Researchers from Montana State University and Israel came together in an international collaborative effort and co-discovered a virus that infects honeybees and native mining bees.
The new virus is most prevalent in mining bees, which are part of the Andrena family, so the virus was named Andrena associated with bee virus-1 or AnBV-1.
According to Michelle Flenniken, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU’s College of Agriculture, mining bees are found all over the world, including in the USA. Size-wise they are much smaller than honeybees or bumblebees, and they do not live in nests. They live alone in small groups or burrow into the ground. They forage on a variety of flowering plants while other species specialize on particular plants like canola or mustard.
Flenniken, who worked with researchers from Israel, has collected more than 1300 bee specimens—mostly honeybees and mining bees— from 14 sites around the central part of Israel. She also co-discovered another bee-infecting virus, Lake Sinai virus 2, while she carried out postdoctoral research at the University of California San Francisco.
She does not find it surprising that a new virus was discovered, because bee virology is under-explored. Viruses that affect bees have a wider host range than mammalian-infecting viruses, and this necessitates the study of multiple co-foraging bee species since viruses are transmitted between bee species via shared floral resources.
This unrelated 5:01-minute video by UMN Extension - Yard and Garden shows mining bees Andrena nesting in the ground:
In a paper published February 12, 2021 in the journal Viruses which announced the discovery, an author wrote that most bee-associated viruses are known as “honeybee viruses” in recognition of the host where they were initially discovered and described. Sequencing a wider spectrum of bee and other insect species shows that many honeybee-infecting viruses are also hosted by other bees and insects.
The impact of AnBV-1 on bees is unclear yet, but it doesn’t have outward symptom manifestations, and was identified through RNA sequencing of samples from the collection of bees from Israel. Flenniken plans to keep studying this. She doesn’t think there is a need for concern at this stage. An advantage that comes from the discovery is that cellular level knowledge about the impact of a virus helps lead to strategies to save colonies from virus-associated losses.
Often a healthy host can clear a viral infection easily. Research aimed at understanding naturally evolved bee antiviral defense mechanisms is important. That way we can understand other stressors that hinder the bees’ ability to naturally fight off virus infections.
Land management strategies can play a role in lessening the prevalence and transmission of viruses like AnBV-1 by enhancing floral diversity, according to the authors of the paper. Broader flower choices and an abundance of flora lowers the chance that pollinators will encounter a flower that was recently visited by an infected bee. This in itself could be a great reason to promote ecological diversity and bee health, said Flenniken.
Members of the Pollinator Health Center, including research scientists, graduate and undergraduate students will continue studying its impacts on bee health at cellular and individual levels. They will see if AnBV-1 is present in bees from other locations, like in Montana. Flenniken said that ongoing study at the individual bee level helps narrow the actual real-life effects of this new virus.