By Linda Harper, the Honeybee Conservancy
March 11, 2014
It has been one of the great murder mysteries all time. Since 2006, 20 to 40% of bee colonies in the United States alone have suffered “colony collapse.” Suspected culprits ranged from pesticides to genetically modified food (GMO’s). But now a unique partnership has formed; military scientists and entomologists have achieved a major breakthrough; identifying a new suspect, or two.
A tag-team fungus and virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem, according to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts in Montana. Exactly how that combination kills bees is still a mystifying question. But there are solid clues that both the virus and the fungus proliferate in cool, damp weather, and both do their dirty work in the bee gut, suggesting that insect nutrition is compromised.
The liaison between the military and bee research is nothing new. World War II ended in an atomic strike on Japan known as the Manhattan Project. And a group of scientists have researched bee-related applications for the military in the past developing a way to use honey bees to detect land mines.
But researchers on both sides say that colony collapse is a problem that they may never have solved on their own. The one important thing about colony collapse that has compounded efforts to solve it, is that the bees don’t just die, they fly off in every direction from the hive and die dispersed. Making bee autopsies problematic.
The virus-fungus one-two punch was found in every killed colony the group studied. Neither agent alone is able to devastate the colony alone, however together, they are 100 percent fatal.
“It’s the chicken and egg in a way, they don’t know which came first. But the virus-fungus together compounds each power. The only factor found is that the two in combination is lethal. The DNA based proteins are a fungus called N. cerenae.
The Army software system is an advanced research field in protein analysis. The system searches out unique proteins and identifies a virus and the known proteins they contain. In a nutshell, it allows them to use what they already know to find something they did not know they were looking for. However hopeful, again these conclusions are not final.
A combination of attackers are common in nature, like the virus and fungus involved in bee deaths. and that one answer in protecting bee colonies might be to focus on the fungus especially when the virus is detected.
Still unsolved is what makes the bees fly off into the wild blue yonder at the point of death. One theory is that the viral-fungal combination disrupts memory or navigating skills and the bees simply get lost. Another possibility maybe a kind of insect insanity.