New findings about the deformed wing virus, a major factor in honey bee colony mortality

The Varroa mite and the deformed wing virus are main factors responsible for alarming bee mortality. (Photo: Kerstin Seitz/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Bee mortality  1

The Varroa mite and the deformed wing virus are main factors responsible for the alarming bee mortality. Researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna have succeeded for the first time in simulating the course of so-called mite disease were reproduced in the laboratory without mites by the injection of synthetic RNA. This enabled the prudent development of new strategies in order to protect the bee population in the future. The results were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The honey bee Apis mellifera plays an important role for the pollination of fruit and vegetable plants, besides its significance for the production of honey and wax. Losses of entire bee colonies during winter have economic and – in particular – ecological consequences as pollinators are missing in spring during blossom. Apiculture in North America and Europe is especially affected by partly massive losses. Only during the winter months of 2014/2015, up to fifty per cent of all bee colonies in some Austrian regions collapsed.

The main trigger of this bee mortality does not seem to be  the use of pesticides in modern agriculture. Many studies have shown that the survival of bee colonies strongly depends on the infestation with Varroa mites, widespread blood-sucking parasites, and the transmission of deformed wing virus by these mites. A research group from the Institute of Virology at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna has developed a new laboratory system, which enabled them to make an important step forward in the investigation of the virus. By using a molecular clone, they have simulated the course of disease in a targeted way under laboratory conditions.

Artificial viral genomes of deformed wing virus

Up to now, scientists have only used samples of the deformed wing virus, which they had taken from infected bees. “However, mixed and multiple infections can bias the results of such tests”, stated lead author Benjamin Lamp. For the new test system, the researchers used artificial genetic material instead of natural samples of the deformed wing virus, in order to clearly correlate the course of disease to the virus.

“Initially, we amplify the genetic RNA material of a virus and save it as a DNA copy in a vector, a specific transport vehicle for genetic material. The resulting molecular clone enables us to produce artificial viruses, which are identical and genetically defined,” explained Lamp. Insects infected with the artificial virus showed the same symptoms such as discolouration, dwarfism, death or the eponymous deformation of the wing that also occur in natural infections. Thus, it could be unambiguously shown  that these symptoms are caused by the deformed wing virus.

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