Bartlett brings disease expertise to honey bee research, education

Cheryth Youngmann

Contact: [email protected]

Bartlett presents at the Young Harris Beekeeping Event last May. Photo by Sidney Rouse.

No line of research is too big or small for Lewis Bartlett—literally. From mammoth extinctions to the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), he’s published on a wide range of topics during and since university. 

Bees have always been an interest of his. “Even prior to going to university, I was always kind of interested in bee stuff,” he explained. “When I was a kid, I used to go out and catch them and put them in jars and all that.” 

Born in Leeds, Yorkshire, Bartlett graduated from Cambridge University’s Selwyn College in 2013. He began his higher education on a biology and physics track, but pivoted from physics to focus more intensely on his zoological interests. At Selwyn, he became versed in disease ecology and the ecology of evolution, publishing his honors thesis on mammoth extinctions. 

An attendee of the Young Harris Beekeeping Event last May inspects a hive frame covered with comb and bees. Beekeepers in the U.S. usually favor a Langstroth hive, made up of stackable boxes opened from the top, with eight to 10 frames per hive. Photo by Sidney Rouse.

“Even throughout all of that, all of the bee stuff was very central. All my research projects were on bees. When I went and volunteered in labs, it was in honey bee labs,” Bartlett said. 

But his honors thesis nearly dictated the course of his career. 

“My first research job was on habitat fragmentation, large animal extinctions and more of this kind of landscape, functional, macro-ecological conservation biology,” said Bartlett. “And I could have stuck with that. There was a very clear research path from my first two publications.” 

Then a friend sent him a Ph.D. listing seemingly crafted with Bartlett in mind, a fusion of disease biology, bees and agriculture that married his interests in conservation and farming. He called up the supervisors and told them, “This advertised Ph.D. looks like you scooped out my brain, put it in a blender and then extracted a Ph.D. from the mush.” 

When he sent them his CV, they agreed it was an excellent fit. With funding provided by the U.S.-based National Institutes of Health, the U.K.-based Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council, Bartlett came to the University of Georgia for his fieldwork—though most of his graduate studies were completed at the University of California, Berkeley, where his adviser was based.

After finishing his Ph.D., Bartlett took a postdoctoral position at the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, advancing the work he’d begun during graduate studies. This past summer, Bartlett began a faculty position as an assistant research scientist, jointly appointed between UGA’s Department of Entomology and the Odum School of Ecology, and partially funded by the Georgia Beekeepers Association

“I do a lot of beekeeper education and outreach,” Bartlett explained. “I’m very active in that space.”

His integrative background in theoretical, disease and insect ecology—and existing ties to the School of Ecology—made him a natural fit at Odum. 

“The Odum School of Ecology is delighted to partner with Department of Entomology in recruiting Dr. Bartlett to our faculty,” said Interim Dean Sonia Altizer. “As a leading expert on honeybee parasites and infectious diseases, he brings a unique combination of experimental and computational research approaches to shed light on host-pathogen dynamics and evolution.”

Honey is a sticky issue—at least in the United States 

Bartlett is uniquely poised to take on complex issues tied to the health of bees and their beloved household by-product. 

Honey bees exist in a confusing categorical intersection in the United States. Bees themselves are considered livestock, but their product, honey—since it’s made from nectar—is classed as a plant product.  

Bartlett had to learn the nuances of U.S. bee legislation fast. 

“You get this tension between whether we’re viewing the honeybee industry in the plant arena because honey is a plant product, or whether we’re viewing it under the livestock arena, because it’s honeybees or livestock,” he explained. And that has real ramifications on what kind of experiments Bartlett can conduct. 

But as veterinary scientists become more active in bee science, this tension may begin to resolve, said Bartlett. 

And despite the confusion, the agricultural component of honeybee research isn’t all bad. It engages people—something Bartlett enjoys. 

“That adjacency to agriculture allows us to roll out these big public education programs. Parts of that we’re very proud of,” said Bartlett. UGA’s Honey Bee Program—which he’s been involved with for years now—leads the nation in beekeeper education.

Two people in hats smile for a photo.
Lewis Bartlett and Cindy Hodges review beekeeper portfolios. Photo by Sidney Rouse.

The program is four-tiered, with Certified, Journeyman, Master and Master Craftsman designations. The program is robust: the Master Craftsman track is designed to be equivalent to a master’s degree. 

UGA’s Honey Bee Program offers the Certified course—and in some cases, upwards—in Georgia’s maximum security prisons. That training makes a measurable difference. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, participating in an education program reduces a prisoner’s recidivism rate by 43%. 

“Having UGA’s stamp, and it being college-level, carries a lot of weight,” said Bartlett. 

Behind beehives: Modeling bee population

Another point of professional pride to Bartlett is an industrial bees manuscript that flipped expected findings entirely on their head. 

“Typically, we expect the crowding of individuals will exacerbate disease spread and epidemics. That’s something everyone now intuitively understands, because we’ve been through a pandemic,” said Bartlett. “We understand how distancing, and social distancing in particular, reduces that. But if we go back five or six years, I set out to try to unpack that theoretically in bees.”

Researchers at the time were struggling to demonstrate, with experiments, that the crowding of bees made a discernible difference in disease outcomes. 

Through mathematical theory, he and collaborator Carly Rozins found something surprising—it doesn’t make a difference. 

Bee comb labelled with numbers.
Heat from bee movement softens wax. The comb then hardens in the most efficient shape, creating its distinctive hexagonal pattern. Photo by Sidney Rouse.

“We found that it really didn’t matter,” said Bartlett. “There is no amount of crowding or distancing that a beekeeper can do that will meaningfully change how many bees are infected with a typical pathogen.” 

It seems, in hindsight, like common sense: A hive’s threshold for crowding is naturally high. 

“It’s understanding that bees are always crowded,” said Bartlett. 

Packing hundreds of hives close together, as beekeepers might in large-scale industrial beekeeping, makes little difference. Even in small-scale beekeeping operations, millions of bees are packed in a very small footprint. In essence, epidemics, when they break out, are already as bad as they can get. 

“That’s probably my biggest contribution so far to the field I work in,” said Bartlett. 

Beyond the bees

Bartlett’s sole professional interest and personal hobby isn’t just beekeeping, of course. 

He’s an avid baker and a lover of what he dubs, “the usual nerdy pursuits,” reading and gaming. 

He often spends his evenings gaming and chatting with a milieu of art directors and creatives—one of them a creator of Netflix’s Witcher series and another Amazon’s Rings of Power.

Another major interest of Bartlett’s: Since 2016, he’s performed drag with the Athens Showgirl Cabaret

“A big part of my involvement in that came from when I was coming here to do field work. I didn’t really know anyone, and I just found myself kind of amongst that group,” Bartlett said. “They were very welcoming to me, and it was easy to get involved, which was fun.”

Fundraising is another major reason for his commitment to the group. The Cabaret is actively involved with Georgia’s HIV nonprofits, and has been for a long time. 

“Every single show has a collection for Boybutante Aids Foundation and Live Forward, formerly known as Athens Aids Foundation, and for a certain number of our shows, all the tips, everything, goes towards them,” said Bartlett. 

He’s mixed his drag persona with his professional, too. 

At their invitation, he’s performed at the British Ecological Society’s annual conference, when the group hosts a scicomm comedy show, to positive reception.

“Bill Sutherland…he came up and he was like, ‘I am so glad you’ve done this, and I’m so glad we’ve created an environment where you feel you can do this.’ He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society and an extremely senior conservation ecologist. That was sweet,” said Bartlett. 

And it looks like there is continued demand for Bartlett’s fusion of scientific and queer interests: He’s organizing an entomology-themed drag show and queer mixer at the joint meeting of the Entomological Society of America, The Entomological Society of British Columbia, and the Canadian Entomological Society in November. 

To keep up with Bartlett, visit