Cool Jobs: Abuzz for bees | Science News for Students

Cool Jobs: Abuzz for bees

From robotics to medicine, these scientists are learning the secrets of bees
Mar 2, 2017 — 7:10 am EST
honeybee apiary

People have relied on honeybees and their products for thousands of years. Today, researchers still have much to learn from them.


This is one in a series on careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.

On a hot September day, Bernardo Niño stands in a yard surrounded by wooden boxes. Each is only a little bit bigger than a shoebox. Stacked one atop the other, they form towers a little more than a meter (about 3 feet) high. Each box holds about 10 screens inside wooden frames. This is where worker bees build honeycombs.

Hundreds of the bugs buzz around the mesh veil that obscures and protects Niño’s face. He calmly lifts a wooden frame from one of the hives. He holds it up to his face to get a closer look. Hundreds more busy worker bees scurry across the screen’s surface.

“There, this one isn’t looking good,” Niño says, pointing to a bee. There’s a tiny red spot on its body about the size of a pinhead. There’s something wrong with its wings, too. Normally long and flat, these wings are crumpled like a wad of paper.

Varroa mite on bee
The little red bump on this honeybee’s body is a varroa mite. These parasites latch onto honeybees and suck their “blood.”
Waugsberg/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Niño knows his bees. A research technician, he works for a bee research laboratory at the University of California, Davis. Gently, the man pinches the worker bee with two fingers and lifts it off the frame.

The red spot on this bug is a varroa mite. This pest, Varroa destructor, latches onto honeybees and sucks their hemolymph — or insect blood — the same way that ticks or leeches can suck human blood. As a parasite, the mite lives off of its host, often sapping its energy.

Bees weakened by varroa mites are more likely to get other diseases. One of those diseases is called deformed wing virus. Niño points to the bee’s scrunched-up wings. That virus has left this insect unable to fly.

As many as 60,000 honeybees may share a single colony or hive. And an infestation of these mites can put the entire hive in danger. Last year, U.S. beekeepers lost almost half their hives to parasites and diseases. That adds up to a lot of dead bees. Experts worry that threats to bees could imperil many of our food supplies. 

Honeybees pollinate at least 90 North American crops. These include apples, almonds, broccoli and carrots. Overall, bees and other pollinators help to produce more than one-third of the world’s food crops.

Honeybees have fascinated people since the dawn of civilization. Prehistoric rock drawings depict people hunting for honey. Chemical traces from ancient clay pots show that Stone Age people used beeswax. Even today, people still rely on the products bees make possible and the services these insects provide.

Given how important bees are to people, it should come as no surprise that scientists are working to protect honeybee health. Some researchers have also begun probing humanity’s long history with these helpful insects in hopes of improving modern medicine. Still others are studying bees to learn more about flight.

Fighting bee disease

As a research technician, Bernardo helps to do experiments that have been designed by a bee scientist. At the University of California, Davis, that scientist happens to be his wife, Elina Niño.

“I’m the boots on the ground, hands in the hive,” he says. “She’s the brains of the operation.”

Niño lab
Together, Bernardo and Elina Niño study health and disease in these California honeybees.
Christina Grozinger

When California beekeepers have a problem, they come to Elina Niño. As head of the state’s beekeeping extension program, she looks for solutions. Extension programs are usually branches of universities that work with a state’s farmers.

“I guess I became an entomologist by accident,” Elina Niño jokes. In college, she had wanted to become a veterinarian. But watching forensic crime shows piqued her interest in bugs. She realized that those detectives sometimes used insects to help crack murder cases.

In graduate school, she studied whether a pesticide used to keep pesky flies off of cows might harm dung beetles on dairy farms. Those beetles are important to keeping a farm’s soil healthy. Soon, she moved from dung beetles to another helpful insect — the honeybee.  

California beekeepers told her that the varroa mite has become their biggest problem. They asked for her help.

To protect their hives, beekeepers need to kill the mites. And pesticides containing human-made chemicals could kill those mites. But they also stunted the queen bees’ growth, Niño found. That’s important, because a queen that is small or weak may not reproduce as well as a healthy one. Plus the varroa mites quickly developed resistance to these pesticides so that they no longer killed the mites.

Elina Niño knew she needed to find chemicals that would kill the mites without harming the bees. For that, she turned to what are known as biopesticides. These are treatments made from chemicals found in nature.

Elina, Bernardo and the rest of their team are now testing different types of these biopesticides on 80 experimental beehives. Some of the new treatments contain essential oils. These are natural oils that give certain plants their scents. The team checks the hives to see not only if the new chemicals are vanquishing the mites, but also if they maypose any risks to the bees.

“One of the interesting things we’re seeing so far is that not all colonies respond to the same pesticide application in the same way,” Elina Niño says. She thinks genetic differences between honeybee colonies might explain those varying effects.

She doesn’t have all the answers yet.  Her team left the hives alone while the bees rested this past winter. With spring, they’ll resume the study. In California, that’s not long. By late February, some bees were likely again out pollinating almond trees.

Bee-sized robots

To the human eye, a honeybee’s flitting from flower to flower may look simple. Yet the physics of bee flight is quite complex. Bees use short, choppy and extremely fast wing strokes compared to other insects their size. Unique flight muscles let them carry heavy pollen loads back to their hives.

Robert Wood
Robert Wood designs robots with inspiration from bees and other flying insects.
Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS

When Robert Wood wanted to make tiny, insect-sized robots fly, he looked to bees for help. Wood is a roboticist. He works at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where he designs robots that have been inspired by nature. He observes nature to understand how organisms achieve a particular task. So looking to bees isn’t out of the ordinary for him.

A tiny machine can’t fly in the same way a large one does. After all, air flows very differently around a teensy insect wing than a giant airplane wing. So Wood had to create a new way of building wings before he could get his tiny robots to fly.

He looked at what biologists had learned about how bees and other insects fly. He wanted to know why each wing part works the way it does. “Is it shaped a certain way for thrust?” he wondered. “Or for some other, completely different reason that has nothing to do with flight, like confusing predators?” To find out, Wood probed which elements of wing design were important for flight — and which weren’t.

RoboBee Harvard
Robert Wood has used what other scientists have learned about bee flight and vision to create wings and sensors for his RoboBees, seen here next to a U.S. penny for size comparison
Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS

He used those data to build the RoboBee. This flying device is about the size of a U.S. penny. It can fly on its own using artificial muscles and sensors that mimic the eyes and antennae of a bee. RoboBee, though, doesn’t look like any kind of bee found in nature. It’s a mash-up of traits from different flying insects. It’s more like Frankenstein’s monster, Wood admits.

 “The technology is still a long way from being practical,” says Wood. But the RoboBee is an early model to show that it’s possible to make robots this small fly.

Eventually, Wood wants to create artificial insects that can work together to complete a task. This would be similar to how bees in a colony cooperate to find food and protect the hive. A single bee is limited in what it can do, he says. But an entire hive can accomplish much.

Wood imagines many possibilities for a swarm of small, agile RoboBees. They might monitor traffic from the sky, search for survivors after natural disasters or even help real bees pollinate crops. “We’re starting with science-fiction ideas and trying to make them real,” Wood says.

Story continues below video

Robert Wood has used what other scientists have learned about bee flight and vision to create wings and sensors for his RoboBees.
Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS

Unlocking honeys health benefits

Tobias Olofsson’s research started not with science fiction, but childhood memories. His grandfather was a beekeeper. When he was young, Olofsson helped his grandpa collect honey from his beehives. His granddad sold the honey in the small Swedish town in which Olofsson grew up.

“My grandfather always had said that honey is really good for you if you have a cold or a sore throat,” Olofsson recalls.

Today, he works at Lund University in Sweden. There, he studies “friendly” bacteria. Not all bacteria are bad, this microbiologist explains. While some spread diseases, others help the human body stay healthy.

Olofsson laboratory
Microbiologist Tobias Olofsson grows bacteria isolated from honeybees in this lab in Sweden.
Tobias Oloffson

Olofsson knew that people had used honey to heal cuts and cure infections for thousands of years. “But we didn’t really know what it was about honey that gave it these beneficial properties,” he says.

To find out, he analyzed fresh honey from one of his grandpa’s hives. He found 13 new strains of a beneficial bacteria in it. These are called lactic acid bacteria. Olofsson ended up naming one of these new species after his granddad.

Bees have two stomachs. One is for eating. The other “honey” stomach stores nectar. This balloon-like organ stretches as a foraging bee collects nectar from flowers. Once back at the hive, the bee will spit the nectar up from this organ and deposit it into honeycomb cells. There it will become honey.

Lactic acid bacteria keep that honey from spoiling, Olofsson found. These microbes make several antibiotic-like substances. Those chemicals kill off mold and harmful germs that might otherwise ruin the honey.

Olofsson honey
Tobias Olofsson mixes bee bacteria with honey to create an ointment for wounds.
Tobias Oloffson

Might these bacteria also kill off the germs that make people sick? That’s what Olofsson wanted to know. So he took some of the lactic acid bacteria from the honey stomachs back to his lab. There, he tested these microbes against “superbugs” — the bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotic drugs. This resistance is a growing problem. Infections that once were simple to cure have sometimes, in recent years, become severe or even deadly. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE) are two particularly bad examples.

The honeybee bacteria indeed killed these antibiotic-resistant germs, Olofsson showed. This got him excited. “I said to my grandfather, ‘I think this is really huge!’”

Next, the scientist made an ointment with the honey and the bee’s lactic acid bacteria. When tested on horses, it helped to close up slow-to-heal leg wounds. Olofsson plans to target human infections next. He’s already begun a project to test the ointment on people who also suffer from slow-healing leg wounds.

“There’s a lot of cool science happening inside a bee hive,” Olofsson says — “if you just look.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

antibiotic     A germ-killing substance, usually prescribed as a medicine (or sometimes as a feed additive to promote the growth of livestock). It does not work against viruses.

application     A particular use or function of something.

bug     The slang term for an insect. Sometimes it’s even used to refer to a germ.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

clay     Fine-grained particles of soil that stick together and can be molded when wet. When fired under intense heat, clay can become hard and brittle. That’s why it’s used to fashion pottery and bricks.

crop     (in biology) A throat-like structure that can store food as an insect moves from the field back to its nest.

dairy     Containing milk or having to do with milk. Or a building or company in which milk is prepared for distribution and sale.

dung beetle     A type of insect found on all continents except for Antarctica. They feed on a soupy liquid that they extract from animal feces (or dung). Able to fly long distances, these beetles use specialized antennae to sniff out the dung and home in on this food source, 

entomology      The scientific study of insects. One who does this is an entomologist.

essential oils     Aromatic oils that give plants their characteristic scents. Many are used as flavorings or as the scented ingredients in perfumes, candles and other products.

extension service (or program)   A government program that matches up scientists (usually at universities) with people who need their services (usually farmers). The scientists, often known as extension agents, may bring new scientific techniques or analyses to solve problems. They may match up pesticides with insect pests plaguing a farm or identify nutrient shortages that need to be remedied in crops, soils or livestock. They might even probe new problems and design solutions for them, then disseminate those same solutions broadly to others.

forage    To search for something, especially food. It’s also a term for the food eaten by grazing animals, such as cattle and horses.

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

graduate school     A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

honey     Foraging bees visit flowers in search of nectar, a sugary liquid. Back at the hive, honeybees will add some enzymes to the nectar, then deposit the amber colored liquid into the hive’s combs. As worker bees use their wings to fan the cells containing this liquid, the goo heats up and some of its water will evaporate. Eventually, the liquid becomes quite viscous (gooey). This is honey, which the honeybees store in their honeycombs.

infection     A disease that can spread from one organism to another. It’s usually caused by some sort of germ.

insect     A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

lactic acid     A chemical compound commonly found in milk and in exercising muscles.

lift     An upward force on an object. It may occur when an object (such as a balloon) is filled with a gas that weighs less than air; it can also result when a low-pressure area occurs above an object (such as an airplane wing).

methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus    (or MRSA) Methicillin is a widely used antibiotic. And Staph aureus is a bacterium that can cause boils, food poisoning, toxic-shock syndrome and more. These bacteria sicken (and sometimes kill) by releasing into the body potent natural poisons, called toxins.

microbe     Short for microorganism. A living thing that is too small to see with the unaided eye, including bacteria, some fungi and many other organisms such as amoebas. Most consist of a single cell.

mite     An invertebrate belonging to the broad group of animals known as arachnids, which also include spiders and ticks. None of these are insects, although like insects they belong to the larger umbrella group, called arthropods (named for their members’ segmented legs).

model     A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to predict one or more likely outcomes.

monitor     To test, sample or watch something, especially on a regular or ongoing basis.

muscle     A type of tissue used to produce movement by contracting its cells, known as muscle fibers. Muscle is rich in a protein, which is why predatory species seek prey containing lots of this tissue.

nectar     A sugary fluid secreted by plants, especially within flowers. It encourages pollination by insects and other animals. It is collected by bees to make into honey.

organ     (in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that interprets nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.

organism     Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.

parasite     An organism that gets benefits from another species, called a host, but doesn’t provide it any benefits. Classic examples of parasites include ticks, fleas and tapeworms.

pesticide     A chemical or mix of compounds used to kill insects, rodents or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants, pet or livestock, or unwanted organisms that infest homes, offices, farm buildings and other protected structures.

physics     The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physics is an explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. Quantum physics, a field of study which emerged later, is a more accurate way of explaining the motions and behavior of matter. A scientist who works in that field is known as a physicist.

pollen     Powdery grains released by the male parts of flowers that can fertilize the female tissue in other flowers. Pollinating insects, such as bees, often pick up pollen that will later be eaten.

pollinate     To transport male reproductive cells — pollen — to female parts of a flower. This allows fertilization, the first step in plant reproduction.

pollinator     Something that carries pollen, a plant’s male reproductive cells, to the female parts of a flower, allowing fertilization. Many pollinators are insects such as bees.

predator     (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.

resistance     (as in drug resistance) The reduction in the effectiveness of a drug to cure a disease, usually a microbial infection. (as in disease resistance) The ability of an organism to fight off disease.

robot     A machine that can sense its environment, process information and respond with specific actions. Some robots can act without any human input, while others are guided by a human. Someone who designs or builds robots is known as a roboticist.

science fiction     A field of literary or filmed stories that take place against a backdrop of fantasy, usually based on speculations about how science and engineering will direct developments in the distant future. The plots in many of these stories focus on space travel, exaggerated changes attributed to evolution or life in (or on) alien worlds.

sensor     A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly. (in biology) The structure that an organism uses to sense attributes of its environment, such as heat, winds, chemicals, moisture, trauma or an attack by predators.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

Staphylococcus aureus     (also known as staph) A species of bacteria that is responsible for a number of serious human infections. It can cause surface abscesses, or boils. If it gets into the bloodstream, where it can be carried throughout the body, it may also cause pneumonia and infections of the joints or bones.

Stone Age     A prehistoric period when weapons and tools were made of stone or of materials such as bone, wood, or horn. This period lasted millions of years and came to an end around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

strain     (in biology) Organisms that belong to the same species that share some small but definable characteristics. For example, biologists breed certain strains of mice that may have a particular susceptibility to disease. Certain bacteria or viruses may develop one or more mutations that turn them into a strain that is immune to the ordinarily lethal effect of one or more drugs. (in medicine) Stretching or tearing of muscle or tendons, which are the fibrous bands that connect muscle to bone. (in physics) The forces or stresses that seek to twist or otherwise deform a rigid or semi-rigid object.

stroke     (in biology and medicine) A condition where blood stops flowing to part of the brain or leaks in the brain.

superbug     A popular term for a disease-causing germ that can withstand medicines.

swarm     A large number of animals that have amassed and now move together. People sometimes use the term to refer to huge numbers of honeybees leaving a hive.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

thrust     A force that makes an object move forward.

tick     A small eight-legged blood-sucking arthropod, related to spiders and mites. Although they look like bugs, these are not insects. They attach themselves to the skin of their host and feed on their blood. But in the process, they may spread any germs that could have been present in the blood of an earlier host.

trait     A characteristic feature of something. (in genetics) A quality or characteristic that can be inherited.

unique     Something that is unlike anything else; the only one of its kind.

veterinarian     A doctor who studies or treats animals (not humans).

virus     Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.


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Journal: T.C. Olofsson et al. Fighting off wound pathogens in horses with honeybee lactic acid bacteria. Current Microbiology. Vol. 73, October 2016, p. 463. doi: 10.1007/s00284-016-1080-2.