Creating a buzz
They're just 3-5mm long but, according to UWS PhD student Jenny Shanks, Australia's native stingless bees may hold the secret to why some bees are more susceptible to the diseases and parasites that have affected colonies of honeybees worldwide. Considering bees play such an important role in pollinating plant sources of food, this is important research.
Jenny, who you may recognise as the People's Choice Award winner and a runner-up in the UWS Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) last year, is studying these interesting insects, who she affectionately calls her "girls".
"Very little is known about our native stingless bees, yet they perform just as well as honeybees under the right conditions," says Jenny. "Unlike the struggles facing honeybees, our native stingless bees seem unaffected by problems such as disease which have contributed to declines overseas – and my research aims to find the reason why this occurs."
While researching our native bees, Jenny has spent hours observing the stingless bees' behaviours, including how they clean their hives. Jenny's work has discovered that, unlike the honeybee, stingless bees have naturally developed the skills to detect and remove dead bees, therefore lowering the chance of disease outbreaks. "While honeybees are managed by humans, stingless bees perform natural tasks such as the collection of materials (for example, plant resins) to use in their hives, which have antimicrobial properties," Jenny explains. "This contributes to the stingless bees experiencing less pathogenic infections."
Jenny has also used molecular tools to delve even deeper to identify the bees' gut microorganisms and understand influences in the environment that link to microbial diversity and disease immunity. "Stingless bees forage on a diverse array of plants, and it appears this contributes to gut diversity," she says. "This form of defence supports disease control."
Jenny works at the agricultural/horticultural area on the Hawkesbury campus, and says this has provided a unique learning environment, including facilities such as an apiary, with its surrounding selected plantings, which are lush with diverse native flora and horticultural crops that are ideal for bees to forage in. "The entomology lab and molecular lab are designed specifically for insect and plant investigations," says Jenny. "And Hawkesbury campus has its own working apiary, which was designed for honeybee and stingless-bee-related research."
Jenny aims to complete her PhD this year, and is hoping to further assist in the development of the stingless bee industry through her research project. "After success with presenting my work at conferences, the 3MT, assisting in the Invertebrate Biology Unit and running a community bee workshop, I have realised I enjoy the interaction research can have with the community," says Jenny of her future plans. "I now have strong aspirations to follow a career in Science Communication."
The Apiary has a long history at UWS. Take a look at some of the historic photos
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