Insect

Cool Jobs: Abuzz for bees

honeybee apiary
honeybee apiary

On a hot September day, Bernardo Niño stands in a yard surrounded by wooden boxes. Each is only a little bit bigger than a shoebox. Stacked one atop the other, they form towers a little more than a meter (about 3 feet) high. Each box holds about 10 screens inside wooden frames. This is where worker bees build honeycombs.

Hundreds of the bugs buzz around the mesh veil that obscures and protects Niño’s face. He calmly lifts a wooden frame from one of the hives. He holds it up to his face to get a closer look. Hundreds more busy worker bees scurry across the screen’s surface.

“There, this one isn’t looking good,” Niño says, pointing to a bee. There’s a tiny red spot on its body about the size of a pinhead. There’s something wrong with its wings, too. Normally long and flat, these wings are crumpled like a wad of paper.

Varroa mite on bee
The little red bump on this honeybee’s body is a varroa mite. These parasites latch onto honeybees and suck their “blood.”

Niño knows his bees. A research technician, he works for a bee research laboratory at the University of California, Davis. Gently, the man pinches the worker bee with two fingers and lifts it off the frame.

The red spot on this bug is a varroa mite. This pest, Varroa destructor, latches onto honeybees and sucks their hemolymph — or insect blood — the same way that ticks or leeches can suck human blood. As a parasite, the mite lives off of its host, often sapping its energy.

Bees weakened by varroa mites are more likely to get other diseases. One of those diseases is called deformed wing virus. Niño points to the bee’s scrunched-up wings. That virus has left this insect unable to fly.

As many as 60,000 honeybees may share a single colony or hive. And an infestation of these mites can put the entire hive in danger. Last year, U.S. beekeepers lost almost half their hives to parasites and diseases. That adds up to a lot of dead bees. Experts worry that threats to bees could imperil many of our food supplies.

Honeybees pollinate at least 90 North American crops. These include apples, almonds, broccoli and carrots. Overall, bees and other pollinators help to produce more than one-third of the world’s food crops.

Honeybees have fascinated people since the dawn of civilization. Prehistoric rock drawings depict people hunting for honey. Chemical traces from ancient clay pots show that Stone Age people used beeswax. Even today, people still rely on the products bees make possible and the services these insects provide.

Given how important bees are to people, it should come as no surprise that scientists are working to protect honeybee health. Some researchers have also begun probing humanity’s long history with these helpful insects in hopes of improving modern medicine. Still others are studying bees to learn more about flight.

Fighting bee disease

As a research technician, Bernardo helps to do experiments that have been designed by a bee scientist. At the University of California, Davis, that scientist happens to be his wife, Elina Niño.

“I’m the boots on the ground, hands in the hive,” he says. “She’s the brains of the operation.”

Niño lab
Together, Bernardo and Elina Niño study health and disease in these California honeybees.

When California beekeepers have a problem, they come to Elina Niño. As head of the state’s beekeeping extension program, she looks for solutions. Extension programs are usually branches of universities that work with a state’s farmers.

“I guess I became an entomologist by accident,” Elina Niño jokes. In college, she had wanted to become a veterinarian. But watching forensic crime shows piqued her interest in bugs. She realized that those detectives sometimes used insects to help crack murder cases.

In graduate school, she studied whether a pesticide used to keep pesky flies off of cows might harm dung beetles on dairy farms. Those beetles are important to keeping a farm’s soil healthy. Soon, she moved from dung beetles to another helpful insect — the honeybee.

California beekeepers told her that the varroa mite has become their biggest problem. They asked for her help.

To protect their hives, beekeepers need to kill the mites. And pesticides containing human-made chemicals could kill those mites. But they also stunted the queen bees’ growth, Niño found. That’s important, because a queen that is small or weak may not reproduce as well as a healthy one. Plus the varroa mites quickly developed resistance to these pesticides so that they…

7 Real Life Organisms That Seem to be Born From Nightmares

The world is a scary place, but sometimes the things we are scared of during the day are hardly the most terrifying things out there. These real life creatures remind us that there are far scarier things out there than sharks, spiders and bears.

1. Asian Giant Hornet

“Giant” and “hornet” are two words very few people want to see next to one another -and with good reason. The Asian giant hornet is exactly what you would expect from the name -a giant hornet that lives in Asia. Don’t console yourself by thinking that maybe their size is a tradeoff that makes them less dangerous either. These giant hornets are just as aggressive as the regular ones we’ve all seen and their venom is even more potent. In fact, 30 to 40 people die each year in Japan due to stings from these wasps.

You may be thinking, “well at least they’re in Asia so I’m safe here in my North American or Western European home,” but while that might be true for the time being, the insects have been spotted in the US, France and England already and their numbers are likely to go up, not down in these countries.

2. Human Botfly

Warning: This video is not for the squeamish -in fact, it’s not for 90% of people, it’s just nightmarish.

Visually the botfly is just another fly and gross, but not all that terrible. But when you consider that the human botlfy larvae feeds on human flesh, it’s easy to see why this insect is absolutely a thing of nightmares. The bug will lay its eggs on mosquitoes and ticks that then deposit the eggs on human skin when the blood-sucker goes in for a bite to eat. The eggs then manage to get under the skin of humans through the hole left behind by the parasite they were attached to and then the larvae will live there for six to eight weeks before bursting through the skin as a full-grown adult. It’s enough to make you want to bathe in bug repellant.

3. Colossal Squid

Image via Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Even if you don’t find squids creepy, which many people do, it’s absolutely horrifying that something this big could be hiding under the ocean and still remain such a mystery to us surface dwellers. Despite the fact that Colossal squids can grow to 46 feet long and 1650 pounds, a full-sized specimen was never recovered until 1981. Up until that point, the only proof that colossal squids existed was through the collection of random parts of the squid such as tentacles and beaks found washed up on shore or in the belly of sperm whales.

Image via Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Colossal squids aren’t even the longest squid out there, though they are the heaviest. That honor goes to the giant squid, which have been long talked about in myths and fishermen’s tales, but also remain largely unseen and are still largely a mystery to scientists. The colossal squid are creepier than their giant cousins though…