Bio warfare scientists help solve mystery of dying bees

The cause of the mysterious decline of the honey bee in the United States – and elsewhere in the world – may have been found in the form of a "double whammy" infection with both a virus and a fungus.

A unique collaboration between university researchers and military scientists in the US has found that a combination of a virus and a fungus in the gut of honey bees may result in the phenomenon known as colony-collapse disorder.

Over the past four years, bee keepers in the United States, Europe and Asia have reported dramatic declines of the key insect that is critical to the pollination of many valuable crops. Between 40 and 60 per cent of honeybee colonies have suffered a complete collapse in the US alone.

One of the difficulties of finding a cause is that the affected bees often fly off in different directions leaving behind, at most, a single queen and a few workers. This has made it almost impossible for entomologists to carry out post mortems on corpses of the missing bees.

Now a team of researchers led by Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana in Missoula has completed an exhaustive survey of bees that bee keepers have managed to collect from collapsed colonies to see whether they are suffering from any unusual infections. Working with scientists at the US Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Centre in Maryland, who have developed expertise in detecting and analysing biological molecules, Professor Bromenshenk and his colleagues found that many of the bees were infected with both a virus, called invertebrate iridescent virus (IIV), and a fungus known as Nosema apis.

"These findings implicate co-infection by IIV and Nosema with honey bee colony decline, giving credence to older research pointing to IIV, interacting with Nosema and mites, as probable cause of bee losses in the USA, Europe and Asia," the researchers write in their study published in the journal PLoSOne. The scientists do not know how the combination of the two infections could be causing the disorder, but they point to the fact that both virus and fungus proliferate in cool, damp weather as well as infecting bees through the gut, indicating that insect nutrition may be involved.

"Colony collapse disorder continues to impact bee colonies in the US in 2010 at levels seemingly equal to, or exceeding that of 2007, when this unusual syndrome first received worldwide press coverage," the scientists said.

"The disorder is characterised by sudden losses of bees. This results in nearly empty beehives that, at best, may harbour a queen and a small worker bee population. A vexing aspect of the disorder is that there are ample resources left in the hive, and few or no dead bees in or near the hive. Bees seem to disappear without a trace," they said.

Many potential causes of the phenomenon have been suggested, ranging from pesticides to mobile phone radiation. However, several studies have pointed to viruses and other infectious agents that could somehow disorientate the bees by interfering with the complex navigation system they use to find their way to their colonies.

The scientists have yet to work out how the virus and fungus can interact, as neither seems to be particularly lethal on their own. However, together they seem to be 100 per cent fatal, the study suggests.

"It's a chicken and egg in a sense. We don't know which came first... They are co-factors, that's all we can say at the moment. They're both present in all these collapsed colonies," Dr Bromenshenk told The New York Times.

Earlier research by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, identified the fungus as a possible cause of the problem.

The US Army and Montana team were able to analyse the biological molecules present in dead bees to point to the link with the IIV virus – a technique developed to analyse potential biological and chemical weapons.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea