Counteracting colony collapse; research team seeks to solve honeybee mystery

Collaboration brings French intern to contribute to UdeM investigation

French Biological Engineering Master’s student, Marie Marbaix is spending her summer contributing to the global investigation into colony collapse disorder. For 12 weeks, she’s joined Professor Levon Abrahamyan at the Université de Montréal to study the co-infection of mites and viruses in honeybees through a Mitacs Globalink research internship. The researchers want to know if co-infection — being afflicted with more than one parasite or virus at once — could be contributing to honeybee deaths, and ultimately, colony collapse.

“There are several stress factors that can cause mortality of the honeybee populations worldwide, however, viruses are probably one of the most important — yet least investigated — factors of this phenomenon,” says Marie’s supervisor, Professor Abrahamyan.

It’s possible, says Professor Abrahamyan, that a type of parasitic mite, called Varroa destructor, is not only harming honeybees through its parasitic behaviour, but could also carry viruses that infect the honeybees and cause further harm.

While scientists have identified several viruses carried by the mites, some remain unknown. Marie is helping to identify them by extracting the DNA and RNA of honeybees infected with Varroa destructor.  The next step would be, using a state-of-the-art technique called ‘high-throughput’ sequencing technology, to identify all of the viruses present in honeybees. High throughput research refers to the automation of experiments so that large-scale sequencing of genetic information becomes feasible. “Currently, we know about 20 viruses of bees, but I am confident that there are many more viral species of bees yet to be discovered, and this is one of my goals.  Thus, we study the virome of bees – the collection of viruses that infect bees, and could affect the performance and overall health of the bees”, says Professor Abrahamyan.

The hope is that the researchers can identify not only the potential causes of colony collapse disorder, but they can also create new treatments or strategies that might prevent the disorder in the first place.

For example, Professor Benoit-Biancamano, who collaborates with Professor Abrahamyan, explains that researchers already know that the varroa mite feeds on fat bodies of bees, which impacts the glucose level in the honeybee. This means there may be a correlation between glucose levels in honeybees and their overall health. Researchers are already working on developing glucose tests for bees to test this theory. If the tests show that glucose levels are, in fact, predictive of hive health, the team could commercialize a test for farmers and apiarists as early as next year that would help farmers and apiarists take preventive action against colony collapse.

For her part, Marie is excited by the opportunity to contribute to important research this summer.

“Participating in this program is allowing me to learn more about virology and to gain hands-on learning in a state-of-the-art research laboratory performing original experiments,” says Marie.

She’s also enjoyed the opportunity to experience Canadian culture and is considering returning to Canada to collaborate on her thesis with her internship supervisor.

The collaboration has proved beneficial, and Marie’s supervisor is hopeful it will contribute to new knowledge about colony collapse disorder.

“The idea is that once we can identify the viruses affecting bee populations, we’ll be better able to come up with strategies to control those viruses and keep hives healthy,” says Professor Abrahamyan.

Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of Manitoba, and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Globalink Research Internship program. In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with the following international partners to support Globalink: Universities Australia; Brazil’s Universidade de São Paulo; China Scholarship Council; Campus France; German Academic Exchange Service; Mexico’s Government of the State of Guanajuato, EDUCAFIN, and Tecnológico de Monterrey; Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche scientifique, des Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication de la Tunisie and Mission universitaire de Tunisie en Amérique du Nord; and Ukrainian-Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko.

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