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Researchers cracking case of the vanishing bees

Sept. 6, 2007
Courtesy Penn State University
and World Science staff

Bee­keep­ers across the Un­ited States have seen hive af­ter hive suc­cumb to Col­o­ny Col­lapse Dis­or­der, a mys­teri­ous syn­drome in which bees ab­and­on their hives in droves.

Now, a team of en­to­mol­o­gists and in­fec­tious dis­ease ex­perts re­port a strong cor­rela­t­ion be­tween the dis­or­der and a vi­rus called Is­rae­li Acute Pa­ral­y­sis Vi­rus.

“We have not prov­en a caus­al rela­t­ion­ship be­tween” the two, but the vi­rus seems to be “a sig­nif­i­cant mark­er” for the syn­drome be­cause it pre­vails in af­fect­ed hives, the re­search­ers wrote. The find­ings are pub­lished in the Sept. 6 Sci­ence Ex­press, the on­line edition of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors said the vi­rus may not be the only cause of the syn­drome, but that the find­ings will hope­fully help lead to a so­lu­tion. Do­mes­tic hon­ey­bees are vi­tal to a va­ri­e­ty of crops. Bee­keep­ers truck their hives cross-coun­try to pol­li­nate al­mond groves in Cal­i­for­nia, field crops and for­ages in the Mid­west, ap­ples and blue­ber­ries in the North­east and cit­rus in Flor­i­da. 

An es­ti­mat­ed 23 per­cent of U.S. bee­keep­ing opera­t­ions suf­fered from the dis­or­der last win­ter. Af­ter look­ing at oth­er meth­ods of iden­ti­fy­ing the cause of the dis­ease, the re­search­ers de­cid­ed to se­quence the ge­net­ic ma­te­ri­al in bees to try to find a po­ten­tial path­o­gen. 

“The ge­nome of the hon­ey bee had just been com­plet­ed,” said Di­ana Cox-Foster, an en­to­mol­o­gist at Penn State Un­ivers­ity in Un­ivers­ity Park, Penn, and col­la­bo­ra­tor in the in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion. Thus it was pos­si­ble to de­code the ge­nome of bees at the af­fect­ed sites, and sub­tract out the ac­tu­al bee ge­net­ic ma­te­ri­al to find the vi­ral genes, she said.


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Beekeepers across the United States have seen hive after hive succumb to Colony Collapse Disorder, a mystrious syndrome in which bees vanish in droves. Now, a team of entomologists and infectious disease experts report a strong correlation between the disorder and a virus called Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. “We have not proven a causal relationship between” the two, but the virus seems to be “a significant marker” for the syndrome because it prevails in affected hives, the researchers wrote. The findings are published in the Sept. 6 Science Express, the online issue of the research journal Science. The investigators said the findings will hopefully lead to a solution to the syndrome. Domestic honeybees are vital to a variety of agricultural crops. Beekeepers truck their hives cross-country to pollinate almond groves in California, field crops and forages in the Midwest, apples and blueberries in the Northeast and citrus in Florida. An estimated 23 percent of all beekeeping operations in the U.S. suffered from the disorder during last winter. After looking at other methods of identifying the cause of the disease, the researchers decided to sequence the genetic material in bees to try to find a potential pathogen. “The genome of the honey bee had just been completed,” said Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist at Penn State University in University Park, Penn, and collaborator in the investigation. Thus it was possible to sequence the genome of bees at the affected sites, and subtract out the actual bee genetic material to find the viral genes, she said.