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New bee virus is mutating

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The Rural Blog

A new, rapidly mutating virus that leaps from plants to honeybees is threatening agriculture that relies on the bees to pollinate about 90 crops worldwide and generates $14 billion a year, according to a Department of Agriculture study published in the journal mBio. It could be another cause of colony collapse disorder, in which whole hives of bees die.

Geoffrey Mohan reports for the Los Angeles Times, “Tobacco ringspot virus, a pollen-borne pathogen that causes blight in soy crops, was found during routine screening of commercial honeybees. The discovery is the first report of honeybees becoming infected by a pollen-born RNA virus that spread systematically through the bees and hives. Traces of the virus were detected in every part of the bee examined, except its eyes, according to the study.”

“The tobacco ringspot virus acts as a ‘quasi-species,’ replicating in a way that creates ample mutations that subvert the host’s immune response,” Mohan reports. “That phenomenon is believed to be the driving factor of recurring viral infections of avian and swine influenza and of the persistence of HIV, the study noted.”

Randy Oliver, a biologist and beekeeper who has done similar research but was not involved in the study, told Mohan, “I'd be hesitant to proclaim that this virus is the cause of colony collapse, but it certainly shows the degree of our lack of understanding of the complexity of bee pathogen interactions.” A study last year linked pesticides known as neonicotinoids to bee deaths, leading several groups to call for a ban of 'neo-nic' pesticides, which are already banned in Europe.

Growing concern has led several agricultural groups to ask USDA to convene a honeybee nutrition and forage summit in October, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. “The summit would coincide with the meeting of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, which will be hosted by USDA.” Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership, wrote in a letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack that the summit could “serve as a springboard for actions to improve the underlying science as well as concrete steps that can improve nutrition and forage for honey bees.”