17 Mar 2018

Veronica Stevenson - The solitary Australian bee that could

From Saturday Morning, 8:40 am on 17 March 2018

A bioplastic inspired by the substance a native Australian bee produces for nest-building could replace some regular plastic in textile, medical device and construction products.

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Photo: Wikicommons

Veronica Stevenson's company Humble Bee has $120,000 from Callaghan Innovation to study and reverse-engineer the polyester-like substance female hylaeus bees produce and line their nests with.

Stevenson got the idea after chancing on an article about this tiny, solitary bee in an etymological journal. 

“The article talked about the life cycle of the bee, how they were constructing their nests, and there was a line in there that said ‘This was behaving like a plastic, I wonder whether or not it could be used as a bioplastic?'”

She entered the idea into an entrepreneurial challenge called Bright Ideas and secured funding for a market analysis – which was promising right away.

“The material is so robust in its properties that when we got the actual material we couldn’t dissolve it out into its component parts because it’s super robust.”

An Australian specialist in native pollinators got Stevenson some of the nesting material and later helped her track the solitary and hard to find hylaeus. 

“You’re standing at the bottom of a tree that you know they like, and there are hundreds of insects of all different shapes, size and colours and you’re trying to find the one bee catch it and keep it alive.”

Veronica Stevenson

Veronica Stevenson Photo: supplied

Stevenson plans to produce the bee-inspired bioplastic with a technique called biomimicry, which allows natural substances to be copied on a molecular level.

"What I want to do is the find the genes that code for these molecules and then incorporate them into a microbe and then have that microbe as it reproduces create our raw material.”

The shy, hylaeus bee has a lot to teach us about biodegradable construction, Stevenson says.

“It’s a useful bee, it’s got a lot of magic in its genes.”

The Humble Bee plans to have a bioplastic on the market within five years.