Day 3: Bees and Brains
What’s more exciting than a bunch of chickens curiously observing my amateur approach of trying to capture them in a photo? Well, I guess ecologically responsible beekeeping is, and mentioned chickens actually share their home with the beehives we visited this morning at Ferme er Forêt in Wakefield, Quebec. Here, the bees are not workhorses to provide the farmer with honey, wax, propolis or royal jelly, but are actually a colony that’s been tended to in order to maintain their natural behaviors to be, well, bees. Swarming for example is encouraged and not prevented so that the insects can maintain their natural instincts of expansion and control their health as a complex organism. Geneviève LeGal-Leblanc, operator and beekeeper on location, introduced us to basic bee and beekeeping knowledge. And who knew that these little critters create the wax needed for cell building from the same gland in the abdomen that’s used in their larva state to encase themselves in silk before entering their next phase of metamorphosis? Sounds weird, yes, but even weirder is the fact that royal jelly, the very substance that turns a regular worker bee into a queen, is a product of a gland located on their heads... Speaking about the queen: while all other bees in the hive hatch from clustered cells (female worker bee cells are smaller, male drone cells slightly bigger), her royal highness hatches from an extra large one that resembles the shape of a peanut.
We proceeded to take a look at the beehives, where many of the busy insects are currently in the midst of foraging pollen from nearby fields. Smoke is used as a “doorbell” prior to opening up a hive, meaning the bees know that the beekeeper is present and remain calm. As you can see in the images, spiked pieces of wood and an electric fence protect the beehives from naughty skunks who have an affinity for the protein rich bees. While skunks like to snack on bees whenever they get a chance, the real threat to these important pollinators are changes of the environment due to climate instability, and the use of pesticides. Discussions amongst beekeepers have thus shifted from “how much honey did you made” to “what’s the survival rate of your hives”. The mission of this farm is, however, to support bees as an important part of our ecosystem and finding a remedy for this miserable development of a declining bee population by creating a sanctuary, asking questions of how we can serve the bees to help them, rather than having the bees serve us with products for consumption such as honey, pollen, wax, propolis, or royal jelly.
In the afternoon we drove to the University of Ottawa’s STEM Complex to visit the Pelling Lab for Augmented Biology, an award-winning, exploratory space where bio scientists, engineers and artists work in collaboration to explore speculative augmented biological systems of the future (think: lab-grown meat) by physically manipulating and re-purposing living systems.
First stop: cell counting room. In this part of the laboratory freshly assembled Petri dishes are under constant scrutiny for cell counting in order to study the developmental stages of said cells. While the source material here was derived from mice, the more serious projects involve actual human cell material. The experiments (and results) span from growing human cells on objects, for example manipulated fluorescent cells on LEGO figurines, to plant-based scaffolding in the shape of body parts such as ears that are slowly transformed into human cell versions. The more complex projects, Dr. Andrew Pelling explained to us, are attempts to create lab-grown tissue that, at some point in the future, might become a food source as in vitro meat, located outside their normal - or natural - biological context. Hypernature at its finest so to speak. Anyway, a complex and expensive problem is the proper “feeding” of these isolated cells to make them grow. A constant supply of serum albumin, found only in blood plasma, is the crucial component needed to grow tiny cells into proper New York sirloin steaks. Research right now tries to synthesize this very special cell food, which is not that easy to reproduce as more than 30,000 complex components are involved and interconnected. The Pelling Lab is a truly magnificent open exploration lab without a mandate, where scientist are able to explore and experiment at the edge of creative sciences. It’s an incubator for ideas rather than a conservative research lab, driven by a philosophy of open source access.