The not-so-humble bee

A unique research collaboration involving two Victoria University of Wellington scientists and a determined start-up hopes to create a bio-plastic derived from native bees within the next few years.

Victoria University’s Professor Richard Furneaux, Director of the Ferrier Research Institute, and Professor Phil Lester from the School of Biological Sciences have worked with Humble Bee founder Veronica Harwood-Stevenson over the past year to take the first steps on the path to creating a viable bio-plastic product.

Humble Bee has been many years in the making. Veronica Harwood-Stevenson studied science at university but was working in film and television when she noticed a journal article on bees and the ‘cellophane-like’ substance they use to line their nests. This substance repels water, flame, high temperatures, and strong acids and alkalis, and Veronica wondered if it could be artificially engineered to create a bio-plastic with those same properties.

Veronica approached a number of scientists about the work, but the project truly took off when she met with Professor Furneaux.

“Richard was the first person to take the time to meet with me and understand the work,” Veronica says. “He was immediately excited and said ‘let’s find out how the bee is doing this!’.”

The Ferrier Research Institute have conducted a series of experiments to reverse-engineer the bee’s natural ‘bio-plastic’ and design a method to recreate that plastic without the bee, Veronica says.

“Veronica’s vision and enthusiasm is infectious,” says Professor Furneaux, “and the idea that bees could make a high performance, biodegradable plastic was intriguing. I enjoy the challenge of learning more about the chemistry used by nature, whether it be plants, seaweed, or humans, and the idea of studying a species of solitary bee about which almost nothing was known was intriguing.”

Ferrier Research Institute could complete the bulk of the chemical research, but they needed the help of a biologist to find which part of the bee was actually producing the natural version of the bio-plastic. For this work, Professor Furneaux approached Professor Phil Lester, who is known for his work with small insects, including ants and wasps.

“Richard and Veronica thought the chemicals bees use to create the bioplastic came from one specific gland, and they needed my expertise to extract the gland from the bees to confirm their theory,” Professor Lester says.

There isn’t much information available about the anatomy of these bees, says Professor Lester, so he had to do a lot of careful dissection work to both find the glands and remove them. The native bees they were using are also fairly difficult to find, so Professor Lester only had around 40 specimens to work with. This made for a fairly nerve-wracking dissection, and Professor Lester says he breathed a sigh of relief once it was done.

Professor Lester says he is excited about their ongoing work on this project and the knowledge they’ve gained so far.

“The University is a great environment for bringing people together to undertake projects like this,” Professor Lester says. “As well as taking the first steps towards a biodegradable plastic, this project has also given us a better understanding of these native bees, which is exciting.”

Humble Bee is currently trying to raise capital for the next stage of the research, which Ferrier will be conducting. If the research proceeds as planned, Humble Bee could have a viable plastic within three to five years.

“The uses for this plastic are endless,” Veronica says. “It could be used in everything from clothing to construction, aviation, electronics, and even medicine. But it’s still a long road to success.”