A NATURAL bacteria called wolbachia injected into the abdomen of bees could help to solve a leading cause of bee deaths worldwide.
University of Sydney researcher Dr Emily Remnant has spent the past 12 months investigating immunisation of honey bees against virulent viruses spread by the varroa mite.
Varroa is recognised as the world’s most damaging honey bee pest. While currently not established in Australia, it poses a huge threat to the international bee keeping industry and the global food supply chain, with the commercial value of bee pollination valued between $200–$500 billion a year.
Dr Remnant received the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Award in addition to the AgriFutures Australia sponsored 2017 Science and Innovation Award for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, for her research in this area.
Currently there are no formal strategies in place to protect bees against viruses, but a recent series of trials undertaken by Dr Remnant and her Sydney based research team has shown promising results.
“The aim of my research was to improve honey bee health by developing and enabling a novel method to increase honey bee resistance to viruses using a natural bacterial symbiont, wolbachia,” Dr Remnant said.
“The wolbachia method has been shown to reduce virus levels in other insects and is currently used to reduce transmission of the dengue fever virus in mosquitos, which requires the development of wolbachia positive embryos.
“After multiple unsuccessful attempts to inject wolbachia directly into embryos, a complex technique trialed during my fellowship in New Zealand, I developed and implemented an alternative method of injecting wolbachia into honey bee queen abdomens.”
The two awards would allow Dr Remnant to establish a microinjection setup in her own lab, with specific equipment and bee laying cages from the US and NZ, to begin lab trials.
“The initial queen injection protocols showed good results and with continued testing to generate sufficient samples for sequencing and virus testing, I am hopeful that more good things will come,” Dr Remnant said.
Generating wolbachia-positive honey bees is critical to the next stage of Dr Remnant’s research, as this will determine whether this process can reduce virus levels in honey bees, and contribute to a new way of enabling virus protection in honey bees.
In addition to this, Dr Remnant said there was significant potential for the Australian bee keeping industry to play a key role in breeding and exporting virus resistant bees overseas.
“If wolbachia provides honey bees with virus resistance, this knowledge may lead to the breeding of virus resistant honey bees in Australia, before varroa potentially becomes established.
“Our existing practices in the queen breeding industry are perfectly compatible with enabling the wolbachia technology to be rolled out, including the opportunity to export virus resistant queens to countries already affected by varroa and associated viruses.”
Dr Remnant will be sharing her insights at the 3rd Australian Bee Congress at the Gold Coast on June 27-30.