Bees can't get COVID, but other virus infections may mean fewer babies

Bees can't get COVID, but other virus infections may mean fewer babies
Bees can't get COVID, but other virus infections may mean fewer babies

Honeybees are faced with numerous threats, and a discovery from researchers could spell even more trouble for their vulnerable populations.

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A recent University of British Columbia (UBC) study has uncovered a potentially significant issue for queen bees from viral infections: Smaller ovaries, compared to their healthy counterparts in the field. To be certain, researchers then infected queen bees in the lab with a different virus and noticed the same result occurred.

The outcome of a queen’s shrunken ovaries could mean fewer eggs, and thus, fewer baby bees, according to researchers. This issue is something scientists will continue to analyze in future work.

"Focusing on queen health is going to be quite impactful. Poor queens are consistently one of the top five reasons for colony losses in Canada," said Abigail Chapman, UBC researcher, in a recent interview with The Weather Network.

Bees/Submitted
Bees/Submitted

Alison McAfee holding research bees. (Leslie Kennah/Submitted)

"Just being able to try to understand the pieces of the puzzle for their health a bit more could be really helpful for [aiding] the health of our bees."

Viral infections on the rise

Because viral infections in honeybees are becoming more intense and widespread, researchers came across this health ramification after working with local apiarists who wanted to examine the quality of their queens, Chapman noted.

"We've discovered this connection that viruses cause smaller ovaries and are bad for reproductive health, but we don't know exactly why yet," said Chapman.

Interestingly, most queen bees don’t appear to get sick from many viruses and don’t show any symptoms of sickness, Chapman said. So, researchers then examined their immune and reproductive systems for answers.

Alison McAfee holds a hive frame/Submitted
Alison McAfee holds a hive frame/Submitted

Alison McAfee holds a hive frame. (Dominique Weiss/Submitted)

"We were just trying to come up with things that might be explaining this. [This] was really the first time that someone had looked at that aspect of queen health," said Chapman. “This is one of these sort of odd side-effects that we've just discovered.”

While researchers don't know for sure why viruses are causing the problem, if the queen bees' reproductive organs are shutting down as a result, "we would expect her ovaries to shrink because she's producing less eggs or eggs at a slower rate," she said. The large abdomen of a honeybee queen is taken up mostly by the volume of her ovaries, which are full of eggs.

"Because a queen bee is responsible for laying all of the eggs in a colony to keep it going for producing all of those bees, if she can't lay enough bees to keep that colony going, it's really bad," said Chapman.

WATCH: Female bees cope better than males during temperature extremes

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Bees can't catch COVID-19

While honeybees are susceptible to many viruses such as deformed wing, black queen cell and sacbrood, they are immune to COVID-19.

"Viruses are quite specific to their hosts. So there are many, many viruses that humans get that a bunch of animals or insects can't get. And the same is true. So COVID-19 is mammalian-specific," said Chapman. "Insects just don't have the receptors that COVID-19 needs to enter their cells. That's just the way it has evolved."

Alison McAfee inspects a hive/Submitted
Alison McAfee inspects a hive/Submitted

Alison McAfee inspects a hive. (Dominique Weiss/Submitted)

Many viruses, though, are found in both insects and humans. Most of the illnesses tend to be "more problematic" for humans, however, including the West Nile virus, since they can be transmitted to them, Chapman noted.

Fortunately, for humans and honeybees, there aren't any known viruses that can be transmitted between them, the UBC researcher added.

Smaller colony sizes could negatively impact crops, economy with less pollination

If the infected queens are producing less babies as a result of smaller ovaries, this will spell disaster for colonies.

“A colony that a queen is not able to produce enough workers [for] will eventually fail since those worker bees are carrying out all of the tasks to keep it running," said Chapman. "The knock-on-effects for beekeepers are that they are losing colonies at a higher rate.”

Honeybees/Nathan Howes
Honeybees/Nathan Howes

(Nathan Howes/The Weather Network)

Smaller honeybee colonies could also have dire consequences for our economy and crops, as pollination is essential for both. In Canada alone, it's estimated that honeybees contribute between $4-5 billion a year to the country's economy. In 2020, Canadian bees produced around 82 million pounds of honey, amounting to more than $208 million in value.

Vaccine in the works from UBC researchers, U.S. approves world's first

To help honeybees defend themselves against viruses, UBC researchers are in the beginning stages of working on a vaccine for queens.

“If we can come up with a way to help queens resist virus infection early in their lives, that could be really helpful to avoid these knock on effects later," said Chapman.

“We're not quite ready to talk about exactly how we're hoping to do that. But hopefully, in the next couple of years, or a year or two, we'll have some more results with that.”

There are already promising signs of a treatment outside of Canada.

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The U.S. government just approved the world's first vaccine for honeybees as a defence against viruses. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted a conditional license for a vaccine to help protect honeybees from American foulbrood disease.

WATCH: What do bees and thunderclouds have in common? More than you'd think

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