My Summer Bee-search By Jerresia Edwards

The best part about eating at a Chinese restaurant is opening your fortune cookie.  That night, my fortune cookie read, “Opportunity is knocking at your door, answer it tomorrow.”  Those words of wisdom quickly came true.  After my last night of farewells and eating Chinese food with friends and family, I boarded my flight to North Dakota State University (NDSU) to participate in the Research on the Prairies REU program.

With unfavorable circumstances and limited resources available, the rural Mississippi Delta offers few opportunities for students to get research experience.  Being from a rural area, I was unfamiliar with how to use lab equipment or how to conduct research.  This program has given me an opportunity to do my first experience research in insect immunology.  My experience at NDSU has helped me to gain more general knowledge about conducting and executing a scientific study and serves as a preparation for my career goal, which is to become a forensic examiner.  Upon my arrival, I was under the anticipation that I would be injecting honey bees with bacteria and watching them grow and develop into adults.  Instead of honey bees, I ended up working and conducting experiments on their distant cousin, the alfalfa leaf-cutting bees.  Not only did I have an experience to work in Dr. Kendra Greenlee’s lab with my graduate student mentor, Sara Cummings, I also got a chance to work at the United States Department of Agriculture with some of the most profound names in science.  Dr. Greenlee’s lab focuses on the physiological structure and functions of insects during juvenile development.  I was also given the opportunity to make observations and learn about other REU students’ projects.

Before this REU, I knew very little about bees.  Farmers use the alfalfa leaf-cutting bee to pollinate alfalfa to feed their livestock.  In the winter, farmers will buy gallons of juvenile bees and store them for the winter in 6˚C to stop their development.  When spring arrives, the farmers remove the bees from storage and place them into the incubator in 29˚C to start their development for 30 days.  Once the bees are developed into adults, they fly out into the fields to start pollinating, mating, and beginning the circle of life again.  Lately, there has been a decline in the population of the honey bees.  Bee diseases and parasites such as wasps are few of the reasons for the dramatic decrease in the honey bee reproduction.  The alfalfa leaf cutting bee serves as an alternative pollinator for farmers.  Alfalfa leaf-cutting bee is known as one of the best pollinators for alfalfa and other crops such as tomatoes.  Sometimes during the adult development stage, farmers will need to delay development to match adult bee emergence with their crop blooms.  So they will put the developing bees back into 6˚C until the timing is right.  They get a lot of mortality that way, so USDA researchers came up with the idea of giving a pulse of heat (20˚C for one hour) during that time to alleviate the cold stress.  The purpose of my research project is to measure the alfalfa leaf-cutting bee’s immunity after the cold stress alone or with a heat pulse.  My hypothesis is to test the bees’ immunity as pupae to see if it can with stand bacterial infections and temperature change.  My method for my research project is extracting the alfalfa leaf cutting bee from their leaf capsule while they are in the pupal stage of their development.  Then, I place them in two different temperature control groups which are fluctuating thermal regime (FTR) and standard thermal regime (STR).  In the FTR group, the alfalfa leaf-cutting bees are placed in an incubator where they get a pulse of heat each day.  In the STR group experience temperature always stays the same.  Afterwards, I place the pupae in four different control groups, which are noble bees, injured bees, vehicle-injected bees, and bees injected with E. coli.  After placement of the alfalfa leaf cutting bee, I begin tracing their development.

One of the common problems in my research project is parasitic wasps.  Parasitic wasps use their abdomen to cut a hole in alfalfa leaf-cutting bees’ nests to lay eggs.  Later, their eggs hatch and kill the bees.  Upon finding the wasp parasites, I kill them with ethanol or bleach.
One day, while I was tracking the development of the novel bees, I discovered a purple laval bee.  Due to the unknown reasons for the bee’s color, I named this bee, “Mystery”.  Curious, I begin reading and searching the literature about common bee diseases.  I came across another research project that discussed bee diseases in the alfalfa leaf-cutting bees’ distant cousin, the honey bee.  I found out that one of reasons for bees turning purple is the bee disease called purple brood.

Purple brood occurs when an adult bee collects and uses the pollen and nectar from Cyrilla racemiflora or southern leatherwood.  This bee disease is not commonly found in the alfalfa leaf cutting bee.  One of the characteristics of the bee disease is the turning of the color of the bee to purple.  That discovery led me to ask questions such as, “Why is it the only bee that is purple?” or “Is there a way to prevent this from happening again?”  From further research, I discovered that the poisonous plant is from California and that the alfalfa leaf-cutting bee was raised in North Dakota.  “How could the bee get infected with this pollen?  Will I be able to find to find a method that will decrease the purple brood disorder?”  Well, those are questions that will remain unanswered.  I had an alternate hypothesis that Mystery maybe could be purple because of gene mutation.  My hypothesis about gene mutation is hard to test because more purple bees will be needed.

In conclusion, everyone’s fortune cookie reads differently.  That night, my fortune cookie’s words of wisdom made me realize that the Research on the Prairies is an opportunity that doesn’t come as often.  This program has given me a chance to do my first experience research in insect immunology.  Over the last few weeks, I will continue to learn a lot about alfalfa leaf cutting bees and how to conduct a research experiment.