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Honeybee die-off tied to mutating plant virus

Honeybee colony.
Honeybee colony.Wikicommons

A rapidly mutating virus has leaped from plants to honeybees, where it is reproducing and contributing to the collapse of colonies vital to the multibillion-dollar agricultural industry, according to a new study. Bee deaths have also been attributed to a combination of insecticides as well as stress.

It is rare that pathogens associated with plant disease would mutate to animals, but according to research by both Chinese and American scientists, Tobacco ringspot virus (known to cause blight in soy plants) is to blame for the deaths of honeybees, which in turn has had a devastating effect on the international agricultural industry, including the $3 billion California almond industry, which has reportedly been paying out “ more than$239 million annually to rent more than 1 million beehives.”

“The tobacco ringspot virus acts as a ‘quasi-species,’ replicating in a way that creates ample mutations that subvert the host’s immune response,”* explained Yan Ping (Judy) Chen, a bee pathologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory in Maryland where recent routine screening of the honeybees revealed that the insects, as well as varroa mites living off the bees, are being infected by pollen from diseased plants. The mites, however, do not seem to be aversely affected by the pathogen, although they play an integral part in spreading it throughout hives, where traces of TRSV were found in every part of the bees, with the exception of their eyes.

According to the USDA, “commercially cultivated bees pollinate about 90 crops worldwide, a service valued at $14 billion each year. While the cause for those deaths have remained a mystery for a long time, scientists have blamed the mass deaths to a “deadly cocktail of pathogens, as well as pesticides and beekeeping practices that stress the insect’s immune system.”

*Chen, lead author of the study also noted that this is the same phenomenon behind the inter-species jumping of swine and avian flu viruses.