There are over 20,000 known bee species in the world, and 4,000 of them are native to the United States, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. They range from the tiny (2 mm) and solitary Perdita minima, known as the world’s smallest bee, to kumquat-sized species of carpenter bees.
Native bees are the primary insect pollinator of agricultural plants in most of the country. Crops they pollinate include squash, tomatoes, cherries, blueberries and cranberries. Native bees were here long before non-native honey bees were brought to the country by European settlers. Honey bees are key to a few crops such as almonds and lemons, but native bees like the blue orchard bees are better and more efficient pollinators of many North American crops.
On World Bee Day, learn how Land-grant Universities are supporting the nation’s bee population with funding from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
Preventing viral threats to bees
Despite the importance of bees as pollinators in agricultural and natural landscapes and the importance of viruses to bee health, our understanding of bee viruses is surprisingly limited. To address this, an international team of researchers led by Pennsylvania State University collected samples of DNA and RNA from 12 bee species in nine countries. They then developed a novel high-throughput sequencing technique that efficiently detected in a single experiment both previously identified and 27 never-before-seen viruses belonging to at least six new families. The inexpensive and efficient new method allowed the team to sequence all the viruses present in a sample without having any prior knowledge about what might be there.
The findings could help scientists design strategies to prevent the spread of viral pathogens among these important pollinators. The results also highlight the importance of monitoring bee populations brought into the U. S. because of the potential for these species to transmit viruses to local pollinator populations.
Instituting safety measures in insecticide application
In Indiana, a potentially dire situation was developing in August of 2019 when horses and mosquitoes from Elkhart County tested positive for Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) virus. The Indiana State Board of Health approached county commissioners about spraying the infected mosquitoes to stop the spread of EEE to horses and people. This solution posed negative consequences for organic farmers and beekeepers, including loss of organic certification and beehives.
Purdue Extension immediately responded and worked with Elkhart County Commissioners to notify organic farmers and local beekeepers, including the Michiana Beekeepers Association. Specialists quickly provided information on which insecticide should be used with information about how to protect bees, and an opt-out of spraying option for organic farmers. They also assisted in registering organic acreage and beehives on Driftwatch, a specialty crop and beehive registry and mapping program created by Purdue's College of Agriculture. The efforts resulted in 470 enrolled hives and more than 50 new organic farms. These measures set a precedent, instituting safety measures for insecticide applications for organic and beekeeper operations, including ongoing education and registration to prevent future incidents.
Creating a cell line for research
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a threat to the survival of honey bees and could significantly disrupt agricultural production. CCD research into how pathogens and toxic compounds affect honey bees is a rapidly expanding field. However, this research is limited by the lack of in vitro cultures composed of honey bee cells. Instead, researchers must use valuable whole organisms (bees) or colonies, limiting the progress and studies that can happen.
To address this limitation, University of Minnesota researchers developed the Apis mellifera-derived AmE-711 honey bee cell line to support continuous culturing of the insect cells to develop a powerful tool to explore the process of infection and the negative impact pathogens may have on honey bee biology and health. Since its release in 2013, the AmE-711 cell line has served as a powerful tool for studies of host-pathogen interactions and toxicology in honey bees at the University. Notably, in 2015 the line crashed, possibly because of virus infection, but has since been recovered from liquid nitrogen stocks and adapted for growth using a commercially available medium. It is now licensed to other universities, public institutes and private companies as the only continuous honey bee cell line available for research and experimental testing.