David & Freya

freya and david

David -Wildflower meadows are colourful habitats full of flowers. They are also biological markets, where bees choose between many different types of flowers on the basis of qualities such as the sweetness and amount of nectar per flower. Bees use shapes, colours and scents to identify rewarding flowers, and can quickly learn that particular floral features predict high rewards. Plants also compete for pollinators and so as well as being attractive must also be memorable. One way to do that might be to add drugs to nectar to pharmacologically manipulate bees’ behaviour boosting their memory or even inducing addictive effects.

My aim is to understand whether nicotine, a natural nectar molecule, has an addictive effect on bumblebees. By testing bumblebees in artificial meadows with Perspex flowers and artificial nectar laced with nicotine, I am trying to understand how nicotine influences bees foraging activity and learning abilities and if induces withdrawal symptoms after periods of abstinence.

Freya came to visit me several times to better understand what actually is going on in a crazy lab like mine where bees are flying everywhere. Freya and I have been looking at how bees behave under nicotine effect and through that experience she came up with a funny story for her amazing comics.

Freya – Science is one of my favourite subjects to work with, having illustrated a book on neuroscience for young teenagers the previous summer. I love the challenge of taking dense, jargon-filled information and filtering it down to an accessible way for a broader audience. I was keen to use a comic for the final piece – not only am I huge fan of the medium, it felt like an ideal way for me to outline the experiment whilst weaving in a story.

Although witnessing the experiment was essential to my understanding of the whole project (and a unique experience), the most interesting part for me was picking David’s brains. Tonnes of questions came flooding into my mind – why do you use the worker bee rather than the drone or queen? Why bumbles rather than honey bees? Why is nicotine addictive? Why are you actually doing this anyway? The more I learned from David (and saw – his photography is incredible), the more the ideas kept coming.

As I know very little about the bee as an insect, his explanations of the bee society and the different roles and the life cycle of a colony really captured my imagination. Casting ‘human’ attributes to an insect such as being co-operation, altruistic/selfish, addictive personalities, etc cemented in my mind that there should be a central bee character who would lead the narrative. A couple of chance escapes by the bees/subjects whilst I was at the lab was a catalyst to me thinking about how the bees must be feeling inside the lab – a desperation to escape. And thus a narrative spiralled from there, incorporating the nuts and bolts of the experiment too.