NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Veronica Harwood-Stevenson gambled her life savings on research into a rare species of bee, she had no way of knowing whether it would pay off.
The 33-year-old New Zealander, a trained reproductive biologist, had a hunch that the cellophane-like substance in which the Hylaeus bee breeds its larvae could replace toxic chemicals used in plastics.
The idea, inspired by a chance reading of an academic paper while trying to distract herself from a job in film distribution, set her on a completely new life path.
“The results were good,” Harwood-Stevenson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I had just spent my life savings, so I was relieved.”
After Harwood-Stevenson chased around rugged bush to catch specimens, tests revealed that as well as being waterproof, the bee’s nest lining was resistant to fire and certain acids, giving it a wide range of potential uses.
Plastics are commonly treated with chemicals to change their properties, waterproofing them in products from raingear to camping gear and making them fire-resistant for firefighters’ jackets and construction tarps.
Those chemicals are drawing scrutiny from environmentalists concerned about the danger they pose to health.
Some studies have linked bisphenol A (BPA), used to stiffen plastic food containers, to a range of possible effects from cancer to heart disease to infertility although this is disputed.
Enter Humble Bee, a Wellington-based startup that has raised NZD $320,000 ($230,000) in private funding as well as a NZD$120,000 government-backed grant since its inception in 2011.
Dissecting the minute bee, which measures no more than 12 mms (about half an inch), to extract its microscopic glands has allowed Humble Bee to chart a chemical pathway to replicate the precious nest lining.
Extracting the genetic code behind the material, the company’s current focus, holds more promises as it would make it cheaper to manufacture and selling the material at a more competitive price, said Harwood-Stevenson.
Company director Richard Furneaux, a chemistry professor who heads a research institute at the Victoria University of Wellington, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the discovery was “almost too good to be true”.
“Its robustness is beyond what you would have expected,” said Furneaux, who has opened his laboratory to Humble Bee.
The interest of funders in the start-up reflected a growing interest in the scientific field of biomimicry, which looks to nature for solutions, said Maurie Cohen, a professor of sustainability at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Harwood-Stevenson hopes the final product would go on sale within five years and have a commercial and social impact.
“The answer lies in nature,” she said.
Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org