The Flight of the Undergraduate – From Genetics to Bumblebees

My name is Maeve McCann and I’m a Genetics student at TCD. This summer I am working on a research project with Jane Stout (Botany, TCD) and Jim Carolan (Biology, Maynooth University). Last May (2017), I sent Jane an email asking if there was any chance I could get involved with the work she was doing with bumblebees, not even sure if as a 2nd year I would get a reply. However, to my delight Jane replied and here I am doing a research project and loving it!

In a meadow near Monawilkin Lake, Derrygonnelly, Co. Fermanagh
In a meadow near Monawilkin Lake, Derrygonnelly, Co. Fermanagh

The project Jane and I put together aims to further research already carried out on a group of bumblebees known as B. lucorum agg. They are a cryptic complex meaning that the worker bees of four different species are indistinguishable by appearance. They are all white tailed with two yellow bands, one on the thorax and one on the abdomen. The four species are Bombus terrestris, Bombus lucorum, Bombus magnus and Bombus cryptarum (B. terrestris queens are distinguished from the other queens by their buff tail, however the workers are generally not distinguishable). Due to their cryptic appearance the only way to exactly determine the species is to do a genetic fingerprint test from a sample of their DNA. This is a robust method for species determination and, provided I get the hang of the lab techniques, I should be able to figure out which of the four species are living in which habitats across our chosen locations of County Fermanagh and Dublin city (cross-border bees!).

Two yellow stripes and a white tail, but which species?

To get the DNA samples I was out “in the field” for a few weeks in Dublin and Fermanagh catching Bombus lucorum agg bees. I only need a single tarsal (foot) sample from each bee as this gives sufficient DNA to run the fingerprint test. I have had a fantastic time out and about catching bees to get the tarsal samples. I have learned so much about bumblebees, been to beautiful places and had great conversations with people enthusiastic about bees. I also managed to drag a few friends and family along with me. I took a few friends to the flower beds in Phoenix park, went with a group learning about Bumblebees with Bí Urban around Stoneybatter, went cycling between meadows in west Fermanagh with my Mum and canoeing to islands in Lower Lough Erne with my Dad. I’ve also been working on my farmers tan having been out and about during the recent hot weather!

blog pic 2
On the way to Inis Davar, Lower Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh.

Having completed my fieldwork I feel enriched with the new knowledge which it has brought. I’ve seen brand new things, learned a lot about bumblebees and gained a whole new appreciation for the insect world, but I have also come to realise that bumblebees along with many other insect species are under major threat from human activity. With projects like the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan in full swing I have great hope that we can turn the tide of habitat loss and insect decline.

As for me – It’s now time for me to take all my samples to Jim Carolan’s lab in Maynooth and discover what I have caught. So I’m switching my net for a pipette.


Maeve McCann is an undergraduate Science student at Trinity College Dublin, and her project is supported by the C.B. Dennis British Beekeepers’ Research Trust.


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