Montana State University

MSU scientist who studies honey bee health earns prestigious NSF CAREER Award

April 6, 2017 -- MSU News Service

Michelle Flenniken, a virologist in MSU’s College of Agriculture, has received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to continue her research on the defense mechanisms honey bees use against viruses. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.Michelle Flenniken studies honey bee pathogens under a microscope in her lab in the MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

Michelle Flenniken, a virologist in MSU’s College of Agriculture, has received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to continue her research on the defense mechanisms honey bees use against viruses. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN – A Montana State University virologist who investigates the impact of pathogens on individual honey bees and honey bee colonies has received a CAREER Award of more than $500,000 from the National Science Foundation.

The CAREER Award is the NSF’s most prestigious award that supports early-career faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research, education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organization.

The award will further the work of Michelle Flenniken, co-director of MSU’s Pollinator Health Center and assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture, who will investigate the mechanisms honey bees use against viral pathogens.

Honey bee health impacts everyone because honey bees are important pollinators of numerous plant species, including agricultural crops that produce many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables that are good for human health, Flenniken said.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released baseline statistics that show that honey bees are responsible for pollinating an estimated $15 billion of U.S. crops each year. However, honey bee colony losses have averaged 33 percent since 2006, up from historic losses of approximately 15 percent. These higher annual colony losses place additional burdens on commercial beekeepers to keep pace with those losses, Flenniken said.

She added that agriculturalists, beekeepers, citizens and scientists are concerned about honey bee colony losses, which have been associated with virus infection, as well as other biotic and abiotic factors, including mite infestation, lack of bee forage, and agrochemical usage and exposure.

“The effects of viruses at both the individual bee and colony levels are not well understood, though massive mortality of individual bees will result in death of the entire colony,” she said. “In individual bees, virus infections can remain asymptomatic, cause paralysis and/or result in death, depending on how the bee responds to the virus.”

To gain a better understanding of the mechanisms honey bees use to sense, and then respond to, viral pathogens, the Flenniken Laboratory is performing experiments in individual bees and cultured cells to determine the roles of specific honey bee proteins responsible for reducing the levels of virus infection.

The research could then lead to the development of strategies to reduce the number of honey bee colonies lost to viruses, Flenniken said.

“This would in turn broadly impact agricultural and ecological systems that rely on honey bees as pollinators,” she said.

Flenniken’s project, “Elucidation of the Honey Bee Antiviral Defense Network,” will also involve undergraduate and graduate students who are performing experiments and are involved in the development and expansion of undergraduate, graduate and community courses. The courses will utilize honey bees as a model to explain topics in virology, genetics and biotechnology, while underscoring the importance of pollinators in all ecosystems and the role of basic science in addressing problems of global scale, including loss of bee pollinators.

“I am really grateful to the NSF for supporting my research program and am really excited to work with students to achieve the goals of this grant,” Flenniken said.

Flenniken joined the MSU faculty in 2012 after completing her postdoctoral research in microbiology and immunology at the University of California in San Francisco. She earned her doctorate in microbiology from MSU in 2006 and her bachelor’s degree in biology, with a minor in chemistry, from the University of Iowa in 1998.

In addition to her research in honey bee host-pathogen interactions, Flenniken teaches courses in general genetics and virology and advises a number of students, including four undergraduate and four graduate students who work in her lab. She also serves on numerous graduate student committees.

Flenniken holds memberships in a number of professional associations, including the American Society of Virology, the Entomological Society of America and the American Association of Professional Apiculturalists. At MSU, she served on the ADVANCE Project TRACS Research Capacity and Opportunity team and is involved with undergraduate research programs, including the Undergraduate Scholars Program, the First Year Research Experience and Montana INBRE

Flenniken also developed the Honey Bee Research Site and Pollinator Garden at the MSU Horticulture Farm. The site will be expanded and utilized for educational programs throughout the duration of the funding period and beyond.

Charles Boyer, MSU’s vice president of agriculture, said Flenniken is an outstanding faculty member and scientist who is deserving of the CAREER Award.

“Dr. Flenniken’s scholarship, teaching and service engagement has elevated MSU to become a national leader in pollinator health research, which is quickly becoming a global concern in terms of environmental and food security,” Boyer said. “On behalf of the MSU College of Agriculture and the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, we’re pleased to support and congratulate Dr. Flenniken on this exceptional NSF award.”

Contact: Michelle Flenniken, michelle.flenniken@montana.edu or (406) 994-7229

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