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Smooth as Silk (Honeybee Silk)

3 February 2010 3,237 views 2 Comments

Until today I never in my wildest dreams imagined that bees could produce any kind of silk.  I thought worms were in charge of silk production and that was the end of it.  It pains me to admit this (you have no idea how it pains me) but I was wrong.  Not only are silk worms falling down on the job, as it turns out spiders aren’t any better!  Apparently it’s down to good old Apis mellifera (also known as the western honey bee) to make the silk that takes care of business.  Australian CSIRO researchers have been studying the production of silk for years, and they’ve explained why honeybee silk is so sweet: “Transgenic production of silkworm and spider silks as biomaterials has posed intrinsic problems due to the large size and repetitive nature of the silk proteins. In contrast the silk of honeybees (Apis mellifera) is composed of a family of four small and non-repetitive fibrous proteins (Atkins).

Image courtesy carolinabees.com

I’m not exactly sure how they managed it, but these industrious researchers “have managed to pull threads of honeybee silkfrom a stew of transgenically-produced silk proteins, meaning cheaper, stronger lightweight textiles and composites with myriad uses could be around the corner” (Dillow).  They physically pulled these threads from the honeybees somehow (I guess they drugged them with smoke first?  I always see people drugging bees with smoke to make them drowsy).  These silk threads are fantastic because they consist of coils that are all coiled up, similar to our family phone cords back in the 1980’s.  If you were to take enough of these coiled coil threads and weave them into textiles, the thought is, you’d be hard pressed to find a more durable bee-produced material.

Image courtesy University of Cambridge Engineering

So it probably takes a long time and is kind of inconvenient to pull silk threads out of honeybees all day, so researchers assembled some recombinant E. coli bacteria (it’s not just for gastric distress anymore!) who stepped up and made artificial construction of the silk thread possible.  The bacteria cells were tweaked to produce the honeybee proteins (of which, you will recall, there are 4) and these, “with a little prodding, self-assembled into the proper structure to mimic honeybee silk” (Dillow).  So now we can make this strong insect silk in mass quantities, because recombinant E. coli doesn’t break for lunch.

This also means I can look forward to featuring honeybee silk textiles, lightweight composites for use in marine construction and in aviation in the coming years!  I’m so excited.  I’m so … scared.


This entry is about protein, essentially, so I put it in the metal category because it just feels tough and durable and kind of ductile like metal – although I am not sure yet if this silk is any of these things.  What do you think about that?


Atkins, William.  “Artificial Silk Could be the Bee’s Knees.”  iTWire.com 02/03/10.  Accessed 02/02/10.  URL.

Dillow, Clay. “Tough, Lightweight Honeybee Silk Could Revolutionize Textiles, Composites.”  Popsci.com 02/03/10.  Accessed 02/03/10.  URL.

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  • Silk - Silk Production said:

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  • Veronica said:

    Bees are pretty amazing!apparently very fuel efficient too-heard on NPR yesterday they can travel over 100,000mi on 1gallon o honey

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