A group of Westminster High School teens have developed an innovative product to help save the bees.
The buzz about honey bees is not good. Declining bee populations are costing the U.S. economy billions, and creating another stress factor for the environment. But a group of high school students in a forward-looking science program used a combination of cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned heart to try and solve a crisis.
They call themselves the Queen Bees. Westminster High School’s Lynntram Nguyen, Katie Nguyen, Ashley Nguyen and Lilian Doan are now nationally recognized young science stars for what began as part of the high school’s MERITS honors program, though they’ve always considered it a passion project.
The probiotic — called Probeeotic — they created could be at least a partial solution to the effect of insecticides on bees and perhaps other pollinators essential to nature and global food supplies.
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“There was an influx of environmental global crises we considered, but we came across news that the leading cause of bee mortality is neonicotinoid, a toxic insecticide typically used in agricultural production,” says Ashley Nguyen. “Other pollinators are affected by this insecticide as well, but since bees are the leading source of food production, biodiversity and sustainability, we wanted to target them first.”
Bee colonies in the U.S. have been in decline since the 1960s, but a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder has only intensified that decline. It’s when worker bees vanish from a hive leaving only the queen and a few nurse bees to care for the immature bees. Noted by beekeepers in Europe in the late 1990s, in the U.S. in the 2000s, it has now spread to African and Asian populations as well. Scientists have determined there are likely multiple causes, but pesticides like neonicotinoid are one of the main culprits.
Studies have concluded the pesticide might dull the abilities of bees and could make them permanently disoriented. The four students eventually used genetic engineering, gene editing and freeze-drying methods to create a microbiome bacteria that would degrade the pesticide. The students then tested their formula on the school’s bee colony.
“It was so difficult to search the web for known information because no one has created such a probiotic before. We were basically just putting different published articles together to come up with a theoretical idea,” Nguyen says.
Queen Bees coach Huy Pham says his job was mostly to offer some guardrails, then let them pursue their ideas.
“The students’ creativity is what guides them as they have enough knowledge to know what to do, but not enough to be narrow-minded,” he says. “This gives them the innovation to try out new things. I simply provide feedback and options if they get stuck, check for feasibility and manage their timeline.”
The project was so successful they entered the 30th annual Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision, one of North America’s oldest and most elite K-12 science competitions, challenging students to solve the problems of the future. They were selected to be one of just eight teams to present their project in Washington, D.C.
“We believe it’s important for people to address issues that don’t have immediate solutions,” Nguyen says. But admits, “To be completely honest, we never would’ve imagined that we would make it as far in the competition as we did. Even though we were pretty confident, we knew there were so many other projects that could outshine ours. The fact we stood out above so many amazing ideas was mind-blowing to us.”
The Queen Bees were each awarded a $5,000 savings bond and got to meet noted science author and TV host Bill Nye The Science Guy.
“The D.C. trip was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says. “The highlight of the trip would have to be meeting other kids across the country who share the same passions in STEM. It was also very fun and silly to experience being on national television and being filmed.”
The project remains important to the team and they maintain a website that provides more information about the plight of bees and how their creation can help.
For more information: https://nstawebdirector.wixsite.com/probeeotic
By Shawn Price