The A, Bee and Cs of Biology

Researchers attempt to stem decline of wild bee population

PHOTO PROVIDED Bieber pulls a bee specimen from a collection in the McArt Lab as part of her research to help determine how wild bees are impacted by stressors, like pesticides and pathogens, and what can be done to stem their population decline.

DALLAS TOWNSHIP, Pa. — As a key pollinator in the ecosystem, bees do more than make honey. They are responsible for billions of dollars worth of pollination that affects global agriculture and the environment. Scientists have taken notice of a drastic bee population decline around the world. In the U.S., beekeepers are reporting losses as high as 50 percent of their colonies year-to-year due in part to disease.

Researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., are conducting a five-year study on bees and other pollinators to help determine how stressors, like pesticides and pathogens, impact them and what can be done to stem population decline.

Misericordia Univers­ity senior Blyssalyn Bieber, graduate of Warrior Run High School and of Turbotville, was selected to join the Boyce Thompson Institute’s Plant Genome Research Program, partnered with Cornell University, for a 10-week internship during the summer to work on the bee study. The biology major, with a minor in chemistry, will earn her bachelor’s degree from Misericordia in December.

Bieber was offered placement in the highly competitive National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Boyce Thompson Institute.

The Cornell team received a five-year, $2.2 million National Institutes of Health grant to study how pathogens are passed between New York State’s 416 bee species, and what can be done to stem diseases responsible for their declining numbers. Bieber worked in the McArt Lab under Scott McArt, research scientist in Cornell’s Department of Entomology and principal investigator of the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases project; Peter Graystock, postdoctoral associate in bee-microbe interactions; and Paige Muniz, a bee systematics technician

“My team spent time observing wild bees that we collected in the Ithaca region to see how parasites are transmitted,” Bieber said. “We were looking to understand the transmission of Crithidia, Nosema and Apicystis — all of which are parasites in the bees. The next step was inoculating some of the bees that were sampled from several field sites to observe whether or not an infection occurred with each different species.”

Bieber made an oral presentation about her research at the Boyce Thompson Institute student symposium in August.

“I did not think I would enjoy working with insects so much, but this REU experience has widened my field of study to perhaps look at plant-insect interactions — something I had not considered before,” Bieber said. “I now can see myself in any number of careers within the science field, all of which excite me. For now, I plan to work as a research assistant after I have completed my bachelor’s degree to grow my experience.”

The bee project was a perfect for Bieber who developed an interest in natural sciences while spending summers interning at the nature center of Camp Victory, a camp for children and adults with disabilities 15 miles from her home. She also interned on a community supported agricultural farm in Stillwater, which made her aware of the benefits of sustainable growing practices.