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.
We do not have a honey bee parasitome/microme/virome, so we dont totally know which parasites/microbes/viruses are ‘normal’ and which are the trouble makers, out of the countless parasites/microbes/viruses found in honey bee colonies all over the world. So it could be that CCD is some kind of ‘syndrome’ effecting honey bees– one colonys collapse being caused by one thing, another colony by another thing, etc.
One of the problems in this research field is our view of viruses/bacteria/parasites– We are so used to thinking virus/bacteria/parasite=DISEASE, we forget that viruses/bacteria/parasites=NORMAL most of the time. Your genome is littered with ERVs. You are loaded with herpes viruses. Your body is more bacteria than human. There are mites and parasites coating you and your belongings.
And that is totally normal.
Sometimes what is normal is also based on your location. A human infected with HHV8/KSHV in North America is rare-ish, while most people in Africa are infected with it.
Hell, even pathogens that cause disease are normal. Finding influenza or a norovirus in a human is not out of the ordinary. But sometimes timing can play into what is normal and what is not– Someone in England getting the flu in July is odd (remember Swine Flu? lol!), where someone in Australia getting the flu in July is totally normal.
So you can see why the way we have been looking for The Pathogen(s) that cause Colony Collapse Disorder in honey bees can be ‘off’. We have looked in this honey bee colony and that colony for ‘differences’ in viruses/bacteria/parasites, trying to find something that is absent in the healthy colonies and present in the collapsing ones. We have IDed all sorts of culprits… which dont work out. The ‘different’ pathogens we find in sick colonies can ultimately be found in healthy colonies too. That could be because of the timing or location of the initial colonies, and simply the fact we dont know what is normal for honey bees.
A group of scientists decided to nip this problem in the bud: What exactly is normal in honey bees?
Temporal Analysis of the Honey Bee Microbiome Reveals Four Novel Viruses and Seasonal Prevalence of Known Viruses, Nosema, and Crithidia
They monitored different colonies over time and space– Basically, there were waves of infection of different pathogens. Like we have ‘flu season’, bees have ‘sacbrood virus season’. If you test a healthy colony after theyve gotten over it, and a sick colony while they are experiencing their wave, you might think “OMFG SBV CAUSES COLONY COLLAPSE!!!”, but that wouldnt be true. SBV is normal.
And just to really emphasize how little we know about the normal microbiome of honey bees in the first place– this study found four brand new ‘normal’ viruses. Totally normal viruses, and we had no idea they existed in bees. So how the heck were we planning on figuring out what was ‘wrong’ or ‘out of place’ in collapsing bees? *sigh*
I appreciate the normalcy of this paper– straight forward, basic science. Not going to get the press a paper declaring they had found The Cause of CCD would get, even though they had cool findings in their own right of four new viruses. And even with these four new guys, they have a very realistic, measured conclusion: Yes, they ‘found’ these new guys, but they need to study them more to make sure they are real, and the ‘new guys’ werent just stuck to a piece of pollen stuck to a bee they looked at. They want to make sure what they say are ‘new’ pathogens in bees are real and not artifacts.
No headlines screaming these four viruses are ‘protecting’ honey bees from CCD, just “Hey this is neat! Lets investigate it more!”
I hope they do, cause we need to save our honey bees!