Do Bees Bee-have?
- Host: Rose Kerr
- Guest: Jessica Moran
Rose Kerr: Particle would like to acknowledge and pay respects to the traditional owners of this land we record on – the Whadjuk people. We also acknowledge the role of Aboriginal people as the first scientists in Australia.
**Cue music (intro theme)
Rose Kerr: Welcome to the Particle Podcast, where we talk about science and the people who just love it! I’m your host, Rose Kerr, and this season of the podcast we’re talking all things environmental. Today I am joined Jessica Moran, PhD student who specialises in honey bee research. She stopped by to tell us all about all the nuisance bees get up to, and what we can learn from them.
Rose Kerr: What do you actually do?
Jessica Moran: Okay, so I’m a PhD candidate with the CRC for honeybee products at University of Western Australia within the Honeybee Health Research Group. Basically that means I’m a massive bee-nerd, and I get to spend my days researching honeybees and ways to diagnose diseases faster.
Rose Kerr: What kind of diseases to bees have?
Jessica Moran: Bees actually get a lot of different diseases. So I focus on bacterial diseases. American Foulbrood, which is caused by the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae in particular, but they are also prone to getting viruses, they get fungal infections. There’s a whole range of things they get, a lot of parasites, I mean, you might know Varroa, the mite. And they also get plagued by moths that get into the hive.
Rose Kerr: Oh no! I knew I didn’t like moths!
Jessica Moran: So they get they get pretty smashed up by a lot of different things.
Rose Kerr: Yeah. And so you work on a specific disease?
Jessica Moran: Yeah. So American Foulbrood or ‘AFB’, as the beekeepers tend to call it.
Rose Kerr: Oh, as the people in the know, yeah. What does it actually do to the bees?
Jessica Moran: It sounds quite horrific. Basically the disease turns the baby bees into this gooey slime.
Rose Kerr: Oh no!
Jessica Moran: So, they go from being healthy, white, happy larvae that look like maggots in which, I mean, for people like me that’s like beautiful – love little maggotty bees. But it turns them into this horrible, brown, ropey mess that – it stinks, and that’s, that’s kind of where my research comes in. So because of this horrible smell that the disease creates, I’ve been looking at what chemicals and molecules are in that smell.
Rose Kerr: Yeah!
Jessica Moran: And then trying to develop sensors for those molecules. And then we can sense when there’s the disease in the hive.
Rose Kerr: Wow. And how did you know that it smelled – was that because you can literally smell it as beekeepers?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, so you can smell it when it’s a really bad infection. They have trained sniffer dogs, they actually put little dogs in suits – bee suits. And then they walk around the hives trying to sniff out the disease.
Rose Kerr: Like the ones, like padded – wow.
Jessica Moran: Yeah, but the problem is, as most beekeepers or as you can probably guess, it’s really hot. Yeah. So it’s not particularly good for the dog. And also the dog that was trained in Australia ended up getting a bit of an aversion to the hives because of the stings as well.
Rose Kerr: Fair enough!
Jessica Moran: So that didn’t really work.
Rose Kerr: Oh, my goodness.
Jessica Moran: Now we’re looking at kind of replacing the dog with an electronic device.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, I mean, far less cute, but a lot more practical.
Jessica Moran: Definitely.
Rose Kerr: Jumping in before we get too far into bee chat – Jess is mainly talking about honey bees specifically. They aren’t native to Australia, they were brought in by Europeans for honey, and now they’ve spread out in the environment. We do have native bees in Australia, we talk about them a little later on.
Rose Kerr: When you’re studying bees, what does that look like? Are you out near hives? Or have you got bees in a lab?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, so every day is kind of different. And I do a lot of, a lot of wet lab work in the biology lab where I might be working with the disease or frames from a beehive, which is kind of a big chunk of honeycomb that has baby bees in it, that are deceased from the disease. Or I might be working in the chemistry lab using a big mass spectrometer to look at the molecules in the air of the hive, or I could be beekeeping. And some days I’ll even be teaching or training people on how to look for the disease.
Rose Kerr: Yeah wow. And so that’s been a project that’s carried you all the way through your PhD? Do you feel like you’re coming to answers?
Jessica Moran: I am slowly. So I have been able to identify the biomarkers for the disease. And that’s something that we’ve been able to patent in Australia and now we’re moving forward with trying to develop sensors for that. Yeah, that’s really exciting.
Rose Kerr: Oh, that must feel good to be doing that.
Jessica Moran: Yeah.
Rose Kerr: What inspired the research?
Jessica Moran: It, it really came down to industry needs. So industry has been dealing with this disease for a long time. Unfortunately, we don’t have good statistics on how prevalent that disease is in industry because it’s, it’s got a weird stigma around the disease, where beekeepers don’t want to talk about it. And they don’t want to admit when they get the disease either, because for a long time, it was considered to be a management disease where you’re a bad beekeeper if you get this disease. And we’re trying really hard to change perspective to, ‘you’re not a bad beekeeper if you get the disease, you’re only a bad beekeeper if you do nothing about it’, and you don’t report it. But, the beekeepers are struggling with the disease more and more; we know that it seems like there’s more of the disease around. And with pollination services increasing – so that’s where farmers are hiring beehives to go and spend time at their, at their orchard or at their crop to then do pollination services – when we have lots of hives coming together. So for example, I think it was last year, 200 beekeepers, or 100 beekeepers took 200,000 hives or something similar to that, ended up in the almond orchards in Victoria. But that’s heaps of hives that aren’t really being checked for disease – only about 10% of those hives will be checked for disease before they make it into the orchard. So it’s a bit like going to a really busy nightclub during COVID. You don’t know what you’re going to get, you could end up passing on that disease. You could catch that disease.
Rose Kerr: Yeah,
Jessica Moran: So it’s quite dangerous. So we need to have better systems in place so we can speed up that checking process.
Rose Kerr: Have you always worked with bees during your career?
Jessica Moran: I actually started off doing a bunch of random things. So when I was an undergraduate, I was just looking for any experience in research that I could get. So I started off working with trapdoor spiders. I was doing surveys for Dr. Leanda Mason at the time, she was a PhD student and she was looking after a lot of *my gallon* wolf spiders that were around WA and trying to find more in remnant bush land. And then I started doing some, some work in Dr. Renee Thurman’s lab where she was looking at the evolution of the Mammalian baculum, which is the penis bone. I did a lot of work on evolutionary biology and sexual selection and then, doing that I kind of was between projects and I was just looking for more things to do and someone at the Centre for Integrated Bee Research at the time needed help and I ended up volunteering with CIBR. And Professor Boris Baer used to say, ‘if you look too close to the bees, you get addicted’. And that’s exactly what happened. And they just couldn’t get rid of me after that. So I ended up doing my own as they on sperm in honeybees.
Rose Kerr: That is, like, so weirdly specific – I love it!
Jessica Moran: It’s incredibly specific. I have so many fun facts about bee sperm. I’m like the life of the party.
Rose Kerr: How do people react if you’re like going out for drinks or going to a party like, ‘I work with bees’? Do they just assume you’re a beekeeper straight up?
Jessica Moran: I get a lot of conspiracy theories.
Rose Kerr: About bees?!
Jessica Moran: Yeah. So there’s, there’s a lot of people that are all about saving ‘The bees’ with a capital T.
Rose Kerr: Yes.
Jessica Moran: And they tend to come at me really hard with things like ‘oh, 5G’s killing off all of the bees’ … ‘what’s happening with COVID and the bees?’
Rose Kerr: Oh my goodness.
Jessica Moran: A lot of random things. People care deeply about honeybees. And they just really want me to know when I go out to a party.
Rose Kerr: Wow. Like you don’t – you’re not already caring. No, definitely don’t already care about them …
Jessica Moran: Yeah, it’s it’s one of those topics where it’s interesting because everybody knows something about it. And then they really want to tell you how much they know.
Rose Kerr: Yeah. Is it usually like, ‘I watched the bee movie, I was inspired, I love bees now’.
Jessica Moran: Yes. And then you cringe because The Bee Movie is awful and horribly inaccurate.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, well, I got I think I was telling someone about The Bee Movie. I was like, you know, what bothers me that about the bee movie. It’s not that the bee and the woman fall in love. It’s that all the worker bees are a male, and their female right?
Jessica Moran: Yes, definitely.
Rose Kerr: Oh, terrible.
Jessica Moran: Yeah. So male bees or drones, they’re only in the hive in certain periods of the year. So they’re only around usually during the summer months and a bit of spring and autumn and they don’t really have a great life. Basically what happens is: they are made basically to fulfil, fulfil the role of carrying on the genetic material. So their job is to just sit in the hive and wait for a virgin queen to go flying pass. If they like then they’ll go and fly off and mate with her in the air. They mate in the air. Now, if they’re lucky, then they’ll mate with the queen and they die during the process.
Rose Kerr: Whoa!
Jessica Moran: It’s quite explosive, literally. But if they don’t do that, then they kind of just keep hanging out in the hive and eventually when it gets cold and resources are scarce, the workers kick them out of the hive, dragging them kicking and screaming and actually bite their wings off and sentence them to death.
Rose Kerr: That would have 100% changed The Bee Movie.
Jessica Moran: Yeah, definitely (both laugh). Yeah, it doesn’t have the same range for kids.
Rose Kerr: That’s fun, though, to bring to a party. I like that. I would 100% talk to you to a party if that was the topic I was gonna get! For you, did you always – because I’m thinking about the trapdoor spiders and like all the bees – have you always been comfortable with insects? Because I don’t know if I can handle trapdoor spiders as a study subject.
Jessica Moran: Look, I was pretty nervous taking on the role of doing things with spiders.
Rose Kerr: Yeah.
Jessica Moran: I don’t love spiders, I have no affinity for them or anything like that. But I learned pretty early on, trying to get volunteering experience, which is any kind of research experience, you just have to say yes. If there’s someone that needs help, you just do it. So I mean, I spent a lot of time washing out dirty used mouse cages and things like that. So then the spiders, and searching for spiders, felt like a step up in some ways.
Rose Kerr: That’s true.
Jessica Moran: But the spiders were pretty awesome in the end, and a lot of the time I wasn’t looking for actual spiders. I was looking for these little, like, basically trap doors in the ground. that the spiders are hiding behind.
Rose Kerr: So they really build them and then live underneath.
Jessica Moran: Yeah, yeah. So there’s this whole heap of species in WA. And some of them you’ll see like a 50 cent or 20 cent piece-sized circle that’s on the ground and then there’ll be lots of leaves around it and it looks kind of ornamental. And then you might poke it and then suddenly it flies open and there’s a spider trying to grab you.
Rose Kerr: Oh no! You knocked on the little front door (both laugh).
Jessica Moran: Yeah, exactly.
Rose Kerr: I know what to stay away from them, in that case. And with all those kind of gruelling kind of volunteering to, you know, help in different projects and cleaning out cages and things, was there ever a point where you wanted to just throw in the towel and give up?
Jessica Moran: I don’t think so.
Rose Kerr: That’s good.
Jessica Moran: I was too intrigued by the final product. So I mean, I was really curious about what the results of the spider surveys would be. I mean, as much as some days it was horrible and hot, and you’d walk through all these golden orb web spots and just get covered in spiderwebs and dirt and ticks as well. There’s ticks in everything – there’s ticks in beekeeping.
Rose Kerr: Yes, really?
Jessica Moran: Yeah. But through it all, you just – the goal is the end point. And that’s what keeps you going.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, that’s really interesting. And along those lines, have you always loved nature?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, I think I have. I am. I grew up in a cattle farm in the southwest of WA, and I just, I was always loved being outside as a kid. I was this feral child that was barefoot and probably in ragged clothes that looked like I needed a bath. And I just never wanted to go inside, I always wanted to be outside. And then as I kind of went through high school I just really got interested in science and how things worked, and why they worked the way they did, and that really drove me to go into uni and kind of stay in science. Even if I thought about doing other things. I just always ended up coming back to science.
Rose Kerr: What was the job – or like maybe it was volunteering, I’m not sure – that you kind of had before the science all that maybe got you through uni? Was there anything you did that was different?
Jessica Moran: Not really. I mean, I had like a brief stint in hospitality very early on Yeah, but then I managed to get – after a lot of volunteering and just kind of living off the few bucks I had through Centrelink – I found some paid, paid research work and I was you know, called cleaning out mouse cages for a lot of my degree.
Rose Kerr: I mean, that’s still that’s got to be out there with cleaning coffee cups.
Jessica Moran: Yeah. Tomatoe – tom-ar-to.
Rose Kerr: Yeah. What’s it like to work with bees? Do they have personality?
Jessica Moran: Oh, there’s definitely angry hives (both laugh). It’s interesting because, as I said, you just look too close and you just get totally absorbed in what they’re doing. I mean, it’s just kind of magic when you open a hive and then you might take out one of the segments or a frame. And then, there’ll be this gap, and they try to fill it and then they hold hands while they’re trying to fill it and you just fall in love instantly and you can’t look away. And yeah, I mean, obviously it’s not so fun when they’re angry.
Rose Kerr: Does it happen often – that they’re angry?
Jessica Moran: Um, it can do. It seems like there’s some kind of interaction as well with the nutrition so if they’re on some floral base like * * that seems to be pretty high in protein, then the venom seems to hurt a lot.
Rose Kerr: Have you been stung a lot?
Jessica Moran: Regularly enough. I mean, it’s almost safer, it seems within the group we’d like to get stung more regularly, rather than infrequently because if you’re only getting stung once a year, then it seems like the sting feels worse, or seems to be something. The beekeepers call it ‘beekeepers wife syndrome’, where they, the wives often develop allergies because they’re hardly ever around. It is a very male-dominated field. So the wives are hardly ever around and then they get stung once every year and then they end up getting allergic. But –
Rose Kerr: Thank God you’re not allergic, I assume.
Jessica Moran: No, so I’m fine. I had my field experiment last year, where I was getting stung maybe once a week, and that seemed to be okay.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, thank goodness.
Jessica Moran: I mean, after a while, if you’re getting stung regularly enough, you don’t even react to it anymore.
Rose Kerr: That’s the goal, right?
Jessica Moran: Yeah. I mean, for a while there, I had like ballooning hands and things. But yeah, now I’m not so bad.
Rose Kerr: Would you ever keep your own hives?
Jessica Moran: I would, if I could. Unfortunately, I’m in a small townhouse with not really a backyard or – and I have the pool so, yeah, that would be a bit of a problem with bees going swimming.
Rose Kerr: Actually on that thought, I’m going to jump across to some of the questions from the rest of the Particle team. We’ve already done one which is about The Bee Movie, but I was thinking about – you have an adorable dog, an adorable dog Winston – shout out to Winston, adorable. But why do dogs seem to dislike bees? Is it just inherent because of the stinging?
Jessica Moran: I have no idea. It must be because of the stinging, I mean, they maybe they’re just the spicy flies – they don’t seem to like the flies.
Rose Kerr: (laughs)
Jessica Moran: And then, yeah, by accident. I mean, we’ve all seen the pictures on the internet of the dogs looking very foolish with blown-up faces from eating spicy flies!
Rose Kerr: Okay, how do bees breathe?
Jessica Moran: Breathing, okay. So insects have little holes in their body that basically the air moves through it and then, they’re called ‘spiracles’ I think –
Rose Kerr: That rings a bell for me!
Jessica Moran: Aw, I’m going back to Bees 101. Basically, there’s holes in their body and then the air flows through that and that diffuses through the skin so they don’t really have lungs as we do. They’ve just got, kind of swiss cheese bodies.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, yeah, that’s – I mean, it’s kinda yuck (laughs). Do you get a lot of of bee-themed gifts?
Jessica Moran: Oh my gosh, so many bee-themed gifts.
Rose Kerr: Do you have favourites?
Jessica Moran: I can’t pick and choose. But the kitschy bee stuff does come with the territory, for sure.
Rose Kerr: I’d like to point out the Jess is wearing a skirt with bees on it today.
Jessica Moran: Yes, this was self selected.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, good. Do you feel yourself drawn to bee related items?
Jessica Moran: A little bit? I mean, I like to have a few skirts and dresses that are bee-themed on hand for conferences and things like today.
Rose Kerr: Do you find it quite, because as we’ve talked about people love the bees, do you find at conferences and things people are generally interested in bee research?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, definitely. I think that the bee industry, they’re always really interested to see what we’re doing. They like to keep us on our toes as well, asking how long until we deliver certain tools and how is this applied research, but they’re always really interested in the more blue sky science as well. Particularly with things like the genetic diversity and looking at the, the breeding behaviours of some of the other species of bees as well.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, because you would work with honeybees.
Jessica Moran: Yes.
Rose Kerr: Do you have much to do with native bees as well?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, I haven’t really done anything with native bees. I, I was lucky enough when I was with the Centre for Integrated Bee Research to go over to Panama on a different project but working on ants, the leaf cutter ants, which is awesome.
Rose Kerr: That’s so cool!
Jessica Moran: And I got to have a look at a lot of the native to Panama bees over there. The was alot of the little stingless ones that are absolutely adorable. And that really got me interested in native bees in Australia as well. So when I came home, I started looking around and unfortunately in WA we – I think we’re a bit too dry down here, down in Perth, but if you’re over east, and particularly in Queensland, then you could definitely have a hive of native bees.
Rose Kerr: That is pretty cool.
Jessica Moran: In WA I love the burrowing bees and the blue banded bees are particularly adorable
Rose Kerr: When you’re working with bees in like a big hive, are there little subtle differences between the bees in the hive or do they all look exactly the same?
Jessica Moran: There’s differences depending on the age of the bee, so it’s incredibly adorable and you just kind of want to hug them. The baby babies are really fluffy and they can’t sting either, so you can have them all over your hands and they’re just a bit dopey and they’re not really sure, they can’t fly so they’ll just crawl over you and they’re super fluffy and adorable.
Rose Kerr: Oh!
Jessica Moran: The older they are, the, the more jobs that they’ve done and they go out of the hive and they move their body against things and slowly they get less fluffy and they sometimes they look a little bit mangled, because they’ve been in – banksia often takes a lot of the fluff off – and then they can almost smooth and shiny and they can be kind of scary looking. And we sometimes get beekeepers calling up saying, ‘there’s something wrong with the bees, they look like they have a disease’. Have you been on the banksia?
Rose Kerr: Hmm, that so interesting. I suppose, because they’re not adapted to our plants, they wouldn’t necessarily have adapted to protect themselves in any way.
Jessica Moran: Yeah, definitely. So honeybees, obviously, are introduced to Australia. And I don’t know, we have a lot of interesting discussions with people that want to save the bees. And I think that Australia is involved in that. Not really by choice but honeybees being an agricultural species here, but because we have one of the healthiest populations of honeybees in the world, we’re kind of stuck with that. But they are quite cheeky when it comes to our native flora. So they often cut corners, so instead of pollinating things properly, going in the route that maybe the plant has evolved for bird pollination, sometimes they’ll go down to the base of the flower and cut a hole in and then basically rob the nectar out. And then that flower is no longer that attractive to birds and things that would actually go down the opening of the flower and get that pollination going. So they can be a bit naughty.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, no kidding. That’s cheating the system.
Jessica Moran: Exactly.
Rose Kerr: Why do we bring in honeybees instead of just using like tonnes of native bees to do the same job?
Jessica Moran: Yes, that’s a good question. It’s to do with efficiency. So honeybees, they’re probably the most easy to manage. Being able to have a hive that will have about 60,000, 80,000 bees in it is a lot more efficient than trying to manage these native bees where a lot of our native bees are solitary as well.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, okay.
Jessica Moran: And the ones that aren’t, that are social living, they are a lot smaller and we don’t know a lot about their biology. So there is a bit of a push now to start recognising more native pollinators and start bringing that into it a commercial sense. But the honeybee is the kind of tried and tested. We know everything about their biology and the, there is an industry there already that’s really developing ways on managing the hives. And there’s all of the infrastructure set up around managing the hives.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, that’s the thing. We already knows so much about them.
Jessica Moran: Yeah.
Rose Kerr: When they were introduced to Australia, is it generally accepted that it was successful – and aside from the cheating the system and tapping out some of the nectar, is it generally accepted that they didn’t disrupt the ecosystem too much, or did they cause some issues?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, I mean, a lot of that – it’s kind of a grey area, it’s quite controversial. So some, some researchers will say that, ‘oh, they haven’t had too much of an effect and maybe they’re increasing pollination’, so then there’s more plants coming through. Whereas we do know that they displace bird species like the Carnaby’s cockatoo, they’ll often take up roost in, the bees will take over their nesting sites and then kind of push them out. So I think when we consider honeybees in the Australian landscape, personally, I think that we need to consider them as an agricultural species. They’re not something that should be found in forests and things like that. We are lucky in a lot of ways that we have this healthy honeybee population for pollination, and that we have kind of this stewardship role in looking after the honeybee population for – as a kind of world responsibility, I guess. But yeah, there’s definitely concerns there for our native flora. But in a lot of ways, our beekeeping industry also works really hard to protect the forest as well, because obviously, we have a lot of value in the monofloral honey is from say, the jarrah forest. So the beekeepers are actually one of the biggest lobbyists to stop the logging and the forestry services from cutting down too much of our remnant forests.
Rose Kerr: Hmm. I never thought about the way it would interact with so many different industries.
Jessica Moran: Yeah. Going back to the question you asled earlier about why honeybees?
Rose Kerr: Yeah,
Jessica Moran: I remembered that – so honeybees have what’s called ‘floral constancy’, I think it’s called. So basically when the bees fly out of the hive, and then they’ll find a nectar resource or a pollen resource, they’ll continue going back to that species, that plant, until its – the resources are gone. So that’s why they’re particularly good at doing pollination services. Because if they’re going after avocados, then they’ll keep going for avocados, rather than straying off and kind of going into the weeds, I mean, this is often why we see monocultures without any weeds because they can get distracted and then just go for the weeds.
Rose Kerr: Yep.
Jessica Moran: Which can be a problem as well, but they’re very good and efficient pollinators for crop species.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I wonder, I wonder why evolutionary-wise they would have done that, decided to go, ‘you know what, we’ll just take all of this one particular one instead of going for everything’.
Jessica Moran: Yeah, I’m not sure. It’s incredibly interesting.
Rose Kerr: Do you eat honey?
Jessica Moran: I do.
Rose Kerr: And do you have a favourite like, you know how you can get Jarrah honey or wildflower honey, do you have a favourite one you’ve gotten?
Jessica Moran: I really like whitegum honey.
Rose Kerr: Why does it taste different?
Jessica Moran: It’s all about what’s in the nectar. So, you might have peppermint honey from the peppermint tree, is Agonis flexuosa I think. I mean, you did botany …
Rose Kerr: (laughs) good guess!
Jessica Moran: And that would taste kind of pepperminty because of the nectar. That’s not something the beekeepers add to it, or the bees do, that’s all to do with the nectar. So the bees obviously turn it into honey, but the underlying taste definitely comes from that plant.
Rose Kerr: So does that mean you have picked up a bit of botany along the way? Because of that?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, it’s funny that you asked that. We, I think when I first started my PhD, I did get grilled by one of the beekeepers at an event. And they pointed outside the window and they’re like, ‘name that tree, name that tree’. And I said, ‘excuse me?’, yeah, they said, ‘if you’re going to be in beekeeping, you need to know some botany’.
Rose Kerr: Wow! Did you take that on board, did you have to do that?
Jessica Moran: Yeah definitely I mean, we try.
Rose Kerr: Yeah. You coudl just work with a botanist, you could just outsource!
Jessica Moran: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I did zoology, so I’m not the best at botany. But you definitely try to pick things up, like looking around and being able to identify bottlebrush not from the flower, but from the leaves.
Rose Kerr: Yeah
Jessica Moran: And that kind of thing and trying to learn some of the names, but it is one of the problems that we have in the honey industry as well, with trying to get people to say, what, what floral resource they were on, because there’s so many common names that get used. And then with all of the taxonomic revisions, people often say, ‘oh, is on the Wandoo’ but what does that even mean any more, there’s so many different species. There’s been all these taxonomic revisions. So, that’s been one of the challenges for looking at honey traceability and trying to figure out what honey, monofloral crop you have.
Rose Kerr: Wow.
Jessica Moran: Because the beekeepers have all of these different names for things like Parrot Bush, and oh, that’s that banksia that makes honey that tastes really bad. They all know what they’re talking about.
Rose Kerr: Why would you ever need to trace back where someone’s honey originally came from or where the bees were pollinating?
Jessica Moran: So part of that is to do with adding value to the industry because we know that there are some honey like Jarrah that are worth a lot more than other honey. So at the moment, there’s a big push in the industry to be able to put some honey in and say, okay, the beekeeper says this is Jarrah, can we confirm that this is Jarrah honey?
Rose Kerr: Yep.
Jessica Moran: And then people can ask the right price for it. The other thing potentially would be for tracing disease outbreaks. So if we find that a honey sample has spores of the bacteria, then we could go back to that apiary or that beekeeper and say, ‘hey, look, we need to investigate this further’.
Rose Kerr: What are some unexpected challenges of your research?
Jessica Moran: Definitely going back to the earlier statement I made about the disease that I work on having a stigma around it. In the beginning of my PhD, it was really difficult to actually get samples of the disease because people weren’t even reporting it to the Ag department, which is a legal requirement for having bees and this disease. That was definitely really challenging trying to move through that and build a relationship with the beekeepers and say that I’m a trustworthy person, and I’m not going to grill you or say that, you know, you’re a bad beekeeper, because that’s not at all the case. That was definitely really challenging in terms of PhD life. It’s kind of like chronic stress and fatigue (laughs).
Rose Kerr: For years!
Jessica Moran: Yeah. So and I think with academic precarity, as well, we’re racing towards the finish line, but we have no idea what’s at the end of that finish line. If there’s a job.
Rose Kerr: That’s rough. When you’re talking to the beekeepers, how did you go about forming that trust? Was it just lots of conversations like how did it work?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, I think part of it was, I was really lucky in being in the Centre of Integrated Bee Research and CIBER had a really good working relationship with the beekeepers and our apiary manager – who actually manages the hives at Scitech I think – Tiffany Bates, she was instrumental in being able to make these relationships and just get my face out there Going to conferences helped, just being persistent really, and volunteering my time at the Royal Show and at bee industry events where I could just stand there and talk to the public about bees and try to help the industry.
Rose Kerr: Do you like doing that stuff?
Jessica Moran: I do, actually. It’s, it’s exhausting. And we do get a lot of questions from a lot of children and parents about bees and you just feel like you kind of repeating yourself alot, but it is rewarding being able to pass it on. It’s always interesting to hear what kind of questions people have and what, what they know as well.
Rose Kerr: Yeah. What do you find people know most about bees?
Jessica Moran: A lot of people are starting to become aware of the pollination.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, cool.
Jessica Moran: So that’s been really nice to see in the last couple of years, that people are being able to put kind of figures on, ‘oh, yeah, they they polinate say 35 of our crop species in Australia’ or ‘oh yeah, I heard that bees contribute $14 billion to the economy every year’, things like that. It’s kind of nice to be hearing that information back rather than just saying it. But people are always really interested to hear about bee sex, so …
Rose Kerr: And you’re like, in the air, there’s explosions, It’s amazing!
Jessica Moran: Sit down, strap yourself in (both laugh).
Rose Kerr: Do you often see it, out and about?
Jessica Moran: No, not really.
Rose Kerr: Yeah okay.
Jessica Moran: If you’re lucky, then you might. – okay, so there’s this researcher called Dr. Ben Oldroyd in Sydney, University of Sydney. He likes to say that the bee boys are typical blokes and like to hang out at ovals, for some reason, you can often find these little swarms I guess, of the boys – they’re called congregation areas where the drones just hang out and wait for the queen to fly through.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, okay. Typical!
Jessica Moran: And for some reason they’re often at football ovals.
Rose Kerr: That’s kind of great. What’s something unexpected that you’ve learned through your career?
Jessica Moran: Unexpected … I guess, resilience. I, it’s just a skill I didn’t really expect to have to be so resilient in science, but it’s definitely a lot of perseverance and kind of, you feel like you might be headbutting the wall alot of the time, and then you’ll get a breakthrough. And thankfully, that’s rewarding enough that you kind of have to remind yourself of that next time you feel like you’ve come to a roadblock.
Rose Kerr: Do you have any strategies for dealing with that kind of, I don’t know, feeling dejected, that you couldn’t get the results you wanted?
Jessica Moran: I mean, it’s, it’s really about getting the results you wanted. It’s more about particularly working with bees, fieldwork can be a nightmare.
Rose Kerr: Yeah.
Jessica Moran: Sometimes the bees, just like working with any kind of animal, they they won’t do what you want them to do. So even when I was doing a field experiment on my disease, some of the bees just wouldn’t get sick.
Rose Kerr: (both laugh). Like, ‘I swear this is a problem for you!’
Jessica Moran: You’re tearing your hair out and yo’re like, ‘come on, stop being so hygienic! But it’s always an interesting learning curve.
Rose Kerr: Yeah. Is there – do you have like, I don’t know, do you have to take a step away at that point or do you distract yourself like, what do you normally do?
Jessica Moran: I think I really rely on my research group. Yeah. I mean, for us, no bee researcher is an island. We really rely on each other and a lot of that motivation and just the final push can come from the rest of the the group that I’m in, who are incredibly helpful with feedback, but also just motivation.
Rose Kerr: Did you always want to do a PhD?
Jessica Moran: It’s, it’s kind of come down to personal motivation. I came from quite an academic family. So my dad was a doctor and he was a well, a fish doctor. I should say he worked for the Department of Primary Industries in the Department of Fisheries for a long time. So I kind of knew that that was a career path that I could potentially take. But as I started off my undergraduate, I was really keen to do it. And then after I did my honours less keen, I kind of was bit worried about the academic situation and the lifestyle in particular. There’s a lot of precarity with job opportunities and living kind of contract to contract and it seemed quite high stress. So yeah, I mean, there’s definitely positives and negatives. Being called ‘doctor’ is also a nice positive (laughs). But yeah, it’s, it’s all about kind of, I guess, sacrificing part of the lifestyle in order to get that, that drive of the research and you just kind of get addicted to answering questions and asking questions in particular. I mean, I’m definitely learning every day. I think that’s something that people don’t really expect when they go into a PhD is how much you end up Googling. (both laugh). Just constantly Googling.
Rose Kerr: That’s kind of reassuring someone who Google’s alot of things!
Jessica Moran: Oh, yeah, that’s definitely the way.
Rose Kerr: And so do you feel like you’re more or less, kind of, anxious about the whole being-an-academic thing now compared to at the start? Or is it still very much just still there the concern?
Jessica Moran: I mean, the concern is definitely there. It’s, it’s hard to get away from it. We, we definitely see kind of what it does to colleagues and seeing higher ups and everybody always looks stressed, particularly around grant application time about whether or not you’ll still have funding. There’s fewer and fewer grants that are available every year. So there’s a large proportion of PhD students that are turning to industry and the private sector once they graduate, fewer and fewer actually managing to stay in academia. But I think they’ll always be opportunities for you after getting a PhD because it’s, it’s less about being an expert in one small area but gaining a lot of transferable skills.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, okay. What’s something that could improve in the bee industry outside of, you know, managing the diseases in terms of from an environmental standpoint?
Jessica Moran: I think we have an interesting situation in Australia where beekeeping – beekeeping is always difficult but in Australia we have a relatively easy, so we don’t have the varroa mite, and that makes beekeeping here incredibly easy compared to elsewhere. I was in Germany a couple of years ago, and my friend Ari was showing me his hives and just the, the process that they have to go through to constantly be treating for varroa was really interesting. It just seemed so foreign to me having to constantly be managing your hive to keep it alive, basically. And we make honey so easily here. So with the ease of beekeeping, I think that it’s quite attractive to people that don’t really know what they’re doing. And we have had an explosion of hobbyists come into the industry. And that’s awesome that people are interested in bees, but it’s, it was described to me once as, they feel like they’ve caught a goldfish, like a pet to have.
Rose Kerr: Yep.
Jessica Moran: And they don’t really realise that now they’re a part of this bigger picture of biosecurity and global bee health. So, I guess making people understand the regulations and the rules, particularly around being a hobbyist or just being a beekeeper in general in Australia is really important. As soon as you get bees you are required to register with the Ag department. So then if something goes wrong, if there’s an incursion, the Ag department can contact you and also they can do inspections to check that you’re not just dumping the hive somewhere, forgetting about them and breeding disease. Part of the problem as well is that hobbyists often are undereducated or they think that they’ve got it, but they don’t really know enough and we try to set them up with the APS associations that are around just for the training and basic kind of know-how, but sometimes there are hobbyists that might get a hive and then they think it’s too difficult so the hive will sit there and then they’ll get an infection of the disease. And particularly for the disease that I work on, if the hive then dies, other hives in the area – bees are quite sneaky, they’ll come and try to rob the honey, but that can be laden with spores. So that’s a really bad incidence where the disease can spread quite quickly.
Rose Kerr: What are you gonna do when you’re finished with your PhD?
Jessica Moran: I am actually getting excited about that. So the Honeybee Health Research Group, I’ve been a part of it since it first began. And I’m really excited to help build that group into something more. So at the moment, we’re in a lot of discussions about trying to create more of a space for training and teaching and doing a lot of the sideline things like doing seminars on disease and more beekeeping courses. So there’s a whole bunch of things that aren’t really academic, but more service for industry –
Rose Kerr: Yeah, cool.
Jessica Moran: – that I’m really interested in doing and I look forward to hopefully having a postdoc that maybe I can do part-time while also helping Honeybee Health Research Group grow.
Rose Kerr: How long have you got left?
Jessica Moran: I have another year of funding, but I’ll probably continue on beyond that. Most PhD students end up doing some time that’s unpaid, which can be a good motivator to finish (both laugh).
Rose Kerr: Yeah, I was gonna say, yeah, how do you kind of, I guess you’re so close to the end, you just keep going, but is it a hard thing to convince yourself at that point, ‘it’s worth it’ and go, you know, without funding and do it on off your own back?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, I mean, I think that it’s pretty common for PhD students to have what’s called the ‘second year blues’, where you just feel like there’s so much to kind of push up that mountain and finally get wrapped up. But at the end of the day, a lot of PhD students managed to kind of push past that. And then it’s this final rush. I mean, you do spend a lot of time in your pyjamas just sitting at the computer and smashing it out.
Rose Kerr: Yeah.
Jessica Moran: It is exhausting. It’s definitely not something that’s easy, but it is rewarding as well. And I mean, unless you write up the research you’ve done, then no-one will ever know about it and it won’t matter. So it feels like there’s this huge need for the science communication part of it.
Rose Kerr: That’s something we’ve talked about a few times is, why so many scientists do choose to go into science communication, and maybe that’s a part of it, it’s just because you’ve done all this work, you probably want to share it!
Jessica Moran: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you, if you sit in a lab and you do the work, you haven’t actually done the work because no one knows about it, you have to still write it up. And even if you write it up, people might not read it. So you need to do a good job of writing it up and getting it out there. Otherwise, you still haven’t really done it in the eyes of the world.
Rose Kerr: And especially with your research, I imagine it’s mainly the stuff that will matter most is when it goes out to the beekeepers and it gets put in practice?
Jessica Moran: Yes, that’s a really exciting and terrifying part of my project, I guess. I mean, my, my whole project has been about trying to work towards this beehive breathalyser, and I managed to get, I guess the, the groundwork laid where I’ve identified these biomarkers and now we’re looking at the sensors and that’s – part of the next phase of my project is looking at sensors to actually look for these biomarkers. But we’ve also managed to get a big grant from Agrifutures Australia to take that to the next level and be able to make sense of specifically for some of these biomarkers. So that’s something else that’s in the pipeline.
Rose Kerr: Would there be literally like, tiny little breathalysers you have to hold on, like body holes?
Jessica Moran: I’m picturing something more like a regular huma-sized one that will probably have where the tube will go in the door of the hive.
Rose Kerr: I’m picturing them all lining up! That’s probably a lot quicker, I think, your way! And to finish off with off, after you said you had so many fun, fun facts, I do desperately want to hear one …
Jessica Moran: Ooh okay. My top favourite fact would have to be that bee sperm is about four times longer than humans boom.
Rose Kerr: Wait, what? How? Why? Why should it be?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, so that’s a really good question and we’re still trying to figure out why. Insects often have ridiculously long sperm and there’s a lot of theories that it has to sperm competition. So when a honeybee goes out on, they call it the nuptial flight, and that’s basically a ‘flight of passion’, she can mate with up to 90 drones just in quick succession leaving little trail of dead exploded bodies. And then, she’ll only accept about 3% of that sperm.
Rose Kerr: Wow.
Jessica Moran: So there’s this massive sperm competition that must go on in her internals. So even though the drones die immediately during copulation, she will actually store that sperm for the rest of her life. And that can be up to seven years, so the sperm will definitely outlive their, their maker.
Rose Kerr: And to finish up with, after you said you had so many fun, fun facts. I do desperately want to hear one.
Jessica Moran: Okay! My top favorite fact would have to be that bee sperm is about four times longer than human sperm.
Rose Kerr: Wait, what?
(laughs) Why? Why should it be?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, so that’s a really good question and we’re still trying to figure out the “why”. Insects often have ridiculously long sperm. And there’s a lot of theories that it has to do with sperm competition. So when a honeybee goes out on they call it the natural flight, and that’s basically a flight of passion.
Rose Kerr: (laughs)
Jessica Moran: She can mate with up to 90 drones, just in quick succession, leaving a little trail of dead exploded bodies. And then she’ll only accept about 3% of that sperm.
Rose Kerr: Wow.
Jessica Moran: So there’s this massive sperm competition that must go on in her internals. So even though the drones die immediately during copulation, she will actually store that sperm for the rest of her life. And that can be up to seven years. So the sperm will definitely outlive their, their maker.
Rose Kerr: Wow.
Jessica Moran: And honeybees are incredibly efficient at fertilizing their eggs as well. So if you think about how many sperm a human male will throw at a single egg, and still not great chance of getting pregnant, a bee will actually use one or two sperm per egg in fertilization.
Rose Kerr: That is so successful.
Jessica Moran: It’s incredible. And she actually controls whether or not to fertilize that egg. So she can lay unfertilized eggs, which are the drones, the boys, it’s only the workers that are made from fertilized eggs.
Rose Kerr: I don’t understand. Like, they’re so little! How are they- like their little bodies are storing at all?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, so she has this it’s a special organ called a spermatheca. So basically like a sperm pocket where she just keeps all of the sperm. And that’s her little pouch where she just plucks the sperm when she needs them.
Rose Kerr: Oh, the queens are amazing. Yeah,
Jessica Moran: They are also -they’re incredibly vicious towards one another
Rose Kerr: Really?
Jessica Moran: So if a hive feels like it needs to make another Queen say that the previous Queen might have gotten really old, she might have run out of sperm. That’s something that can happen as well. So then she might only be laying boys. The bees have an opportunity to make new queens. And they do that by basically taking a really young worker larvae. And then they’ll feed that larvae extra royal jelly and then through epigenetics, it will turn into a queen. To hedge their bets, they don’t want to just make one queen, they often make a couple. So they’ll make a couple of queens, the queens will then hatch and then when they hatch, they actually do what’s called piping where they make this kind of *high pitched beep beep beep* noise and then that lures out the other queen and then they fight to the death.
(Both laugh) And the winner is then the queen of that hive.
Rose Kerr: It’s like Game of Thrones within a hive!
Jessica Moran: It’s so game of Game of Thrones.
Rose Kerr: You thought about this before!
Jessica Moran: Definitely have.
Rose Kerr: What does the old queen think about it?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, she gets knocked off.
Rose Kerr: Yeah, would they wait until they get a new one before they kill off the old queen?
Jessica Moran: Yeah, so often obey the new queen that kills off the old queen. They’ll do that piping.
Rose Kerr: Ah, that’s amazing.
Jessica Moran: Yeah, it’s an incredible world.
Rose Kerr: I could Yeah, I can see how you get fascinated and watch that just forever.
Jessica Moran: Easy.
Rose Kerr: Thank you so much for being on today Jess.
Jessica Moran: No worries, thank you so much for having me.
Rose Kerr: Thank you for listening to Particle Podcast. You can find more of our content on all of the socials as well as at particle.scitech.org.au. Particle is powered by Scitech and everything we make is made in the wonderful science of Western Australia on Whadjuk country.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai