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Source: University of Waikato

Attending her graduation ceremony this week at Te Kohinga Mārama Marae with baby Ruby in arms, her family by her side and to a soundtrack of cicadas seemed a fitting finale for Rachel Nepia, who has emerged from her studies at Waikato with a PhD in Biological Sciences.

Rachel’s doctoral research looked at the impact of the burgeoning honey industry on our native flora and fauna, so we can manage hives on public land more effectively.

She amassed quite a fan club when she took out top honours at the University-wide 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition in 2018.

In her winning presentation, she encouraged the audience to imagine our native forests as a dinner table filled with pollen and nectar from native plants, with the guests being indigenous birds, moths, lizards and our native bees and flies. She also pointed out there was a visitor from abroad at the table, the honey bee. Rachel looked at the effect this foreigner had on the dinner party guests and the forest, essentially to help us manage the placement of beehives.

Rachel was supported at her graduation by her husband, daughter, brothers and sisters. “I love that during the marae graduation when you go to get your diploma your whole family stands with you and sings. To me, that is very reminiscent of the whole journey, with my family standing behind me all the way.

“Without a doubt, my PhD has been a family success; my husband spent an entire summer as my fieldwork assistant and has been a huge support the whole way through. Most of my brothers and sisters, parents and nieces and nephews have also helped out with fieldwork too.”

Reflecting on your PhD journey, what were the highlights?  

Fieldwork was definitely a highlight for me. It involved long weeks and long days, but in some of the most beautiful places imaginable. Another highlight was the opportunity to travel and learn from experts in my field, like Xun Li at GNS in Wellington and Peter Dearden at Otago University, and also at international conferences.

What were the biggest challenges? 

Constantly being on the edge of the unknown. It is exciting carrying out new research with new techniques, but it also takes a lot of problem-solving, improvising, and banging of one’s head against the wall!  I also spent the last nine months of my PhD pregnant, which was exhausting, to say the least. I handed in my thesis less than a week before I gave birth to my daughter. So, those last months of long days, sitting in my office writing while my baby practised kickboxing in my belly, were difficult. That memory makes me even prouder that I was able to push through and get my PhD completed.

What will you miss most about student life?  

The flexibility and license to operate in a space where people understand that you are learning.

What did you like most about the campus?

I love the Waikato campus: the fernery, the lakes, the trees. My daily walks around the beautiful campus grounds were an important part of maintaining sanity and staying healthy, particularly in my final months before submission when I was very pregnant with my daughter Ruby.

What advice do you have for others considering a PhD? 

Make sure you choose an area of research that you are passionate about and thoroughly fascinated by.

What did you discover through the course of your studies that more New Zealanders should know about?  

Most New Zealanders don’t realise that we have 28 species of native bees, and honey bees aren’t one of them. When people talk about saving the bees, most of them are thinking of honey bees and bumblebees, but there are native species that are in more need of help.

Ultimately, what did you discover and how will it positively impact our world?

One of my key discoveries was that the amount of nectar produced by our native trees varies greatly from year to year (my research showed as much as 100%). This means the number of beehives those trees can support also varies. Knowing this helps the industry to manage apiaries (collections of beehives) in a more agile and nuanced way, offering more protection to these precious ecosystems.

I also discovered that the introduced honey bee most certainly does affect the makeup of insect communities that visit flowers in native forest, and the industry is now very mindful of this when planning the placement of beehives in apiaries around New Zealand.