Montana State University

MSU virologist receives grants for research on honeybee health

May 4, 2015 -- Jenny Lavey, MSU News Service

Michelle Flenniken studies honey bee pathogens under a microscope in her lab in the department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. MSU photo by Kelly GorhamMichelle Flenniken uses a quantitative PCR machine to determine the abundance of honey bee pathogens in her lab in the department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

Michelle Flenniken studies honey bee pathogens under a microscope in her lab in the department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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A Montana State University virologist recently was awarded three grants to study why honeybees, the primary pollinator force of the nation’s food supply, are experiencing high losses.

Michelle Flenniken, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU’s College of Agriculture, recently received three grants to investigate the role of viruses and other pathogens on honeybee health.

Flenniken received an Agriculture Food and Research Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture to support research on understanding the biotic and abiotic factors affecting honeybee health, a grant from the National Honey Board to support a collaborative research endeavor examining the role of pathogens and agrochemicals on honeybee health, and funding from the Montana Department of Agriculture (MDA) Specialty Crop Block Grant program to investigate honeybee viruses and virus transmission in Montana’s honeybees.

Flenniken’s research comes at a time when the national beekeeping industry is facing high annual losses of honeybee colonies, about 32 percent a year, according to the National Department of Agricultural Statistics (NASS) and the Bee Informed Partnership. Growers rent about 1.6 million honeybee colonies each year to pollinate more than 50 major cash crops, mostly fruit and vegetables, according to the USDA. For the majority of commercially managed honeybee colonies, almond pollination is the biggest event of the year. According to the USDA, about 60 percent of the country’s commercial honeybees are rented to populate almonds in the Central Valley of California every February.

“Without bees, the diversity of produce and nutritional value of a western diet would be drastically changed,” Flenniken said.

To investigate the role of pathogens (including viruses, bacteria, fungi and trypansomatids) on honeybee health, Flenniken and her team of students and research assistants at MSU will determine the pathogen presence and abundance in honeybee samples collected from colonies that undergo health evaluations in Montana and around the country.

“Bee colony health is affected by many factors, including pathogens, agrochemical exposure, availability of quality forage (bee nutrition), weather and more,” Flenniken said. “Therefore, it’s important to investigate many factors in parallel in order to determine which are the most important to bee health.”

Flenniken added the focus of her research is on honeybee pathogens, and she collaborates with other investigators in order to monitor and obtain data on additional factors affecting honeybee health.  

The MDA grant will allow Flenniken’s lab and research team – which is composed of five undergraduate students, three graduate students and a research associate – to study the honeybee viruses in Montana and investigate how these viruses are transmitted between colonies.

The data should be of particular interest in Montana. Some of the viruses already found in Montana honeybees include several viruses in the Lake Sinai Virus Group – an abundant and prevalent group of viruses that Flenniken and colleagues at The University of California San Francisco discovered in 2011, where Flenniken first began researching honeybee viruses as a postdoctoral researcher.

According to NASS, there are about 150,000 colonies that spend the summer in Montana, consuming forage in private and public spaces. NASS also notes that last year, Montana ranked second in the nation in honey production, producing more than 14 million pounds of honey valued at $31 million dollars. 

Flenniken said the MDA grant also supports a two-year seasonal study to identify and screen pathogens present in Montana colonies before, during and after almond pollination, in an effort to obtain baseline data on the relationship between colony health (size) and pathogens. 

“Colonies are dynamic populations, so we need to study them for long periods of time to determine the role of pathogens and other factors on colony health,” Flenniken said. “There’s a host of unanswered questions regarding colony losses, and these grants will support a comprehensive examination and involve advanced molecular techniques to determine the prevalence and abundance of honeybee-associated pathogens.”

Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology Department Head John Sherwood said that having a honeybee pathogen research lab at MSU not only benefits Montana’s bee industry, but it also mirrors the nation’s need to counteract the decline of honeybee vitality.

“Michelle’s recent grant activity is a testament to the department and our College of Agriculture and the Montana Agricultural Experiment Stations’ commitment to solve the nation’s greatest agriculture challenges,” Sherwood said. “The future of nature’s most critical pollinator force is nebulous at best without sound scientific research.” 

Contact: Michelle Flenniken, michelle.flenniken@montana.edu or 994-7229