A Maryland research center established to protect soldiers from chemical and biological attack has been enlisted in the fight to save honeybees from the mysterious disorder that has been devastating commercial bee populations.
Scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, at the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, have turned equipment developed several years ago to identify proteins present in potential biological weapons, such as anthrax, to figure out what kind of viruses, bacteria or other pathogens are killing the bees.
"It's a biological detector that helps us identify threats on the battlefield," said Don Kennedy, communications officer for the center. "What we did was apply this technology in a different way."
The collaboration between the Army and bee scientists was described this week in a scientific paper published in the online journal PLoS ONE.
The researchers, led by Jerry J. Bromenshenk at the University of Montana, said they found a previously unsuspected virus and a parasitic fungus that appear to work together to cause the "colony collapse disorder."
The mysterious disease has cost commercial bee keepers as much as 90 percent of their bees in die-offs in recent years. The bees play a critical role in the nation's agricultural productivity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says a third of the nation's diet depends on insect pollination.
"We felt a lot better about our technology, and felt like we'd been of service to the people who asked us for help," said Charles H. Wick, a microbiologist at the Edgewood center. "It would be wonderful to help move a solution to [colony collapse disorder] forward."
Not everyone is persuaded by the new paper.
"It's wonderful to try new tools, new techniques for identifying pathogens," said Jay Evans, a research geneticist working in the bee research lab at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville.
"But for this [virus] to really be something that missed scrutiny for several years of really intense searching, it needs a high burden of proof. And we're all scratching our heads as to where this faith is coming from. It doesn't come out from the paper itself."
Wick responded: "The journals never let you publish all the data. We have lots of data. I have lists of all the peptides [proteins] in all the samples." And they should be enough to persuade skeptics, he said.
Has the work solved the mystery? "No," Wick said. "But we've definitely pointed the direction for further research. It opens a whole new chapter for looking into honeybee health care."
Scientists will now have to verify the findings and begin looking for ways to disrupt the pathogens or keep them from infecting the bees.
Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, began to get worldwide attention in 2007, after commercial beekeepers in the U.S. reported winter losses of 30 percent to 90 percent of their colonies.
Colony collapses, or "dwindles," were not new to beekeepers. But this one seemed to be more serious, both in the number of abandoned hives and in their coast-to-coast geography.
Losses since 2007 have diminished somewhat, Evans said, but still account for a quarter of wintertime losses, or 6 percent of the hives. And the disorder can still claim 90 percent of some commercial colonies.
Curiously, the bees don't just sicken and die. They disappear, apparently flying off to die elsewhere.
Previous studies found a variety of possible suspects, among them the Varroa Destructor-1 virus and Israeli acute paralytic virus.
In the PLoS ONE paper, Bromenshenk and his team reported finding another pathogen, one that appears to be tightly linked to the collapsed colonies.
The viral detection work at the Edgewood center used a technology called Integrated Virus Detection System/ Proteomic Mass Spectrometry. Developed for the battlefield detection of viruses, it can quickly identify the presence of protein fragments unique to specific pathogens.
Kennedy said the Montana team contacted the center after Bromenshenk was tipped off about the center's capabilities by Wick's brother, who lives in Montana.
"We collaborate with a lot of different agencies," Kennedy said. "We've worked with the USDA. We've worked with the Postal Service putting in biological detectors in mail sorting machines. And every now and then there's an instance that comes up in which the technology can be applied in a different way."
Wick said, "We never thought about bees as being a sample. … This wasn't even on our radar."
But it became an opportunity to "field-test" the technology. "We ground up the bees, put them through the system and out popped the viruses, and the fungi and a whole bunch of bacteria."
The Edgewood center soon discovered that a virus belonging to a class called Irioviridae, or invertebrate iridescent virus, when it occurred together with a parasitic gut fungus called Nosema ceranae, correlated with the collapse disorder to a very high level of statistical certainty.