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Honeybee

David McCarthy and Annie Cavanagh

Honeybee

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False-coloured scanning electron micrograph of a honeybee. The honeybee has a hairy thorax and segmented abdomen, a pair of double wings and three pairs of segmented legs. Each leg has a different 'tool' designed for a specific function to assist in the collection and transport of pollen to the hive for the production of honey.

How was this image created?

Samples imaged using a scanning electron microscope are usually coated in a fine layer of gold and imaged under high vacuum. However, to preserve the hairy covering and the fine detail on the bee's body, it was imaged uncoated and under 'environmental conditions' at a much lower pressure. This has certain trade-offs: the signal is much lower, so modifications need to be made to improve the image quality. Water vapour is introduced to amplify the signal and the temperature is carefully controlled to prevent evaporation.

David McCarthy is developing this technique to allow imaging of live specimens, which is not normally possible with the scanning electron microscope. To find out more about how scanning electron microscopy works, watch this video.

Why is the honeybee important?

Honeybees are crucial for the pollination of flowers and promote crop growth. In recent years, diseases caused by deformed wing virus and a fungus-like microorganism called Nosema ceranae have increasingly affected honeybees and some bumblebees. Researchers are using radar to track individual bees to investigate the impact of these diseases on the bee population.

"The decline in the populations of bees and other pollinators could have a devastating effect on our environment, and this will almost certainly have a serious impact on our health and wellbeing," says Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust (which has recently supported a number of projects relating to bees and other pollinators). Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist at UCL, has also been using bees to understand more about how the human brain works. He studies the flight patterns of bumblebees in relation to visual cues to help unravel the complex relationship between visual ecology and behaviour.