Student Research Spotlight - Courtnee Eddington
Posted: April 14, 2015
Nutrition Could be Key to Honey bee Survival
by Fern Graves
Could Marmite be the answer to saving honey bee colonies from collapse? Probably not, but the salty spread that is a favorite of Brits may offer some insights into the nutrition of working bees. Courtnee Eddington, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Entomology at Penn State, is using Marmite to study the way bees’ diets affect their lifespan, immune system, and ability to gather pollen.
“We want to start incorporating other factors soon,” Eddington says of the project. “There are a lot of viruses that might be more dangerous depending on what the bees eat, and what kind of pesticides they’re exposed to.”
Pesticides, Eddington explains, contain additives like detergents that act as vehicles for spreading the pesticide more easily over crops.
“They don’t have to tell you what they add,” Eddington says of the chemical companies’ formulas. “[The additives] could be more toxic than the actual pesticide.” To find out, she must first determine what effects the bees’ food may be having.
Enter Marmite. Eddington has been using the pasty spread made with yeasts from beer making in a sugar-water diet to provide a protein source for bees. She is comparing these bees to ones fed only on sugar-water. Though the results have not been perfect, the idea provides options that Eddington hopes will consider the needs of honey bees beyond just their energetic needs. For example, consider a diet of chips and sugary drinks—on which you can survive—versus a more balanced diet of vegetables and protein sources, which will likely increase your longevity and quality of life.
Once the diets of bees and their nutritional effects are better understood, researchers may begin to see more clearly the links between viruses and pesticide effects on unhealthy bees. Perhaps “healthy eaters” in the honey bee world will be hardier under the strenuous conditions of farm life. Since modern agriculture relies heavily on pesticides, it is more practical to find a compromise between the needs of bees and the needs of farmers, and a better diet has the potential to do just that.
“Trying to determine which viruses are present and how they are getting into the hive is our next step,” Eddington says. “Once we find a diet that works and figure out what viruses are there, we can start testing pesticide additives with [the other two] factors.”