Scientists develop honey bee DNA test to monitor hive health

Scientists have developed an innovative method to examine traces of DNA in honey, which can aid in the early identification of health problems in a hive when a deadly new variant of the disease spreads through populations world.

The new test could help identify potential diseases like the latest variant of the deformed wing virus that threatens bees, as well as map their interaction with other species and local botanical diversity.

Researchers at the Alexander Fleming Biomedical Sciences Research Center (BSRC) in Vari, Greece, have invented a system called “direct metagenomics” that allows them to identify DNA fragments found in honey.

Illustrative image: Bee collecting pollen and carrying it in its pollen basket.
Yannis Varouhakis,

The scientists point out that their innovation avoids sacrificing the insect in the process of learning more about potentially dangerous viruses and diseases.

Bees produce honey by regurgitating nectar and pollen from the flowers they forage. Then they place it in the cells of their hive until enough water evaporates.

During this procedure, the honey comes into contact with a variety of organisms. Therefore, it contains DNA from several species, also called environmental DNA (eDNA).

This type of DNA comes from foraging plants, bee gut bacteria, and potential hive pathogens such as the varroa mite.

BSRC Alexander Fleming scientists analyzed several samples of honey from a bee hive in a typical Mediterranean landscape. They identified more than 40 species of plants which reflect all the botanical diversity surrounding hives.

Study author Anastasios Galanis pointed out that a better understanding of the interactions of bees with other species would help identify periods and areas at risk for bees.

Galanis said: “This is extremely important in rural and agricultural environments where species interactions influence crop productivity.”

Collecting a nurse bee from a hive
An Oregon State University bee researcher collects ‘nurse bees’ from a hive August 5, 2014 in Corvallis, Oregon.
Natalie Behring/Getty Images

The scientist pointed out that the production of a large part of our daily food depends on the activity of the bees and the state of their environment.

The BSRC researchers were able to monitor the variability in bee diet throughout the year. Their new method also allowed them to determine the microbiota of bees in a non-invasive way. In addition, scientists have been able to identify pathogenic species such as varroa.

The Greek study is still at an exploratory stage. However, the BSRC team of scientists believe this type of examination could eventually be used to monitor and anticipate diseases and pathogens in large-scale studies.

Study leader Dr Solenn Patalano said: “Like the human gut microbiome, the bee gut microbiome is an important part of their health.

“We already know that environmental stressors, such as pesticides, can severely damage gut microbial communities and increase bee disease risk. But how this works remains largely unknown.”

Patalano said their new procedure would allow the study of gut microbiome variation without having to sacrifice bees.

She pointed out: “If we want to ensure ecosystem services such as the pollination of fruits and vegetables while maintaining the biodiversity of species, we must also preserve the health of bees.

Honeycomb is seen at J & P Apiary and Gentzel’s Bees, Honey and Pollination Company on April 10, 2013 in Homestead, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Our challenge is to build biomonitoring strategies to identify the most appropriate ecological niches for all pollinators.”

Bees are social flying insects known for their construction of perennial colonial nests from wax, the large size of their colonies, and the excess production and storage of honey.

Varroa mite, excessive use of insecticides, construction projects and monoculture are considered the main threats to the existence of honey bees.

The BSRC study follows a warning from a leading scientist about a potential global threat to bees.

Professor Robert Paxton of Martin Luther University in the German city of Halle, Lower Saxony, said the latest variant of the deformed wing virus has the potential to wipe out bee populations all over the world .

Paxton called the virus “the biggest threat to bees right now.”

The virus variant is spread by varroa mites. It causes severe damage to the wings of insects before killing them.

The BSRC Alexander Fleming is a not-for-profit biomedical research organization.

Founded in 1998, it is named after Scottish microbiologist Sir Alexander Fleming (1881–1955) and his widow, Greek-born doctor and human rights activist Amalia Lady Fleming (1912–1986).

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.

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