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
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...