A New Zealand company, named Humble Bee, is reverse-engineering the nesting material of the Australian solitary masked bee in a bid to manufacture a biodegradable alternative to plastic on a large scale and at a competitive price.

The cellophane-like nesting material is not only water-repellent but also resistant to flames, high temperatures and strong chemicals.

The company’s founder Veronica Harwood-Stevenson came across a research paper about how a species of solitary bee’s nesting material was “cellophane-like” and had potential to be a bioplastic.

Unable to find sufficient suitable bees in New Zealand, she decided to use the stingless Australian Hylaeus nubilosus bee. She met Chris Fuller of Kin Kin Native Bees, who by coincidence had just figured out a way to trap nest bees from the same family using special wooden blocks, in Noosa, Queensland.

Back in Wellington, New Zealand, Ms Harwood-Stevenson is now working with Victoria University’s Ferrier Research Institute to study the bees.  Scientists at the University have successfully removed enough glands from the bees to identify the secretion’s chemical building blocks and are now aiming to make a synthetic version of the material.

Their plan is to identify the genes used to produce the bioplastic and insert them into the genes of a designer microbe, which can then manufacture it at greater scale than chemists could synthesise it. The same process is used to make insulin.

Humble Bee secured $nz160,000 ($au147,000) in the first investment round, and is aiming for $nz500,000 ($au457,000) in the second.

Hylaeus nubilosus female (image via Wikimedia Commons)