Seanne Clemente, graduate student, in greenhouse at UMass.

Can Garden Basil Help Fight a Bee Epidemic?

UMass Amherst graduate student Seanne Clemente is investigating whether bumble bees can use plants to “self-medicate.”

Born and raised on the island of Guam, Seanne Clemente was surrounded by a rich ecology with a plethora of invasive species, yet he had no idea what an impact those species made on the island. Nor did he realize that one day, it would become his passion.

Clemente completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Guam, where he started as a pre-med major. But a summer research internship with the Organization for Tropical Studies in the jungle of Costa Rica studying how bats dispersed fruits of pepper plants sparked a newfound passion for ecology and environmental science. Clemente changed his major and decided to pursue a career as an ecologist.

In summer 2019, after completing his undergraduate degree, Clemente did an internship at Harvard Forrest, very close to Amherst, where he studied how the grazing of farm animals affected the spread of invasive plants in New England grassland ecosystems. This project introduced him to western Massachusetts, while his project advisor connected him with Lynn Adler, now his PhD advisor, professor of biology at UMass Amherst. He began his PhD studies in the UMass Amherst Organismic & Evolutionary Biology Graduate Program (OEB) in 2020.

With Adler, Clemente is studying eastern bumble bees and Crithidia bombi, a common bumble bee gut parasite that can reduce the reproductive rate and colony founding success of queen bees, while impairing learning and foraging efficiency in worker bees. The goal is to determine whether certain types of basil have medicinal properties that can help ailing bee populations recover. The choices the bees make will inform whether basil plantings can be an effective way to control bumble bee parasites in gardens and farms.

I’m hoping we are able to recommend specific varieties of basil for people to plant in their gardens to act as little pharmacies for bees.

Seanne Clemente, PhD student in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

Every summer, Clemente plants different basil species at the UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Center in South Deerfield and in the College of Natural Sciences' Research and Education Greenhouse at UMass Amherst. After preparing the bees in the lab at UMass, he releases them for a week in a section of a field at the Crop and Animal Research Center covered with a camping tent. He records their activity with custom built cameras, and then returns them to the lab to inspect them.

Thus far, Clemente’s research has revealed that different plants within the same basil species can produce very different chemicals. “What is really interesting about basil is that these variations in chemical production are entirely human made,” he said. “We see proof that human domestication of crops can have effects on wild animals that interact with the crop, specifically pollinators. In this case, that effect is positive. It appears basil varieties can have medicinal properties that help bees fight parasites when they feed on these flowers.”

Going forward, Clemente’s PhD research will focus on the mechanism behind the medicinal effects of certain varieties of basil. Ultimately, he hopes his research will have a meaningful impact on the community and local environments. “I’m hoping we are able to recommend specific varieties of basil for people to plant in their gardens to act as little pharmacies for bees,” he said.

Adler, Clemente’s advisor, commended him for taking a “kernel of an idea”—the possibility that basil could be an interesting system to study self-medication in bees—and running with it. “He has developed a full-fledged research program and accomplished an incredible amount despite the obstacles of the pandemic,” she said.

Clemente has been awarded two research grants from the UMass Graduate School to support his research, as well as funding from the Garden Club of America targeted at researchers studying pollinators. He also received a highly competitive three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, which enabled him to explore many aspects of research, science communication, and teaching. Last year, Clemente taught a first-year seminar at UMass that focused on the social behavior of animals.

“Seanne is also a dedicated mentor and teacher who has gone above and beyond to support a new generation of scientists,” noted Adler.

Clemente plans to defend his thesis by summer 2023. He then aspires to work as a professor, focused on teaching and communicating science in a college setting that serves Pacific island communities.

This story was originally published in October 2022.