Bee death probe is targeting specific viruses
by Kathy Keatley Garvey
August 12, 2008
• Cause of Colony Collapse Disorder still eludes science
• Will study an antiviral strategy in honey bees
Michelle Flenniken near an apiary in Grass Valley. (Photo by Kim Fondrk)
Insect virus researcher Michelle Flenniken, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco, the newly selected Häagen-Dazs Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Davis, is hot on the trail of the killer of America’s honey bee population.
“We’re hoping that Michelle Flenniken’s expertise in molecular virology will lead to understanding one of the factors contributing to colony collapse disorder and lead to strategies that increase honeybee survival,” says Lynn Kimsey, head of the Department of Entomology and director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology.
Colony collapse disorder occurs when bees mysteriously abandon their hives, often leaving behind immature bees and honey. The nation's beekeepers have reported losing from one-third to 100 percent of their bees over the last two years.
Skilled in multidisciplinary research -- molecular biology, microbiology, chemistry and cell biology – Ms. Flenniken will focus on the biology of honeybee viruses, specifically the role of RNA interference (RNAi) in the honeybee antiviral immune responses, says Ms. Kimsey.
RNA, short for ribonucleic acid, carries genetic information of viruses. RNAi is a mechanism that inhibits gene expression.
“I hypothesize that RNAi can be used as an antiviral strategy in honey bees,” says Ms. Flenniken. She will investigate the role of the RNAi machinery in virus infection and attempt to limit virus production in the bees by priming their RNAi machinery with viral specific double-stranded RNA. Ms. Flenniken has been identifying the viruses present in the hives of San Francisco Hobby Beekeepers and research collaborators.
“Most bees have viruses, particularly common is Kashmir bee virus,” says UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen. “In fact, we’d be surprised to find a bee not carrying some type of virus.”
Mr. Mussen notes that honey bees are responsible for pollinating more than 100 U. S. crops, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. One-third of the American diet is pollinated by honey bees.
In addition to Kashmir bee virus, Ms. Flenniken hopes to investigate deformed wing virus, sacbrood virus, acute bee paralysis virus, chronic bee paralysis virus, black queen cell virus, and Israeli acute paralysis virus.
For Ms. Flenniken, bees sort of run in the family.
Her parents completed a beekeeping course at Iowa State University and gifted her with the equipment, including a hat and veil, bee brush, hive tool and “a lot of good beekeeping books,” she says.
“I think bees are really interesting and look forward to learning more about them. I am really excited about this research topic because it encompasses molecular biology, ecology, environmental science, and global food production and health,” she says.
Ms. Flenniken is supported by an A.P. Giannini Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for her work in RNAi. Her graduate work was supported by the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health; and the Louis V. and Norma Smith Fellowship, Department of Microbiology, Montana State University.
Häagen-Dazs, a unit of Nestle S.A. (NYSE: NSRGY [ADR]), last February gave UC Davis $100,000 to address the bee population decline with the money being spent on sustainable pollination research, target colony collapse disorder, and support a postdoctoral researcher.
Häagen-Dazs also launched a Web site (www.helpthehoneybees.com) and created an advisory board that includes UC Davis and University of Pennsylvania bee specialists.
(About the writer: Kathy Keatley Garvey is a communications specialist with the Department of Entomology at UC Davis.)