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Bees, Bugs, and Beyond: Six science students are selected for summer research

This summer I learned how research is conducted,” says sophomore Sara Hanenburg from Milaca, Minnesota. Like every science student, Hanenburg has been exposed to laboratory work through classroom labs, but “performing a lab for eight weeks is very different,” she says.

“I learned how important every microgram of evidence can be,” says her research partner Amanda Korver from Maurice, Iowa. “To do research you must be accurate. I learned that you can never be too careful.”

Hanenburg and Korver were two of four underclass students who benefited from a grant from the National Science Foundation-funded Northern Plains Undergraduate Research Center. The Center offers research opportunities for students early in their college careers. Upperclass students also had opportunities to do on-campus research this summer, in cooperation with Iowa State University and NASA.

The Bees

It would be hard to find people more excited about their summer research than Dr. Ed Geels and his student research assistants Hanenburg and Korver. Geels, who began beekeeping as a hobby three years ago, has been painfully aware of the growing bee mite infestation crisis worldwide. The mites, which suck blood from the bees, spread viruses and make them susceptible to bacterial diseases, are wiping out bees across the world. And they are becoming resistant to most chemical pesticides. Beekeepers resort to stronger and stronger chemicals, most of which are not safe or legal. Current laws require beekeepers to put the chemical in the hive in the fall and remove it in the spring before the bees begin to bring pollen and nectar to the hive. Chemicals still accumulate in the wax of the hive and the honey itself. Ironically, increasing amounts of honey today come from China where they use even more dangerous chemicals, according to Geels.

Geels wants to find ways to raise bees without using harmful chemicals. He was intrigued by reports that smaller bees do not seem to have the same problem with mites that the modern larger hybridized bees do. He learned that mites do not seem to penetrate between the joints of small bees—there doesn’t seem to be room for them to get in. He also read that small bees groom themselves better, and they have been observed attacking the mites and killing them. In addition, small bees cap the cells in the hive after seven or eight days in contrast to nine days for the larger bees. This interferes with the mites reproductive schedule and holds down their numbers.

“Essentially we’re going back to using bees more like those used -----eighty years ago,” says Geels.

You can’t simply put small bees in a typical modern hive, however. The cell size needed for small bees is 4.9 millimeters in contrast to the more standard 5.4 mm for larger bees. Hanenburg and Korver spent a good deal of time already early last spring, setting up the twenty-four hives needed for their research.

Geels had also read that some beekeepers believe that copper might help suppress mites. Since copper is one of the least toxic chemicals to use, he decided to set up two types of hives, some with copper in them and some without, but all stocked with small bees. Geels and his student found early on that the hives with copper were not thriving like the other ones were, so they discontinued that part of their research.

“Usually by August in non-chemically treated large cell hives one would find at least 400 fallen dead mites per day on the bottom of the hive, with 1000s more in the bees themselves. But the small cell bees were thriving, growing from around 10,000 in late April to 80,000 bees per hive by the end of the summer.

And the numbers of mites were miniscule. Thoughout the summer Hanenburg and Korver counted the number of mites they found in each hive in a forty-eight-hour period and kept meticulous journals of what they did and observed. Geels, Hanenburg, and Korver are excited about their results and eager to share them with others. They did just that at a conference this summer, presenting their research along with that of eleven other teams from seven colleges in the region.

The Bugs

While Hanenburg and Korver were counting mites this summer, Sara Top was counting beetles—corn rootworm beetles at Dordt’s Agriculture Stewardship Center.

Corn rootworms have become an increasing problem for area farmers. They can no longer be controlled by traditional rotation methods, and the use of insecticides to control them has had limited success. According to Top, the beetles seem to be adapting their life cycle to fit the way crops are now being raised.

In the past, corn rootworm beetle (Diabrotica barberi) was controlled by rotating crops. The adult beetle laid its eggs in the soil and the larva died if it didn’t have corn roots to feed on shortly after it hatched. Modern intensive farming practices, with tighter rotation or no rotation of crops, has led farmers to rely on insecticides or genetically modified plants to control the rootworm. It was already known that the northern corn rootworm beetle (Diabrotica barberi) has been living in the region, and that they were laying eggs that did not hatch for two years until corn was again planted, following soybeans. Now new variants of corn rootworm beetles are also being found. The purpose of Top’s research was to determine if the western corn rootworm beetle (Diabrotica viginifera) variant that had been a problem in eastern Iowa was also now living in Siouxland.

sThe research Top did with agriculture professors Drs. Ron Vos and Chris Goedhart involved installing twelve beetle traps and monitoring them weekly to find out how many and what species of corn rootworm beetles had laid eggs last season in a field that was planted with organic corn this season and that had not grown corn for over six years.

The research was done in cooperation with Iowa State University (ISU) Extension, ISU Research Farms, and the Northwest Iowa Experimental Association as part of its on-farm research to benefit local farmers. Top, whose work was funded by the Dordt agriculture department, says the summer research, though not in her primary area of interest, confirmed her decision to go to graduate school to study human cell biology.

“ISU has faced a shrinking research budget, and the ISU extension is excited to collaborate on studies such as this,” says Vos. The ASC has done on-farm research for many years, recognizing its value for obtaining good results for local farmers. “Soil and conditions on experimental farms in other parts of the state may be different than in this area,” says Vos. Local farmers also participate in various on-farm research projects and then share information with each other.

Unfortunately, from Vos’s point of view, the research Top did on corn rootworm beetles this summer has no happy ending. To continue farming as they do today, farmers may be forced to regularly use seed genetically modified with Bacillus Thungingiensis (so that the larva will die upon biting into the plant) as well as use additional insecticides. By sharing their findings with other researchers and producers, they hope to help raise awareness of the present corn rootworm situation.

The Sky

Senior Shannon (Doty) Wright, a physics and environmental studies major from Chula Vista, California, spent part of her summer looking at ozone in the stratosphere. Wright helped analyze data collected by Aura, a satellite launched in 2005, about an unusual meteorological event that occurred last January in the Arctic region of the Northern Hemisphere. The airflow patterns in the stratosphere changed in unusual ways, almost like the jet stream splitting apart into two pieces.

“To meteorologists this was like having weather patterns turned upside down,” says Dr. Doug Allen, a professor of physics and astronomy and the faculty advisor for Wright. Scientists are now studying the airflow patterns to try to understand what happened in the stratosphere.

The research opportunity came about through a research partner of Allen’s, Dr. Gloria Manney, who is the lead investigator for this project sponsored by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Grant funds paid for Wright’s salary and computer software for her to use.

Wright spent most of the summer “getting up to speed.” She had to learn to program in a new language, IDL, and learn to use the LINUX operating system; she had to learn how to read wind and temperature data and how to plot and animate data; and she had to learn how to read the satellite data.

Wright says she learned how atmospheric models are made. “It’s not cut and dried. It’s mostly trial and error, and then making sure your results are physically possible,” she says. She was happy to learn how to work in the non-Windows UNIX environment

Allen expects that the paid research opportunity will continue, and says that Wright’s work will give her a focus for the senior research project she is required to do for her environmental studies major. As she gets into more analysis of data, Wright’s work will contribute to scientists’ understanding of air motion in the stratosphere.

“I find atmospheric dynamics incredibly amazing. So much is going on right above our heads!” says Wright, who hopes to go to graduate school for environmental modeling and someday teach students like herself.

The Fuel

One of the things Jessica De Boer enjoyed most about the research she did this summer was “the feeling that they were coming up with something new.” De Boer and Erin Magnuson worked with Dr. Carl Fictorie to study the effectiveness of certain catalysts for making biodiesel fuel from soybean oil and ethanol.

“You can begin making biodiesel with any vegetable oil or animal fat,” says Fictorie, “but these fats are too viscous—too thick—to use in a standard engine.” The fats and oils, which consist of one core molecule of glycerin and three long fatty acid chains, need a catalyst to make the oil and ethanol react if it is to show properties similar to diesel fuel. Historically biodiesel fuel has been made with petroleum and methanol using sodium hydroxide (lye) as a catalyst. Fictorie and his students are trying to find good ways to use the renewable vegetable oils and find a catalyst that is solid so that it could be filtered out and reused, eliminating a waste product.

Partly based on reading and research done by others working in this area, Fictorie and his students tried several solid acids, but had little success until the end of the summer when they found some indications that working with acidified charcoal had some possibilities. On the final day they were conducting research, they were able to produce biodiesel with acidified charcoal about as well as when they had used sulfuric acid at the outset. Although there was not time to reproduce the experiments, Fictorie hopes to get back to the research later in the fall.

While Fictorie and his students were excited about their results, the benefit to the students was much greater than the results. In fact, because the first real encouraging results came weeks into the research, the real value was in the process. Ten weeks of full-time research, doing dozens of exacting experiments and not knowing how they would turn out, helped De Boer and Magnuson get a better idea of what scientific research entails. Like Hanenburg and Korver, they had an opportunity to present their research at a symposium of all NPURC student researchers this summer.

Student research opportunities help students learn how science really works, say the instructors. They learn about one part of the creation in a very concrete way; they spend an extended period of time on a very focused task; they learn about research record keeping; they learn to be flexible and patient when things don’t go the way they hope or expect; they learn how to present their research and results to others; and they confirm future career directions.