, and Psychology, etc., to see what they are researching about. Also, there is a student award that you can win, and I used that as a stepping stone for my other conferences. So the Office of Undergraduate Research helps you by paying you to do research, getting you involved with the staff at OUR, and then also getting you into conferences.

By Eun-Ju Seo

The URSCO blog helps UNCG’s undergraduate scholars share their work and impact with the world. Interested in sharing your work? Contact URSCO Director Lee Phillips at or Office of Research and Engagement Media and Communication Manager Sangeetha Shivaji at

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