Maple Scholars is an eight-week program that pairs up students with faculty members in order to research and study different topics. From June 6 to July 30, Goshen College sophomore Peter Martin and junior Greg Thiessen worked alongside Assistant Professor of Biology Andy Ammons to study and identify genes that influence ethanol tolerance in bees. They essentially observed certain genes and genomes that cause bees to become more or less tolerant of alcohol, depending on the species.

One of the goals of the project was identifying genes in the human body that cause alcohol tolerance, leading to a better understanding of why people become alcoholics.

“If some people have genes that lead them to be more susceptible towards alcohol tolerance, then we can say which people need to watch out and be careful in their future if they start drinking too much, because they have this gene,” Martin explained. “That’s part of the goal. To try and better understand how alcoholism works.”

With the supervision of Ammons, the students dedicated themselves to different aspects of the research. Martin studied the genetics, looking to see if there was a difference between two different kinds of bees: the Carniolans and the Italians.

“You find a select gene that you want a code for and that gene gets replicated in a test tube. Once it’s amplified enough then you can observe it and see the differences between species,” says Martin. “Having differences between species could mean having differences in alcohol tolerance.”

Thiessen worked with the physiology of the ethanol sensitivity. With an inebriometer–a device that ethanol vapors flow through–designed by the two students, Thiessen observed the bees and registered their behavior, noting, for example, how long it took them to lose postural control.

“What he found is that the Carniolan bees seem to be a little less tolerant of the ethanol sensitivity. The Italian bees were more tolerant, it would take longer for them to fall through the inebriometer,” explained Ammons. “As bees get more and more inebriated, similar to humans, they start to lose postural control.”

Ammons felt that Thiessen and Martin complemented each other very well, especially considering that the previously mentioned study was not their only job. They also learned how to do beekeeping and be trained on how to handle and paint bees, how to find a queen in a colony, care and feed the colony and protect themselves from being stung.

Ammons hopes that this project will create ideas as well as provide answers. “I’d hope to build up a research that I can maybe write up for publication in different scientific journals. Peter and Greg will probably be going to an entomology meeting with me this fall to present the results of the research,” Ammons said. He will be leading a beekeeping class in May Term 2011, where participants will use hives and discuss honeybee biology and beekeeping as an industry, among other topics.