Alcoholic Bees

Goshen College students Greg Thiessen (Austin, Texas) and Peter Martin (Goshen, Indiana) worked with professor Dr. Andrew (Andy) Ammons in the Biology Department over the summer of 2010 in the annual Maple Scholars program.  These students learned the basics of beekeeping and bee management, honey bee physiology and genomics, and the biology of alcohol exposure.  Greg worked on a project exploring the physiology of ethanol tolerance in bees and Peter isolated and amplified honey bee genes that influence ethanol sensitivity using modern molecular techniques.

Honey bees are generally managed in man-made hives and located together in what is termed an apiary.  In this image of the Goshen apiary, Greg (left) and Peter (right) prepare to inspect the hives. The bees build comb on wooden frames located in the hive.  Young larvae and pupae, honey, and pollen are maintained in the cells of this comb.  For these experiments, bee subspecies known as Carniolans and Italians were used.

To study ethanol tolerance, Greg and Peter designed a device known as an inebriometer (previously used in Drosophila research) in which bees elute through a tube through which ethanol vapor is flowing.  The mean elution time (MET) of the bees indicates how sensitive the bees are to ethanol.  To analyze the genetic data for this project, DNA was extracted and amplified through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and the products were run through agarose gels.

In the course of this research, it is necessary to obtain day-old bees to be paint-marked and put back into the hive until they are older for further testing or sampling.  To do this, frames are removed that contain brood about to emerge as adults.  Frames would be placed in a frame cage and placed in a humidified incubator.  Bees that emerge over the next day are one day old and brushed into a marking arena.  These bees cannot sting or fly yet.  Bees are painted with designated colors on their thoraces and returned to the hive.  After a few days, Greg and Peter would open the hive, identify bees of a certain age, and collect them for experiments.

A unique aspect of the social behavior of bees is swarming.  When colonies become too large, half the colony and the old queen fly away to found a new colony.  One of our colonies swarmed over the summer.  In this video, the swarm was on a tree that we shook into a hive box.  The queen must have fallen into the box, because the worker bees marched up into the colony.  After giving the bees some time, we moved the swarm hive back to the apiary.  The old colony retained a young daughter queen that had been prepared to take over from the old queen.

For more information, see the students’ research posters and research papers (Greg: poster, paper; Peter: poster, paper).