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COUNTRY LIFE IN BC • AUGUST 2019


Do honeybees spread viruses to wild bees? Native bee populations compromised by proximity


Today’s pollinators face


many challenges. Threats, such as diseases, pesticides, invasive species, loss of


Research by MARGARET EVANS


habitat or decline in habitat quality compromising nesting and foraging, come to mind. Native bees, such as the


rusty patched bumblebee, have declined in the US by nearly 90%. The only sightings of this bee species in Canada since 2002 have been in Pinery Provincial Park near Lake Huron, Ontario. In BC, the western bumblebee has seen huge declines in numbers, and they have almost completely disappeared from some areas. Now, researchers at the


University of Vermont and the University of Florida have shown that two well-known RNA viruses found in


honeybees – deformed wing virus and black queen cell virus – were found in wild bumblebees when they foraged on flowers within 300 metres of commercial beehives. In areas where foraging honeybees and apiaries were absent, however, there was no virus evident on the


bumblebees. But what was concerning, and surprising, was that the team found viruses on 19% of the flowers sampled in sites near apiaries. “We noticed that viruses


that were known to be honeybee specific for a long time were being detected in beetles and wasps and ants and bumblebees,” says Samantha Alger, research affiliate. “So the question was: Have these viruses been circulating throughout the pollinator community for a long time, or are the patterns that we are seeing related to the presence of honeybees? Because we have seen spillover pathogens between


managed bumblebees and wild bumblebees and we’ve also seen spillover pathogens between Asiatic honeybees and European honeybees, it wasn’t a huge leap to think that we could see pathogen spillover between managed honeybees and wild bumblebees.” They monitored


bumblebees as close to apiaries as possible, as well as in areas a km. away where there were no apiaries. While there was some overlap, it was clear to the researchers that the further away the bumblebees foraged, the less likelihood there was of detecting a virus. “Ground zero was bumblebees foraging close to apiaries,” she said. “But in areas far away from honeybees, the flowers they went to and places where there were no apiaries, bumblebees were negative of deformed wing virus, which is the calling card of the varroa mite. Outside the flight range of the honeybee, away from the flowers they fed on, there was no virus.”


Good steward Managing honeybees for


the protection of the wider population of bumblebees and other pollinators comes down to being a good steward of livestock. Just as


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cattle and poultry are treated when infected with a virus, so beekeepers will need to apply proactive practices to protect their stock, protect a neighbour’s stock, and protect the wild stock. “Some beekeepers may want to be treatment-free,” she said. “It may be possible using certain genetic stock but at a certain point, it is not if your bees have mites but when they get them. Treatment-free isn’t necessarily an option for a lot of apiaries, especially when there is the flexibility to use treatments if necessary.” Alger said that they are


currently building a bee lab where they will be able to


offer services to beekeepers in Vermont. Beekeepers will be able to send in their samples for testing for parasites and pathogens. As an extension of their outreach program, it will be a way to help educate beekeepers and reduce risks. “The next step in our


research has been a series of experiments that we have already conducted,” she said. “We are now reviewing the data and writing it up. We are demonstrating this floral transmission route in a controlled setting and showing that viruses will get transmitted through it [from one bee species to another]. We’re demonstrating that honeybees are depositing viruses on flowers and that bumblebees can pick up those viruses from those food sources.”


She said the research suggests that people might want to keep apiaries outside of areas where there are known vulnerable pollinator species while emphasizing that there is so much more to be learned about what those viruses are actually doing to bumblebees. Honeybees are essential to agriculture, but they are non-native and are, in reality, a livestock animal to be managed as such. In British Columbia, the Bee


BC program provides funding to support small scale regional/community-based projects to research, explore, field-test and share information about best management practices associated with bee health which is vital not only for honey production but their pollination services. Up to $5,000 per project is available through the program to assist with project costs. More information at


[www.iafbc.ca/bee-bc]. Margaret Evans is a freelance writer based in Chilliwack specializing in agricultural science.


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