Jeff Harris found his first love in the Appalachian Mountains. He spent summers working on the family farm in Virginia where one of his uncles kept bees.
“Uncle Darrel had several bee gums, which is a primitive way to keep bees in hollowed logs. When I was five, he reached in one of them with a pocket knife and let me taste the honey. I’ve been hooked on honey ever since,” Harris remembered.
Harris is an associate extension and research professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology in Mississippi State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches a First Year Experience course titled “All About Birds and Bees.” He credits his uncle with teaching him how to catch a swarm of bees in the mountains of his youth. Back home in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years after that first taste of honey, Harris caught his own swarm.
“I remember coming home with my bicycle in one hand and a branch with a bee swarm in the other. My mother was shocked, but my dad built a box to put the bees in and I’ve kept bees ever since,” he said.
Harris, who has always enjoyed beekeeping and birding, helps students embrace this connection to the outside world.
“Beekeeping and birding are excellent ways to relieve stress and reconnect with the natural world. They move people away from computer screens and get them outside,” he said. “I hope freshmen embrace beekeeping or birding to help them manage stress and enjoy nature throughout their college experiences, and if I am lucky, some students may participate in one or the other activity for the rest of their lives.”
In his role with MSU Extension, Harris helps commercial and backyard beekeepers with problems that adversely affect their hives. As a scientist with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, he studies honeybees that are resistant to diseases and parasites.
The Madison, Wisconsin native always had a keen interest in science and was originally a pre-med major, but after earning his undergraduate degree in physical science from Auburn, his passion for beekeeping compelled him to make a career out of it.
He earned his master’s in entomology and doctorate in insect physiology from LSU and has since helped develop honeybees that harbor resistance to varroa mites and other common pests.
Harris found his second love in the Atchafalaya swamps of Louisiana during grad school.
He described a yellow speck amid the cypress swamp, which turned out to be a Prothonotary Warbler, which inspired him to become a birder. Fifteen years later, he is the current president of the Oktibbeha County Audubon Society and while birders aren’t meeting up as usual these days, many still embark on socially-distanced birding walks, including participating in monthly and seasonal counts to keep record of the local avian population.
Harris said Mississippi is ideal for watching both spring and fall migrations as millions of birds make their way up from the tropical rainforests of South America to the Arctic’s tundra and back again, often stopping in Northeast Mississippi along the way.
“Spring migration is crisper and more intense with the third week in April as the peak week. Fall migration, which lasts two and half months from mid-August through the end of October, is a much longer process as birds meander down toward the southern hemisphere,” he said.
Harris said his current favorite bird is a Painted Bunting and one of the rarest birds he’s sighted in Mississippi was an Olive-sided Flycatcher he saw while working bees.
“Beekeeping and birding are excellent ways to relieve stress and reconnect with the natural world,” he said. “However, the most important thing is to just get out there and have fun.”