In the face of the UK’s declining bee population, a UK science firm, SureScreen Scientifics, is pioneering the use of DNA technology to unlock the secrets of bee behavior and potentially discover new species.
Situated in Morley, SureScreen Scientifics has become the first commercial firm in the UK to employ DNA analysis for the identification of individual bee species, as well as wasps and hornets. By studying carcasses, pupae, and other materials left behind in nests, the company aims to shed light on the challenges faced by bees, including bumblebees, honeybees, and the 250 species of solitary bees that constitute the UK’s bee population. The detrimental impacts of farming, pollution, climate change, and habitat loss have severely impacted these crucial pollinators.
Understanding the circumstances affecting bee populations heavily relies on ecologists’ ability to locate and identify individual insects, providing insights into population trends. However, some species are challenging to identify, and identification is impossible without a carcass to work from.
This is where DNA analysis comes into play. It not only allows for the analysis of the insects themselves but also enables the examination of materials found in their nests, such as old pupae or larvae that failed to mature into adult bees. Wasps and hornets, including the invasive Asian Hornet, can also offer valuable clues about the ecological health of the UK and the potential risks they pose to honeybee colonies.
SureScreen Scientifics has already successfully utilized DNA and environmental DNA analysis to identify species like the Largeheaded Resin bee and the Orange-vented Mason Bee from remnants of pupae discovered in a wooden block that had previously served as a nest.
The process involves breaking down a sample, such as a bee’s leg or a section of its pupae, using a pestle and mortar. The material is then subjected to a series of liquid solutions, extracting the DNA within it. Further processing removes impurities, leaving pure DNA that undergoes polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This amplifies the DNA, enabling genetic sequencing and resulting in a complete species-specific DNA sequence. This sequence is then cross-referenced with other bee DNA sequences stored in an international database to accurately identify the species.
Leading the charge in insect DNA analysis at SureScreen Scientifics is Chelsea Warner, a lab technician and self-professed bumblebee enthusiast. Chelsea, who holds a Masters degree in conservation biology from the University of Derby and volunteers with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, aims to provide ecologists with a better understanding of bee behavior, distribution, and survival in the wild. Additionally, the DNA analysis might unveil new undiscovered species.
Chelsea acknowledges that while many bee species can be easily identified by sight, others, such as blood bees, may not resemble typical bees, while certain bumblebees, like the cryptic white-tailed bumblebees and Northern white-tailed bumblebees, can be confusing. DNA analysis offers highly reliable identification, eliminating the need for an actual bee specimen to gather evidence of its presence in the wild.
The team at SureScreen Scientifics, sister company to the double King’s Award-winning firm SureScreen Diagnostics, is currently occupied with analyzing water samples sent by ecologists seeking evidence of the presence of Great Crested Newts. Even the tiniest traces of DNA from stray eggs, saliva, faeces, or skin can detect the species. However, the company is eager to receive more unidentified bee, wasp, or hornet carcasses, as well as other biological materials, to further deepen their understanding of bee populations and their survival.
Chelsea eagerly anticipates delving into more bee samples, as well as those of wasps and hornets, as she recognizes the immense power of DNA analysis. Through her work with bees, she has developed a profound appreciation for their vital role and their positive impact on human lives in an imbalanced world. Leveraging DNA technology to comprehend how humans can aid bees in supporting the environment, and potentially identifying new undiscovered species, could play a pivotal role in future environmental conservation efforts.
Aside from their bee-focused work, SureScreen Scientifics offers materials consultancy and testing for manufacturing and the automotive supply chain. Under their Neo Vos brand, they provide at-home gut and nutritional health test kits, which they analyze and provide personalized recommendations based on the results.
To support their efforts, SureScreen Scientifics welcomes the submission of unidentified bee, wasp, or hornet carcasses, or other biological material, to further contribute to their research and knowledge about these crucial pollinators.