Garden blogs

A Microscopic Look at Honeybees

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I’m Grace and I’m currently undertaking a year-long placement within the Science department at the Garden as part of my Biology degree at the University of Bath.

As part of my placement year at the Garden, I have been greatly involved in many aspects of beekeeping. Last week, we were lucky enough to partake in 2 microscopy sessions with a BBKA Master Beekeeper Steve Davies, as part of a Beekeeping Theory Course run by the Growing the Future team.

Dissection of honeybees not only allows detailed observation but means any pests or diseases can be identified, and the colony can be treated accordingly, promoting responsible beekeeping.

To carry out a dissection of a bee, the bees must be embedded in wax to secure them, and covered with dissecting fluid, which allows for easy manipulation and observation. Using a dissecting microscope, we were then able to remove part of the abdomen exoskeleton to reveal the internal organs. The make-up of the digestive system became clear and we could see the organisation of the many organs packed into such a small creature.

We were also able to remove the proboscis (sucking mouthpart) and sting mechanism of the bee, which consists of a barbed sting and clear poison sac.

It was fascinating to see how well adapted these parts were to carry out their functions – the proboscis actually consists of multiple parts which come together to collect nectar.

Another organism we weren’t expecting to see were Varroa mite, a prevalent parasite of bees, which were attached to the exterior of some of the insects. It is shocking to think how much damage these have caused to honeybee colonies globally when they are only the size of a pinhead.

The session taught me that dissection is a skill that can take years to perfect. It is easy to make mistakes, so patience and precision are essential. Not securing the bee properly or cutting too deep into the abdomen and hence piercing key organs were common issues.

Despite this, the experience was very rewarding, and it was hard to pull yourself away from the microscope at times! There are also many more parts of the bee which could be investigated – from the glands in the head to the flight muscles in the thorax, demonstrating the extent of knowledge which can be gained from just 1 of these complex insects.