The plight of bees worldwide is now front and center and policymakers, like President Obama, and scientists are taking action to protect this invaluable natural resource. But one need not be president to make a difference in the lives of bees. Students at the University of British Columbia spent their summer developing a probiotic specifically designed for the digestive system of honeybees. Fittingly named “pro-bee-otic,” the innovative microorganism cocktail could prove to be a powerful defense against the destructive power of pesticides.
The UBC students approached their project with a global perspective and a deep concern for bees and all they make possible. “We rely heavily on bees for our food. They pollinate more than $15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. every year, but they are dying at alarming rates,” says UBC student Yu Qing Du. “We wanted to address an important issue with a worldwide impact.” The students recognized the value of probiotics, helpful bacteria that promote health and well-being, and spent months trying to engineer their own probiotic that breaks down neonicotinoids – the pesticides thought to play a role in colony collapse disorder.
“Neonicotinoids are the most widely used pesticides because it harms insects but not mammals like people,” says Jeanne Chan, student at UBC. Though the pesticide has been thoroughly studied, the bacteria used by the students is quite mysterious. “It’s a difficult process because there’s not much research on the bacteria we’re working with,” says Darren Christy, UBC student. “We’ve been trying different ways to get the genes into the bacteria.” The students envision their pro-bee-otic solution mixed with sucrose being fed to hungry bees, which then spread the good bacteria to their colony mates. The students will be presenting their project at the 2015 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition in Boston. With any luck, pro-bee-otic will create a buzz at the competition, leading to funding and support that could turn this sweet idea into reality.