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The taxonomy of UK and exotic honey bee viruses: a molecular approach (Plant Health Fellowship) - PH0410

Bees make an essential contribution to agriculture and the environment through pollination: they also produce honey and wax (Borneck & Merle, 1989; Corbet et al., 1991; Temple et al, 2001). The global value of pollination ecosystem services is estimated at $117 billion dollars (Costanza et al, 1997). The honey bee (Apis mellifera), plays a dominant role, being the major managed pollinator available to provide this service. Recent estimates for agricultural/horticultural crops grown commercially in the UK that benefit from bee pollination are in the region of £200m p.a. (Carreck & Williams, 1998) p.a. and honey bees also importantly pollinate many wild species of flora, the value of which is difficult to estimate but is certainly substantial.

Significant colony losses can occur when the pest or disease damage is uncontrolled, the consequence being a reduction in bees available for essential pollination activities as well as significant economic damage for the beekeeper. High colony losses due to the impact of pest and diseases, have occurred in the European Union (EU, 2004; National Academies, 2006).

There are around 15 documented honey bee viruses, although for a number of these very little is known about etiology, geographical distribution or impact on the colony. Spread by and potentially triggered by the varroa vector these pathogens have a number of biological properties that make them hard to detect and identify; in particular they are found at very low levels in either bees or mites using traditional diagnostic methods. Scientists are now turning towards molecular methods that are based on the specific detection of bee virus RNA. An initial project to sequence some of these viruses and develop diagnostic molecular diagnostic tests is currently being done at CSL. Nevertheless sequence information is still needed for the other bee viruses and when this has been generated molecular diagnostic assays will be developed. Once these tools are available they can be used to undertake detailed taxonomic studies of bee viruses. This will allow a better understanding of the genetic make-up of honey bee viruses, their distubution and variablity. In addition other issues such as the relative pathogencity of bee viruses in the presence or absence of the varroa mite vector can be addressed. This will provide greater insight into the impact of bee viruses. Currently information about non-indigenous honey bee viruses, their host range and distribution is limited. Gaining further information about these viruses will allow better evaluation of the risks posed by honey bee samples from overseas and therefore will enhance the capability of improving controls and managing risk.

Therefore, this new project is being funded by Defra Plant Health Division (PHD) with the prime goal of developing a better understanding of honeybee virus taxonomy, biology, potential host range and an assessment of the risks of exotics. It is also providing an opportunity to train a new expert and maintain UK expertise in this field. One of the recommendations made by the 2003 National Audit Office report on the UK Plant Health Service, was that PHD ensure a supply of young scientists in all the different plant health disciplines, in order to ensure expertise was available in future years and especially in areas where taxonomy underpins diagnostic capabilities. This fellowship achieves this; providing vital training and technology transfer in a field of study where the UK currently lacks sufficient expertise and critical mass. This project also enables the development of tools that can be used in future studies (for example if information was needed on the biology of a non-indigenous virus should it establish in the UK) and also potential statutory functions. Bee health is the responsibility of Defra PHD.
Key aims:

1. Formulate a detailed work plan.

2. Complete the sequencing of bee viruses.

3. Analyse the sequence information obtained.

4. Develop real-time PCR assays for bee viruses.

5. Investigate the incidence of all known honeybee viruses in the UK.

6. Carry out phylogenetic analyses.

7. Screen insect and mite species for presence of bee viruses.

8. Disseminate information gathered.

Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2007

To: 2010

Cost: £81,248
Contractor / Funded Organisations
Central Science Laboratory
Bee Diseases              
Bee Health              
Plants and Animals              
Fields of Study
Plant Health