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Penn State Graduate Student Examines Bee Health in Brazil

Posted: May 8, 2012

Michael Freiberg recently graduated with a BSc and MSc from the Department of Entomology. He visited the University of São Paulo, Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, Brazil, in May and June of 2011, with support from the College of Agricultural Sciences International Office.

Last summer, I had the chance to visit and research with a group of scientists at a university in southern Brazil. Through the support of Penn State and with the guidance of my advisor, Dr. Diana Cox-Foster, I was able to spend two months at the University of São Paulo studying viruses in both Africanized honey bees and native pollinators.  I had been to South America several times before, though never to Brazil, and this trip presented a new set of challenges: I was travelling by myself in a new culture with a new language.  I really realized what I had gotten myself into when I was talking on a cell phone to a native Brazilian, trying to explain my location using Portuguese, a language that I had never formally studied.

This trip was a tremendous opportunity for me as a young scientist interested in honey bees and pollinator biology; I got to see firsthand how science is done at another institution in the context of a completely different culture.  In addition to learning another language and collaborating with some very talented scientists, I learned many skills such as those involved in the molecular techniques that I use to hunt for viruses and those involved in managing Africanized bees and native stingless bees.

The most fascinating thing I learned about was meliponiculture: the practice of keeping stingless bees.  Stingless bees (Apidae; Meliponini) are a group which consists of many species found throughout the tropics.  They are important pollinators for both wild plants and several agricultural crops.  They also produce a small amount of honey which can be used as a sweetener and is rumored to have medicinal properties.  Because of this, they have been kept in the Americas even before the arrival of Europeans and the techniques for keeping stingless bees are well-developed.

My research project in Brazil involved searching for honey bee viruses in stingless bees. Unfortunately, like many pollinators across the world, their outlook is grim and the causes of their decline are poorly understood.  In an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the cause of the stingless bee decline, I left the United States to investigate the possibility that honey bee viruses were also infecting stingless bees in Brazil.  Since there is evidence in North America that honey bee viruses can infect other species of bees, such as bumble bees, I wanted to see if honey bee viruses were also infecting stingless bees.  Fortunately for the stingless bees, I did not find any evidence of this occurring.

As a recent Master’s graduate, I have been extremely fortunate to work with members of the Center for Pollinator Research during my time at Penn State and especially during my project in Brazil.  It is this focus on the importance of pollinator health and biology—not only in Pennsylvania and the United States, but also globally—that makes me proud to work with the Center for Pollinator Research and the Penn State Department of Entomology. I can only hope that both the scientists and pollinators in Brazil and Penn State that I worked with have benefitted half as much as I have from my research.