Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre

Dr Mark Barnett on the genetics of bees

The creation of the campus apiary and how whole genome sequencing, bioinformatics and breeding could help honey bee health.

Scientist Dr Mark Barnett showing a young child the bee apiary

In this interview, Maggie Szymanska talked with Dr Mark Barnett about how he and his colleague Dr Tim Regan have used whole genome sequencing (the reading of the whole DNA) to identify organisms living inside honey bees, and how they use that knowledge to help to improve bee health and to identify honey bees native to the UK. Mark coordinates the bee apiary on our campus.


Could you tell me about your work in a nutshell?

I work in the laboratory of Tom Freeman. The laboratory studies complex biological systems by combining visualised data and experimental studies to create and test models of biological pathways. A biological pathway is a series of actions between molecules that results in a particular product or change in the cell eg genes can be turned on or off.

In the past few years we have started doing research on honey bees and it is my aim to develop that further.

We built an apiary* (bee yard) here at the Institute a few years ago to support honey bee research. Now, the campus apiary allows all staff and students to experience beekeeping and help manage the bees.

We have run three beekeeping courses on campus that teach people all they need to know to help in the apiary. The apiary also helps to promote sustainability by enhancing pollination* on campus.


What are the challenges you experience?

My biggest challenge is probably that my background is in developmental biology and neuroscience, not insects. However, having become an enthusiastic beekeeper in 2010, I was very happy for this to come into my work life.

For example, at the moment, I’m trying to separate honey bee pupae (a sort of larva) for single cell sequencing*, so that we can create an expression atlas of the developing worker bee (a database of the genes expressed in each cell of the bee). This is very different from my previous research.

I suppose the other big challenge I face is that computer science and bioinformatics are becoming more and more important. It has become a necessity for lab-based scientists to understand and use those techniques. Learning to align all of the DNA sequences (arrange the sequences of DNA) of the honey bee and then to use programmes to identify all the genetic variation was a big challenge for me because you need to learn to write coding scripts first. I didn’t want to just do my bit and look at the result at the end, I wanted to understand it.


Why are bees so important?

Bees are responsible for pollination. Honey bees pollinate plants in the environment. This makes bees a very important animal for agriculture. If you have a crop that you want to pollinate, you will usually use honey bees. This can be seen in the United States with almonds and in the UK with apple, pear and plum orchards.

With bees being so important, you can take the whole genome sequencing we’ve done, identify all the genetic variation in the population and start breeding bees to hold that variation. You can also try to link parts of DNA to various traits you want to breed into your bees. This is important to make sure we have strong bees that can adapt to diverse conditions.

Additionally, beekeepers in the UK have a large interest in the native honey bee, as there was a large importation of bees in the 20th century. Using sequencing we are able to identify how certain native bees are compared to others.

And of course the bee decline is causing great concern.


What causes the bee decline?

One of the main causes is loss of forage. Up to the 1950s wildflower meadows were used to feed animals. However, with the development of nitrogen fertilizers, grass was used instead, so there has been a massive disappearance of flower meadows.

Another large problem are the pests and diseases which are spread around the world by beekeepers who transport their bees around the world. An example is Varroa destructor, a small parasitic mite that attaches itself to honey bees and transmits disease. Varroa destructor started as a parasite of the eastern honey bee and the story goes that Russian servicemen in World War II travelled with their bees to Indonesia and the mite transmitted from the eastern honey bee to the western honey bee. As the western honey bee has not evolved to protect itself, if infected, there is a very high chance the whole colony will be destroyed. This eventually led to the spreading of the mite around the world, with only a few places still safe, like Australia. It's a big problem!


How can science help?

We’re currently in a situation where we have to prevent this thing and that is not a good situation to be in.

However, there are certain options being explored. Once the genetic traits that makes the bee resistant to Varroa are identified, Varroa-resistant honey bees can be selectively bred. These bees are more hygienic, helping to keep the mites out.

We have also been involved in a collaboration in Portugal, working with Alice Pinto from the Instituto Politécnico de Bragança. Alice has a low cost technology for identifying genes and she was looking at genetic variation (SNPs*) to differentiate between native and imported bees. That work has just been published in Nature’s Scientific Reports.


And finally, if you weren’t a scientist, who would you be?

I’d be a bee farmer or a singer/songwriter. So pretty much what I currently do in my spare time.


*apiary: a collection of beehives

*pollination: the transfer of pollen

*single cell sequencing: examines the sequence information from individual cells

*SNPs: single-nucleotide polymorphism, a variation in a single nucleotide that occurs at a specific position in the genome.


Adapted version by Marie Poirot and Zippy Tseng, for the full version of this interview please visit: https://www.ed.ac.uk/roslin/news-events/meet-our-scientists/dr-mark-barnett