Heavy Metal Impacts on Bee Health: An Interview with PhD Student Amber Bell
What got you interested in science?
I've always been interested in how things work. Growing up, I was always asking questions like why is the sky blue, you know, the usual ones. Then I got into high school, and I took all the sciences that I could and enjoyed them all. I think it's the puzzle that science presents and working those puzzles out that got me interested. I've continued that into university and I'm loving it.
Was chemistry always your favourite science?
I’ve always liked all of science. In high school, I studied physics, biology and chemistry. I enjoyed most of physics except the electrical side of it, I’m not sure why. I also enjoyed biology, but I think I enjoyed chemistry more than the others because it took the calculations and maths from physics and applied them to the biological aspect. So yes, I think chemistry has always been my favourite.
Is it true that your masters research and your PhD research were on different topics? If so, did you want to explain those topics?
Yes, they are on different topics. My master’s topic was looking at low diastase activity in mānuka honey. Diastase activity is an export parameter that needs to be met before honey can be exported overseas. It has to be above a diastase level of eight. Diastase is an enzyme in honey, heat and storage will degrade diastase over time, so it’s used as a quality indicator of honey as both conditions are considered detrimental to honey quality. However, in mānuka honey, they were finding that quite a few were falling below that threshold of eight, even though it hadn't been heated or stored for long periods of time. I was investigating why this might be occurring, and I found two compounds in mānuka honey that appeared to be inhibiting the diastase enzyme. Then my supervisor Dr Megan Grainger was like ‘hey you should come and do this PhD project’ which was looking at bees. So, I have graduated from honey to bees. My PhD project is looking at how heavy metals affect bee health, specifically, how these heavy metals interact with the brain. I will investigate if they cause issues with learning, memory and the overall health of the hive. We will start with laboratory-based studies of individual bees dosed with sub-lethal concentrations of metals and then also do a field-based study with entire honeybee colonies to see if the lab-based results extrapolate out into what is observed in honeybee colonies.
That’s interesting. Where are these heavy metals coming from? Is it in the pollen they collect?
These heavy metals can come from natural sources like volcanic activity, but also from anthropogenic activity, so human pollutants. Things like the use of leaded fuel and paint contributed to lead in the environment. Cadmium is a bad one in agriculture because it's in superphosphate fertilisers. Copper is used in orchards in fungicides and pesticides. This means they are potentially readily available for bees in nectar, pollen and their water sources. Also, bees are covered in these little hairs which help them pick up the pollen. It also means that when they are flying, they’re picking up dust particulates from the atmosphere which could also contain these metals.
How exactly did you get into the bee health/ honey chemistry side of chemistry?
Whilst going through undergraduate, I enjoyed the more analytical side of chemistry as well as its application to food. I ended up going over to London for a year and doing analysis on fortified tea samples, quantifying different vitamins and minerals in those teas. When I got back to New Zealand, I was interested in doing further study. I had different options presented to me by Megan, and there was one which just jumped out. It was the diastase in mānuka honey project. I thought it sounded really interesting and I loved every minute of it. Then it's kind of a logical progression to go into bees because they're just such fascinating creatures and there is so much to learn in this field.
Plus, you hear all these things about bees dying off at alarming rates. So could this research contribute to solving that problem?
Yeah, this research could help understand the problem a bit better and hopefully contribute to solving it. Pesticides, parasites, diseases, and loss of food sources all cause problems that can lead to bees dying off. One thing that's less studied is heavy metals, which is why we're carrying out this work. It could indicate the impact these metals have on bee health and what we can do to mitigate that, such as beekeepers being more aware of where to place hives or alternative agriculture applications that contain fewer metals.
I would love to hear about this scholarship that you got from the AOAC (Association of Official Analytical Collaboration). How do you find the scholarship? What is the scholarship about?
So last year, I applied for the AOAC student award using my diastase research, after hearing about it from my supervisor but was unsuccessful. I tried again this year with my PhD research and was very shocked but honoured to find out I was a recipient. The scholarship itself is called the AOAC International/Eurofins Foundation “Testing for Life” student award. It's an international award for students researchers advancing science in analytical or molecular testing for food safety, security, defence or authenticity, or health and environmental protection. It kind of ties in with my research because bees are important pollinators. Approximately 1/3 of the world’s food crops are pollinated, and one of the most widespread pollinators are honeybees. So, if we’re not looking after our honeybees, it's detrimental to food production. Honeybees are also good indicators of environmental metal levels due to their foraging behaviour. As a recipient, I get to go over to Arizona, USA for the AOAC annual meeting and give a 10-minute oral presentation on my award-winning research, as well as complimentary AOAC membership and a 2-day mentorship experience at a later date.
What are you looking forward to the most about going to Arizona, and what do you like least looking forward to about it?
I'm looking forward to seeing what new science is going on in the realm of analytical chemistry, especially in food science. This meeting showcases new methodologies and technologies, mostly in food. It's going to be so cool to look at all that knowledge and find bits and pieces that I might be able to apply to my research. I'm kind of nervous about the presentation but also looking forward to it because I'll hopefully get some good discussions with other attendees afterwards who might have some good insights and ideas regarding my research. I’m least looking forward to the Arizona heat, it can be about 39-40 degrees Celsius at the end of August/beginning of September, so I hope the venue is air-conditioned!
Do you know how many people get this scholarship?
It varies from year to year. I think last year there were five recipients. This year there are eight.
You also attended the 3rd annual Honey Bee Research Symposium and placed second in the student category. Tell me about what this symposium is and what that experience was like.
The Honey Bee Research Symposium was a day for us scientists around New Zealand who have been doing research in the apiculture field to come together and present what we’ve found. Quite a few Master and PhD students participate, and because of that, they have an award which they give out at the end of the day to the top student presenters. My presentation on diastase activity in manuka honey was awarded 2nd place. As for my experience, I am quite an introvert, I don't like speaking in front of people. But because of the times I've presented, especially through uni, I feel like all that practise just came together and my presentation flowed well. I quite enjoyed it; it was a great learning experience. I also thoroughly enjoyed listening to all the other research going on in the field of apiculture, there were some very interesting research topics.
What do you think you will do after you have your PhD?
I haven't thought that far ahead because it's hard to picture where I'm going to go. My journey up until now has been guided by the options that have been presented as I finished each step, so I'm kind of going with that. However, I've always wanted to do research because it's the picking up new skills and constant learning which I enjoy. Also, I want to contribute to the world in whatever way I can and produce work beneficial to other people. That's a part that I enjoy, having something applicable for others to use. So, I definitely want to go on to do research, but I’m just not sure yet of the finer details.
What do you enjoy doing outside of science?
All sorts. I like the outdoors and sports. Currently, I read, play hockey and soccer/futsal, and occasionally do horse riding, however less so now that I'm busy with uni. Previously, I have also enjoyed kickboxing, ballroom dancing and tramping, however, there’s never enough time in the day to do everything!