All the trees will die, and so will you

The title of this post is not my own, but it kind of has a point. Not “everything dies” but rather, a lot more apocalyptic.

A brown-black beetle (the polyphagous shot hole borer) breeds inside trees. It drills networks of tunnels, which then get infected by a fungus it carries to feed it’s young. Eventually the tree dies, the beetle moves on and the whole cycle starts again.

This would be a cute horror story, if the beetle wasn’t on track to kill 26.8 million trees across Southern California. Which is going to directly link to the death of humans. Interested? Find out why here.


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!


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.

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.



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.


Save the tapeworm! And the Kakapo…

One of New Zealand big five species to see (think African safari checklist, but for flightless birds in New Zealand) is the kakapo. These parrots can live up to 95 years (maybe longer) and is very close to extinction.

So tape worms were found within a pair of captive kakapos, conservation biologist dewormed them.

Which may have been a mistake. Hamish G. Spenc

“Some of these parasites may turn out to be quite good for their hosts” – Hamish G. Spencer

Want to find out why? Check out the article over at the New York times!


The enemy of my parasite is my… Frenemy?

Parasites are all around and often problematic.

But recent work from Kayla King has demonstrated that some microbial parasites can evolve to be mutualistic and defend against more virulent parasites.  And what’s more this shift from foe to friend can happen rapidly.

Read the paper here, or the synopsis over at National Geographic.