Drunken Munchies, a Paper Centrifuge, and an Endangered Bumblebee

5:37 minutes

A rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis). Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab
A rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis). Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added a new species to the federal endangered species list: the rusty patched bumblebee. The fuzzy pollinator became the first bee species in the continental United States to be listed as endangered. Agency officials said that populations of the rusty patched bumblebee have “plummeted” 87 percent since the 1990s. In this week’s news roundup, Popular Science senior editor Sophie Bushwick explains what might be in store for the rusty patched bumblebee and other bee species. She also describes new neuroscience research that could explain people’s tendency to get hungry when they’re drunk; a paper-based centrifuge design; and the link between warming waters and toxic shellfish.

Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away. This week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added a new species to the Federal Endangered species list. The rusty patched bumblebee. If you’re not familiar with the rusty patched bumblebee, there aren’t too many around. They’re only in a small area of 13 states.

Here to tell us more and to round up some of the other stories from this week in science is Sophie Bushwick. She’s senior editor at Popular Science and she’s right here in our New York studios. Welcome back to the show.


JOHN DANKOSKY: So tell us about this bumblebee. Is it like a normal bumblebee that we would see flying around?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, and you mentioned it’s only in 13 states. It used to be found in 28 states. Since the 1990s, its population has gone down by 87%. So the hope is that putting it on the Endangered Species List will allow us to enact some protections for it.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Is this part of the overall bad news for bees narrative that we have in America right now?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, it is. Bumblebees. There’s about 47 bumblebee species in the US and Canada. And more than a quarter of them are in danger of being endangered or going extinct. This is a big issue, because bumblebees pollinate about one third of American crops and that service is worth $3 billion.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So billions of dollars of bumblebees.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, billions of dollars of bumblebees.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So what does this afford the bumblebees? Does this offer more protections for them?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, I think the idea is that we can maybe start to address some of the issues that may be contributing to the bee decline. So while there’s not like one issue that stands out, there are things that researchers suspect is contributing our issues like disease and parasites. The loss of habitat for the bees and also climate change and pesticides.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, and usually climate change– let’s turn to another story this week about changing climate. And this is some about shellfish. And please don’t tell me I can’t eat oysters now.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, let me just tell you what the story is. So when you have large growths of a kind of algae called phytoplankton, they can release this neurotoxin called domoic acid. Shellfish can absorb this and it won’t hurt them but the animals that eat the shellfish, including humans, it can cause seizures, memory loss, and death.

So this is very bad and it can cost fisheries money. Being able to predict when there will be domoic acid in the area is very important for them. And researchers have done just that. They’ve tied blooms of domoic acid to warmer waters. So when you’ve got a temperature pattern like El Nino that warms the ocean up, you’re going to be able to predict that this neurotoxin will be in higher concentrations.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Are there worries that some parts of the oceans, some parts of the world, are going to be more affected than others?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, I think the first priority for the paper was letting them predict when this will happen, but there are worries that as the oceans get warmer with climate change, this could maybe become more common.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Last week on the show, we talked about work toward a new malaria vaccine, but this week, you’ve got a story about a low budget way to diagnose the disease. This is cool.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s very cool. So an essential ingredient in diagnosing malaria is a tool called the centrifuge that spins the sample very quickly. But these can cost thousands of dollars and they’re bulky and they require electricity so they’re not great for using in developing countries or out in the field. Now, researchers have made a centrifuge out of paper. It costs 20 cents to make and it can still spin blood fast enough to diagnose malaria in 15 minutes.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What? So it’s like a $0.20 solution to a really expensive problem. How’d they come up with this?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, Manu Prakash, who’s the researcher who has created this, he’s very into something he calls frugal science. So he’s also led to the contribution of a paper microscope called fold scope. The paper centrifuge is called paper fuge, and it’s basically two circles of paper and you put the blood sample between them and then you thread twisted fishing wire between it and it’s attached to handles.

So by pulling the handles apart and moving them closer together, you force that paper circle to spin very quickly. This is based on a buzzer toy. And that spinning is enough to centrifuge it. It can spin the sample at 125,000 revolutions per minute.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So the idea is this would be able to get out into the field, you’d be able to use it in places where malaria is a problem much more efficiently. This could really help save lives.


JOHN DANKOSKY: So OK. I want to move to a last story and this is one, as we head into the weekend, a lot of people have questions about this sort of thing. Why do we get the munchies after we’ve had a couple beers?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. Researchers have done a mouse study that suggests that alcohol is stimulating the brain cells that urge us to eat. They basically injected mice’s stomachs with the equivalent of a couple bottles of wine a day and then they saw how much they ate compared to a control group. And the drunk mice eat a lot more.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And when they looked at mouse brains, they found that ethanol or alcohol will stimulate the brain cells that do control the urge to eat and so when they gave the live mice something to prevent those cells from being activated, the alcohol didn’t give them the munchies the same way.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So it’s a mouse study. So we’re learning something about it. But it’s not just about lowering our inhibitions and deciding that that plate of nachos looks really good but it’s actually working us in a different way, it seems.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, it’s working right in our brain– well, that is, if we can extrapolate from mice to humans, which is always– it’s never a perfect comparison, but it does definitely indicate that alcohol is stimulating certain parts of our brain to make us eat food. It’s not just that we’re free and easy and longing to eat nachos.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, Sophie Bushwick thanks so much for joining us. You’re senior editor at Popular Science. Thanks as always for taking time to talk with us today.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks for having me.

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