College students Justin Butera, left, Gabby Discafani and Austin Pyrch transfer honeybees from wooden boxes into hives on a rooftop apiary at George Washington University in Foggy Bottom. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

When her professor says it’s time, college student Gabby Discafani pumps the beehive smoker. The stainless-steel container exhales smoke that will calm the thousands of honeybees waiting in wooden boxes on the rooftop apiary (or bee hangout) at George Washington University. Soon they’ll be transferred into the eight empty hives.

Discafani leads a student bee research team overseen by biology professor Hartmut Doebel. Their goal? To see whether neo­nicotinoids (pronounced NEE-o-NIC-o-teen-oyds), a type of chemical used to kill insects, are contributing to colony-collapse disorder. That is a deadly condition in which a colony of honeybees stops functioning. The disorder has caused more than 40 percent of the world’s honeybees to disappear.

That’s a serious problem, and not just for people who like bees. The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates that bees pollinate about 30 percent of our nation’s food.

“Bees are very, very important,” Doebel (DOE-bull) says. “If we don’t have pollinators, the flowers cannot grow from generation to generation, from year to year. We will lose the ability to grow many of our favorite fruits and vegetables.”

Discafani has been interested in the problem since middle school.

Biology professor Hartmut Doebel holds up a box of bees that will be among the new hives established at George Washington University. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

“When I was in sixth grade, my science teacher got upset when she first found out about the bees dying,” says Discafani, a 20-year-old student from New Jersey. “She asked us to write haiku poems about bees.”

That moment stuck with Disca­fani. When she saw a flier at George Washington about an opportunity to help with the bee research project, she volunteered.

Discafani helps run the program’s website,, which spreads awareness about the importance of honeybees. As a research assistant and senior beekeeper, she helps perform experiments and care for the bees.

On this sunny April day, five floors up on the roof of Bell Hall, Discafani pumps the smoke and then watches Doebel lightly spray the bees with sugar water to distract them during the transition from travel box to hive. Then it’s up to Discafani and the dozen or so other students to transfer the bees into the rest of the hives. They spray the next set of bees and then gently shake them into a hive. They transfer the queen bee — who was kept in a small box — and then reassemble the hive and move on to the next one. Each hive can hold 60,000 bees.

A close-up view of worker bees in one of the hives at George Washington University. Bees pollinate about 30 percent of our nation’s food. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Last year, one experiment Doebel and his students performed examined how neonicotinoids can hurt a bee’s memory.

“If they have above a certain level, the majority of the bees won’t ever find their way home,” says student research assistant Michelle Ahn, 19, who’s from Fairfax.

If a bee is confused or lost, it becomes vulnerable to disease and loses efficiency. Many bees suffering memory loss is a disaster for the species.

This year, Doebel and his students will examine how chemical substances affect the “waggle dance” — that’s when a bee vibrates its abdomen to communicate to the other bees the direction and distance to a food source.

Doebel hopes the team’s work will help save bees. He also hopes more people will learn about the plight of honeybees and admire and appreciate them instead of fear them.

“They are harmless,” he says. “If they sting, it’s because we made a mistake and they are letting us know. And if they get too close, they are only there asking if they can share your food.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the last name of George Washington University student Michelle Ahn was misspelled. The story has been updated.

Bee fun facts

●A single hive can produce up to a 100 pounds of honey.

●One pound of honey represents about 55,000 bee miles flown and visits to about 2 million flowers.

●A single worker bee can pollinate 2,000 flowers a day.

●Almost all bees in hives are female.

●Undertaker bees remove dead bodies from the hive.

●Southeastern blueberry bees live for only about two weeks but pollinate 60,000 blueberry flowers, which grow blueberries.

How can kids help honeybees?

Learn as much as you can about the species and colony-collapse disorder so that you can help educate others.

Plant a wildflower garden in a corner of your yard.

Encourage your parents to avoid products that contain neonicotinoids.