The University of California’s Office of the President awarded a three-year, $900,000 grant for “Strengthening Honey Bee Health and Crop Pollination to Safeguard Food Availability and Affordability” to support a network of bee researchers from UC Riverside, UC Davis, UC Merced, and UC San Diego. The researchers have stepped forward to develop a natural, evolutionary-sustainable way to preserve the health of honey bees.
“The four campuses bring together shared research interests that stem from a remarkable range in research skills and infrastructure,” said Boris Baer, a professor at UC Riverside and the co-principal investigator of the project. “We have experience with molecular-focused approaches from systems biology and chemical ecology. A community ecologist and evolutionary biologist will broaden the scope of our work to include consequences of stressor effects. These broad biology skill sets will combine with those of team members with engineering expertise.”
Based at UC Riverside, the multi-campus network aims to achieve four goals:
1. Measure the effects of biotic and abiotic threats to honey bees to identify the biomarkers of their health outcomes.
2. Collaborate with local beekeepers and pollination-dependent growers to build a strong research industry.
3. Integrate new insights to develop innovatives technologies that benefit bees assessment and reduce proposed threats.
4. Offer training and outreach resources to the next generation of students in the use of science-based solutions for bee health.
Honey bees contribute greatly to the agricultural and natural communities through pollination, which helps produce future generations of crops. They are the key pollinators in California, which is the country’s top agricultural state and produces an estimated annual value of more than $9 billion.
Several stressors including diseases, parasites (e.g. varroa), pesticide/chemical exposure, deficient nutrition as a result of habitual loss, and poor management practices have facilitated global declines of the honeybee population. This has been a threat to food security and affordability in the recent decade, and southern-California bee researchers have been working together to develop new strategies to safeguard the bees.
Part of the grant will be shared with two UCSD researchers in the Division of Biological Sciences, professors James Nieh and Joshua Kohn. Professor Nieh’s research has focused on studying the social and learning behaviors of bees, while Kohn’s work has looked at genetics.
Nieh and his group have stated that they will investigate the factors of pesticide and nutrition.
“We have done experiments with UCSD undergraduates and Masters students who have found that when bees are exposed to pesticide, if they have a poor diet, meaning their diet isn’t very rich in sugar, they actually suffer much more than if they have a good diet,” Nieh said.
In the lab, the research group has been supplementally feeding bees clean sugars to enhance their nutrition intake. Their recent research finds omega fatty acids, nutrients found in fish and other foods that are known to promote cardiovascular health, can help bees that are poisoned by pesticides. By analyzing bees’ mortality rates and cognitive abilities such as learning memory, the lab is interested in knowing whether bees with a diet rich in omega fatty acids will be more resistant to pesticide.
Kohn’s lab has done research on the density of honey bees in southern California, finding that the population of feral honey bees was one of the highest in the world. Among them are the hybrid Africanized bees which contain genes from African subspecies of honey bee.
While Africanized bees tend to have an aggressive trait and are commonly known as the “killer bee,” Kohn found that they adapt well to stressors with valuable survival traits.
“Because [Africanized bees] have displaced European honey bees and because these super-abundant feral populations survive without human assistance that is needed to reduce diseases now threatening managed European honey bees, their genomes may contain genes useful for improving managed honey bee stocks,” Kohn said. “We hope to be able to locate areas of the genome that underlie resistance to diseases plaguing managed honey bees and also those [that] underlie heightened nest defense, since this is an unwanted trait for managed honey bees.“
With genomic techniques and observations from an apiary at UC Riverside, the lab will study the offsprings of the managed European honey bees and feral Africanized bees to evaluate their level of genomic admixture and behavioral changes.
Other researchers on the UC network include Elina Lastro Niño at UC Davis, Kerry Mauck, Tsotras Vassilis, and Hyoseung Kim at UC Riverside; and Marilia Gaiarsa at UC Merced.
The project is one of the 15 research projects awarded by the UC’s 2021 Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI). Undergraduate students who are interested in learning more about bee research are encouraged to reach out to the network and its faculty members.
Photo taken by Jenna Lee for Unsplash