Gut reaction: Stout senior’s research may provide key clue to why parasite is killing honeybees

2012-03-31T21:30:00Z Gut reaction: Stout senior’s research may provide key clue to why parasite is killing honeybeesBy ANNE GUTHRIE | For THE NEWS Chippewa Herald
March 31, 2012 9:30 pm  • 

When Danielle Thuemling came to UW-Stout, she had her heart set on a career in the medical field. Now she finds herself performing original research on honeybees that is turning the heads of entomologists across the nation. 

Although most UW-Stout students would not have given a second thought to honey bees, Thuemling and her supervisors have targeted a parasite that is causing problems in honeybee colonies, nationwide. Their hope is to control the mite infestation and trouble shoot a component cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD), a devastating occurrence that eradicates complete colonies.

The problem is that parasitic mites weaken the bees. This particular parasite feeds on the bees’ hemolymph — the equivalent of blood — and significantly shortens their lifespan. In addition, the mites, like many parasites, transmit a number of deadly diseases.

As pollinators, honey bees play a fundamental role in agriculture and horticulture. Too often, this important element is overlooked. They are widely considered the main insect to pollinate flowering plants, including many fruits and vegetables that are readily available at supermarkets nationwide.  If CCD prevails and honeybees are eradicated, the quality of the nation’s agricultural products could drop drastically.

Power of research

Dr. James Burritt, a UW-Stout biology professor, has been a beekeeper since he was in high school.  When he started his practice, bees were considered disease-free.  Unfortunately, times have changed.  He currently tends to two colonies of bees-both of which are growing in the presence of the parasite, Varroa destructor.

“At first, I was upset,” Burritt said. “I didn’t know about the mites, and I assumed that the bees I had purchased were disease free.” 

After discovering that all bee colonies in Wisconsin are growing in the presence of the mite parasite, he took to the lab.

At the time, Thuemling was enrolled in Biotechnology with Dr. Stephen Nold, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of classroom research at UW-Stout.

“I am trying to get students to do original, meaningful research in the classroom,” he said. “It helps students learn more about science and helps shape their careers. It’s a very powerful tool as an educator.”

This hands-on philosophy is what spurred the bee and mite project.   Burritt and Nold teamed up and included their classes in their investigation of the mite problem. Thuemling took the idea and ran with it.

“In Dr. Nold’s biotechnology course, one of our projects was to research the Varroa destructor infestation,” Thuemling explained.  “Our class decided to survey the bacterial diversity present in the gut of the mite. We discovered that no one has asked this specific question before.”

Thuemling is currently investigating the problem as her senior thesis with the help of Nold’s Molecular & Cell Biology I students. She is hoping to uncover differences between the gut bacteria of the honey bees and the mites. 

“We hope to target a specific bacterium found in the mites that is absent in the bees as a means for control,” Thuemling said.

With the help of UW-Stout’s Applied Science students and faculty, Thuemling’s undergraduate research project has thrived, with the promise of producing groundbreaking results. 

Although she is still pursuing her degree with the intention of attending medical school, this experience has opened her eyes to new opportunities and expanded her research skills. Thuemling will be presenting her research for UW-Stout’s Research Day on Tuesday, April 24 in the Memorial Student Center.

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