All the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) players or their representatives were present at the Emergency Symposium on CCD held at the 2007 Entomology Society Of America annual meeting in San Diego this week. Over 3,000 students and scientists attended the meeting, and more than 300 sat in on the symposium.
Starting the day was lots of review of the history (the symptoms and the financial and agricultural implications of CCD) which is familiar to beekeepers, growers and all the rest of us. Sadly, there were few surprises but some news not previously revealed came to light.
Early investigations turned up a biological agent a bacterium often found in CCD sample bees that was believed to be toxic to humans also. Precautionary measures were immediately put in place, but those who had been dissecting bees for weeks had, they believed, already been exposed. Times were tense until it was discovered that the bacteria won't harm humans.
Genetic investigators have continued on several fronts with three making headway, or at least opening the door to the mystery a bit wider.
Three Ways of Looking At Bee (And Bee Pathogen) Genetics
A Virus with Elusive Origins
The Penn State investigators, stung with the Science article debate of a few months ago have trudged on, undaunted. Their original thought was that the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), originally believed to have arrived in the U.S. carried by honey bees imported from Australia. (It was found to have a high correlation with CCD-infected colonies but still, it is not implicated in the cause.) This was called into question when USDA scientists found that indeed, the virus had been in the U.S. several years before Australian bees were imported ... seemingly taking the heat off Aussie bees.
Not so, says Dr. Diana Cox-Foster, leader of the Penn State team. Further and more detailed analysis of IAPV isolated from Aussie bees, and IAPV samples isolated from samples taken before the Aussie bee imports began showed conclusively, according to Cox-Foster, that the virus had been introduced into the U.S. at least two times in the past several years. Her data indicate that there are at least three strains of this elusive creature ... one on west coast bees believed to be primarily from Australia, one found mostly in east coast bees, of origin unknown, and neither even closely related to the IAPV first discovered in Israel.
So, Aussie bees arent off the hook yet. Still, IAPV, no matter where it's from, isn't implicated as the cause of CCD, but merely associated with it. The cause, if there is a single cause, is still unknown, and undiscovered.
A Better (Cheaper) Investigative Tool
Another genetic investigation, led by Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk and his team from the University of Montana, has been using an Integrated Virus Detection Machine to locate and identify viruses in collected samples. Their process appears much simpler than the other techniques used by Penn State and the University Of Illinois, but it, too has some drawbacks. Simply, samples are prepared in water, fed into this machine and out comes a chart with peaks and valleys printed on it. The peaks correspond to virus particles and protein particles located in the sample, and, if already known, numbers on the chart correspond to a particular virus. Nevertheless, known or not, peaks appear and then the real investigations begin. Samples are fast and simple to run, and inexpensive ... a real plus for both investigators and beekeepers looking for answers.
Immune-deficient Bees, by Nature
Yet a third team, this from Dr. May Berenbaum from the University of Illinois has produced another analysis and come up with some interesting observations, and some predictive capability, perhaps. It should be noted that she, along with Dr. Gene Robinson and others at her in her department were very involved in sequencing the honey bee genome a couple of years ago, so have an intimate knowledge of how that works.
One outcome of that effort was the discovery that honey bees have generally far fewer genes devoted to controlling or conducting immune response they actually have less than half of most other insects. This led to discoveries that there were genes involved in tissue breakdown, bacteria defensive genes were being suppressed and that by examining a particular set of genes it was obvious that those bees with apparent CCD expressed these genes one way, bees from colonies that were dwindling another way, and healthy bees still another, leading to a fairly accurate diagnostic tool. Not easy to use in the field, certainly, but useful in the lab.
So ... Whats new on the CCD front? The mean-spirited virus, IAPV, seems to have been introduced into the U.S. at least twice, once from an unknown origin several years ago, and once from Australia, via honey bees in packages. How it got here the first time remains a mystery ... but then again, how varroa mites got here and how the small hive beetle (both bee pests) got here remains a mystery too. That's after more than 20 years for varroa, and nearly five for the beetle.
Other projects were reported at the meeting that Ill refer to later, and I had a one-to-one interview with both the inventor and the producer of that pheromone beekeepers will be putting in their hives this season to make their bees forage more, and more ... and more.
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