Plants Eyeballed as New Suspects in Bee Conspiracy

Photo by cygnus921. Some rights reserved.

Photo by cygnus921. Some rights reserved.

Last summer, I decided it was finally time I learned something about honey bees. Prior to this decision, I knew a few things – a little about the pollination process, a bit of second hand knowledge on how to keep bees, and one very scary-sounding but frustratingly vague fact that kept coming up: bees are disappearing and nobody knows why. It was this last point that I aimed to research – it couldn’t be that there was simply zero explanation for such a disturbing trend, and it was also improbably that this was just a natural phenomenon. Well, a few online articles and one very worthwhile documentary (the great More Than Honey, about this very subject, is on Netflix Instant now, so watch it!) later, I knew a bit more. I knew that the phenomenon had a name – colony collapse disorder – and that we did know some about what was causing it, but that the answer is complex, attributable to a number of possible factors (growing use of pesticides in farming and antibiotics in beekeeping, global warming, trauma from transportation, electromagnetic radiation, etc.)  and quite possibly unknown factors as well. The only thing that is known for sure is that bees are dying and disappearing in higher numbers than ever before (last winter, one third of the U.S. honeybee population died or disappeared, an unprecedented loss and an astronomically higher figure than the year before).

All of this is just preface to some new information that could help crack this case wide open: TIME reports on a plant-based virus known as tobacco ringspot virus (or TRSV) which has been known to affect tobacco and soybean crops, causing crop yield loses of up to 100% in some cases. TRSV is a nepovirus, and moves from the infected leaves into the stems and eventually to the root of the plant, and infected plants will often produce infected seeds. The way that TRSV is spread from plant to plant, however, is through pollination, which is of course where our bees come in. The story suggests that bees can, surprisingly, also become infected with the ringspot virus, and that the spread of these mutating pathogens between species could be the missing, capital-b Big puzzle piece in the mystery of colony collapse disorder.

 

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