Michael Kim Fondrk has what you might call the magic touch.
Inside the “love shack” at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, he grabs a male bee between his thumb and forefinger, presses on the drone’s thorax in just the right way, and the excited bee’s sex organs unfurl from inside its abdomen.
Poor guy. That’s also his last breath, as once a bee’s organs evert, there’s no going back.
Fondrk moves fast, using a pipette to transfer the dot of bee semen down into the queen, who is ingloriously trapped end-up with her abdomen pried apart in a special tube apparatus made just for this purpose. The dead drone goes into the wastebasket.
For 23 years, Fondrk has been breeding queens for specific traits from the 90 hives at UC Davis to try to figure out why some bee colonies hoard pollen, and why others don’t.
He’s on his 46th generation of queens, and his quest to learn more about bee evolution is one of the many cutting-edge studies under way at the UC Davis Laidlaw lab, the largest and most comprehensive state-supported apiculture center in North America.
Davis researchers are conducting studies on bee learning, bee memory and extracting bee genes to possibly unlock the secrets of what happens inside the aging human brain.
Fondrk has found that pollen hoarders tend to be better learners and harder workers.
“The high-pollen hives have bees that forage earlier in the year,” Fondrk said.
The goal of his studies is to better understand the bee, as well as to breed queens with specific traits for other research centers in Arizona, Illinois and Germany, but don’t think for a second the commercial honey industry isn’t interested in the possibility of genetically engineering bees that can gather more nectar.
In another lab, a researcher is peering through a microscope at what appears to the untrained eye as chicken tenders. They are minuscule pink muscles taken from a bee’s thorax – muscles that control the wings.
Brian Johnson, an assistant professor of entomology, is overseeing a research project to extract the RNA from the abdomen muscles of bees of different ages to figure out how a bee’s genes turn on and off as it matures. Because bee biology that controls aging is essentially the same in all animals, what Johnson discovers could provide some insight into how our own brains change as we get older.
“Bees essentially go through puberty three times,” Johnson said.
Young bees, who don’t yet know how to fly, stay in the hive as nurses who build the nest and feed the larvae, drones and the queen.
A midlife bee is also a house bee, but is promoted to the job of receiving nectar and pollen from the foragers, and processing it into food.
Old bees fly out of the hive to search for flowers. They return home with nectar and pollen, and hand it off to the middle-agers.
People, as they age, also go through hormone changes that turn on genes in the brain.
“So when we are young we want to play, but then when we get older different genes turn on and we no longer want to play,” Johnson said. “Maturity turns on hormones in the brain that control the body.”
Johnson is also studying the effect of pesticides on the complex learning and memory of bees. Once a bee sources nectar on a flower, it keeps returning to that same flower at the same time of day that it produces nectar.
He’s in the early stages of testing recent research out of France that showed bees get lost trying to return to their hive after they had been exposed to agricultural pesticides.
At a farm near UC Davis, Johnson and his team have been exposing honeybees to sugar water with field-level pesticide, to see if it disrupts their navigation. Results could indicate possible links to the widespread disappearance of honeybees since 2oo6 known as colony collapse disorder.
While some bees must die in the name of research, the Laidlaw Facility has an offset – a half-acre bee-friendly garden to provide bees with a year-round food source and raise public awareness of the importance of bees as pollinators.
Haagen-Dazs ice cream donated $125,000 for the “honeybee haven,” which comes complete with an anatomically correct, 6-foot long mosaic sculpture of a honeybee.
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