Que defequen

or “How to collect fecal samples from Bumble Bees”

These days at the Bee Lab, we’re feeding bees, raising queens, and splitting strong colonies to make smaller ‘nucs’.  And in our free time our funniest and most frustrating project: we’re trying to collect fecal samples from Bumble Bees whose bowels just refuse to move.

As bumble bees are increasingly bred for commercial pollination, assessing the current health status of native bees will allow us to monitor the effects of imported species. We’re collecting these samples for a Swiss researcher who hopes to determine the presence/absence of a particular parasite, some kind of Crithidia.  ..At least that’s the way I understand it, second-hand and in Spanish, so please take that explanation with plenty of salt. I have not yet read the research proposal but am becoming an expert in the technique. A field guide, as follows,

Bumble drinking sugar syrup

Bumble drinking sugar syrup

First, if you’re lucky you can collect the fecal samples in the field, immediately upon capture. Just transfer the bees from your net to a small plastic vial, give them a shake, and voilá: the stressed-out Bombus deposits a sample inside its container.

Unfortunately, on-site agitation rarely produces such results. In fact, it turns out that stress also has the effect of preventing bowel movements. If this is the case, bring your bees back to the lab and feed them a few droplets of sugar syrup and a small lump of pollen. Then, pick them up with your thumb and forefinger (careful, the females can sting), hold them firmly to a petri dish, and stroke their abdomens – with enough force to promote defecation but no so hard that they vomit. I’m still working on this technique. Most of my bees vomit.

Imagine four serious scientists- wait, that’s not accurate- imagine four regular people with an uncommon love of insects crowding around a make-shift operating table, sticking fingers inside vials, getting stung, dropping vials, chasing bees towards the window, catching them again, and talking serious fecal-sample strategy, interrupted only by the fits of laughter that inevitably accompany conversations about poop. These are some of my favorite days.

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2 Responses to Que defequen

  1. Emily Heath says:

    Hilarious! I’ve heard bumble stings hurt worse than honey bee stings, is that true?

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