NC State Graduate Student Bianca Jimenez Wins NSF Fellowship To Support Her Bee Research

Bianca Jimenez, an NC State graduate student in applied ecology, will use a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study a parasite in bee species.

The prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship provides three years of funding for outstanding graduate students pursuing a master’s or doctoral science or engineering degree. The fellowships are highly competitive, with only about 2,000 offered annually. 

Jimenez studies disease transmission of Crithidia bombi, a parasite that exclusively affects arthropods and is spread fecal-orally between insects. “I get to work with poop all the time, which is glamorous,” jokes Jimenez. At the root of her research is bee conservation. The 560 bee species in North Carolina play an important ecological role and contribute millions of dollars worth of pollination services in North Carolina agriculture.

Bianca Jimenez hand inoculates mason bee (Osmia cornifrons) with Crithidia bombi parasites.

The primary host of C. bombi is bumble bees, including the Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens). “When bumble bees are infected they have smaller body size, reduced reproduction and they become less efficient pollinators,” Jimenez explains.

Recent research has shown there is disease spill-over from bumble bees to solitary bees, such as miner bees (Andrenidae species), small carpenter bees (Ceratina species), leafcutter bees (Megachilidae species) and mason bees (Osmia species). Jimenez seeks to discover if C. bombi can spill back over from solitary bees to bumble bees. 

When an infected bee visits a flower, it may deposit disease if it defecates on the flower. Then, if the next visiting bee comes in contact with the excrement, the disease may be transmitted. Jimenez is currently conducting fecal assessments of several bee species, measuring sample volume and parasite cell count. The chosen bee species are known to contract C. bombi and vary in body size, which is a factor used as a predictor for disease models. 

Bianca Jimenez places bees on black-eyed Susans to run deposition experiments.

The next step in Jimenez’s research is to conduct deposition experiments. By determining where bees defecate on flowers, Jimenez can create simulations to model disease transmission.

“This research will have important implications in understanding disease transmission in webs of plant-pollinator interactions,” says Associate Professor Rebecca Irwin, who is Jimenez’s faculty advisor. 

Jimenez was encouraged by Associate Professor Brad Taylor, who emphasized the importance of applying for fellowships to his students in Introduction to Biological Research.

“Getting this National Science Foundation fellowship is great because the experiments I am conducting are field- and lab-time intensive, allowing me to really focus on my research without also juggling activities associated with being a research or teaching assistant,” explains Jimenez. “Being an assistant is rewarding, but time consuming. I am very excited to receive this fellowship and continue my research.” 

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