For as long as we’ve studied them, pathogens still require further understanding for how they affect living creatures at the rates in which they do. Given the rate at which honeybee colonies are collapsing—almost 30 percent annually—and the fact of pathogens being a contributing factor, there has been much research focusing on how exactly pathogens are leading to honeybee decline, especially since pollinators are responsible for one third of the food we eat in the US. One research site at Montana State University, led by assistant professor Michelle Flenniken, just got six new honeybee colonies to contribute to the research into pathogens and honeybee health, and the Carniolan bees are acclimating well to their new environment.
Flenniken’s grad students, as is required to start new colonies, donned protective suits to handle the shoebox-sized “packages” and delicately inserted a queen for each new colony into hive boxes and then dumped thousands of worker bees in as well. “This is one way a new beekeeper can start a colony; the other is to split an existing colony into two colonies and either purchase a queen or ensure the new colony has a queen cell.” MSU’s colonies were then stacked with additional hives atop each other to allow the colonies to grow, allowing Flenniken’s team the chance to work with many thriving subjects.
Flenniken has described the work she’s partaking in as “exciting,” and she looks forward to further understanding one of the causes of collapsing colonies—rather than what many believe to be the sole cause, which is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). “It isn’t just one factor that’s responsible for colony losses. Currently, researchers are focused on determining how multiple, synergistic factors cause the death of a colony.” In 2015 alone Montana was home to 150,000 honeybee colonies with $24 million worth of honey, with five percent of losses attributed to CCD. This is why Flenniken seeks to find out how honeybees respond to pathogens, one of the many causes, at the molecular level.
Using samples from commercial Montana beekeepers and bees sampled from the Honey Bee Research Site (part of MSU’s Horticulture Farm), Flenniken and her students assessed the abundance of viral, bacterial and fungal pathogens within field samples and performed lab-based studies to examine honeybee responses. “We’re asking basic questions,” Flenniken said. “If a honeybee is infected with a virus, what genes get turned on? How does it fight the infection? If the bee is simultaneously exposed to an agrochemical, does virus abundance or gene expression change?”
John Sherwood, head of MSU’s Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology Dept., said, “The research is timely. People are recognizing this as an important problem. [Flenniken] is absolutely at the cutting edge of the approach she is taking.” These colonies are the first to be installed at the research site since 2013, and with that, according to Flenniken, “In the long term, we hope that answering these questions will help us develop strategies to enhance honey bee health.”