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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

About Those Walking Sticks...

Matan Shelomi (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Why would anyone want to study walking sticks (stick insects)?

Well, why wouldn't anyone NOT want to? That's the question we ought to ask.

Enter doctoral candidate Matan Shelomi of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. He will present his exit seminar on "Digestive Physiology of the Phasmatodea" on Wednesday, March 5 from 12:10 to 1 p.m. in 122 Briggs Hall, UC Davis campus. His seminar is scheduled to be video-taped for later posting on UCTV.

For a preview of his work, watch Shelomi's phdcomics.com video; he cleverly explains his complicated research in two minutes. It's a classic Matan Shelomi.

Shelomi, who studies with  major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis professor of entomology, will receive his doctorate this spring and will then seek a postdoctoral position.

What will he be covering in his seminar?

 "All life stages of all species of Phasmatodea (stick and leaf insects) eat nothing but leaves, yet they not only survive, but also reach record body sizes and plague-like population densities," Shelomi says. "Leaves are not an easy diet, as the nutrients are locked behind recalcitrant plant cell walls made of polysaccharides like cellulose, lignin, and pectin, and often defended with toxic secondary chemicals. Phasmid dependence on leaves suggests they have evolved a way to metabolize these compounds, yet what little data available on phasmid digestion is contradictory."
 
:This presentation covers five years of research at institutions spanning three countries, and confirms that phasmids do more than just lyse plant cells: they have the enzymes to break cellulose polymers down to sugar, as well as pectinases, all of which they produce themselves without microbial aid. The phasmid alimentary canal itself is compartmentalized into different sections that correlate with chemical digestion and xenobiotic metabolism. These adaptations allow an animal with a limited body space to digest and specialize on an otherwise limiting diet, with implications for herbivore nutrient economy as well as the search for enzymes for biofuel production."

Shelomi received his bachelor's degree in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University in 2009, and immediately after, enrolled in graduate school at UC Davis.

His work in Davis is funded by the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship program. Twice he has won the National Science Foundation's East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes' Fellowship: once to work in the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan, and once to work in Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan.

Shelomi served as a teaching assistant for Bob Kimsey's forensic entomology class. In addition, he co-taught a freshman seminar with Lynn Kimsey on "Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design." He has guest-lectured for Entomology  10 "Natural History of Insects"; Entomology 100 "Introduction to Entomology"; and Entomology 102 "Insect Physiology."

He has presented at numerous meetings of the Entomological Society of America  (ESA) and the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America (PBESA) and organized or co-organized four symposia at those meetings.  He participates in the ESA's Linnaean Games and Student Debate teams. For his work with ESA and outside it, he won PBESA's John Henry Comstock Award in 2013.

There's more, much more. Shelomi presented a workshop at the 2012 International Conference on Science in Society, and received first place for his talk this past summer at the International Congress of Orthopterology in Kunming, China.  He has published his research in number of peer-reviewed journals.

The doctoral candidate's work has been spotlighted in the Sacramento Bee, California Aggie, DavisPatch,  plus blogs and vlogs like LiveScience, PHD TV, and Breaking Bio.  In addition, Shelomi answers entomology and biology questions on Quora.com, where he has been a top writer for two consecutive years. Huffington Post and Slate printed some of his Quora answers. You might remember that he won a "Shorty" (social media) award for his post "If you injure a bug, should you kill it or let it live?"

Lynn Kimsey says she doesn't know when he finds time to sleep.

Frankly, we don't, either.

Some Related Links:

This is the insect that Matan Shelomi studies. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
This is the insect that Matan Shelomi studies. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

This is the insect that Matan Shelomi studies. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey

Posted on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 8:24 PM

Can Bees Have Heart Attacks?

Matan Shelomi (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
"Can bees have heart attacks?"

We know that honey bees work hard.  They forage for food within a four-mile range of their hive. They can fly up to 15 miles per hour, and their wings can beat about 200 times per second, or 12,000 beats per minute. Sometimes they'll visit 50 to 100 flowers on a collection trip. No wonder worker bees live only four to six weeks during their peak season. They literally work themselves to death.

But, can bees have heart attacks? A curious mind wanted to know and posed the question on Quora, a website known as "your source of knowledge." Ask a question and an expert will answer.

Matan Shelomi, doctoral candidate in entomology at the University of California, Davis, responded. He answers scores of questions on Quora. (He won a Shorty award for his answer to "If you injure a bug, should you kill it or let it live?”).  

Shelomi took the bee question to heart.

"Nope," he wrote. "No blood vessels."

"A heart attack is when fatty deposits, clots, etc. block the coronary artery that leads to the heart muscle. Blood flow to the heart muscle itself (as opposed to the pumping chambers) stops, so the muscle dies and the heart stops beating. So to have a heart attack, you need a heart and arteries."

"Insects have a heart, sometimes, but no arteries or veins. They have an open circulatory system: all their organs just float in a goo called 'hemolymph' that is a combination of lymph and blood. Some insects, bees included, have a heart and an aorta (the vessel leading out of the heart) that pumps the blood and gives it some semblance of direction (from the back of the insect to the front), but beyond that there is no circulatory system. The heart floats in the hemolymph along with everything else. No way to stop it from receiving blood flow, because it's surrounded by it.

"Furthermore, unlike human blood, insect blood doesn't carry oxygen. They have a special network of tubes called trachea that provide oxygen: think of it having air vessels go from your lungs all throughout your body instead of blood vessels. Conceivably the trachea leading to an insect heart could all get blocked by something from the outside, which would be the closest thing to a 'heart attack' in an insect, but there's no record of that happening and its unlikely anyway. So, nope, no insect can have a heart attack. Scare them to your heart's content."

So, this month being "American Heart Month" and all, we don't have to worry about honey bees having heart attacks. All drones (male bees), however, pay the ultimate price when they mate with a queen. During the in-flight mating process, parts of the male anatomy are ripped out and they die. 

Honey bee heading toward rock purslane, Calandrinia grandiflora. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Honey bee heading toward rock purslane, Calandrinia grandiflora. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Honey bee heading toward rock purslane, Calandrinia grandiflora. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Wednesday, February 12, 2014 at 10:15 PM

Let the Bed Bugs Bite

Most of us remember the old nursery rhyme, "Good night, sleep tight, and don't let the bed bugs bite," and vow to do everything we can to avoid any blood-letting.

Whether we call them "blood suckers," "menace in the mattress," or "human parasites," it's not cool to be bitten by bed bugs.  

Unless, of course, you're part of "show-and-tell" at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis.
 
Entomologist and Bohart Museum employee Danielle Wishon, who received her bachelor's degree in entomology from UC Davis last year and is now working as a lab assistant at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, kept the crowds pointing and whispering as she fed her colony of bed bugs, allowing them to bite her outstretched arm.
 
It was all part of the Bohart Museum open house, "Snuggle Bugs" featuring not only bed bugs, but ticks, mites, fleas and mosquitoes.
 
Bed bugs, however, were the big draw. Soon prospective "hosts" asked "Can I feed them?" Due to legal issues, however, no one was allowed to feed them except three scientists: Wishon, Bohart senior museum scientist Steve Heydon, and entomology doctoral candidate Matan Shelomi, based at the Bohart.

"Bed bug biting," however, is not part of their job descriptions.

The crowd watched in awe as the reddish-brown blood suckers turned from flat to bulging. The insects, Cimex lectularius, are "visually adorable," Wishon said, noting that they are pests but they don't spread diseases. She keeps two colonies in Briggs Hall for research purposes.

Several visitors told of their personal experiences with bed bugs--in their hotels and homes, and in their bedding and baggage. 

Wishon made sure no one took any home. 

For more information on bed bugs, check out the Entomological Society of America (ESA) website on bed bug resources. ESA includes the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM). Another good source is the relatively new University of Florida bed bug site.  

"Despite their name, bed bugs can infest areas other than beds," according to the University of Florida website. "They tend to locate in cracks and crevices, such as behinds baseboards, wall outlets, and wallpaper; between bed joints, slats, and dresser drawers; and along mattress seams and in linens and clothes. Most bed bug infestations occur in the home, along with hotels, dormitories, and cruise ships. Bed bugs easily transfer from one site to another through infested belongings like clothes, suitcases, second-hand furniture, beds, and bedding."

Forceps held by Danielle Wishon zero in on a bed bug to be fed. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Forceps held by Danielle Wishon zero in on a bed bug to be fed. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Forceps held by Danielle Wishon zero in on a bed bug to be fed. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Bed bug scurries away after taking a blood meal. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Bed bug scurries away after taking a blood meal. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Bed bug scurries away after taking a blood meal. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Two bed bugs on Danielle Wishon's arm. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Two bed bugs on Danielle Wishon's arm. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Two bed bugs on Danielle Wishon's arm. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Danielle Wishon (foreground at left) answers questions. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Danielle Wishon (foreground at left) answers questions. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Danielle Wishon (foreground at left) answers questions. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Monday, January 13, 2014 at 10:48 PM

Honey Bees and Extinction

"Would the extinction of honey bees lead directly to the extinction of humans?"

That's a recent question posed on Quora, where folks can ask questions and receive answers.

The answer is "no."

"We are a resilient species that existed before beekeeping and will exist after it… but our cuisine will be very different," wrote Matan Shelomi, a Harvard alumnus and UC Davis graduate student seeking his doctorate at the University of California, Davis.

"Assuming native bees and other pollinators do not take over the job of the honey bee Apis mellifera, many of our favorite fruits and vegetables will cease to exist, or will require the very labor intensive manual pollination we see in parts of China," Shelomi noted. "Kiss almonds goodbye, for example. Staple crops like wheat, corn, and rice are not bee pollinated, however, so starvation won't be an issue."

Shelomi, who has received international recognition for his answers on Quora, is "right on," said Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.

"We've not always had honey bees here," Mussen pointed out. Indeed, the European colonists brought the honey bee to what is now Virginia in 1622. The Native American Indians had no honey bees, but they did have lots of other pollinators, including native bees. (We Californians did not obtain the services of the honey bee in our state until 1853; that's when the first honey bees arrived.)

Unfortunately, people are falsey quoting Albert Einstein as saying "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”  Al Gore never invented the Internet, and Albert Einstein never said that about bees. 

Without honey bees, our menu choices would be much different. But would the human race become extinct?

No.

A honey bee heading toward almond blossoms. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A honey bee heading toward almond blossoms. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A honey bee heading toward almond blossoms. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Thursday, November 7, 2013 at 8:23 PM

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