Student Research Spotlight - Virginia Zanni

Posted: March 4, 2016

This is the 2nd of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Is stress-eating bad? Not if you’re a honey bee.
By Erin Treanore

Eating because of stress is often assumed to be a bad habit, but for honey bees, this behavior may actually be key to their survival. If you’ve read the news recently, the headlines related to honey bee colony losses have been difficult to miss. Virginia Zanni, a visiting scholar from Università degli Studi di Udine in Italy, is spending her time at Penn State in Christina Grozinger’s lab, studying how supplementing bee's nutrition can help them combat the different stressors underlying colony losses.

“Pollinators are critical components of many ecosystems, and they are also fascinating, complex creatures” says Zanni as she explains why she chose to study honey bees.

These complex creatures are vulnerable to many different stressors. Zanni is focusing her efforts on studying parasites and pathogens, which together can drastically weaken a colony.  Zanni is evaluating how supplementary nutrition from pollen can improve the survival of bees infected parasitized by Varroa mites and the viruses that Varroa transmits.

“Pollen is like medicine - it has a therapeutic function” says Zanni.  She says pollen plays an important role in development of the larva, larval and adult health, and in colony growth. Pollen is made up of essential amino acids, lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates.  Zanni is examining how eating pollen can help the bees combat viruses and Varroa mites, and using genomic approaches to probe the molecular mechanisms and genes that underlie these effects.

The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” could be used to describe the tiny pathogens, parasites, and pollen that fill the honey bee’s world, but for Zanni, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In the future she plans to continue studying honey bees and the delicate system they exist in.