Plant compound may protect bees from deadly virus that causes them to lose their way home

All over the world, bees are dying in large numbers. This mortality is in part due to a deadly virus that can kill bees or impair their ability to return to hives after foraging. But in a study published on September 28 in the journal iScience, researchers show that a cheap, natural chemical compound could prevent or reverse the effects of the virus in bees. Bees that were fed the compound before becoming infected were nine times more likely to survive the virus after five days; By monitoring the hives in real time, the researchers also showed that bees that were fed the compound were more likely to return to the hive at the end of a day of foraging.

The misshapen wing virus, transmitted by a parasite called varroa mite, can infect bees throughout their life cycle. Severely infected bees will die within days or have poorly developed wings that interfere with their ability to fly and feed. Previous research also shows that the virus can alter a bee’s learning and memory, which could affect its ability to find a home after hunting for food. Lost bees are likely to die, and their colony can eventually collapse due to a lack of food.

“Pathogens are definitely a stressor on bees,” says first author Cheng-Kang Tang of National Taiwan University. “But beekeepers don’t want to use pesticides because of food safety concerns. So we set out to find compounds that can increase bee strength.”

Their study found that the virus suppressed the expression of genes associated with nerve signal transmission and several other biological processes related to learning and memory functions in bees. The team identified sodium butyrate (NaB), a chemical compound found in many plants and known to increase the expression of a variety of genes in animals, including those involved in immune responses and learning. , as a potential candidate to protect them.

To study the effects of NaB on bees, lead author Yueh-Lung Wu of National Taiwan University and his team fed the bees with sugar water containing NaB for a week before infecting them with the deformed wing virus. More than 90% of these bees remained alive after five days, while 90% of infected bees that did not receive NaB died within the same period.

“Our results show that feeding insects with NaB before exposure to the virus can counteract the negative impacts of the pathogen,” Wu said. “We also previously found that NaB can up-regulate some genes in immune response in bees, which may help suppress viral replication and improve the bee’s chances of survival. “

Wu’s team also conducted an experiment on a beekeeping farm. They placed monitors at the entrances of several different hives – each containing tens of thousands of foraging bees – for about a month to calculate how many bees leave and return home during the day. The researchers found that on average, only half of infected forager bees managed to return to the hive. But among bees that were fed NaB sugar water before becoming infected, more than 80% found their way home at the end of the day, a level comparable to that of uninfected bees.

“This is a really interesting study because we tested the effect of NaB on bees at different scales, from genetic level to behaviors in the lab and then in the field in a natural scenario,” says Wu. Then they would like to. observe whether bees respond to NaB supplementation differently depending on the season, as insects are known to change their behavior throughout the year.

“Sodium butyrate is really cheap. So if we can prove its benefits, it would be an easy and affordable approach for beekeepers to keep their bees alive.” Wu said. “Bees are important pollinators of a myriad of fruits and vegetables of global economic importance and are therefore crucial to maintaining the balance of the ecosystem.”

This work was supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology of Taiwan.

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