April 24, 2014

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Virus suspect in strange bee colony deaths

WASHINGTON — Scientific sleuths have a new suspect for a mysterious affliction that has killed off honeybees by the billions: a virus previously unknown in the United States.

AP FILE
Scientists suspect that a virus has caused the colony collapse disorder that has ravaged U.S. bee populations.

The scientists report using a novel genetic technique and old-fashioned statistics to identify Israeli acute paralysis virus as the latest potential culprit in the widespread deaths of worker bees, a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.

Next up are attempts to infect honeybees with the virus to see if it indeed is a killer.

“At least we have a lead now we can begin to follow. We can use it as a marker, and we can use it to investigate whether it does in fact cause disease,” said Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a Columbia University epidemiologist and co-author of the study. Details appear this week in Science Express, the online edition of the journal Science.

Experts stressed that parasitic mites, pesticides and poor nutrition all remain suspects, as does the stress of travel. Beekeepers shuffle bees around the nation throughout the year so the bees can pollinate crops as they come into bloom, contributing about
$15 billion a year to U.S. agriculture.

The newfound virus may prove to have added nothing more than insult to the injuries bees already suffer, said several experts unconnected to the study.

“This may be a piece or a couple of pieces of the puzzle, but I certainly don’t think it is the whole thing,” said Jerry Hayes, chief of the apiary section of Florida’s Agriculture Department.

Still, surveys of honey bees from decimated colonies turned up traces of the virus nearly every time. Bees untouched by the phenomenon were virtually free of it. That means finding the virus should be a red flag that a hive is at risk and merits a quarantine, scientists said.

“The authors themselves recognize it’s not a slam dunk, it’s correlative. But it’s certainly more than a smoking gun — more like a smoking arsenal. It’s very compelling,” said May Berenbaum, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign entomologist who headed a recent examination of the decline in honeybee and other pollinator populations across North America.