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How a humble Australian bee could help the world’s plastic problem

There’s a buzz among researchers across the Tasman as they recruit native Australian bees to fight the war on waste by helping create a new bioplastic.

The biotech start-up Humble Bee aims to take the nesting material from Banksia bees to produce a water-repellent and flame-resistant form of natural plastic. The New Zealand-based company is attempting to reverse engineer the material to create a biodegradable alternative on an industrial scale.

Founder and chief executive Veronica Harwood-Stevenson has been collecting Banksia bees (Hylius nubilosus) in south-east Queensland with the help of Chris Fuller from Kin Kin Native Bees. Her work involved trying to understand the cellophane-like bioplastic that lines the bees’ nest.

“They’re a small black bee, and if you keep an eye out for them you can see them in your backyards,” she told ABC Radio Brisbane’s Emma Griffiths.

“Chris supplies stingless bees to the macadamia industry, so his great knowledge on what material to do analysis on has helped us start.”

Ms Harwood-Stevenson said the idea came about when she was doing research on different science disciplines. “I have a strong interest in biology and I read an article on native bees and this bee lines its nests with material that looked promising,” she said.

“The author of the article made a throwaway comment that it behaved liked a plastic, and I knew that packaging was a leading cause of plastic pollution so I thought this could be part of the solution.”

Creating a new type of ‘natural plastic’

Along with a team of scientists, Ms Harwood-Stevenson said the aim was to make the product biologically.

Phil Lester, an entomologist and professor of biological science at Victoria University of Wellington, has been helping study the bees.

By examining their DNA, the researchers hope to identify the genes that give the bees the ability to make the special bioplastic.

“We will do a similar thing to how insulin was made in the 1970s — the gene that coded insulin was put into an E. coli bacteria and could then be produced en masse,” Ms Harwood-Stevenson said.

“You can’t take biological material in its entirety from Australia into New Zealand, so we did a dissection in Queensland and brought the parts of the bee we were interested in back to New Zealand.

“Any further work we do will be back in Australia due to the biological difficulty of going between the two countries.”

She said New Zealand didn’t have the native bee expertise or husbandry, which prompted her to travel to Australia.

“We had people in New Zealand who had done a lot of research, but where you could go to find them [the bees] was something that Australia had that we didn’t.”

An alternative to single-use plastic

Despite being in its early stages, Ms Harwood-Stevenson said creating a bioplastic was within reach.

“Plastic is a word that is like sport or religion; it encompasses so many different types of chemistry and so many materials with many properties and uses.”

Ms Harwood-Stevenson said a form of plastic would always be needed, not for single-use items, but for many industries it was a material that could not be substituted out.

“It has performance properties that make it important in many industries and you can’t just stop using it, given today’s society and the technology that we rely on.”

She said she hoped this form of bioplastic could fill the gap across industries and would like to see the material ready to sell in five years.

Source: ABC