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Antibiotics Raise Mortality Risk for Honeybees, Study Finds

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frank via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0

Efforts to protect honeybees may be doing more harm than good. Scientists say the antibiotics routinely administered by beekeepers wipe out beneficial bacteria in the bees’ guts, making them vulnerable to other pathogens. They published their findings in the journal PLOS Biology.

These are hard days for honeybees, and apiarists are doing all they can to keep their charges healthy and safe. Twice a year in North America, Asia, and parts of Europe, many beekeepers dose their hives with preventative antibiotics. The drugs may be dusted on the hive or added to the bees’ food to ensure that each insect gets its medicine.

But, as we’re learning in humans, blanket treatment with antibiotics is not really a great option. The more antibiotics we use, the faster pathogens develop antibiotic resistance, and the drugs kill helpful bacteria along with the harmful stuff they’re meant to treat.

Scientists wondered if the same was true for bees. To find out, they brought about 800 bees from long-established hives into the laboratory and split the bees into two groups: the treatment group, marked with a dot of pink paint, and the control group, marked with a dot of green. Bees in the treatment group were fed syrup laced with antibiotics; the control bees got plain syrup. After five days of regular syrup meals, the researchers put all the bees back in their hives and waited. Three days later, they collected the painted bees—dead or alive—and took them back to the lab.

Right off the bat, the scientists could see a clear difference between the two groups. Two-thirds of the plain-syrup-eating bees had survived, but only half that many from the antibiotic group had made it.

The scientists brought in another group of bees, gave half of them antibiotics, and exposed all of them to a pathogen strain of the bacterium Serratia. One week later, treated bees were significantly more likely than untreated bees to have died. The antibiotic hadn’t protected the insects from the bacteria—in fact, it may have made them more susceptible.

The scientists gave the bees a relatively low dose of antibiotics, but say commercially kept bees are likely exposed to higher levels and for longer periods of time.

Lead researcher Nancy Moran is an integrative biologist at the University of Texas, Austin. She said her team’s results really underline the relationship between healthy gut bacteria and survival.

"Our study suggests that perturbing the gut microbiome of honeybees is a factor, perhaps one of many, that could make them more susceptible to declining and to the colony collapsing," she said in a statement. "Antibiotics may have been an underappreciated factor in colony collapse.”

She emphasized that she and her team are not advocating for an all-or-nothing approach, for bees or for humans.

"We aren't suggesting people stop using antibiotics," she said. "Antibiotics save lives. We definitely need them. We just need to be careful how we use them."

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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science
11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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