Montana State University

MSU graduate students present research on viruses and pathogens affecting bees at pollinator conference

September 7, 2016 -- by Marshall Swearingen for MSU News Service

Three MSU graduate students recently presented their research about viruses and pathogens affecting bees at an international pollinator conference. MSU photo by Kelly GorhamMSU graduate student Alex McMenamin gently coaxes new Carniolan honey bees into their new home at the MSU Honeybee Research Site and Pollinator Garden. MSU photo by Kelly GorhamPollinator Garden and Research Center at MSU

Three MSU graduate students recently presented their research about viruses and pathogens affecting bees at an international pollinator conference. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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Three Montana State University graduate students recently presented their research about viruses and pathogens affecting bees at one of the premier gatherings concerning the health of honey bees and other pollinators.

Laura Brutscher, William Glenny and Alex McMenamin, along with adviser Michelle Flenniken, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture, attended the International Conference on Pollinator Biology, Health, and Policy. The event, which took place July 18-20, was hosted by Pennsylvania State University's Center for Pollinator Research.

"This is one of the largest international pollinator health conferences,” Flenniken said. “It is held every two to three years, thus it is an important opportunity for master’s and Ph.D. students to present their work at this conference during their graduate careers.”

McMenamin, a second-year doctoral student in MSU’s Molecular BioSciences Program in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture and the College of Letters and Science, presented the Flenniken lab's research on Lake Sinai viruses, a prevalent and abundant group of viruses that have been detected in honey bee samples throughout the globe, including samples obtained from honey bee colonies in Montana. The viruses, as well as other pathogens, have been associated with honey bee colony losses, which have averaged 33 percent annually since 2006.

"These viruses were only recently discovered, so we think it's important to understand whether they're having an impact on colony health," said McMenamin, who is pursuing his doctorate in microbiology. "Part of that is understanding the viruses themselves."

With support from the Montana Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Program, McMenamin and others in the Flenniken lab, including research associate Katie Daughenbaugh, who earned her doctorate in veterinary molecular biology from MSU in 2005, are documenting which strains of the Lake Sinai virus are present in Montana. By investigating how the different strains are transmitted, the research team is looking to find ways to reduce the virus' spread.

Glenny, a graduate student in MSU's Department of Ecology, received funding from the university's College of Letters and Science and the Montana Institute on Ecosystems to attend the conference and present his research, which involves detecting Lake Sinai virus in North American bumble bees. Glenny is co-advised by Flenniken and Laura Burkle, MSU assistant professor of ecology.

"Bees are really important to promoting biodiversity and ecosystem function," Glenny said. "The fact that we're seeing declines in pollinators worldwide should be a concern for scientists, as well as people who care about food security."

Brutscher, a doctoral student in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, said the conference was "a really good opportunity to talk to other scientists and get feedback."

"I've been reading all these papers from big-name scientists, and it was exciting to meet them in person," she said.

In 2012, Brutscher, who is co-advised by Flenniken and Carl Yeoman, assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences, received a Honey Bee Biology Fellowship from Project Apis m., a nonprofit organization that supports honey bee research, to research honey bees and the pathogens that infect them. The fellowship is the result of a partnership between national nonprofit Project Apis m., named for the western or European honey bee, and Costco, which has used sales of Kirkland Signature honey to support honey bee research.

The research Brutscher presented at the conference is focused on observing the individual genes that are expressed, or “turned on,” when a honey bee is infected with a virus.

"The goal of my research is to better understand honey bee antiviral immune responses at the organismal and cellular level," Brutscher said. "It's really exciting to begin to identify and characterize the immune pathways that honey bees utilize to fight off virus infections."

For more information about pollinator research at MSU, go to

Contact: Michelle Flenniken, or (406) 994-7229

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