A friend who moved to Nashville to do a Ph.D. emails me fascinating articles from time to time, and this week she sent one that I’d like to share. Possibly many of you know about ‘colony collapse’ disorder in bees. Since 2006, 20-40% of the bee colonies in the U.S. alone have been decimated by this disease, and no one knows what causes it. Since bees are responsible for pollinating much of the food we eat, this has brought about some significant changes in the way farmers are growing food. Many have gone to planting hedgerows of native plants around the borders of their fields in hopes of attracting native bees to do the job that the honeybees are not there to do. Some have taken to using bumble bees, though that may have caused another problem, in that it is thought that escaped commercial bumble bees have introduced a disease into the native bumble bee populations. There are some species of bumble bees in Oregon that have not been seen for a couple of years now.
Now, a partnership of Army scientists in Maryland and entomologists from Universities in Montana has provided some solid clues about colony collapse disorder. A combination of a fungus and a virus appears to cause the problem. Exactly how, remains uncertain, but both the virus and the fungus proliferate in cool, damp weather, and both work in the bee gut, suggesting that insect nutrition is somehow compromised. The virus-fungus combination was found in every killed colony. Neither alone does a lot of harm, but together they are 100% fatal. The university’s bee operation itself proved vulnerable just last year, when nearly every bee disappeared over the course of the winter.
Research several years ago had already identified the fungus as part of the problem, and several RNA viruses had been detected as well. But the Army/Montana team, using a new software system developed by the military, uncovered a new DNA-based virus, and established a linkage to the fungus. Both sides think that this is something that they may never have solved without collaboration. The Army software system is designed to test and identify biological agents in the field where commanders might have no idea what sort of threat they face. The system searches out the unique proteins in a sample, then identifies a life form, based on the proteins it contains. The entomologists knew how to extract bee proteins and the software was field tested on the bee problem.
There are still a lot of questions to answer, but this is one giant step forward, and was really brought about by one man, whose brother is a military scientist. He saw a TV interview with the entomologist, and thought to connect the two scientists.
I have been trying to do my bit for the bees. What I’ve found in my garden is that the honeybees particularly love Shirley poppies and Autumn Joy sedum, the bumble bees are happy to bumble around almost any flower, and that sunflowers really attract the native bees. The key though, is variety—lots of different plants that flower from early spring until late fall. It’s not only good for the bees, but also for the birds that later eat the seeds, and it does wonders for the gardener too.