Killer Manmade Virus Spreads Through Bees, Threatens Global Food Industry

The disease killing the world’s honeybees is a manmade virus, according to new research. Speaking to BBC News, Doctor Lena Bayer-Wilfert of the University of Exeter blames the spread of the Deformed Wing Virus and the Varroa mite on the unimpeded transportation of bees throughout the world.

“This is clearly linked to the human movement of honeybee colonies around the globe…we must now maintain strict limits on the movement of bees, whether they are known to carry Varroa or not.”

Honeybee colonies are moved around the world to replace lost colonies and set up new hives, and traffic in the valuable insects has led to a worldwide epidemic of the virus. The spread of the virus, when coupled with the deadly Varroa mite, kills honeybees and is the major cause of the devastating losses, known as colony collapse, over the last few years.

[Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images]

Doctor Bayer-Wilfert’s research, published in Science magazine, found that the virus spread from Europe to the rest of the world via the European honeybee. The team analyzed bees and mites from several different countries to track the the spread of the virus, one of the major threats facing world food production.

While obviously used as a source of honey and beeswax, arguably the most important part that honeybees play in the manmade ecosystem is that of crop pollinators. If radical changes to the ways in which bees are moved are not implemented, the spread of the virus and Varroa might have major implications for food production as well as local insects contaminated with the virus by imported bees.

Speaking to Science Daily, Professor Roger Butlin, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Sheffield and co-researcher, explained how the spread of the virus impacts on global agriculture.

“Domesticated honeybee colonies are hugely important for our agriculture systems, but this study shows the risks of moving animals and plants around the world. The consequences can be devastating, both for domestic animals and for wildlife. The risk of introducing viruses or other pathogens is just one of many potential dangers.”

As well as the virus and Varroa mite, pesticides known as neonicotinoids are blamed for the drastic decline in bees over the last decade. The European Union has gone so far as to ban these pesticides, as reported in The Guardian. However, the British government suspended the ban in the summer of 2015 and allowed the use of the deadly sprays in certain parts of England. Coupled with the spread of the virus, the relaxation of the ban spelled disaster for bees.

Paul de Zylva, of Friends Of The Earth, told the BBC just how dangerous the pesticides were.

“Ever more scientific evidence shows just how dangerous these chemicals are to bees and other pollinators – they should have no place in our fields and gardens.”

BLANKENFELDE, GERMANY - APRIL 25: A bee harvests pollen from the flowers of a wild cherry tree near Berlin on April 25, 2013 in Blankenfelde, Germany. Local beekeepers claim their yearly loss rates within their bee populations has gone from an average of 10% per year to 30% per year over the last 10 years, though they are unsure whether the cause lies with a mite and a virus it might be spreading or with the increased use of certain pesticides by local farmers. According to a recent report prepared by Greenpeace seven pesticides currently in use in Europe present a real danger to bees. Bees are essential in nature in pollenating a wide variety of plants and trees. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Honeybees are contending with the spread of the virus, the mites, and lethal pesticides. It is not surprising that their numbers are rapidly declining. However, while pesticides can be banned, the spread of the virus is harder to contain. An increase in transportation checks for bees will inevitably result in higher prices for food, yet the risk of inaction is likely far greater. The decimation of bees, both domesticated and wild, is a real threat to the reliable production of food. Poor countries which do not have modern farming methods and equipment are particularly affected by the loss of bees, without the resources to cope with the spread of the virus.

Governments have traditionally been slow in implementing environmental protection, especially across borders. There might be little hope that the spread of a manmade virus can be halted soon. However, the discoveries made by Doctor Bayer-Wilfert and her colleagues are a significant step forward in the fight to save the honeybee.

[Photo by Pat Wellenbach/AP Images]