Bumblebee research creates a buzz around campus

For Robin Owen, full professor in the Department of Biology, bumblebees have fascinated him since his days as a graduate student. Now, his bee research is creating a buzz around campus.

As the instructor for BIOL 5201, an independent study course, Owen guides students through the methodology of academic research, and adhering to the scientific method. It was during this course that Nathan Scherger, at the time a third year student in the Cellular and Molecular Biology major, also got stung by the research bug.

Nathan Scherger's research project was titled Partitioning sources of wing shape variation in bumblebee queens using morphometric analysis.

Having always had a keen interest in natural biology, Scherger decided to add to the interesting research that Owen is doing with bumblebees, but aligned it with his own specific interests within the realm of insects and evolution.

His research project was titled Partitioning sources of wing shape variation in bumblebee queens using morphometric analysis. Yes, a bit of a mouthful, but essentially his research examined and documented different influences, be it from the environment or the organisms own natural selection, that causes variations in wing shapes and sizes between different species.

The bee’s knees

In his research, Scherger examined and catalogued 11 different species of bees and their respective wing sizes and traits allowing him to identify the species simply by examining their wings. Scherger hopes to expand his research and create a catalogue by which to identify 250 known species of bees.

His research and connection with Owen has opened up many doors for Scherger. He is currently working on preparing his research findings for publication and, with the data he has collected so far, he is excited about possibilities for further publications and parallel research projects.

“The experience has been really good,” explains Scherger. “[Mount Royal] has accommodated everything you could need, facilities, equipment for dissection, microscopes, resources for DNA comparison and helpful lab techs and professors that are friendly and inviting.

“It was definitely a different experience from the typical learning and teaching style. It took a lot of commitment but I would definitely do it again. It has also created other opportunities and I may get to present some research at the Entomology conference in Edmonton next year. ”

Student-teacher interaction

Although Owen’s study of bumblebees has been ongoing since coming to Mount Royal in 1989, the transition to University status has allowed for dedicated time and resources to pursue his research.

“The help from student research is tremendously helpful,” explains Owen. “The research at Mount Royal is valuable and the program is small enough that any student that is interested can partake.”

His work with bumblebees has also been picked up on by other faculties. Chair of the Chemistry Department, Susan Morante, has also engaged with Owens in some aspects of bumblebee research.

And, believe it or not Owen has a student who perfected the art of shaving bumblebees in order to provide samples of the hairs to Morante where she has engaged some of her students to explore the pigments that give the bees their unique colourings.

“It is very interdisciplinary research,” explains Owen. “Very little has been done on the bumblebee colour pigments […] Nobody really knows the biochemical basis, and Susan thought that would be an interesting project to get some of her students working on,” says Owen.“It was a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort.”

— Brendan Greenslade, March 7, 2013