Bees offer bioplastic breakthrough

The hylaeus nubilosus bee does not sting
The hylaeus nubilosus bee does not sting

New Zealand company hopes to reverse-engineer the bee material as an alternative to plastic.

An Australian bee that produces a “cellophane-like” material for its nests could help to end the world’s reliance on disposable plastics, scientists say.

The masked bee (hylaeus nubilosus), known for the distinctive yellow badge on its back, does not sting or live in hives but it has generated interest because of the nesting material it produces, which is non-toxic, waterproof, flame-resistant and can withstand heat.

A biotech company in New Zealand, Humble Bee, hopes to reverse-engineer the material and mass produce it as an alternative to plastic.

Veronica Harwood-Stevenson, the firm’s founder, began investigating the potential plastic alternative after noticing a throwaway line in a research paper about the “cellophane-like” qualities of the bee’s nesting material.

“Plastic particles and chemicals have permeated ecosystems and organisms around the world . . . it’s so pervasive, it’s terrifying,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald.

“It’s about biomimicry, about copying what’s in the natural environment, and we’ve been doing it in design for centuries, from plane wing design inspired by birds of prey to train shapes reflecting bird beaks.”

Prof Richard Furneaux, of the Victoria University of Wellington, said the discovery was “almost too good to be true”.

“Its robustness is beyond what you would have expected,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Scientists analysed the genetic make-up of the bioplastic by studying the bee’s glands.

Humble Bee initially plans to use the material to make outdoor apparel, such as camping gear, which often requires toxic chemicals to keep it waterproof.

Scientists believe chemicals used to change the properties of plastic – such as making it harder or waterproof – could increase the risk of heart disease, cancer or infertility.

The bioplastic could also be used for aviation, electrics and construction products. It is resistant to acid, which could allow it to coat medicines and help them to pass through the stomach.

The firm hopes to start selling the bioplastic in five years. – The Sunday Telegraph