NPR WUFT FM By Ashlyn Pinter March 1, 2016
A global epidemic is hitting Florida honeybees, and it could affect your kitchen table.
The virus, called deformed wing virus, or DWV, is man-made and driven by European populations of the honeybee, according to a recent study.
DWV is a virus that infects honeybees, bumblebees and other pollinators. It is not harmful to honeybees on its own, but in combination with Varroa mites (ectoparasites that feed on bees’ blood) it can kill honeybee colonies, said Lena Wilfert, senior lecturer in molecular evolution at the University of Exeter in England and an author of the study.
As for human involvement, Wilfert said beekeepers who move colonies around for pollination services has led to the emergence of the Varroa mite and its rapid global spread. This follows the same spreading pattern as the virus.
Once the bees are infected with the virus and the mite they can lose their ability to fly, causing them to die prematurely. Bees may develop malformed wings, depending on when it is infected. The younger the bee is infected, the worse the malformation, said William Kern, University of Florida associate professor at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.
Both DWV and Varroa are widespread in Florida. DWV has been in Florida since honeybees were brought from Europe more than 300 years ago. Varroa, however, was not found in Florida until 1987, he said.
“The University of Florida Honey Bee Research Lab in the Entomology and Nematology Department of IFAS has been working constantly on developing methods of Varroa and disease control,” Kern said in an email. The USDA Agricultural Research Service labs, which are located around the U.S., have been working on controlling the pests of both honeybees and native solitary bees. At this time, however, there is no treatment for DWV.
The mites and the virus weaken the bee colonies and, under stress, decreased pollination can kill the colonies. In turn, the inadequately-pollinated fruits tend to be misshapen. For instance, there are not enough bees to pollinate the California almond crop, said Kern.
Florida is one of three main hubs where honeybees are shipped out to other places for pollination. Roughly 27 states are using Florida as a nursery due to the warmer weather in winter. In February, honeybees are shipped from Florida to pollinate the California almonds.
Between 2005 and 2007, pollination raised prices from $70 a hive to $145 a hive. By 2013 the price was up to $185 a hive and as of 2015 it was up to about $225 a hive due to this problem, he said. This makes the price of honey raise too.
Dave Westervelt, chief of aviary inspection at the Bureau of Plant and Apiary inspection said, “It’s (the virus) reducing the life expectancy of the honeybee so we don’t have the number of bees we have to pollinate the 1/3 of our fruits and vegetables that are pollinated by European honeybees.”
Beekeepers are now losing 30 to 40 percent of bees because of this virus, Westervelt said. “Almost every bee keeper that has bees has an issue with the ongoing virus.”
Since people rely on pollination for a third of their food, DWV and Varroa could hinder the pollination of foods like honey, almonds, fruits and vegetables globally and we would lose roughly a third of those foods. For instance, in Florida, bees pollinate blueberries and squash. If bees meant to pollinate these foods are dying due to virus, the consequences could be severe, Westervelt said.
“We need honeybees and wild pollinators for maintaining food security, as much of our vegetables and fruit rely on pollination,” Wilfert said. “They maintain biodiversity of flowering plants, which we need to maintain resilience in ecosystem services.”