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Posts Tagged: Matan Shelomi

Why Bees Are Disappearing and What You Should Know

Matan Shelomi
If you should ask Extension apiculturist (emeritus) Eric Mussen of the University of California, Davis, whether he believes that neonicotinoids are the primary cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD), he will say answer you fair and square: "No, they're not the primary cause of CCD."

Mussen, who retired in June after 38 years of service, says "Neonics are only one of the classes of pesticide residues that we frequently find in analyses of adult bees, beeswax and stored pollens. We encounter CCD in colonies in which no neonicotinoid residues can be found, and we find colonies surviving year after year with measurable residues of neonicotinoids in the hives.  Obviously, neonicotinoids do not appear to be ''the primary' cause of CCD."

Enter Matan Shelomi, a young, thoughtful and articulate entomologist who frequently answers questions on Quora. Huffington Post picked up his comments on Quora--What's the deal with the Bees?--about our bee-leagured bees. (Quora, launched by Harvard students, is a site where you can ask questions and get answers, and Shelomi answers plenty of them and quite well. A couple of years ago he tied for a first-place Shorty Award, the social media-equivalent of an Oscar.)

But first, more about Matan Shelomi. He's a Harvard graduate who received his doctorate in entomology this year from UC Davis, studying with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis professor of entomology. He is presently a postdoctoral researcher at the c in Jena, Germany. It's a two-year position funded by a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology. "My work is a continuation and expansion of my doctoral research at Davis: I am studying the endogenous cellulases and pectinases of the stick insects (Phasmatodea). By taking insect genes for these enzymes and expressing them in insect cell lines, we can quantitatively test the function of these genes and try to determine what role they play in the living insect and how they evolved."

European colonists brought the honey bee to what is now the United States in 1622. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
So, what IS the deal with bees? Shelomi, like many entomologists, hears the same questions:  "Are they in trouble?" "Why are they disappearing?" "How can I help?" Some firmly believe that "It's obviously GMO's!" or "'We must ban neonicotinoids!" Some dissenters become activists: "How do we stop the corporations that are killing bees?"

Shelomi keyed in on those questions and more after hearing "a great talk by the venerable Dr. May Berenbaum, a wonderful entomologist and effectively the scientific spokesperson about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the technical term for the phenomenon of vanishing bees. So I present here for you the current state of knowledge on CCD: its history, its causes, and what we can do so stop it." Berenbaum, professor and head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois, is in line to be president of the 7000-member Entomological Society of America.

"CCD does not have one cause," Shelomi emphasized. "There is no one chemical to ban or one company to censure or one critter to eradicate. Instead, CCD is the product of several factors whose whole is deadlier than the sum of its parts: a perfect storm of biological and cultural issues that are too much for the already genetically weak honeybees to handle. However, honeybees and bees themselves are not going extinct anytime soon."

Shelomi noted that honey bees are not native to America. "European honey bees were imported to the United States a few centuries ago, where they adapted well to the local plants. Without bees, certain crops (most notably almonds) could not be produced."

A backlit worker bee. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
"Beekeeping is not easy, however," he acknowledged. "Like all animals, bees get sick, and like all farmers, beekeepers will do whatever is necessary to keep their bees healthy and cure or prevent any problems. The biggest bee problem was foulbrood, a bacterial disease where the larvae (baby bees) turn into a disgusting, brown goop. To keep their baby bees from liquifying, beekeepers began to use antibiotics. There's also a fungus called Nosema that can destroy entire colonies, so beekeepers began using fungicides. The worst is the Varroa mite, Varroa destructor, an arachnid that attaches to the outside of bees and sucks their blood. That's bad enough (hence their name: destructor), but it gets worse. These wounds can become infected by bacteria, fungi, and viruses, including Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) which is actually spread by the Varroa mite. Varroa mites were accidentally brought into the US in 1987 from an Asiatic A. cerana, and have spread to most of the world (except Australia... for now). To control it, beekeepers began spraying the hives with miticides too."

"Beekeeping practice also changed remarkably in the past century. Beekeepers realized the market for pollination, and began to transport their hives around the country following the crop seasons, first by rail and then by truck. The demand for bees was higher than the supply, however. In the USA, the Almond Board successfully lobbied Congress to allow the importation of bees from Australia, which was illegal at the time to prevent the importation of foreign bee diseases. As the world changed and more wild land was converted to agricultural land, then agricultural land to urban land, the amount of food for bees decreased. The natural diet of bees is honey and bee bread, which is fermented pollen. Fewer wild flowers meant less natural food for the bees, requiring other sources. To keep their bees alive, beekeepers started feeding sugar solutions to bees, including high fructose corn syrup."

Then came CCD. "In 2006, many beekeepers across the USA began to report high losses of bees. Not deaths, but losses: the worker bees would just vanish, leaving the queen and brood behind. This is very unusual: honey bees don't leave their home and family behind like that. With the workers gone, the hive soon followed. It soon became evident that this was a nationwide problem, and one that eventually spread to Europe too. Because of the immense importance of bees in agriculture, groups from all over the US worked together, and solving the case of Colony Collapse Disorder became a priority."

Honey bee nectaring lavender. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Unfortunately, the blame game surfaced. "Organizations that were against genetically modified organisms blamed GMOs. Organizations that were against the government blamed the government. Contrail conspiracy theorists said the government was spraying things. Alien abduction activists said aliens were taking the bees. Some people blamed cell phones. Some blamed Osama bin Laden. One theory was that the US government was using soviet mind control technology against Americans to raise support for the Iraq War, and the American bees were also affected because Russian bees were not affected. All of these accusations came with calls for research to prove their 'theories,' though I doubt anyone who rushed to judgment like that would accept evidence that proved them wrong. Indeed, every claim mentioned above, from GMOs to cell phones, is wrong. We know for a fact that CCD is not caused by GMOs, cell phones, aliens, vehicle grilles, UV lights, EM radiation, terrorists, communists, capitalists, etc. We have no evidence for those theories (and ample evidence against some of them), and neither do the people who promote them. (Hint: If a website is claiming to show you the "real news" or the "facts they don't want you to know," it is almost certainly unreliable). So what does the research actually say?"

In his Quora answer, Shelomi discusses research findings and new research underway.  "Here is perhaps the biggest finding from the honey bee genome research: Honey bees are naturally lacking in immunity and detoxification genes. Compared to other insects, bees lack many natural defenses! Namely, they have fewer glutathione-S-transferases, carboxylesterases, and cytochrome P450's, which are the proteins animals (including humans) use to break down toxins. Bees eat pollen and honey, which are hardly toxic. In the millions of years of their evolution, they have lost many of these genes for defense, which means all honey bees are naturally weakened against diseases and chemicals."

Honey bee heading toward a tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
"How do bees survive, then? Well, they do still have a few P450's and other detox genes. Plus, they have a secret weapon: their food. Pollen contains several compounds that upregulate detox and immunization genes. That is, when bees eat pollen-containing food like bee bread or honey, they produce more of the proteins that defend against pathogens and metabolize toxic compounds! Since the natural diet of a bee is honey and bee bread, both of which contain pollen, they still have some defenses. (The same applies for humans, by the way: if you eat healthier food, your immunity improves.)"

So, bottom line? "I'll give you a hint: it's not one thing," Shelomi wrote. "No matter what you are reading, if you find any source that names only one cause for CCD -- a single chemical, a single pesticide, a single company, a single country-- then you should stop trusting that source. On anything. Ever. Science doesn't work that way, and, no, there is no one cause for CCD, nor is there one solution. Anyone who says otherwise is either pushing a certain viewpoint on you or hasn't done there research. Here's the big reveal."

When you get a chance, read his entire essay and take note of his summary: "...CCD happens because bees have a naturally poor immunity to disease and to chemicals, both of which they are exposed to at higher rates and often together, and that immunity is made worse due to poor diet and stressful conditions. There is no one cause, nor is there one solution."

What we can do to help the bees? "Two things. Plant flowers that bees like in your garden, if you have one. Help undo the damage of habitat loss by giving bees a source of food on your property. The second is to support your local beekeeper by buying local honey, if appropriate. Go to a farmers' market or otherwise get the honey from someone raising bees nearby. It will help them out, and you can ensure you are getting real honey and not laundered stuff."

Shelomi is spot on when he says that "the best thing you can do is stay informed... and that doesn't mean finding one source of information and trusting them blindly. To stay informed means you will always need new information, and are never satisfied. It means always doubting every new news story that pops up, especially if it seems too good to be true or claims to 'finally' answer a question. It means don't confuse a conspiracy theory website or an anti-agrotech blog, or even a news report, for actual scientific data. Nor should you trust one scientific paper above all others, especially if it's a single study and not a meta-analysis. Science is ever changing: look at how much our knowledge of bees changed since 2006, how many theories were tested, championed, then abandoned as new evidence came up. Even all I've posted here may one day change (though it's pretty well accepted so far). The story of the honey bees isn't over yet... but I promise it will not have a grand finale or a single climax, but rather will be complex and full of intertwining characters, and the ending, though perhaps not as spectacular, will be much more satisfying."

Excellent advice. Stay aware. Stay informed. Stay tuned.

Matan Shelomi, wearing a UC Davis entomology shirt, stands in front of the Reichstag in Berlin.
Matan Shelomi, wearing a UC Davis entomology shirt, stands in front of the Reichstag in Berlin.

Matan Shelomi, wearing a UC Davis entomology shirt, stands in front of the Reichstag in Berlin.

Noted entomologist May Berenbaum lectured May 20 at UC Davis on disappearing bees and then visited the Department of Entomology and Nematology's bee garden. With her (from left) are UC Davis bee authorities Robbin Thorp, Brian Johnson and Eric Mussen. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Noted entomologist May Berenbaum lectured May 20 at UC Davis on disappearing bees and then visited the Department of Entomology and Nematology's bee garden. With her (from left) are UC Davis bee authorities Robbin Thorp, Brian Johnson and Eric Mussen. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Noted entomologist May Berenbaum lectured May 20 at UC Davis on disappearing bees and then visited the Department of Entomology and Nematology's bee garden. With her (from left) are UC Davis bee authorities Robbin Thorp, Brian Johnson and Eric Mussen. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Tuesday, December 16, 2014 at 5:17 PM

Going with Your Gut

Matan Shelomi with walking stick. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
“Of the one millions insects so far described, 120,000 are butterflies or moths, 150,000 are flies, 400,000 are beetles, and only 3000 are walking sticks. Which are my speciality. Not too much is known about walking sticks because not many people have studied them. They don’t carry diseases, they’re not particularly serious pests, and they aren’t very showy. So for the most part they’ve been ignored which is a pity because they’re pretty special."

So begins Matan Shelomi, Ph.D. candidate in entomology at the University of California, Davis, in a creative video posted on the popular PHD TV website.

It's a compelling site that showcases the work of Ph.D students.  In this case, Shelomi is allocated two minutes to describe his work--why he studies walking sticks. There aren't that many doctoral candidates who can describe their thesis in two minutes--and so engagingly!

What's PHD TV all about? As its website says, it "aims to illustrate and communicate the ideas, stories and personalities of researchers, scientists and scholars worldwide in creative, compelling and truthful ways. We believe there is a gap between scientists and academics and how the public perceives what they do and who they are."

Shelomi, who received his bachelor's degree in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University, studies with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.

One of the top writers on the Quora site, Shelomi won a Shorty award last year for his answer to an insect question. He's also engaged in unusual research, such as "Cutting Bergmann's Rule Down to Size" and taking a poke at Pokémon (with two other entomologists).

In his PHD TV piece, titled "The Wild World of Insect Digestion," Shelomi explains why "you should go with your gut" and "follow your heart."

The video is so incredible that when when you finish watching it, you may just want to join Shelomi in studying walking sticks. 

Or at least check out the stick insects walking around in the Bohart Museum...

A walking stick at the Bohart Museum of Entomology. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A walking stick at the Bohart Museum of Entomology. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A walking stick at the Bohart Museum of Entomology. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 9:20 PM

What They Did Is Amazing!

If you like Pokémon, you know the insect connection.

Satoshi Tajiri of Japan, who developed Pokémon, collected insects in his childhood and initially toyed with the idea of becoming an entomologist.

He never forgot his love of insects and showcased them in Nintendo's Pokémon, now the world's second most successful video game-based media franchise, eclipsed only by Nintendo's Mario.

Enter three young entomologists at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis. What they did is amazing.

They published a humorous take on the evolutionary development and history of the 646 fictional species depicted in the Pokémon media over the last 16 years.

“We made a very real phylogeny of the very fake Pokémon creatures,” commented lead author Matan Shelomi, the UC Davis entomology graduate student who conceived the idea.

The article, “A Phylogeny and Evolutionary History of the Pokémon,” appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), a tongue-in-cheek journal meant “to make people laugh and then think,” according to the editors. In keeping with the “laugh-and-then-think” concept, the journal also awards the infamous IG Nobel Prizes.

Shelomi, a graduate of Harvard where the IG Nobel Prizes are awarded, said he based his idea “in part on other AIR papers like the phylogeny of Chia Pets and the taxonomic description of Barney the Dinosaur.”

Until now, however, no one has traced the evolutionary history of the 646 fictional species, let alone develop a 16-generation phylogenetic or evolutionary tree.

The Pokémon project is the work of Shelomi; Andrew Richards, a junior specialist at the Bohart Museum; and Ivana Li, an entomology student/artist who works part-time at the Bohart.

Oh, wait! There's a fourth author, too--Yukinari Okido, whom Pokémon fans may recognize as the Japanese name of one of the fictional Pokémon professors from the game/TV show, Professor Oak.

How did it all come about?  “I had a lull in my dissertation research and decided to spend the weekends and downtime making this phylogeny,” said Shelomi, who is studying for his doctorate in entomology with Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and professor of entomology at UC Davis.   “It took at least a month to actually collect all the data, which I did manually by scrolling through Pokémon websites.”

What about reader reaction? “The paper is slowly making the rounds,” Shelomi said. “We've had quite a few people disagree with the tree, as some of the conclusions violate Pokémon canon, and we do have the usual phylogenetic problems of long-branch attraction, etc. The disconnect between the tree and Pokémon mating groups is a problem, but I argue that the Biological Species Concept should not be assumed for Pokémon and I stand by my tree.”

“So far, one scientist--a linguist in Japan--has asked for a copy of the dataset to use in a class on phylogram building," Shelomi said, "and he apparently came up with a different tree.”

“It would be nice to see a wide set of articles responding to this one,” Shelomi said. “I think it would be quite easy to fill a journal of Pokémon science, although much harder to justify creating one.”

Want to see the phylogeny? Click on the link or see it at the Bohart Museum, 1124 Academic Surge, Crocker Lane, UC Davis.

They did it! From left are Andrew Richards, Ivana Li and Matan Shelomi. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
They did it! From left are Andrew Richards, Ivana Li and Matan Shelomi. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

They did it! From left are Andrew Richards, Ivana Li and Matan Shelomi. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 9:49 PM

Kill It Or Let It Live?

Matan Shelomi with a walking stick. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
So, you've just stepped on a bug. Do you kill it and put it out of its "misery" or do you let it live?

That was basically the question that UC Davis entomologist/doctoral candidate Matan Shelomi answered on Quora. 

Shelomi answered it so well that he tied for a first-place Shorty Award, the social media-equivalent of an Oscar. The Shorties are given annually to the best producers of short content on social media, as determined by popular vote. The question, posted on Quora, the popular question-and-answer website which engages worldwide users, drew scores of answers, but Shelomi's answer went viral and resulted in an invitation to the fourth annual star-studded Shorty Awards ceremony on March 26 in Times Square, New York City.

And nobody was more surprised than Matan Shelomi.

“I’ve been posting on Quora for a few months now after my sophomore roommate from Harvard, who works there, invited me to it. Not to question a website with employees from Harvard, I signed up. I occasionally go on there and post answers to entomology questions, especially if I get an e-invite to answer a specific question. I’ve answered more than 100 questions so far.”

"I saw this one question on ‘If you injure a bug, should you kill it’ on Nov 30, 2011 and was dissatisfied with the answers, which mostly answered from a religious or philosophical standpoint. I looked up insect pain reception briefly and answered it. I had no idea my response would be so popular! Apparently it's a question a lot of people had. It was popularized on Gawker as one of the 'most demented questions on Quora.' "

“They liked my answer, though. That was surprising enough, and later I got an email out of the blue saying I had been nominated for a Shorty, 'The Oscars of Twitter.' "

His answer:

“Looks like the philosophers and theists have made their cases. As far as entomologists are concerned, insects do not have pain receptors the way vertebrates do. They don't feel ‘pain,’ but may feel irritation and probably can sense if they are damaged. Even so, they certainly cannot suffer because they don't have emotions. If you heavily injure an insect, it will most likely die soon: either immediately because it will be unable to escape a predator, or slowly from infection or starvation. Ultimately this crippling will be more of an inconvenience to the insect than a tortuous existence, so it has no ‘misery’ to be put out of but also no real purpose anymore. If it can't breed anymore, it has no reason to live.

“In other words, I have not answered your question because, as far as the science is concerned, neither the insect nor the world will really care either way. Personally, though, I'd avoid doing more damage than you've already done. 1) Maybe the insect will recover, depending on how damaged it is. 2) Some faiths do forbid taking animal lives, so why go out of your way to kill? 3) You'll stain your shoe.”

Shelomi's answer drew widespread praise on Quora, including:

--“This, by far, is the funniest answer I have read on Quora. Not only the funniest answer, but also the funniest show of authority on a subject. You have to love the casualness of it and the mockery aspect. Funny and yet not frivolous. Well done. 10/10. I will read it again now.”

 --“Great answer, the shoe comment is what really sold it.”

Shelomi's response was subsequently nominated for “best answer on Quora," a new category of the Shorties. Another commitment prevented him from being at the Times Square award ceremony, held March 26, but he posted his "equally short" video acceptance speech. He earlier recorded it at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, where he studies insect physiology.

As it turned out, Shelomi shared the first-place award in the Quora category with former police officer Justin Freeman, now an evangelical pastor in Mountain Grove, Mo., who answered “What’s the best way to escape the police in a high-speed car chase?

If you have a question, you, too, can post it on Quora. And if it's an entomological question, you just might get a creative answer from Matan Shelomi.

A red-shouldered stink bug peers at the camera. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A red-shouldered stink bug peers at the camera. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A red-shouldered stink bug peers at the camera.(Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 at 5:49 PM

Sudden-Death Question

Quick! What's the answer to this question?

"I am a blood feeder; I have no hair but have a comb. What am I?"

That was the final question posed when the University of California, Davis competed Monday night with the University of Hawai-Manoa team for the championship of the Linnaean Games, Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America (PBESA).

The Linaean Games are college bowl-type games featuring questions about insects, entomologists and entomological facts. Each branch of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) can send two teams to the nationals. This year ESA meets in Reno Nov. 13-16.

So, UC Davis and the University of Hawaii are in a dead heat at the PBESA meeting in Hawaii. Tied game. Buzzers ready. And then comes that final question. "What am I?"

"A flea," Emily Symmes of the UC Davis team correctly answers.

Yes, a flea! A flea, indeed.

Emily Symmes, who is studying for her doctorate with major professor Frank Zalom, joined the winners' circle with her fellow teammates who also did equally well: Matan Shelomi, studying for his doctorate with major profesor Lynn Kimsey; Meredith Cenzer, studying for her doctorate with major professor Louie Yang; and James Harwood, studying for his doctorate with major professor James R. Carey.

Winning at the branch level is indeed an accomplishment, as well as a fun endeavor. The PBESA encompasses 11 U.S. states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming); several U.S. territories, including American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands; and  parts of Canada and Mexico.

If you've never been to any of the Linnaean Games, you can see videos online by Googling "Linnaean Games." See if you can answer those questions.

Might be another question about fleas in there, too.

Practicing for the Games
Practicing for the Games

COACH Larry Godfrey, Extension entomologist with the UC Davis Department of Entomology, calls out questions during a practice session. The graduate students (from left) are Matan Shelomi, Meredith Cenzer and Emily Symmes. Not pictured is James Harwood. The team just won the Linnaean Games at the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America and will now compete in the nationals. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)


JAMES HARWOOD (right), who webcasts many of the UC Davis Department of Entomology seminars, served on the winning Linnaean team with teammates Emily Symmes, Matan Shelomi and Meredith Cenzer. Here he and graduate student Amy Morice set up a camera for a webcast. Both study with major professor James R. Carey. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 9:34 PM

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