Since ~2006, honey bee colonies in the US have been dropping dead overnight. Literally. They call it ‘colony collapse disorder’. While large populations of organisms dying is disturbing, no matter the species, we need honey bees– they help pollinate so many of our crops. I grew up in the banks of the Missouri River, around apple and peach orchards (who always had their own bee hives, and honey) and hell, I eat everything on that list…
What is killing our bees?
People have accused GMOs and wireless internet and pesticides and antibiotics… We didnt have a clue before.
It might be viruses. Maybe.
Back in 2007, some scientists reported that colonies infected with a Picorna-like virus (actual quote from virologists nomenclature conference: “Wull, its liek a picorna virus, but not, so like, um, picorna-like?” ), Israeli acute paralysis virus.
Unfortunately, other labs investigated the connection between IAPV and colony collapse… and didnt see a connection.
Fast forward to this week, and another lab might (*might*) have this apparent contradiction figured out. They looked at gene expression levels in colonies that collapsed (to varying degrees), and healthy ones, at different times, in different parts of the US. They looked at genes associated with immunology– bacteria, getting rid of toxins, etc., plus regular ol honey bee genes. While they saw differences in gene expression levels… there werent really any patterns. Upregulated in sick bees on East coast? That gene is unchanged in sick bees on the West coast. Upregulated in bees that are starting to get sick? Unchanged in severely diseased colonies. This paper kind of cracks me up because the whole first, eh, 75% is negative data.
But then they noticed something weird (scientists were shocked!! SHOCKED I TELL YOU!)– rRNA. rRNA wasnt supposed to be there, so it certainly wasnt supposed to be upregulated in diseased honey bees. The messages got there because they had a tag on them… a tag that says ‘degrade me plz! kthnxbi!’.
… Why are colony collapse bees telling their ribosomes to die?
Back to the viruses! Picorna-like viruses, like IAPV, play tricks to get the host cells ribosomes to make viral proteins, not host proteins. They bust up the host cells translation machinery.
SO, it might not be IAPV infection, specifically, that leaves honey bee colonies susceptible to collapse. Its any kind of picorna-like virus infection. The more cycles of infection, whether with IAPV or acute bee paralysis virus, or Kashmir bee virus, etc. the more damage is done to their ribosomes, basically making all the bees immune deficient. They cant make new proteins to respond to new immunogenic challenges.
So, colony collapse disorder in honey bees might kinda sorta be caused by picorna-like viruses.
If that is the case, then we have an interesting solution at our disposal: GMO honey bees. Because picorna-like viruses are RNA viruses, a potential solution would be to create bees that have portions of the virus in their genome. When transcribed, these genes would make the anti-sense version of the viral genome– when the two strands found each other, making double-stranded RNA, that would trigger the cells RNAi pathway, nipping viral infection in the bud. Im not making shit up– this is already a putative idea for chickens and influenza.
So a question we might have to ask in the future: Do you want honey bees to go extinct, or are you going to accept GMOs?