Could an Australian bee solve the world’s plastic crisis?

This story originally appeared in the Telegraph here.

Researchers believe an Australian bee which produces a “cellophane-like” material for its nests could help to end the world’s reliance on disposable plastics.

The native Hylaeus nubilosus masked bee, 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 able to withstand heat.

A biotech company in New Zealand, Humble Bee, is trying to reverse-engineer the material in the hope of mass producing it as an alternative to plastic.

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

“Plastic particles and chemicals have permeated ecosystems and organisms around the world, [from] foetal blood of babies [to] the most remote arctic lakes; 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.”

Richard Furneaux, a chemistry professor  at the Victoria University of Wellington, said the discovery of the new material 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 makeup of the bioplastic by studying the bee’s glands.

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

“Outdoor apparel is definitely what we’re most interested in because of the chemicals being used and because chances are, if you like the environment, you don’t want the products you enjoy to be screwing up the environment,”  Ms Harwood-Stevenson said.

Scientists believe chemicals used to change the properties of plastic – such as those that make it harder or waterproof – may be harmful and 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.