While environmentalists raise millions of dollars insisting they will get targeted pesticides (e.g. neonicotinoids) banned to save bees that aren't really in peril, science is looking at things which do actually put bees at risk.
At the top of the list is not pesticides, it's nature. An international team has discovered evidence of 27 previously unknown viruses in bees, which could help scientists design strategies to prevent the spread of viral pathogens among these important pollinators.
Bees are pollinators. In some high-value crops like almonds, they are essential. And they have been the target of activist campaigns. No, our food system won't collapse over bees, and bee colonies are doing fine, but because journalists have given press releases to the contrary so much attention, scholars have been addressing bee health. The consensus is that viruses are the culprit.
To investigate viruses in bees, a team collected samples of DNA and RNA, which is responsible for the synthesis of proteins, from 12 bee species in nine countries across the world. Next, they used high-throughput sequencing that efficiently detected both previously identified and 27 never-seen-before viruses belonging to at least six new families in a single experiment. Some of the viruses exist in multiple bee species -- such as in honey bees and in bumble bees -- suggesting that these viruses may freely circulate within different bee populations.
This approach was more cost effective than developing labor-intensive molecular assays to test for the presence of specific viruses. Their study nearly doubled the number of described bee-associated viruses, which means there are many more viruses yet to be uncovered, and that is just in the developed world where samples are easy to get
Among the new viruses the team identified was one that is similar to a virus that infects plants.
"It is possible that bees may acquire viruses from plants, and could then spread these viruses to other plants, posing a risk to agricultural crops," said Christina Grozinger, distinguished professor of entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State. "We need to do more experiments to see if the viruses are actively infecting the bees -- because the viruses could be on the pollen they eat, but not directly infecting the bees -- and then determine if they are having negative effects on the bees and crops. Some viruses may not cause symptoms or only cause symptoms if the bees are stressed in other ways."