A Creighton University professor is studying the plight of the honeybee — colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is causing large declines in honeybee populations across North America and Europe.

Inspired by her youth spent on a honeybee farm, biology professor Carol Fassbinder-Orth, PhD, is spearheading the research. Although the cause for CCD has not been determined, the disorder occurs when the majority of worker bees disappear from a colony.

“It’s sad,” said Fassbinder-Orth of CCD. “It’s hard to watch. In less than a day, you start to see them get really frantic. They know something’s wrong. They’re trying to leave, they’re bouncing off the walls. Then they start to shake, and then it’s paralysis. And by then, it’s spread through the colony. It’s rather sad to see the progression and then to see its aftermath in colony collapse disorder.”

In her lab, Fassbinder-Orth, who received a 2018 Dr. George F. Haddix President’s Faculty Research Grant to support her project, and her student researchers are observing the dynamics of the hive when a virus that may cause CCD is introduced. The bees are kept close to the hive to see what behaviors they exhibit in the run-up to leaving and dying.

Ryan Sabotin, who graduated in May with a degree in neuroscience, and Sam Hughes, who will be a senior this coming year in computer science and informatics, assisted with the research.

For the experiments, tiny radio-frequency identification (or RFID) chips are placed on the backs of some bees, which are then placed into two hives that have transmitters to record the movements of the insects. One hive is for healthy bees; the other is for those infected with a virus that simulates CCD.

The bee specimens used in the research project are tested for their levels of vitellogenin. One of Fassbinder-Orth’s hypotheses is that varroa mites may introduce a virus that drains the vitellogenin protein from the bees, hastening the timeline in which the bees choose to leave the hive.

Hughes, a computer science major, programmed a script to visualize the path of the bees in the hives.

Participating in the research project has taught her many lessons, she says, including resilience.

“I’ve learned to not be afraid of trying and failing at something,” she says. “I’m learning that’s the way research is. Don’t be scared of failing. It’s not going to work at first, and that’s OK. You learn as you go.”

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