Jan 11, 2024 - News

West Coast study to examine disease impacting honeybees

A photo of a person holding up a clear canister filled with bees.

Ramesh Sagili, Oregon State University associate professor of apiculture, examines honeybees in Madras, Oregon. Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Ketchum, Oregon State University

This spring, researchers from across the West Coast will begin surveying more than 1,500 honeybee hives in California, Oregon and Washington to determine why a bacterial disease is leading to a persistent decline of the pollinators.

Why it matters: Beekeepers have been aware of European foulbrood disease for decades. However, its rapid resurgence over the last few years has many worried about the disease's potential to harm commercial food production on bee-dependent crops throughout the country.

  • That's according to Ramesh Sagili, an apiculturist and a professor of agriculture at Oregon State University. "We know the basics," he told Axios. "But what we don't know are the triggers."

How it works: European foulbrood disease infects honeybees in the larvae stage by turning the eggs into brown mush.

  • Bees infected with the bacterial disease can easily spread it to larvae, infecting the comb.
  • For example, if a queen bee lays an egg in a contaminated cell, or an infected bee feeds a larvae, that larvae will be infected, too — essentially prohibiting the replenishment of the hive and leading to its demise.

Driving the news: In December, OSU received a $4.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lead a study on what stress factors make bees more susceptible to the disease, including malnutrition and climate.

  • Researchers from OSU, Washington State University, and the University of California, Davis will follow dozens of commercial beekeepers as they travel with their hives to pollinate crops throughout the U.S. — starting in February with almonds in California.

The project, led by Sagili, will span four years. The first step is finding evidence of foulbrood, which involves labeling each hive and collecting samples for genetic testing to determine if there's a new strain while monitoring each colony's population.

  • Researchers will also note climate, weather patterns, and availability of nutrition — i.e. pollen and nectar — in hopes of figuring out how bees contract foulbrood in the first place.

The intrigue: Sagili believes they may have identified where the disease starts to show up in the pollination process.

  • When commercial beekeepers return to their home states after helping to pollinate orchards in California, there's "good correlational data at this point where we see the hives that go to blueberries are the ones showing high incidence of disease," Sagili said.

Zoom in: Oregon and Washington are the country's top producers of blueberries, which start to bloom in early April and May when both states still see lots of rain and low temperatures.

  • Because bees can't go out and pollinate in the cold, a bee's "immune system may be compromised because of nutritional stress," Sigili added, making it a target for European foulbrood.

The bottom line: As foulbrood spreads, hives become smaller and weaker, and the bees are unable to pollinate the millions of acres needed to sustain a region's food supply.

  • There's a high probability of cascading impacts on several bee-dependent crops down the line (like carrots, clover, turnips, and more) — economic damages researchers hope to quantify soon.
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