Archive for the 'science' Category

Miss Bee Hivin’

See what I did with the title there?

beekeeping

Nice outfit though, eh? One of those might come in handy when I’m in Australia trying to cope with the sand flies.

I was back at Guelph university yesterday to see some of the work that’s being done there with bees. Guelph has one of the leading apiary research centres in Canada – if not the whole of north America – and researchers there are currently looking at something called Colony Collapse Disorder.

Basically the number of honey bees has declined by about 30% over the past six years and with bees responsible for pollinating crops and helping to produce food, it’s important scientists work out why the little fellas are popping their clogs.

According to Janine, the ridiculously lovely and enthusiastic researcher who showed me around the centre, biodiversity loss, mites and disease and pesticides are all factors (it’s been discovered one pesticide was causing memory loss in bees, so once they’d found the pollen they couldn’t remember their way back to the hives).

bee stuff

I have to admit, the subject of bees has never really interested me much before (thanks, Comtesse), but spending a couple of hours with someone who was so passionate about their research – and who could explain what they were doing so well – completely changed my view. As with Mimi, the other researcher I met this week, it just goes to show the potential power of good agricultural communicators.

Anyway, I learned loads of stuff about bees, like how the queen goes out to mate for a few days then comes back to the hive and is able to lay 2000 eggs a day for a few years without ever going outside again, and how the colony decides when it wants to have a new matriarch. I also learned about how bees release a banana-scented chemical when they sting someone so other bees can smell danger and know where to attack, and how scientists artificially inseminate queens using this contraption:

bee machine
But most-importantly, I learned how to make a bee beard. If anyone wants some instructions, let me know…

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Agricultural speed-dating

No ice cream, but beer and chocolate cake (by a tortoise-shaped lamp) – a much better way to get my strength back.

Recovery

I’ve had a pretty exhausting day of meetings with various media types and professors from the University of Guelph.

Guelph is home to Canada’s largest agricultural university, so the people I’ve met have all been experts in various areas of farming – from planning to regional and alternative foods, crop development and developing rural communities. It was like speed-dating, but with agricultural boffins.

My last stop was to the crop sciences department to visit Mimi, who’s a doctor of plant genetics but managed to explain her research in a way that made sense, even to a crop thicko like me:

Mimi and corn

In a nutshell Mimi and her colleagues are looking into the genes of plants, including corn, which mutate and change the point at which a plant flowers.

As soon as a plant flowers it puts most of its energy into producing its seeds or fruit. So, if a plant’s genes are a bit squiffy and it flowers early, it will have fewer leaves, comme ca:

Thale cress 1
Whereas a later-flowering plant will have bushier leaves, like so:

Bushier thale crop
Mimi and her science friends are looking into what makes a plant’s flowering point change – apparently there are environmental factors such as the amount of sunlight a plant’s exposed and so on. But if they can work out how the gene works, they could manipulate certain crops so they produce more or less biomass, depending on what was required (for example, a farmer who produces a fuel crop would want a high amount of biomass rather than fewer leaves but a load of seeds). They could also ensure crops like lettuce and cabbage don’t flower and the produce doesn’t go to waste.

I hope I’ve explained that properly. If not I’m sure a certain know-it-all will delight in telling me where I’ve gone wrong…

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