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Jack Bishop: Scientist and Beekeeper

By Colleen Chandler

While working on his doctorate in genetics at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, NIEHS research geneticist Jack Bishop took a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Honeybee Breeding and Genetics Laboratory, where he first learned beekeeping. He then incorporated honeybees into his dissertation research on the chemical dosimetry of germ cell mutagens. Their unique germ cells made them excellent subjects.

Even though his research in the Laboratory of Toxicology, under the Environmental Toxicology Program, no longer includes honeybees, Bishop has continued keeping bees as a hobby. He currently has three hives near Falls Lake in North Carolina. They produce enough honey for him to share with his friends. A good season can yield as much as 150 pounds of honey, but he expects to yield very little this year since many bees died during this past cold winter.

Dr. Jack Bishop of NIEHS tends one of his three beehives near Falls Lake, N.C.

Wearing only a veil and sometimes gloves if the bees are especially "testy," Bishop calmly handles the hives. His first bee encounter ended more in the tradition of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon: Bishop fleeing in his convertible car with a trail of angry bees in hot pursuit. He had accidentally disturbed a hive while he was tending the lawn of a professor and sent the bees into an angry frenzy.

As a scientist and beekeeper, Bishop is concerned about the effect of agricultural insecticides on pollinators such as bees. These pollinators have been hit hard: by Varroa and tracheal mites and by increasing use of pesticides, as well as destruction of their natural habitat such as dead trees and old fence posts. Varroa mites are like tiny ticks that suck blood from the bees, weakening them so that tracheal mites, pesticide exposure and other elements kill them quickly. Nearly all wild bees in North America disappeared 5 to 6 years ago, and have just begun developing enough resistance to make a comeback, he said. Some experts predict higher costs for produce as the population of pollinators is reduced worldwide.

Early in Bishop's career, he turned down an offer by the USDA to move to Brazil and conduct population genetics studies on control of the Africanized or "killer bees." Instead, he returned to his graduate research on germ cell mutagenesis, taking a job in Arkansas at FDA's National Center for Toxicology Research. He spent 25 years studying germ cell mutagenesis at NCTR and at NIEHS.

Bishop is especially proud of his research involving rodent sperm fluorescence in situ hybridization assays, which he pioneered along with colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. These assays provide rodent models for identifying and characterizing environmental agents that produce the type of germ cell damage that leads to chromosomal birth defects like Klinfelter's and Down's syndrome. Bishop is also project officer on a number of reproductive toxicology contracts testing chemicals for the National Toxicology Program.

Bishop and one of his honeybee hives.

It was the opportunity to participate in preventive and interventional public health programs aimed at reducing the incidence of birth defects and reproductive dysfunction that initially drew Bishop into a science career, he said.

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