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New Study Aims to Help British Bees

17 September 2013

UK & US - A BBSRC UK/US Partnering Award shared knowledge in this area and a technique brought back from the States is going to revolutionise approaches to investigating honeybee health, writes Professor David J. Evans.

A colony of honeybees (Apis mellifera) is a busy place, particularly in mid-summer when the population peaks, with up to 50,000 workers crammed into a ~50 cm3 box.

The crowded conditions provide ideal conditions for transmission of viral, bacterial and fungal pathogens during larval feeding.

They also benefit the ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor which infests the majority of colonies worldwide and acts as a vector for many honeybee viruses whilst feeding on haemolymph (blood).

Of particular concern is deformed wing virus (DWV), high levels of which reduces worker bee lifespan and can cause developmental defects in individual pupae.

Unless beekeepers bi-annually apply miticides that reduce Varroa numbers, high levels of DWV build up in the colony and significantly increase overwintering losses. In long winters, like 2012/13, these losses can be greater than 50 per cent.

Our (BBSRC) research investigates the three-way interaction of the honeybee, DWV and the Varroa mite. We are interested in virus and mite-induced pathogenesis, the evolution of pathogenic variants of DWV and mechanisms to control virus proliferation.

Using systems approaches we have investigated changes in the host transcriptome upon mite infestation and virus infection and have studied viral diversity and selection of pathogenic recombinant forms of DWV.

Although we now have an excellent insight into how Varroa contributes to DWV pathogenesis, we need to test these ideas using RNAi-based gene knockdown studies and virus challenge. Unsurprisingly this is almost impossible to do in a controlled manner within a full colony.

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