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Teenage Honeybee Researcher Takes on Bee Crisis

June 05, 2016

Bee Colony Collapse, Honey, Honey Bees, Honey Industry

We all have passions when we’re young, and while some of us either lose those passions, grow out of them, or simply find new ones, one New York teen has a long term passion that not only provided direction for his career but could also be the answer to the great enigma that is colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is believed to be the cause of declining global populations of honeybees. 14-year-old Joe McInnis has spent the last year working with retired veterinary pathologist Doug Gregg to find the cause of CCD and is the youngest person to ever receive the Gulf Instrument Scholarship for his research, which is said to be Ph. D level.

CCD, as we know, presents itself as a dead colony, with no adult honeybees or dead bee bodies and only a live queen, honey stores, and usually immature bees left, according to the USDA. While working with Dr. Gregg, McInnis has learned an immune depletion virus transmitted from worms to mites and then to honeybees could be the cause of CCD. This virus, McInnis says, doesn’t kill bees but rather weakens their immune systems, so that when bees contract less serious diseases, those diseases become fatal. According to Dr. Gregg, if McInnis’s research solves CCD, “it will be earth-shaking.”

With this working relationship beginning one year ago, McInnis and Dr. Gregg bounced research ideas off each other and asked local scientists for help after McInnis finished extra coursework from retired biology teacher Bob Jester. Dr. Gregg’s interest in the African swine flu (similar to CCD) sparked McInnis’s research, causing the pair to acquire equipment and quickly get to work.

As per his research, to test his theory McInnis injects the immune-suppressant virus into a group of worms he keeps in his family’s attic, where he monitors them daily and waits to see if the worms turn blue. If they do, McInnis injects the worms with virus antibodies created from injected rabbits, since rabbits aren’t affected by the virus. The antibodies allow McInnis to observe the virus traveling throughout the worms. He then molds the worms into wax squares after they’ve been dried out and uses a microtome to create pieces about 1/16 the thickness of a hair strand. The strips are then dyed and placed on microscopic slides to be examined. “We haven’t gotten the virus to work yet,” McInnis said, “but I think a couple of [the most recent] are blue, so I think it worked this time, which is really exciting.” The duo’s overall goal is to replicate the process with mites and later with honeybees.

As McInnis stated in a recent presentation, “Albert Einstein once said, ‘If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.’” Such thoughts cause McInnis to care even more deeply about his research, which he plans to continue in college, where he will study microbiology. The research on CCD may take another two to three years, though both McInnis and Dr. Gregg are patient enough not to worry.

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