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Int'l Science Journal Publishes Student's Bee Immunity Research

Research by Olivia Masi Biller for her Division III thesis was recently published by a prestigious scientific journal, PLOS One

A balanced diet may be important for bees in order to strengthen their immune system: the nectar of certain flowers contains chemicals that bolster a bee’s defense against parasites.

That was the finding of research conducted by Hampshire alum Olivia Masi Biller and her collaborators, when she was a student here, research that was recently published in the scientific journal PLOS One. The research came directly from a chapter of Biller’s Division III thesis project.

This study is important because it may enable other researchers to come up with a list of plants with the medicinal properties that would help maintain a healthy population of bees.

Biller's success publishing her undergraduate science thesis in a global journal is remarkable for an undergraduate student, though not uncommon at Hampshire. Five percent of Hampshire undergrads like Biller who complete a Division III project in science are lead authors on peer-reviewed journal articles, while one in five present their work at peer-reviewed conferences.

In the introduction to her journal article, Biller and her coauthors explain that the chemistry of a plant’s nectar may attract and reward pollinators—such as bees—with compounds that provide a boost to their immune systems. The authors cite certain secondary compounds with antimicrobial effects that facilitate an insect’s resistance to parasites. In other words, consumption of these secondary compounds can increase an insect’s immunity and fitness and at the same time undermine the fitness of its parasites.

Specifically, Biller’s research focuses on the chemicals thymol and nicotine, which occur naturally in nectar, and their relationship to those parasites that may decrease bumblebee populations.

“We found that the combination of nicotine and thymol, when fed to bees, decreased their parasite load more than did any other treatment,” she says. “It wasn’t statistically significant, but it lowered their parasite load by thirty percent compared to that of the control population.”

The study’s results tentatively suggest the value of a mixed diet.

For her Division III, Biller’s committee comprised Hampshire’s Professor of Public Health Elizabeth Conlisk and Associate Professor of Entomology and Ecology Brian Schultz. She also worked under Lynn Adler, in the biology department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as she collaborated with PhD candidate Evan Palmer-Young and a team to undertake work at the University’s Crop and Animal Research and Education Center, in South Deerfield.

According to the annual federal census, the Survey of Earned Doctorates from the National Science Foundation, Hampshire is in the top 1.4% of colleges nationwide by measure of percentage of alums who advance to earn research doctorates.

Biller's paper, titled “Possible Synergistic Effects of Thymol and Nicotine against Crithidia bombi Parasitism in Bumble Bees,” was published by PLOS (Public Library of Science). PLOS is a nonprofit advocacy organization whose mission it is, in part, to accelerate progress in science and medicine by transforming research communication and to publish peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Her paper is available here.

Biller wrapped up her studies in September 2015 and is now with the FoodCorps program, a national team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to nourishing school food and encourage them to grow up with knowledge of gardening, cooking, and nutrition. She’s also associated with the Holyoke, Mass., public school district through the urban farming organization Nuestra Raices, coordinating school gardens, teaching gardening and cooking classes, and working to improve school food.

Photo of Olivia Biller by John Solem/UMass

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