Researchers check honeybee health by testing honey DNA – InForum

BARNESVILLE, Minnesota — Hundreds of bees buzz around Zack Bateson as he bends over a beehive frame filled with honey.

With a small tool he lifts a dripping square honeycomb into a container.

He needs about one and a half teaspoons of translucent gold liquid. Bateson takes the sample back to his lab and runs it through a PCR test. It is the same process used to detect the COVID-19 virus.

This bee disease test looks for fragments of genetic material from pathogens.

“We are able to detect viruses, bacteria and fungal pathogens that are in bees, which are also in the honey,” Bateson says. “So the honey is a great way to investigate various diseases in bee yards. Nice, fast, easy sample.”

Bateson is a research scientist at the National Agricultural Genotyping Center in Fargo. The nonprofit develops genetic testing for diseases, detecting invasive plants and other problems in the agricultural sector.

Zack Bateson takes a honey sample from a beehive near Barnesville, Minnesota, to be tested for the DNA of pathogens that cause disease, which can contribute to the death of a bee colony.

Dan Gunderson / MPR News

The lab has been conducting DNA tests on dead honeybees from across the country since 2016.

They started by testing for nine viruses and two bacteria in adult bees. Now they can test for 18 different pathogens.

Initially, the tests could only identify the presence of viruses and other pathogens harmful to bees. Now the tests can quantify the level of each pathogen in the hive, giving beekeepers more detailed information about the health of their bees.

Bateson collects about 200 bees from this hive and drops them into a container of rubbing alcohol. The alcohol kills the bees. It is a common way to test for invasive Varroa mites in bee colonies. The mites can spread disease and are considered a major contributor to the loss of honeybee colonies.

The loss of bee colonies is a problem for commercial and hobby beekeepers who often lose hives due to illness, especially during the winter months.

Pathogens, habitat loss, and pesticides are all thought to play a role in honeybee colony loss.

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Rich Burns takes a honeycomb frame from a beehive for testing.

Dan Gunderson / MPR News

Testing honey instead of bees would be more convenient, Bateson said, and honey from different colonies in a single location could be combined in one test, providing a snapshot of the disease in a group of hives.

These beehives belong to Rich and Lisa Burns, who are hobby beekeepers on a small acreage about 20 minutes south east of Moorhead.

“The more research and more data you get, the better we can find results for all the problems we have, or potential problems that arise,” says Rich Burns.

“Anything we can do to help beekeeping, you know, we want to do that,” Lisa said.

Lisa Burns is former president of the Red River Valley Beekeepers, a hobby beekeeping group. She encourages other hobbyists to participate in this project, which involves testing honey samples from hobbyists and commercial beekeepers.

Commercial beekeepers often blame hobby beekeepers for spreading disease and pathogens.

There is also research indicating that commercial beehives that have been moved across the country to pollinate crops contain a higher load of viruses and other pathogens.

“There’s always this kind of headline among the commercial beekeepers and hobby beekeepers,” said Lisa Burns. “And so it will be very interesting to find out if the hobby beekeepers are really creating a problem.”

This project can help clarify that question.

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Zack Bateson is holding a tube of dead bees. DNA testing can determine the viral, bacterial and fungal disease load carried by a bee. Bateson now uses the same process to track pathogen DNA in honey samples.

Dan Gunderson / MPR News

“We wanted to look at the hobbyists here in Minnesota and North Dakota for this project, and we want to compare commercial and hobby colonies as best we can to see if that assumption is true,” Bateson said.

In several years of testing adult bees for pathogens, Bateson said they’ve found that certain viruses are good indicators of whether a honeybee colony will survive the winter.

“And so we use them as an indicator of health. We can use these pathogens as a way of saying, ‘Hey, this colony may be stressed because we’re seeing a lot of different pathogen diversity in a particular hive,'” he said.

Lisa Burns thinks this quick, easy disease monitoring test could also be an important tool for informing hobby beekeepers about disease.

“Don’t just get the bees because they’re cool, you know, you have to manage them, you know, just like having kids or dogs, you know, you have to take care of them.”

Bateson will be collecting honey samples from hobbyists and commercial beehives for several more weeks as he works to validate the process of testing honey for genetic evidence of bee-killing pathogens.

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