Honey Bee Microbiome: What is normal?

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 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.

To quote me from 2010:

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!

More like this

Im sure this isnt news to any of you-- Honey Bees are dying. We dont know why. I thought we had an answer to this problem, and the answer was a virus-- Israeli acute paralysis virus. But although IAPV definitely has an effect on honey bee immunity, apparently it fell through as The Cause of CCD.…
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…
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…
Bees represent some of the most resilient, adaptable and enterprising insects on earth. Not only that, they pollinate about one-third of all the food we eat. So when honey bees began dying or disappearing at alarming rates in the U.S. and around the world more than four years ago, scientists such…

I'm glad of the continuing interest in the bee collapse problem. Are many virologists et al still on the job?

Most of the conversation/study I've read has been/is about the honey bee, but I hope that includes regular bees, like the ones that fly in one's garden, etc. When I lived in the So. Sierra Nevada (until 2 years ago), I saw the disappearance of all native bees there (except, understandably, the ground-dwelling `yellow-jackets'), and here now in the SFV of the L. A. area, I see the far too occasional distracted bee, and many of those are trying to fly, but crawling, and then curling up and dying... A portent of things to come?

IZ IT DA DUMEZDAY? Well, according to some it is cuz Einstein supposedly said:
If the honey bees were suddenly gone mankind would have about 4 years left to live.

If the honey bees were suddenly gone mankind would have about 4 years left to live.

A far wiser individual postulated that rather than keeping an eye out for disappearance of bees we should be keeping an eye on the dolphins - particularly if we see one doing a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the 'Star Spangled Banner'

Sometimes even the same bacteria can be both normal and dangerous depending on their exact location. Like E. coli in humans, where the same bacteria, even the same *strain* can be both a helpful friend while in the stomach and several days of painful discomfort when it gets into the urinary tract.

It's worth pointing out that insects don't really have antibodies. They can 'remember' pathogens to an extent, but not like we can. They don't have an aquired immune system.

Instead, they have general pattern recognition receptors which sense different kinds of pathogens. Instead, the closest thing I'm aware of is some molecules which are differentially spliced but there's no clonal selection I'm aware of.

The result? If a honeybee colony gets sacbrood this year, they're not as immune to the virus next year as we are if we get the flu two years in a row.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure what this means for pathogen evolution. I'd imagine this would slow down rate of change to some extent, but I'm almost completely ignorant of the literature in this area.

The "everything depends on honeybees" argument rather falls apart when you consider that, if the bees drop out of the pollinator niche, there are lots of other insects that would exploit the opening.

By Stephen Wells (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

The postulation that the world's ecosystems would fall apart without bees isn't really an argument...it's the truth. The family Apidae (which includes the honeybee A. mellifera as well as a whole host of other insects) has coevolved with plants and there are many plants which require some sort of hymenopteran pollenator in order to reproduce. Some are specialists, others are generalists...but if you move a crop away from it's pollinators it won't get pollinated. Vanilla is a textbook example of this phenomenon because it's grown halfway across the world from it's native pollinators and has to be hand pollinated, which is partially responsible for the high cost of the spice.

Now, while it's true that there are native pollinators which pollinate crops and are responsible for billions of dollars of produce worldwide those are also in danger in large part due to habitat fragmentation. I think CCD is also a problem with native species, but I'm not 100% on that.

There's also a reason we use honeybees. We've been raising them for well over 4,000 years and harvesting wild honey for well before that. Insects can be really difficult to rear, but we've got this shit down pat. They're social insects with large colonies, so they come back to the same place every night (unlike things like Osmia and other solitary bees) and have high production per colony (unlike Bombus).

So just pointing out that there are other avaliable pollinators doesn't really help the situation. We KNOW this already. Apis mellifera is really good at the job and it's the one we're best at rearing, so we'd like to keep it around.