Dr Chris Connolly

How I got into the biology of bee brains

In the jokes of a certain kind of comedian, the mother-in-law comes across as part menace, part millstone. But for neuroscientist Dr Chris Connolly from the University of Dundee, his mother-in-law was the source of the impetus to open up a whole new area of research. As told to Chrissie Giles.

On Christmas Day 2008, my mother-in-law gave me ‘A World Without Bees’ by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, a book that describes the decline of the honeybee. As a neurobiologist reading, it struck me that many of the symptoms of colony collapse disorder were consistent with some kind of brain disorder.

I was thinking about pesticides and realised that so-called sub-lethal doses [which don’t kill pests] may affect how bees behave. I decided that this is more or less the kind of thing we’ve been doing on mammalian brain cells, so if we could apply this to the bee brain, we could find out if these chemicals have sub-lethal effects at the level of individual cells, neural networks [circuits of nerve cells], whole animals or entire colonies.

So, I had the idea, but thought that it might be hard to get funding because I didn’t work in the field. I applied as an individual to the Co-operative’s Plan Bee, which funds research into the decline of the honeybee, but was unsuccessful. But something wasn’t letting me drop the idea, as then I heard about the Insect Pollinators Initiative, and the £10 million of funding it was making available. This got me thinking about forming a larger, multidisciplinary team.

I researched the science in more detail on PubMed, the online library of scientific papers, and thought about how I’d assemble a team. Although I knew many neurobiologists who could help me with the cellular and molecular aspects of the project, I had no experience working with bees. I called up Professor Pat Wilmer, a pollination biologist at St Andrews, for some help. She put me in touch with expert neuroscientists who are using bees as models to investigate mechanisms of learning and memory. This was a fantastic advance in assembling a world-class team. We applied, and heard our proposal was one of nine chosen to be funded.

Serendipitously, the proposed work on bee receptors overlapped with my work on human receptors. In bee research there is a lack of stable cell lines (different types of bee cells to grow and use in the lab), as, unlike human cell lines, these are very hard to make. Particularly tricky are insect cells studded with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, found in the nervous systems of vertebrates and invertebrates alike.

Fortuitously, in a separate project, I’ve been working with Professor Neil Millar, a neuropharmacologist at University College London, on a chaperone protein that helps cells produce these receptors. He’s a partner on our pollinator project, and we will attempt to create the first ever honeybee cell line for pesticide screening.

Since getting the funding, I’ve given talks to many organisations and conferences, including CropWorld, the Association of Independent Crop Consultants and both the Scottish and British Beekeepers’ Associations – quite a different circuit to what I’m used to.

In what private time I have, I’m interested in wildlife, nature and the environment; as a professional, I’m interested in the medical implications of dysfunctional neuronal communication. Reading the book on bees, bells started ringing in my head as I realised that I could join up my interests in one project. My mother-in-law is very excited too, especially as this is all thanks to her. Of course, now I find it impossible to get that work–life balance – just as I like it.

On this project, Chris is working with Dr Jenni Harvey (University of Dundee), Dr Nigel Raine (Royal Holloway, University of London), Dr Geraldine Wright (Newcastle University) and Professor Neil Millar (UCL).

Reproduced from ‘Wellcome News 67’.

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Careers From Biology’ in June 2012 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Neuroscience, Ecology and environment, Careers
Careers From Biology
Education levels:
16–19, Undergraduate, Continuing professional development