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Ever Wondered? Series 2 Episode 8

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Animal behaviours

In Episode 8 of Ever Wondered? Series 2, Dr John Watt takes a look at the fascinating world of the honey bee. John finds out what makes the common honey bee tick and why their time may be running out. He looks at how we are helping the honey bee and some of the more inspiring and unusual ways the honey bee is helping us.

Honey bees in trouble

Associate Professor Peter Dearden at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Otago, has been studying bees for most of his life. He explains to John why bees are such incredible insects, co-operating like a superorganism and using the only symbolic language we know about outside apes. Enthusiastically, he explains the differences between the queen and worker bees and how a bee colony works.

Bee populations all over the world are in decline, causing concern for scientists and farmers. A key factor in this decline is the varroa mite. John visits Dr Mark Goodwin of Plant & Food Research in Hamilton to find out more. He is shown a colony where the varroa mite is present and is transmitting a virus that causes deformities in bees. Current treatment is to dose hives twice a year with chemicals, but this is expensive and the varroa mite can develop resistance to the chemicals. Mark explains the alternative treatments being designed around the bees' own behaviour (grooming, for example) and research to understand which bee genes confer resistance to varroa mites.

Bees help answer some important questions

As well as finding new ways to help bees, scientists are using information from the bee to help humans answer some important questions. Associate Professor Peter Dearden chats with John about using bees to better understand how changes in the environment influence gene expression. In particular, Peter explains to John how the genes for developing ovaries are repressed in worker bees but can be activated when the queen bee is removed from the hive. Peter hopes that his research will contribute to better interventions for human diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

Professor Alison Mercer, Zoology Department, University of Otago, is another scientist who thinks that the bee holds answers to some important human medical questions. Her research uses the incredible learning ability and memory of the bee to better understand the similarities between the bee and human brain. In the future, she hopes this knowledge will be applied to develop better therapies for treating human disorders such as Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, ADHD and mood disorders.

Bees, biological clocks and anaesthesia

Bees are also at the centre of some inspiring research at Auckland University. Dr Guy Warman is studying the effects of sleep disruption in patients after surgery and how anaesthetics affect our biological clocks. His aim is to try to improve and speed up patient recovery. He tells John that bees have an innate time sense, which makes them ideal candidates for this research. Guy then shows how a whole hive is anaesthetised and how the bees' activity is monitored when they are awake and asleep.

His collaborator, Dr Craig Millar, Auckland University, explains how field experiments are used to further understand the affects of anaesthetics on the bees' biological clocks. Lab testing of the bees' genes shows that the anaesthetics temporarily stop the expression of the bees' biological clock genes. As bees have similar biological clocks to humans, Guy has used this information to design a treatment for surgery patients. He is investigating whether light therapy can help reset our biological clocks after surgery.

We're well aware of the vital role bees play in our food chain, but they are also proving themselves to be invaluable when it comes to understanding the very biological mechanisms that make us tick, so it's crucial that we play our part in helping bees to stick around.

Activity idea

In conjunction with this episode of Ever Wondered?, your students may enjoy this activity.

Students research one of three aspects of biodiversity loss - direct species loss, habitat loss or pests and weeds. The varroa mite can be used as an example of an introduced pest that threatens the Apis mellifera species of honey bee in New Zealand.

Context link

To further investigate the interaction between genes and environmental factors, check out this Science Learning Hub context.

Uniquely Me: This context explores the question: What makes me, me? My genes or my environment? Associate Professor Peter Dearden discusses more of his research using bees to examine the role genes play in development and how environmental factor affect gene expression.

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