Jan 25, 2024 - News

West Coast researchers drill down on bee disease

A bee searchers for pollen in blueberry blossoms.

A bee searches for pollen in blossoms of blueberries. Photo: Bernd Weißbrod/picture alliance via Getty Images

West Coast bees face a new threat from a highly contagious bacterial disease that seems to thrive among blueberries, but Washington researchers will be among those leading the charge against it.

Driving the news: In the most extensive study of its kind, scientists from across the West Coast will survey more than 1,500 honeybee hives in Washington, Oregon and California to determine why European foulbrood disease is leading to a persistent decline of the essential pollinators, according to Washington State University professor Brandon Hopkins.

  • Researchers with WSU, Oregon 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 the almond crops in California.

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

What they're saying: "When it hits, it seems to come from nowhere," Hopkins told Axios.

What's happening: In December, OSU received a $4.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lead a four-year study on what stress factors make bees more susceptible to the disease, including malnutrition and climate.

  • Researchers will collect genetic samples from each hive to determine if there's evidence of infection — and, if so, from which strain — while monitoring each colony's population.
  • Researchers will also note climate, weather patterns and availability of pollen and nectar in hopes of figuring out how bees contract foulbrood, Ramesh Sagili, an apiculturist and professor of agriculture at Oregon State University, told Axios.
  • Researchers will also look at other factors, including beekeeping operations and the diversity of colonies, to understand further why some colonies are hit and others spared, said Hopkins.

The intrigue: When commercial beekeepers return to their home states after helping to pollinate orchards, 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.

  • "We want to know why," said Hopkins.
Washington State University researcher Brandon Hopkins. Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Hopkins/Washington State University

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

How it works: Bees infected with the bacterial disease — caused by the bacterium Melissococcus plutonius — can quickly spread it to larvae, causing eggs to appear melted, shrunken, deflated, rubbery or dehydrated, and threatening the whole comb.

The bottom line: As foulbrood spreads, hives become smaller and weaker, and the bees cannot 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 (like carrots, clover, turnips and more) and researchers hope to quantify economic damages soon.

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