Alcalde Docs | For the Bees

– Every plant that has a flower that you can see depends on
insects to pollinate them, and the most important insects are bees. But there’s one species in particular that’s used in agriculture for pollination and that’s the honey bee,
the western honey bee. We really need honey bees. (gentle music) The winter of 2006 to 2007, so more than 10 years ago now, there was a huge die-off
in the U.S. of bee colonies and it wasn’t clear why. A consortium of people around
the U.S. got interested in determining whether there
was a new, a new disease agent, like a pathogen that
might have been introduced that was suddenly wiping out the bees, and we could use sequencing to try to figure out what it was. To make a long story short, there was no new, single new pathogen. That did not turn out to be the case, but by happenstance, we realized that, oh, there’s this set of bacteria
that live in every single bee. And we had samples from
before the colony collapse, from all over the world. So it turns out that many, many species, basically all animal
species, including insects, have bacteria that live in them or on them and that are sort of
part of their microbiome, but they hadn’t been studied
very much in the past. So they’ve been this kind of black box, we could use microscopy, we could see, oh yes, there’s some organisms there, but, couldn’t do anything else, they just knew they were there, basically, and people would speculate
about what they did. All kinds of things that
are going on, actually, maybe can be explained better once we look at this sort of hidden dimension that’s been hidden to
humans for all of history, no one’s ever been able to study it. So now suddenly, we have
the tools where we can, basically through molecular sequencing, understand what’s there,
and when it’s changing, and what genes are there,
and what they’re doing. And so suddenly, there’s this
whole kind of hidden part that really is completely undiscovered. We now know that it does a
lot of things for the bee, it helps it to digest food, it helps it protect against
pathogens and so on. So, we’ve been focused on that aspect, how does the microbiome enhance the health or affect the health of the host and that sort of opens up
sort of a broader arena of possible things that
could affect the bees, right? Because it’s not just things
that affect the bee directly and cause it to die,
like a poison to the bee. It’s something that might
disrupt the microbiome and then over time, the
bee is more susceptible or has poor nutrition and
dies at a greater rate. What we found, for example, is some chemicals that
disrupt the microbiome that might be used in agriculture. Even though that chemical
doesn’t immediately kill the bee and it’s not a toxin
directly, say, to the bee, it disrupts the microbiome, and then over a little
bit more extended period, that bee is susceptible to
a disease and then it dies. Some of the declines we see could be due to this kind of bigger web that, the microorganisms are
part of this big web that’s keeping everything going, we can’t see them, but
actually they’re important, and so when we do things
that disrupt those, that has these consequences. There’s these little
mites called Varroa mites and they are one of the worst
problems with bees right now. And beekeepers are grappling
with how to control them, and these mites feed on
the blood of the bee. A STAR graduate student
here, Sean Leonard, started some work and we
had the bacteria in culture, we could grow them, and he
started the very difficult work of developing genetic
tools for these organisms so that we could add genes to them and change their capabilities and then put them back in
bees and see what they can do. (gentle music) We put in a molecule that makes the mite attack its own self and die. We’ve shown that bees that have these modified symbionts
designed to target the mite, that the mites die at a higher rate when they’re on those bees. (gentle music) One possibility is that the things that are hurting the honey
bee, the honey bee hives, are actually affecting
insects more broadly. It’s just that honey bees are the ones that are basically domesticated, that we see when the hive dies. About the last three years or so, there’s a lot of evidence that
all insects are declining, which is extremely alarming
because it kind of means there’s big problems in
the ecosystem generally. Possibly, the declines in
honey bee colonies are kind of just one little echo of this broader thing that’s happening to insects generally. (gentle music) In my earlier life, I really
liked insects and plants, I mean, as a little kid, I was the one who liked all that stuff and I didn’t think of it
as an occupation at all, that was not anything anyone in my family did or anything close. I’m a member of a large family,
the third of eight children, and most of us went to
University of Texas. But I came here, took a class, and then I got to know
some graduate students and started doing research. Was working closely with
one graduate student and that got me interested
and I asked them where to apply to graduate
school and they gave me advice, and so I took whatever they
said and did it (laughs). There’s a lot of studies on bees, I mean, their behavior and how they
learn, how they navigate, and then, they’re actually
really important in the world. So I, basically, was already interested and then when this new colony collapse and there were these new
thing to study about them, I just decided, uh, this
is probably worth doing. A lot of things you can study, but people have done it for a long time, so you’re probably not gonna
find anything all that new because it’s been looked at by
smart people for a long time. So, I figure that’s
probably less promising than something that really
is unlooked at, so far. (gentle music)

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