More about bees

Working with snails was easy. They are easy to catch, easy to keep alive, and people are largely not interested in them.

Bees, however, are a challenge. They are picky about the weather, they fly around and people are coming out of the woodwork to talk to me about them. I’ve never met so many people who are engaged about bees.

So much so that after my recent Notes from the Field post, a friend sent me an article from NPR. That’s right, NPR wrote an article about things I’m working on.

Read about bees and viruses over at NPR!

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Notes from the Field: Above the Arctic Circle!

Friend and sometime contributor, Devin Drown, has recently started up a research program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (Congrats Devin!). And this summer he lead an army of undergraduates on a series of interesting projects near or above the Artic Circle.

Sadly, coordinating and advising an army of undergraduates doesn’t leave too much time for writing blog posts. But he has kindly sent me these interesting snippets from the field. Check them out!

Toolik Field Station to use MinION sequencing.

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Fairbanks Permafrost Experiment Station

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Gathering Ancient DNA from Permafrost

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Beware of the snail

Have you recently flown into the US from abroad? On the landing card it asks if you’ve been in contact with things should not be brought into the US.

Have you encountered agriculture or been on a farm?

Have you been exposed to people coughing ebola?

And then one slightly odd question that gets overlooked:

Are you carrying snails? (paraphrasing here)

This is because snails are actuallly really deadly. Or more specifically they are a vector for some really deadly parasites. Read about it, and how to control the snail/parasite spread over at Science FridayLymnea-snail.

Rewriting the book on Lichens

As I mentioned on Friday, science communication is all about stories. And this one is a doozy.

After a not so traditional education, Toby Spribille has found that lichens are not what we thought they were. We have long known that lichens are 1 part algae and 1 part fungi.

But it turns out that’s not true. Turns out, it’s 2 parts fungi (two different types of fungi to boot), and 1 part algae. We’ve been getting it wrong for decades.

Read the story of this discovery over at the Atlantic!

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Notes from the Field: The Maelstrom of Bee Viruses

I recently completed my PhD (yay!) and started my postdoc (eep!). I’m working at Martin-Luther University in Halle-Wittenburg. It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with the genetics of coevolution, I studied it in snails and trematodes in New Zealand for the last 6 years. So this postdoc is a change of pace in a very similar subject.

#pollinatorselfie

#pollinatorselfie

I’m studying the genetics of host-parasite coevolution in bees and their viruses. Specifically, I’m looking at host shifts, the genetics of increased virulence and the effect of recombination and migration on local adaptation. WHO’S EXCITED JUST BY READING THAT LAST SENTENCE? Me.

Honey bees with their varroa mites (the red dots near their wings)

Honey bees with their varroa mites (the red dots near their wings)

Let’s start with a little background. Bees have been declining across Europe and the US for the last few decades and the reason why isn’t quite clear. One hypothesis is that it is due to infestation with varroa mites, tiny mites that feed on the hemolymph of honey bees and increased in prevalence across Europe over the past few decades (similar pattern around the world except for Australia). However, the extent to which the varroa kills/harms/reduces the fitness of honey bees is unclear.

 

Enter the virus (and me, really). There are a series of viruses that are found in bees everywhere, including in honey bees, bumble bees and wild bees, Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). But it’s been at relatively low levels, and doesn’t seem to cause serious mortality within hives. Unless, that is, DWV occurs with varroa mites. Then the virus sweeps through the population, annihilating the hive. So, is this increase in virulence of DWV associated with an ecological shift, such that the varroa mites are injecting the virus when they feed, rather than the bees simply eating the virus when it’s found on flowers? Or is it a genetic change that has caused the virus to sweep through populations where it previously was fairly benign. And does this effect honey bees, or is it spilling over into the bumble bee and wild bee populations?

Honey bees with DWV.

Honey bees with DWV.

Which brings me to the field. The first step of my postdoctoral position has been to collect honey bees and bumble bees from islands off the coast of Scotland. Why islands? Because everything on the mainland is saturated with varroa mites. To compare the effect of the virus on bumble bee populations with and without varroa we’re looking at three types of islands: islands without honey bees (varroa can only infect honey bees), islands with honey bees and that don’t have varroa, and islands with honey bees and varroa. The list of things I want to do with this data is long, and will involve another post (stay tuned), but for starters we’re looking for transcriptional difference between the virus in these three types of islands.

And maybe looking at local adaptation. Or trying to understand how long it takes negative frequency dependent selection to act within an haplodiploid population. Or using spatial covariance to find the genomic regions involved in coevolution. Stay tuned kids, this is going to get exciting.

In the meantime, I’ve got to go collect some more bees.

Where the bees are. In this case, Colonsay Scotland.

Where the bees are. In this case, Colonsay Scotland.

 

Corpse flowers UNITE!

I don’t know if you have noticed, but there are a lot of corpse flowers in bloom right now. Given that these plants (Amorphophallus titanum) flower rarely, this is a particularly interesting feat. At the moment there are 10 foot tall corpse flowers open (and stinking ) in Washington, D.C., Bloomington, Indiana, and Sarasota, Florida.

That’s in addition to blooms earlier this year in Chicago, Charleston, Illinois, and Winter Park, Florida.

Given that there are only there have only been 157 Amorphophallus titanum that have been recorded in bloom between 1889 and 2008, that’s a lot of corpse flowers blooming in just one country over just one year.

WTF?

Read about possible reasons why over at Atlas Obscura!

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Happy anniversary, Planet Earth! Episode 10: Seasonal forests

The tenth episode of Planet Earth brings us to the biological communities I think of as “home” — seasonal forests. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, with second-growth deciduous woodland literally in my back yard, went to college within sight of the Appalachian Mountains, and spent my first “real” job in field ecology surveying understory plant diversity northeast of Pittsburgh. Today, I’m working on the other side of the continent, but now studying some of the most widespread tree species in forests from the Pacific Northwest to the Yukon taiga. I could almost illustrate this entire recap with images from my personal Flickr stream.

(Flickr: JBYoder)

Old-growth conifer forest (lots of Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii) around the Coquitlam Lake reservoir in British Columbia (Flickr: JBYoder)

I’ll try to resist the temptation.

We start at what is, arguably, the most seasonal of forests, taiga, where the growing season may last just a month. These snow-covered woods seems marginal, but boreal forests account for one third of the trees on the planet, Sir David Attenborough tells us. The newest comprehensive assessment of tree density worldwide, published last year, found that a median hectare of boreal forest has as many, or slightly more, trees than an average hectare of tropical forest — but it also puts the boreal share of the global tree count at closer to one quarter of all trees, and finds that “tropical moist forest” accounts for a slightly larger share.

Figure 1 from Crowther et al. (2015).

Figure 1 from Crowther et al. (2015).

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