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MSU virologist receives grants for honeybee health research

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By Jenny Lavey
MSU News Service

BOZEMAN – Michelle Flenniken, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in Montana State University’s College of Agriculture, recently received three grants to investigate the role of viruses and other pathogens – including viruses, bacteria, fungi and trypansomatids – on honeybee health.

Flenniken received an Agriculture Food and Research Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to support research on understanding the biotic and abiotic factors affecting honeybee health; a grant from the National Honey Board to support a collaborative research endeavor examining the role of pathogens and agrochemicals on honeybee health; and funding from the Montana Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant program to investigate viruses and virus transmission in Montana’s honeybees.

Flenniken’s research comes at a time when the national beekeeping industry is facing high annual losses of honeybee colonies – approximately 32 percent a year, according to the National Department of Agricultural Statistics and the Bee Informed Partnership a coalition of researchers, advisors and stakeholders from various industries working with beekeepers to develop best management practices.

“Colonies are dynamic populations, so we need to study them for long periods of time to determine the role of pathogens and other factors on colony health,” Flenniken said.
There are a number of unanswered questions regarding colony losses, she said, and these grants will support a comprehensive examination to determine the prevalence and abundance of honeybee-associated pathogens.

The U.S. is home to approximately 2.5 million honeybee colonies, which pollinate more than 50 major cash crops, mostly fruits and vegetables, according to the USDA. For the majority of commercially managed honeybee colonies, almond pollination is the biggest event of the year. According to the USDA, about 60 percent of the country’s commercial honeybees – approximately 1.6 million – are rented to pollinate almonds in California’s Central Valley every February.

“Without bees, the diversity of produce and nutritional value of a Western diet would be drastically changed,” Flenniken said.

Flenniken and her team of students and research assistants at MSU will determine the pathogen presence and abundance in honeybee samples collected from colonies that undergo health evaluations in Montana and around the country.

“Bee colony health is affected by many factors, including pathogens, agrochemical exposure, availability of quality forage, weather and more,” Flenniken said. “Therefore, it’s important to investigate many factors in parallel in order to determine which are the most important to bee health.”

The MDA grant will allow Flenniken’s lab and research team to study the honeybee viruses in Montana and investigate how these viruses are transmitted between colonies.
According to NASS, there are about 150,000 colonies that spend the summer in Montana, consuming forage in private and public spaces. Last year, Montana ranked second in the nation in honey production, producing more than 14 million pounds of honey valued at $31 million.

John Sherwood, the head of MSU’s Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology Department, said that having a honeybee pathogen research lab at MSU not only benefits Montana’s bee industry, but also mirrors the nation’s need to counteract the decline of honeybee vitality.

“Michelle’s recent grant activity is a testament to the department and our College of Agriculture and the Montana Agricultural Experiment Stations’ commitment to solve the nation’s greatest agriculture challenges,” Sherwood said. “The future of nature’s most critical pollinator force is nebulous at best without sound scientific research.”

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