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JUNIATA COLLEGE PROFESSOR TAKES THE STING OUT OF SCIENCE BY CONCEIVING A COMIC BOOK THAT CREATES BUZZ ABOUT BEES

(Posted April 3, 2001)

When faced with learning the great questions of science, quite possibly the last place to look for enlightenment is in the pages of a comic book. Yet Jay Hosler, assistant professor of biology at Juniata College, has used this literary form to publish a sentimental and action-packed comic book called "Clan Apis," focused on the 52-day life cycle of a heroic female worker bee called Nyuki.

"Everybody knows what bees are, but it occurred to me that bees exist in an environment alien to the rest of us," Hosler says. "I work with bees as part of my research and I realized that bee biology would make a great story."

Hosler is not an entomologist by trade. He refers to his specialty as "electrophysiology" -- essentially he studies how electrical and chemical events in the nervous system lead to behavior. He studies a region of the bee's brain that is wired like the corresponding region in the human brain, and working with bees is a lot cheaper and simpler than using humans or animal subjects. His specific research interest centers on how bees process and react to odors through memory.

Hosler was hired by Juniata College after a typically mobile academic career. He earned a bachelor's degree at DePauw University and went on to earn a doctoral degree from the University of Notre Dame. He received a National Institutes of Health grant to study olfactory processing in bees and worked at Ohio State's Rothenbuhler Honeybee research laboratory for four years, until accepting the Juniata faculty post.

The scientist's path to comic books was a little more circuitous. Always an avid reader, Hosler found a love for science in books. He also found a love for cartooning from his grandmother's copy of a "Peanuts" anthology and in the pages of "Spiderman."

"I was never this 'great outdoorsman'-type of biologist," he says, with a laugh. "I always liked reading about it in books. I'm also not a scientific authority on bees. I don't keep bees or anything like that -- I'm more a lab scientist."

The largely self-taught artist has always sketched and drawn cartoons. He found an outlet for his drawings in college, drawing for student newspapers and creating a four-panel comic strip called "Spelunker" at Notre Dame. At Notre Dame, he also created his first comic book character -- Cow Boy. "He had cow powers," Hosler explains. "You know, he could project a sonic moo and he could jump over the moon."

Hosler came up with the idea for "Clan Apis" at Ohio State. He wrote and drew a 24-page comic book about Nyuki (Swahili for bee) and submitted the manuscript for a Xeric Award, a $1,500 prize sponsored by Peter Laird, one of the co-creators of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Hosler, won the award and self-published the first installment of the comic book. "Each issue paid for the publication of the next issue until I had five installments," Hosler explains. The series has been collected as a graphic novel.

Hosler's paperback book is $15 and is available to order in bookstores and through the "Clan Apis" Web site at jayhosler.com/clanapis.html.

The "Clan Apis" comic book has been nominated for three Eisner Awards and three Ignatz Awards, both high honors in the comic-book trade.

The "Clan Apis" story is told in black-and-white panels that follows bee-havior from the beginnings of evolution. Hosler's heroine Nyuki is joined in various storylines by bee-pals Dvorah (bee in Hebrew), Melissa (Greek for bee) and Sisyphus, a dung beetle. "I think the strength of the story is in its characterization," Hosler says. "The educational part is delivered as part of the story arc within the plot."

Hosler says he doesn't use his cartooning skills very often in his teaching, but he reports colleagues have used "Clan Apis" in high school and college classrooms. "I think the material is easier to remember in that form because the information is placed in context," he says. "It's really like remembering scenes from a movie."

Taking inspiration from the movie industry, Hosler is planning a sequel to "Clan Apis," although the new comic hero has nothing to do with honeybees. This insect character is much smaller in scale -- a follicle mite (the microscopic mites who live within human hair) who has made a home in Charles Darwin's eyebrow.

The artist-scientist has finished the first chapter of the Darwin story. Although he has no title set, he plans to publish this series as comic books as well. In the cutthroat world of college faculty, comic books probably don't count for much in the publish-or-perish world of academic journals, but Hosler says Juniata's emphasis on teaching and outreach allows him to point proudly to a talent that might otherwise have withered away.

"Juniata is the sort of place that allows faculty to nurture other areas of interest," he says. "The college knows that faculty who have knowledge in a wide range of areas will educate more well-rounded students."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.