Honey Bee Colony Collapse: Its like, a virus.

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?" :P), 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?

More like this

To quote me from 2009: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…
Since late 2006, honeybees in Europe and North America have been mysteriously disappearing. Once abuzz with activity, hives suddenly turned into honeycombed Marie Celestes. They still had plentiful supplies of honey, pollen and youngsters but the adult workers vanished with no traces of their…
I first wrote about honey bee colony collapse disorder (CCD) in 2009-- 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…
This article is reposted from the old Wordpress incarnation of Not Exactly Rocket Science. There's been more work on CCD since, but I'm reposting this mainly because of some interesting follow-up research that will I will post about tomorrow. In 2006, American and European beekeepers started…

Abbie, Can you go in to more depth on your penultimate paragraph? The anti-sense viral genome and its trigger of the RNAi pathway both sound really interesting.

CCD sounds like the AIDS of honeybees.

By Chou Chou (not verified) on 28 Aug 2009 #permalink

Hmm... I don't believe in the RNAi solution too much. I think the virus would evolve around it pretty fast... I'm not a virologist, though.

I was reading somewhere that it may, in fact, be a combination of many issues. Honeybees are sickly little bastards with all kinds of diseases and parasites. On the bright side, in the past three years, we've learned more about bees than in the previous three decades...

GMO dem honey bees.

By Pockets881 (not verified) on 28 Aug 2009 #permalink

No, it's just that everything on the page is deserving of special emphasis.

Italics issue is site wide, not just erv

It's not Abbie's fault. It's the italicized link from ScienceBlogs at the top of the page. All SB pages look like this right now.

Honeybees will not go extinct if we don't "fix" them. They will adapt to whatever this is, most likely. We just might have crop shortages in the meantime. No matter how many times you tell me GM is safe, I still don't think we really know what we're doing. Modifying organisms in a laboratory is one thing, and it's incredibly interesting and important research, but releasing them into the environment is irresponsible madness as far as I'm concerned. Way too many possible unintended consequences.

And Joshua Zelinsky: the italics seem to be a ScienceBlogs problem, not an ERV problem. It's the same at Dispatches from the Culture Wars and Pharyngula.

By Uncephalizerd (not verified) on 28 Aug 2009 #permalink

Cool. Way cool.

I don't know that viruses could be stopped that way. But then, virology isn't my field.


Frankenbees as big as cats!

We are doomed.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 28 Aug 2009 #permalink

This post could also be called "On the other hand...".

All varieties and subspecies of honey-bees are equally affected? Even the feared Brazilian bred Africanized "killer" bees?

How about stopping international trade in bees? Aren't the viruses being spread via the bee-trade? I read that IAPV went from the ME to Australia via that route, and then from Australia to the US when the Bush administration ended rules against trading bees from off the continent.

Why go for the most complicated solution, when a simple economic solution is possible? It may sound cool -- but obviously this isn't a genetic problem, but a response to environmental changes since this is a new phenomena. If you take the expensive "genetic" approach you still leave open the development and spread of other diseases -- you're treating a symptom and not the disease.


99% of all species that have existed are now extinct and it's no stretch to say a significant portion of those were taken out by pathogens. Your assertion that honey bees will not go extinct is not backed by evidence and fortunately will be ignored by anyone serious about this problem.

Second and more seriously is that only the fat and rich could be so callous about crop shortage. Below is a list of crops pollinated by bees. How many people depend on these crops to meet their daily minimum caloric intake needs? How many people depend on these crops to afford things like food, shelter, and medicine? I'm not willing to write these people off, even if GMO bees make you feel scared in your tummy.

Okra, Kiwifruit, Onion, Celery, Carambola, Beet, Rapeseed, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, Turnip, Mustard, Caraway, Safflower, Chestnut, Watermelon, Tangerine, Tangelo, Coffea, Crownvetch, Hazelnut, Cantaloupe, Cucumber, Squash (plant), Quince, Carrot, Buckwheat, Strawberry,Soybean, Cotton, Sunflower,Walnut, Flax,Lychee, Lupine, Macadamia, Apple, Alfalfa, Cactus, Avocado, Lima bean, Scarlet runner bean, Plum, Cherry, Apricot, Almond, Pear, Boysenberry, Raspberry, Blackberry, Redwood Sequoia, Tomato, Eggplant, Clover (not all species), White clover, Alsike clover, Crimson clover, Red clover, Arrowleaf clover, Blueberry, Alfalfa, Southeastern blueberry, Broad bean,Vetch and Grape
(Source http://www.honeybeequiet.com/beehive7.html)

Oh for craps sake! Why do I only notice typos after I post?


Is there something magical and special about GMOs that make them different from new viruses, parasites, or other diseases? Why wouldn't organisms adapt to the presence of released GMOs just as quickly as they do to any other environmental change? In what sense would such adaptions be more likely to be harmful or scary than any other unexpected adaption to unpredictable environmental change?

Legitimate concerns about GMOs should be no different than concerns about any other human-induced environmental disturbance. Indeed the magnitude of the potential damage will likely on average be less - the modifications in GMOs are quite minor, comparatively - than the devastation wrought from more "mundane" things like the introduction of invasive species.

@15 ... I have native desert bees pollinating my garden. Leaf cutter bees, and other non-European bees can do an excellent job on many plants.

And tomatoes ... self-pollinating.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 28 Aug 2009 #permalink


oe noez! teh seekrit iz out!

Dr Hu

Is there something magical and special about GMOs that make them different from new viruses, parasites, or other diseases?

I've always found this obsession about GMOs as oh-so-scarily unnatural a bit strange.

Especially as all the tools (restriction enzymes, plasmids, viruses) that are used for it are... drumroll... found in nature. And that gene splicing does happen, since times immemorial, naturally (think ERVs).

Of course it's practically impossible to predict all the consequences of human intervention in a given ecosystem, but that statement is true of all such interventions, not just of pesticides or GMOs, no matter how 'natural' or harmless they can seem in our eyes.

I'm remembered of the scaremongering I've seen not long ago around the gradual, but inexorable destruction of Cavendish banana crops. It sounds so frightening until you find out that this has already happened, that it's normal considering that banana plantations are essentially reproduced by cloning and that Cavendish bananas themselves had to be developped in response to a similar threat to the preceding commercial sweet banana, the Gros Michel.

Honey bees were raised and selected over years by humans for characteristics that suit humans, not the bees. What that means is that they may, like sweet bananas, or carrots, or milking cows, be a tad disadvantaged when faced with the rest of nature, including diseases.

There is no need to look for a mysterious, scary, unnatural causes to this disease. These things just happen, and they tend to happen a lot more in species that we have, unwittingly or not, heavily modified to suit our purposes.

Honey bees are not a "natural" species, just as a milking cow are not a "natural" species. They need a lot of human intervention to thrive. Most of them are so heavily modified from their wild counterparts that they just can't survive in the wild.

So the real choice we have here is : use traditional breeding methods to develop a new honey bee, use gene splicing, which can achieve results faster, or do nothing and hope for the best.

Paulino: "All varieties and subspecies of honey-bees are equally affected? Even the feared Brazilian bred Africanized killer bees?"

According to this book I read, "A world without bees" (which ended with IAPV as the most plausible explanation, then an addendum saying that as the book was just before printing, IAPV had been cleared - and now it's the culprit again. Interesting!), Africanized Honeybees are indeed more resilient. There are many honeybee species that resist diseases and parasites better than the honeybees originating in Balkan that are currently used. However, these have other disadvantages, like being more "defensive" (that's beekeper speak for agressive). Bee sting lawsuits are the business' nightmare.

By Harald Korneliussen (not verified) on 30 Aug 2009 #permalink

IIRC Siberian bees have been introduced with some
success, but they seem to avoid CCD by being ruthless
about killing off pupae at the slightest sign of any
kind of illness. Another possible contributing factor
(which falls under the 'domestication disadvantages'
mentioned by several posters) is that the standardized
cell sizes forced by commercial bee hive construction
allows pupae parasitized by mites to survive to (weakened)
adulthood, when they might have been triaged earlier. Yet
another factor is, natch, the profit motive, which leads
many commercial beekeepers to truck the hives all around
the country, often feeding them on high fructose corn syrup
to keep them going when there is no pollen to be had. No
matter what turns out to be the most important cause, it
looks like we're just working the poor bees to death.

By Bees' Knees (not verified) on 30 Aug 2009 #permalink

In Cronin's book, "Changes in the Land", American Indians in the northeast didn't care for European honey bees. Like the bees human counterparts, tribal people thought the bees were too industrious, making far too much honey, displacing native bee colonies.

I, for one, welcome our new genetically-engineered apine overlords.

Frog @ #14

"How about stopping international trade in bees? Aren't the viruses being spread via the bee-trade? I read that IAPV went from the ME to Australia via that route, and then from Australia to the US when the Bush administration ended rules against trading bees from off the continent."

There may have been an exchange combining a virus and some other proposition (mites?) that has led to a heightened vulnerability in the population but bee swapping has been a proposition for a few thousand years.

Apiarists are some of the most interesting and devoted small scale cultivators and experimenters. They obsess over strains and bloodlines like race horse breeders.

The original prohibition was generally ignored anyway. People who shove their hands into beehives are not overly responsive to regulation.

Most of the bees in the Midwest can trace their origins to a 12 year old kid who had been reading about apiculture in his 1 room Texas clapboard school house and who captured a feral colony by tying knots in the arms and legs of his cotton long underwear and making a sack.

Can you imagine being 12 and having the nerve to wrangle an entire feral bee colony and get home with it? Now do it naked, with your 7 year old sister running behind with your overalls.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 31 Aug 2009 #permalink

Why don't we hear more about Texas heroes like the bee-wrangler instead of those damned fool yahoos who got trapped and slaughtered at the Alamo?

Good post, Abbie. I'm particularly glad to see your expertise on viruses helping explain to me, a plant geneticist and beekeeper, about how the virus 'gums it up.' (huk huk)

I think there is the potential to create an RNAi transgenic honeybee from viral consensus sequences, but as beekeepers are not a huge business, nor would swarming be realistically possible to control, I don't think any company could hope to make money off of such a venture. If this happened it would have to be public.

However, there is a really interesting alternative, which I think sounds better than putting transgenes directly in the bees. Feed them dsRNA instead! I got linked to this video which, with the editing and lack of specific details sounded too good to be true:


But it turns out that this is already supported by peer-reviewed research - feed the bees dsRNA in their sugar syrup and you give them temporary RNAi protection against those viral diseases!

Insect Mol Biol. 2009 Feb;18(1):55-60.
Related Articles, Links
IAPV, a bee-affecting virus associated with Colony Collapse Disorder can be silenced by dsRNA ingestion.

Maori E, Paldi N, Shafir S, Kalev H, Tsur E, Glick E, Sela I.

Robert H. Smith Institute for Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture, Virus Laboratory, Faculty of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Quality Sciences, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Rehovot 76100, Israel.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been associated with Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV). CCD poses a serious threat to apiculture and agriculture as a whole, due to the consequent inability to provide the necessary amount of bees for pollination of critical crops. Here we report on RNAi-silencing of IAPV infection by feeding bees with double-stranded RNA, as an efficient and feasible way of controlling this viral disease. The association of CCD with IAPV is discussed, as well as the potential of controlling CCD.

Finally, there is another possible implication of this research. So far there has been no sustainable solution to Varroa mite infestations of bee colonies. But I seem to remember someone once using RNAi against a plant pest - silencing the genes of an insect that bit into the plant's tissues. Could we silence crucial Varroa destructor genes and rid the bees of this perennial pest? Hmmm....

There are some strains of bees that cause sterility in 80% of varroa mites when they attempt to infest a colony, we just don't know what the mechanism is....yet.

They've got about a million resistant bees on Great Mercury Island as part of a big project. I haven't seen anything on it in a while now.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 31 Aug 2009 #permalink

What if bees are simply the unlucky host of one of these kinds of retroviruses and they can't adapt out of it because of the way beekeepers control the sexual route of reproduction?

To stop hives swarming I understand that "hivemasters" routinely kill the virgin queens who have a different genome from the old queen, maybe even killing the ones that have immunity, leaving only her and her clones behind. In the old days bee swarms were tolerated not so now.

Maybe the cure for colony collpase is just to let 'em swarm!

Assuming GMO bees are a viable solution, what would be the impact of patented bees? Do we really want one company, or a small handful of companies to control all bee pollination in the world? If not, how can we stop it?


I believe the issue of GMOs is not that it's unnatural, but the reason for the modifications.

In various seed crops, Genetic Modification is mainly used to create toxins against insects and make herbicide/pesticide usage easier on the crop. As the food goes up the food chain to us, the genes survive and occasionally become part of either the bacteria in our gut or part of some of our intestine cells, to our detriment. Imagine bees better able to hold up to pesticides, but passing the pesticides onto the honey we eat.

There's also, as Bruce above me pointed out, the issue of ownership. Already there's corn out there (originally GMO, of course) that has seeds that can't grow stuff - it can only be eaten. Imagine bee lines genetically programmed to kill off virgin queens before they hatch, or queen bees genetically programmed to lay only so many eggs (or for so many weeks).