Like all teens, Varun Madan gets distracted from his homework. One evening, rather than reading about butterflies for a school assignment, he accidentally tumbled down an internet rabbit hole of honeybee research. That detour led the Orlando teen to compete in one of the biggest middle school science fairs in the United States this week, armed with his plan to save the world’s bee colonies from total collapse.
Madan, now in the ninth grade, will tell you all about how bees pollinate billions of dollars’ worth of agricultural crops around the world. He will also explain they’re dying at an alarming rate, a mysterious phenomenon called “colony collapse” driven by disease, pesticides, and poor nutrition. But most importantly, he’ll tell you about a discovery he made about the guts of bees that just might prevent their demise.
“It’s been going on for a really, really long time,” Madan tells Inverse. “There’s so many unsuccessful things that people have tried for this.” His entry to the Society for Science and the Public’s Broadcom MASTERS science fair in Washington, D.C. this month was his plan to save them.
Enamored with the bees, Madan met Jamie Ellis, Ph.D., a professor of entomology at the University of Florida who specializes in honeybees. Ellis clued Madan in to an important leading hypothesis about what’s driving global honeybee declines.
“He educated me more about why this is happening, and his main hypothesis was their lack of immunity causes lack of resistance to these external stressors like parasites, pests, predators, all that stuff,” says Madan. Immediately, the role played by the human gut microbiome in immunity sprang to mind. The galaxy of bacteria, yeasts, and viruses that live in the human digestive tract is essential to overall health. Just as a disrupted microbiome impairs development and immune function in humans, he thought, perhaps the same is happening to bees. As soon as he got back home to Orlando, he dove into the research, discovering that out of the 13 beneficial bacteria in the honeybee microbiome, two are found in humans.
He used one called Bifidobacterium infantis to test his hypothesis that changes in the gut microbiome of bees were leading to their demise.
Madan’s local apiary, the Orange Blossom Beekeepers Association, was extremely supportive of Madan’s work. “I was blessed to get five hives, ‘cause a random middle schooler asking for some honeybee hives, usually they would say no to that,” he recalls. “But I got five whole hives!”
"But I got five whole hives!
Throughout the winter, when there aren’t as many flowers for bees to feed on, beekeepers provide mason jars of sugar solution to simulate the bees’ natural diet of nectar. This provided Madan with the opportunity to experimentally control what his bees were consuming, since they essentially only ate from the jar all winter.
In the mason jars feeding his five hives, Madan put varying levels of B. infantis bacteria. Two hives got a high concentration of bacteria, two hives got a little less, and the fifth hive got none — the control group. For six weeks, he monitored four different indicators of hive health: foraging values (how many bees are coming in and out of the hive to bring food back), honey mass, population, and brood production (how many larvae the hive produces).
To determine bee populations, Madan took pictures of each frame in the hive, estimated the number of bees in it, and then multiplied that number by the total number of frames in the hive. “Obviously it would be irrational to count all of them,” he says. For brood production, he similarly counted larvae. He painstakingly used a hand counter to count how many bees came in and out in ten minutes during his biweekly observations. Weighing the bottom block of each hive indicated honey mass, as that’s where all of it drips. “Whichever was the honeyest, — sorry, whichever was the heaviest — we would record that,” he says.
"But you know what? It’s science!
Madan quickly got a sense of the difficulties of field work. “This did not come without my harm,” he says. “We took out the hives, and I got stung 42 times! Once in my belly button! But you know what? It’s science! And I’m so glad I had supervision. Otherwise, that 42 easily could have turned into four-hundred-something.” Recounting the perils of beekeeping, the performer in Madan comes out. A singer and actor, he uses his performer’s skills to turn the “methods” section of a paper into a gripping tale.
With the supervision of adult beekeepers, Madan survived to capture all his data, testing their significance with the help of academics better equipped to perform statistical analyses.
Just as his hypothesis predicted, changes in the guts of bees changed the health of the hive. The hives that got the low dose of B. infantis produced more larvae, made more honey, and supported larger populations of adult bees. High-dose hives produced more larvae than the control, but not as many as the low-dose hive. He didn’t, however, find any statistically significant difference in foraging values.
Cameron Jack, a honeybee researcher at the University of Florida, is one of the adults who stepped up to help Madan present his work publicly, teaching him to navigate — perhaps most importantly for the budding researcher — how to avoid overstating the significance of his findings. He was impressed with how quickly Madan grasped the way science must be presented in a professional setting.
"If it does, this bacteria can be proven once and for all that it is really, really good.
“It’s nice to see some kids that are really grasping some important scientific concepts that a lot of adults don’t get: You need to have multiple replications and something that’s statistically detectable before you can make an educated assumption,” Jack tells Inverse. “A lot of the general public doesn’t realize those things, and there’s a lot of garbage science out there that people take as truth, but that’s because they don’t have a knowledge of how science works. It’s nice to see a younger generation grasping that.”
With those skills, Madan presented at the Broadcom MASTERS this week, earning one of 30 nationwide finalist titles. Though he didn’t take home the top prize, Madan is undeterred, now turning his focus on the microscopic effects of B. infantis on bees’ insides.
“Did it really affect the honeybees’ actual gut? That’s this year’s project,” he says. “I want to see if this bacteria can truly erase this pathogen called nosema, which is in the honeybee gut. If it does, this bacteria can be proven once and for all that it is really, really good.”