Rampersad-Ammons: she’s the ‘bees knees’

As farmers in South Texas and across the country face a growing loss of bees, which are critical in pollinating crops, Dr. Joanne Rampersad-Ammons, associate professor of chemistry at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, spent time this summer studying apiculture (bee keeping) and issues affecting honey bee health in hopes of helping Valley farmers.

“My bee research began as a hobby, but grew into a research focus due to the extraordinarily high losses of honey bees nationally, and the lack of research in this area after the closure of the USDA Honey Bee Research Lab in Weslaco,” Rampersad-Ammons said. “Also, with our very short winters and the abundance of honey mesquite, I think that a vibrant cottage industry may be possible here.”

Rampersad-Ammons was one of five educators nationwide to receive a 2017 E. Kika de la Garza Science Fellowship sponsored by the USDA. The fellowships are presented annually by the USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach and Hispanic Serving Institutions National Program. This year, 13 education fellows were also selected.

At the D.C. headquarters, Rampersad-Ammons said, she was impressed by the breadth of the portfolio covered by the USDA and the opportunities that exist through the USDA for her students, such as financial assistance for young entrepreneurs who need capital to start small agri-businesses. Honey bees are integral to pollinating many agricultural crops to ensure fruit set, she said.

“It has often been said that one of every three bites of food we eat is a result of pollinators, like honey bees. Yet nationally, honey bee losses over the past several years have been staggering,” she said. “Locally, several issues, such as Varroa mite infestation or small hive beetles, plague beekeepers in the area which if left untreated will severely damage their colonies or kill them.”

Past research by Rampersad-Ammons, who also directs the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-funded Science Education Grant Program at UTRGV, has been biochemistry/microbiology-based and specifically focused on the spread of antibiotic resistance in Staphylococcus aureus, (a bacterium found in the nose, respiratory tract and skin), medical diagnostics and the use of Bacillus thuringiensis (a soil-borne bacterium) for agricultural and anti-cancer medical applications.

She also has strong collaborative projects that look at how experiential learning, especially undergraduate research training, affects students and prepares them for careers.

“It is one thing to teach students content knowledge, but it is another to teach them life skills that leave them in charge of their destiny,” she said.

In spring 2018, Rampersad-Ammons will direct some of her research efforts and teaching focus to aquaculture – the rearing of aquatic animals or the cultivation of aquatic plants for food. She will teach a class on the subject to support the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences’ thrust in marine science, sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Rampersad-Ammons said that years ago aquaculture was a multi-million dollar enterprise in the Rio Grande Valley based on a saltwater shrimp culture.

“Much of it has disappeared due to a viral shrimp disease that wiped out many operations,” she said. “However, when you look at the Valley, a lot of infrastructure was put in for agriculture in the form of irrigation canals and drainage ditches, which may support freshwater aquaculture/aquaponics, if the correct species and methods are used.”

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