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CSREES National Research Initiative Funds Study on Honey Bee Health

Jennifer Martin, CSREES Staff, (202) 720-8188
Patrick Holian, CSREES Staff, (202) 720-5280

WASHINGTON, Jan. 3, 2006 – The European honey bee keeps U.S. agriculture buzzing. Valued at $20 billion annually for the role they play in pollinating plants, these bees make a significant contribution to agriculture productivity - but new events in North America are threatening the honey bee population.

In the past few decades, Africanized honey bees have invaded North America causing problems for producers because their aggressive behavior makes them difficult to manage. Additionally, bees have to fight against American Foul Brood (AFB) disease, caused by bacteria that attack larvae. Large infestations of these bacteria can lead to the death of entire honey bee colonies.

“We have fewer than half the colonies of honey bees in America than we had as little as 10 to 15 years ago,” said Gene Robinson, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois. “And yet, [we have] a much bigger population, a much greater need for food production.”

Robinson was awarded a National Research Initiative (NRI) grant from the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) to use state-of-the-art equipment to study the honey bee genome—the full complement of DNA in the bee.

With NRI funding, Robinson and his team have developed a new microarray, a device that can measure thousands of genes simultaneously. This allows scientists to look at how AFB is affecting the bee, what genes are involved in the process, and more importantly, what kinds of immune responses the bee can mount.

Robinson is also tackling the African honey bee problem by comparing the genes of the two species.

“We're interested in exploring the differences in gene expression in the tiny brains of Africanized bees versus European bees to see if we can get some hints as to what might be the basis for their differences in defensive behavior,” he said.

In January 2004, a draft sequence of the honey bee genome was completed, opening up many new opportunities for research. By studying honey bees' communication system – the bee dance – Robinson is learning how bees respond to emergencies, a timely subject in light of the Hurricane Katrina disaster that destroyed many bee colonies in the Gulf region.

The “bee dance” lets bees communicate by encoding pieces of information, such as where to specifically find food in terms of distance and direction. This allows a colony to broaden their search for different food sources and to quickly concentrate on the most productive, high-quality food sources.

“It's a real challenge to understand how a tiny organism with a brain no bigger than a grass seed is able to engage in symbolic communication when we otherwise see it limited to a few big-brained animals,” Robinson said. “We really need to do everything we can to bring honey bees back to the position of strength they were and even to go beyond that to create a really healthy bee industry.”

Robinson's research is the focus of the January episode of CSREES' Partners Video Magazine. It highlights the programs and accomplishments of the partnership between CSREES and the Land-Grant University System in the areas of research, education and extension.

The NRI is the largest peer reviewed, competitive grants program in CSREES. Its purpose is to support research, education and extension grants that address key problems of national, regional and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of agriculture.