Dr. Kaira Wagoner is a post-doctoral fellow in the Social Insect Lab at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. In 2013, Kaira was one of the first PAm/Costco Scholarship award recipients. In alignment with PAm’s values, Kaira is dedicated to developing practical and sustainable solutions to honey bee health threats.
Kaira has been working towards a better understanding of the mechanisms behind hygienic behavior in honey bees. Hygienic behavior is a trait that all honey bee colonies possess to some degree. It involves the ability of nurse bees in a colony to sense a health problem in capped brood cells and remove the compromised brood, effectively slowing the spread of pathogens and parasites in the colony. This behavioral trait can be an advantage to the overall health and survival of the colony.
Hygienic behavior is frequently selected for in breeding and beekeeping operations; this trait has long been available and popular with beekeepers (for example, the MN hygienic stock).
For several years, Dr. Wagoner and her colleagues have been researching hygiene-related chemical communication in honey bee colonies. They have found that, while adult bees selected for hygienic behavior certainly have better capacity to detect problems under capped cells, the brood itself also plays a role in triggering the behavior. In short, the capped brood, if compromised, can send out a chemical signal that causes the adult bees to uncap and remove it. Not only have they discovered this, but they have also identified specific chemicals responsible for triggering hygienic behavior.
In addition to the inherent value of this knowledge, the goal of this research is to develop a tool which helps beekeepers, breeders, and scientists easily test the level of hygienic behavior that a colony or genetic strain of bees exhibits. Dr. Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota first developed a way to test for this trait, however, it requires the use of liquid nitrogen which can be difficult to acquire, and cumbersome to use in a practical setting. Liquid nitrogen also kills the brood outright, making a good, but perhaps less biologically relevant method. Kaira’s solution (currently in development) incorporates the chemistry and biology from her research, and serves as a simple, cost effective, easy-to-use alternative.
This tool has the potential to allow beekeepers and breeders to easily determine which colonies and lines to continue propagating if they desire hygienic behavior. The UNCG researchers are currently looking for commercial partners to develop a ready-to-use product.
It is a step towards truly bringing the lab to the landscape by putting more power of information and choice directly into the hands of beekeepers. The long-term effect of such a technology could help reduce the number of treatments needed in beekeeping operations; saving beekeepers money, and supporting larger-scale honey bee health solutions.
The PAm/Costco scholarship helped Kaira get started on this project, and PAm has been supporting this research ever since, contributing over $100,000 to 4 separate but related sets of experiments.
Another of Kaira’s PAm supported research projects determined that the common practice of using steel wire in brood frames can increase iron content and cause significant removal of honey bee brood, which may affect colony size and, thus, overwintering success. Please Click Here to read the publication and learn more about the results of this practical, applied research.
In part because of PAm’s early and continued support of her work, Kaira was awarded a substantial USDA grant to continue her research and development in collaboration with other researchers, including Dr. Marla Spivak.
Kaira and her colleagues have been working on this project for over six years in the lab, and the work continues. It often takes many years of projects and publications to produce a practical tool that can help change the future for honey bees. In the end, this is a very nice example of how investing in research will move us forward from idea, to discovery, to applications and solutions.
Dr. Kaira Wagoner has been a nature lover all her life, but her formal education began at Guilford College, where she double majored in Biology and Health Sciences, and minored in Chemistry and Astronomy. After the death of a dear friend from malaria, Kaira was inspired to return to school to study malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Her master’s thesis was entitled “Identification of morphologic and chemical markers of aestivating conditions in female Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes.” This work fostered her interest in the chemical ecology of insects, although for her doctorate she decided to switch her focus to a beneficial insect – the honey bee. She was particularly interested in the social immune mechanism hygienic behavior, the ability of adult honey bees to detect and remove unhealthy brood from the hive, improving the overall health of the colony. Kaira’s doctoral dissertation was an investigation of the relationships between common stressors, brood-signaling, hygienic behavior, and selective breeding in the honey bee. As a post-doctoral fellow, she has continued this work, and is currently using natural honey bee stress signals to develop an assay for the improved selection of hygienic behavior.
Click Here to visit the UNCG Social Insect Lab.
Click here to read more about this project in Entomology Today.
By Sharah Yaddaw
Project Apis m.