Ashlee Robison could be onto something big.
As a research assistant to Fort Lewis College chemistry professor Bill Collins, she is putting together a combination of sugar and thyme that could eradicate the varroa mite, the scourge of honeybee keepers.
“We’re using the same products found in the kitchen,” Robison said last week during a break from the beakers and test tubes in the FLC chemistry lab.
But it’s over-simplification to leave it at that, Robison said. The research is more complicated.
Robison, a chemistry major, is combining a molecule of glucose (sugar) and a molecule of thymol (a volatile, aromatic compound of thyme) to form a substance that could slow colony collapse, the unexplained dieoff of honeybees worldwide.
It is critical to commercial and backyard beekeepers to stop the varroa mite in its tracks, Robison said. One-third of crops in the United States rely on pollination by honeybees, she said.
“The varroa mite, diminishing forage and heavy use of pesticides, are believed responsible for colony collapse,” Robison said. “(Beekeepers) are already using thymol to kill the varroa mite, but it’s the wrong method because they can’t control the dosage.”
Beekeepers spread thymol crystals over honeybee hives, she said. But in cold weather, they don’t volatilize sufficiently to be effective, and in hot weather, they kill mites but also disrupt the honeybee’s ability to communicate through chemical pheromones.
“Bill Collins, who is an avid beekeeper as well as being my chemistry professor and research adviser, got the idea of attacking the varroa mite chemically,” Robison said. “We’d disguise the attack by attaching a thymol molecule to a glucose molecule.”
When honeybees ingest glucose/thymol-laced water, she said, an enzyme in their system separates the molecules, freeing the thymol to do its work throughout the hive, particularly among young bees.
It has taken two summers of experiments to find the right five or six steps to join the glucose and thymol molecules. Only a couple of weeks ago did the chemistry hall’s nuclear magnetic resonance machine confirm that the molecules were attached.
Now, enough of the glucose-thymol compound – 2 to 3 grams – must be produced to allow an Oregon State University apiculture assistant professor, Ramesh Sagili, to experiment with beehives there. Sagili won’t be able to start until spring 2015, when beekeepers prepare hives for honey production.
The varroa mite, a native of Asia, came to the United States in the late 1980s.
There are other chemicals to control the mite, but they’re toxic to humans, Robison said. A second downside is that the mite is building resistance to the chemicals.
The FLC research has created enough interest to enter Robison’s work in an American Chemical Society contest that could lead to wider exposure at the society’s convention in San Francisco in August.
The contest – open to college students, post-graduates and untenured faculty – requires a three-minute video summarizing the research. Judges look for scientific accuracy, the quality of the video and how many hits the video gets on the American Chemical Society website. Robison is in third place for hits.
This is only the first round, Darcy Gentleman said Tuesday from the society’s public affairs office. In San Francisco, 10 researchers will present their work for scrutiny in a closed workshop, with the top five advancing to an open session, including public participation in judging.
Robison, 28, is coming to chemistry late. She had a double major in creative writing and environmental studies at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She graduated in 2008.
“I wanted to be a professional mountain bike rider,” Robison said. “When I was at Warren Wilson, I won individual collegiate mountain bike titles in 2005 and 2007,” she said. “That was how I learned about Fort Lewis College because riders from here were at the collegiate competitions and won.”
She came to Durango in 2009.