West Campus bees may hold clues to colony collapse disorder

Being a beekeeper wasn't one of Nancy Moran's burning ambitions but the William H. Fleming, M.D. Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology finds herself this spring tending to three small hives that may contain clues to the causes of colony collapse disorder, the mysterious mass die-off of valuable honey bees.

The arrival of bees at West Campus is the direct result of a graduate student's curiosity five years ago, which prompted Moran to study the unique bacterial composition of the honeybee gut.

"The causes of colony collapse disorder are murky, and we may not find a cause here — but we will have better knowledge of bee biology," Moran says.

Moran is one of the world's experts in the symbiotic relationship between insects and bacteria, which often evolve in tandem with their host organism. In 2006 while Moran was at the University of Arizona, one of her graduate students, Vince Martinson, began looking for the genetic traces of these bacteria within the recently published honeybee genome.

What he found might have remained a simple curiosity if not for contemporary news reports that colonies kept by migratory beekeepers were disappearing. These beekeepers travel an agricultural circuit throughout California, Texas and Florida, using bees to help pollinate tree fruits, vegetables and berry bushes. The bees are crucial to the health of many crops. Almond production in California, for instance, is entirely dependent upon the honeybees.

Moran began to look more closely at the traces of bacterial DNA Martinson found. It turns out that honeybees have eight distinct forms of bacteria in their guts that are not present in any other bee. Bees in the wild, for instance, do not have gut bacteria. The honeybee's cousin, the bumblebee, has two types of these bacteria.

The gut bacteria in honeybees probably have a crucial function, and Moran decided to try to find out exactly what the bacteria do. Although not the primary mission of her research, the investigation may turn up answers about what is happening to honeybees in North America, Europe and the Middle East.

There are many competing theories about what are causing the colonies to collapse, but Moran tends to believe that the bees may be suffering from a viral or fungal infection, or perhaps suffering from a reaction to a new form of insecticide. More evidence is needed to settle the debate, she says.

Moran stresses her research won't definitely answer this question. But among other things, she would like to know what happens to the bees if they lose bacteria in their gut: Would this cause a die off among bees?

For now, a beekeeper's suit has joined a DNA sequencer as part of Moran's research tools.

By Bill Hathaway