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By Evan Dresser

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Just a few miles from the beekeeper who first raised his voice about "colony collapse disorder," two Bucknell professors are busy digging deeper into the bee brain.

Marie Pizzorno, associate professor of biology and department chair, and Elizabeth Capaldi, assistant professor of biology and animal behavior, are studying honey bee viral infections, as well as visual spatial memory.

Their research has links to colony collapse disorder, an epidemic that has caught national attention due to the importance of bees as pollinators. On July 12, the two addressed the Fruit Industry Task Force in Pennsylvania, a state with a $45 million apple industry.

Important to agriculture
“Colony collapse disorder is in the news lately because bees are extremely important to agriculture,” Capaldi said. “They pollinate many fruit trees, cucumbers, melons, cranberries, almonds … some crops have become almost completely dependent on them.”

A recent article in the New Yorker identified a Lewisburg, Pa., beekeeper as the first person to notice or admit the problem, which involves entire bee colonies disappearing from their hives virtually without a trace.

The bees that can be found are usually riddled with diseases such as the deformed wing virus. Pizzorno and Capaldi are attempting to characterize and locate this virus in the brain.

Link to spatial memory?
“We use a machine called a cryostat to cut the brain tissue into thin slices,” Pizzorno said. “Then, in situ hybridization carried out by sophomore Karan Shah allows us to localize where the viral RNA is infecting the cells in the bees’ brains.”

In addition to possibly affecting bees’ perception of odor, pathogens may affect bees’ spatial memory. Along with Christie Wiest ’08 and John Cullum ’08, Capaldi is investigating how bees process information about their surroundings, and how they identify “home.”

The research is being conducted on campus at Bucknell’s animal behavior research laboratory and within the tree nursery, as well as at the University’s 42-acre Chillisquaque Natural Area in Montour County.

For a first person account of the process of creating an artificial swarm, complete with bare-hand bee grabbing, read “Our man goes undercover: Inside the bee suit.”


At top, removing racks from a hive. Center, preparing a queen bee to start a new colony. Immediately above, Elizabeth Capaldi in bee suit.

Contact: Office of Communications

Posted Aug. 13, 2007

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