One of the biggest threats to honey bees at this time is the Varroa mite. There are those that will say this particular threat is as big or bigger than the threat posed by poisonous pesticides. At the very least, if this problem was solved, it could reduce the death rates beekeepers are experiencing during the harsh winter months when they typically lose 20 to 40 percent of their hives. University of Texas researchers are hoping to make that happen.
Engineering Bacteria to Help Honey Bees
As a way to fight the destruction caused by the Varroa mite, which we have documented very well here, researchers have developed an engineered bacteria that will help bees fight the Varroa mite from the inside out. The premise behind the bacteria is that it will live in the belly of bees, then release medicines that will protect the honey bees against one of the biggest factors contributing to colony collapse disorder. In addition to fighting the Varroa mite, this medicine will also help fight another major problem for honey bees… deformed wing virus.
Nancy Moran, a UT Professor of Integrative Biology and the primary researcher on the project, stated, “It has direct implications for bee health.” Sean Leonard, a graduate student also working on the study, stated, “This is the first time anyone has improved the health of bees by genetically engineering their microbiome.”
Because the Varroa mite and deformed wing virus often coincide, the researchers wanted to develop a string of bacteria that would be effective against both. The results of the study were both impressive and staggering. The UT report states, “Compared with control bees, the bees treated with the strain of bacteria targeting the virus were 36.5% more likely to survive to day 10. Meanwhile, Varroa mites feeding on another set of bees treated with the mite-targeting strain of bacteria were about 70% more likely to die by day 10 than mites feeding on control bees.”
The “trick” to this all working centers around triggering a response in the bee’s immune system to attack the virus. The report references an antiviral defense mechanism called the RNAi, or RNA interference. Moran stated, “You usually only get signs of these molecules when an RNA virus is replicating. It’s a signal that this might be an evil thing and you should attack it.”
We can only hope this research continues and the project is as successful as these early reports. Along with changes in laws regarding pesticides, this could arguably be the single most important revelation in the fight to keep our honey bee population from becoming extinct.
To see the full report on UT News, click here.