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A hive of activity at Scitech

When most West Australians hear 'Scitech', they think of hyperactive kids, and maybe that machine that makes your hair stand on end. What they probably don't think of is bees. But bees is exactly what you'll get from next week, when Scitech installs a perspex-walled observation hive complete with thousands of flying insects. The question is - why?

It turns out that Perth is an unlikely hive of international bee research, centered around an organisation called CIBER (the Center for Integrative Bee Research) based at the University of Western Australia.

Much like a bee hive, CIBER is all about cooperation. "Because we share our findings among each other, we get ideas on how to tackle research problems and solve them together. This can be very rewarding, but like research in general, takes time, patience and persistence." says Dr. Barbara Baer-Imhoof, one of the Center's scientists.

The Centre brings together ecology, social biology, evolution and genetics, along with a healthy dose of experience from WA's thriving beekeeping industry, to work towards better understanding and protecting honey bees in Australia.

Perth is actually an ideal location for this kind of research, since the climate is warm enough to keep bees almost all year round. More importantly, WA also has strict quarantine controls on bringing bees in to the state, and thanks to the Nullarbor Plain on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, bees in WA rarely encounter bees from anywhere else on their own.

This isolation is crucial because CIBER’s research delves into both bee reproduction and disease resistance, which means that, ideally, their hives need to be kept as far away from other bees as possible. The hope is that by better understanding how bees react to disease, we can help better protect them from threats - which, more likely than not, are caused by human intervention in the first place.

One such threat is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has devastated bee populations across Europe and North America. Affected beehives lose a huge percentage - up to half - of their bees, practically overnight.

The cause is still unknown. It could be anything from the dozens of pesticides used on crops, to any number of bacterial diseases, to outbreaks of parasites like the Varroa mite: a tiny blood-sucking bug which feeds on bee larvae. A virus carried by the mite then leaves infected bees disfigured and unable to fly, much like how mosquitoes carry malaria between humans.

Australia is so far free of this particular parasite, and for the time being unaffected by CCD. The same isolation that makes CIBER’s research possible has seemingly also made Australia one of the safer places left on the planet for bees.

This is not just of scientific interest. In North America, where large farms rent beehives from professional beekeepers to pollinate their crops, the large-scale disappearance of bees is causing serious economic problems. Beekeepers are regularly losing hives, and farmers are paying more for them - if they can get them at all. In the future a bee shortage may well cause food shortage, much like a drought does today.

However, according to Dr. Baer-Imhoof, who runs the Center's honeybee lab, the future is less bleak than it appears.

"Bees have lived here longer than us. I trust they will find ways to deal with their parasites and escape pesticides. How long this will take them to do without our help is another question. I am not too eager to find out, though. If there were no bees to pollinate our food crops, we would mostly eat gruel made from wind-pollinated crops…"

And the research isn't entirely bleak either. Much of it is, literally, quite sexy. Bee reproduction is something of a running theme through in the program's research, covering everthing from ritual mating flights to artificial insemination.

"My last experiment involved finding out if male honeybees produce less sperm when they are treated with medications against Varroa mites. The experiment is finished, the data are in the computer, but I still need to evaluate them to be able to say more." says Dr. Baer-Imhoof.

The organisation does much more than just research. Listed among CIBER's participants are economists, photographers, artists, and professional beekeepers. The group runs a blog, and was instrumental in the production of a multi award-winning 90-minute documentary called More Than Honey. Its tagline? "Everybody talks about the death of the honeybee. “More than Honey” shows us more about its life." Outreach, Dr. Baer-Imhoof says, is crucial to what they do.

"This week is Honey Week. CIBER has organized it together with representatives of the beekeeping industry, to raise public awareness about bees, and their beauty, how important they are to pollinate our food, and their worldwide declines."

"Researchers at The Centre are paid by research grants from the Australian and other governments. This money comes from people paying taxes. Therefore, everyone should know that we use their money well."

And that's where Scitech comes in. You don’t need to be a scientist to spot queens, find drones, and watch bee dances - all you really need is a pair of eyes. Jane Parker, science engagement officer at Scitech, has high hopes for the exhibit.

"It’s hard to say how long it will take to get ready, but the bees will all be moved in and ready to go by July school holidays, if not earlier."

So. You've just read about dead bees. Why not go see some live ones?

* Very much a working title.