Novel treatment boosts honey bee immune systems to fight off deadly viruses

Scientists from the University of Florida, the Agricultural Research Service-USDA, Louisiana State University, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has achieved a breakthrough in boosting honey bees’ immune systems to combat deadly viruses. Their innovative approach involved stimulating honey bees’ cells to produce free radicals, which proved effective in helping the bees resist various viruses. The treatment demonstrated significant reduction, and in some cases, almost complete elimination of virus activity in field studies.

Daniel Swale, the senior author of the study and associate director for training and special projects in the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute, expressed excitement about the approach’s broad effectiveness against different types of viruses. The researchers successfully tested the treatment in both laboratory settings and full-scale field studies with colonies containing 80,000 bees. This is particularly encouraging because hive environments expose bees to numerous viruses and stressors, making virus control a significant challenge.

While viruses are not the primary cause of honey bee losses (Varroa mites hold that position), they contribute significantly to the decline of honey bee populations. Varroa mites weaken bees physically and also transmit viruses to them. Therefore, mitigating viruses within honey bee colonies represents a crucial step forward, as noted by Michael Simone-Finstrom, a co-author of the study and a research molecular biologist with the ARS Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics, and Physiology Research Lab.

The researchers utilized a compound called pinacidil to modify potassium ion channels, a protein present in the cells of bees and most living organisms. This alteration led to a slight increase in the production of free radicals. Although free radicals can harm cell health, moderate amounts can have therapeutic effects, as observed in this study. In this case, the additional free radicals served as a signal to activate the immune system, aiding the bees in fighting off viruses.

The scientists administered pinacidil to honey bee colonies by incorporating it into sugar water and drizzling the mixture over the honeycomb at night. The bees consumed the treated sugar water and fed it to their offspring. By administering the treatment at night, when bees primarily remain in the hive, the researchers maximized the number of bees receiving the treatment.

The pinacidil treatment safeguarded bees against six potentially fatal honey bee viruses, including Israeli acute paralysis virus, deformed wing viruses A and B, black queen cell virus, and Lake Sinai viruses 1 and 2. The study also demonstrated that pinacidil improved bee survival rates in colonies heavily infested with Varroa mites.

The researchers acknowledged that administering pinacidil to commercial honey bee hives might only be practical for certain beekeepers. However, the study paves the way for identifying alternative active ingredients that may be more effective and affordable.

The findings of this study highlight the potential of targeting potassium ion channels to enhance immune system function not only in honey bees but also in other insects. The researchers hope to identify other molecules or technologies, such as peptides, that can replicate the effects of pinacidil but are more accessible to beekeepers.

The study documenting this breakthrough has been published in the Virology Journal.

Source: University of Florida

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