No Bees, No Honey, No Crops? Not Funny

By Danniel Arriaga

Where are all the honeybees? They’re dying off? Wait, they’ve been dying off for years now? Why?

These were just some of the many questions running through my head when I went out to speak with Mara Cuebas, part of the George Washington Carver (GWC) Internship Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The GWC is a program that invites students 16 and older to experience life on campus at Iowa State University and work in the labs as well. Students are assigned a project by their mentors to conduct research on or are given an entirely new project. The program lasts about eight weeks during the summer between June and August.

Cuebas, 22, from Puerto Rico, and a fifth year undergraduate from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, is spending eight weeks of her summer working as an intern of the GWC held at Iowa State University.

Cuebas sees science as not a “have to” job but more as an “I really want to” activity. Her interest grew in high school when she was enrolled in chemistry. This drove her to originally pursue fields in chemical engineering. Eventually she moved on to microbiology in pursuit of a future medical career.

After working and researching within biochemistry fields, she realized that she was not the person who wanted to do research with what is commonly studied, like E. coli. Instead she wanted to research in topics of the microbial world that receive less attention.

“It’s complicated, but I like that it’s complicated. It’s like doing something no one else wants to do. It’s like your solving a problem,” Cuebas said.

She had been part of the GWC the previous year researching colon cancer and gene expression, working with Distinguished Professor Diane Birt. She came back for her second summer, and an entirely different research project. This year, Cuebas is working with the honeybees, diving into the topic of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). She is working under the mentorship of Amy Toth, assistant professor in the ecology, evolution and organismal biology department, and postdoc research associates Adam Dolezal and Jimena Carillo-Tripp, looking into the lives of the honeybees to find a solution to CCD.

“We want to see if viruses have a role in colony collapse disorder, and if it is related to the disappearance of the honeybees,” Cuebas said.

She and her coworkers have been focusing on several viruses, but more specifically the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV). IAPV causes paralysis in honeybees, leaving them unable to move or work for the hive and eventually meet their ultimate fate.

“We see symptoms in the bees where they cannot move or they tried to move but they can’t, or their growth is affected, making them slower than normal,” Mara said.

But so many people are allergic to bee stings and wish to avoid them at all costs. Wouldn’t it be better to not have to worry about them?

Farmers sure do care a lot about bees, though. And you should too. Bees pollinate the fields where our crops grow, even the flowers you give to your loved ones, whether they be from your own garden or elsewhere. Bees also provide us with wax and the ever-so-precious and sweet honey.

Cuebas and her coworkers have a specialized diet made for the bees that consists of different concentrations of IAPV in order to see whether the bees’ populations drop after 50 percent. A sugar solution is then given to the bees after the concentration of IAPV.

She and her coworkers are testing the viruses and the diets on the pupae (larvae) of the bees to have a better understanding of the impact viruses have on them. Their work also digs deeper to see if CCD is caused by the virus or another (shocking background music) outside unknown force.

Cuebas is enjoying the research because of how different and diverse it is.

“I chose this project because I wanted to get a new experience with animals and living things. Another thing is that I wanted learn new molecular techniques, like Real Time Polymerase Chain or extracting RNA,” Cuebas said.

All the research topics in the GWC are diverse and different in their own ways, introducing students like Cuebas to new sciences and careers in science. The George Washington Carver Internship program funded by The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has brought in hundreds of students to conduct research at Iowa State over the past decade and introduced them to a diverse campus.

Danniel Arriaga, a student at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, is spending the summer as part of the George Washington Carver Internship and is also part of the program, Science Bound. He is an intern in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Communications Office, writing news stories about the other GWC interns.