Category Archives: Diseases

Bees: How do they Combat Disease?

A honeybee hive sick with disease can spell the end of a colony. Recent research has shown bees can use vaccinations and nurse one another to protect themselves from and prevent certain diseases. But how exactly do they do it?


Honeybees live in huge colonies that co-operatively rear brood (developing eggs and larvae), so must find some way of protecting the next generation against disease. To do this, the workers actually naturally immunize their young against certain diseases which they might encounter. The findings of a recent paper, published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, finally reveal how the important immune-signal protein vitellogenin works to do this.

It was found foraging workers pick up and bring back contaminated pollen and nectar to the hive, and workers create royal jelly using it. The bacteria picked up from the environment persists in the jelly, and is then fed exclusively to the queen. The pathogens are digested in the queen’s gut and stored in the queen’s fat body (an organ similar to a liver). Fragments of the bacteria are then ‘carried’ by vitellogenin, taken via the blood to developing eggs inside the queen. These young are now immunized, all without taking a step outside their hexagonal brood cell.

Now that we know how bees immunize their young against infection, scientists can work on synthesizing a vaccine to prevent commercial bee colonies from becoming infected with disease- possibly aiding the fight against the crisis of colony collapse disorder (CCD).

But not all diseases in bees can be fought with immunity inherited from a parent. So how else do honeybees fight infection?


Much like communist societies, honeybee hives divide up the hugely varied workload between different ‘castes’ of the colony (workers, drones and queen), and further divide workers into roles based on their size and age. Older, more experienced workers may be more likely to forage for the colony, and act as guard bees (they have actually been found to patrol the entrance the hive!). Younger, more naive workers however are usually more suited to nursing duties, which include feeding and tending to the queen and brood, as well as medical specialists which provide sick workers with anti-biotic laced honey.

A recent study, published in Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, gave nurse bees infected with a Nosema ceranae parasite a choice of honey from different plants. Bees with a higher level of infection tended to eat more sunflower honey, which contains the most antimicrobial activity. It also reduced the level of infection in the bees by 7%. A separate study suggests different honeys are effective against different diseases the bees may encounter. For example linden honey was better at fighter off a an infection of European foulbrood whereas sunflower honey was more effective against American foulbrood.

Nurse bees have other medical roles to reduce infection in a hive. For example, they can act as undertakers and remove the corpses of dead bees from the colony, dumping them far from the entrance. This behaviour is used to avoid spreading infections from pathogens and entomopathogenic fungi that proliferate on the bodies of dying insects,

In both of these incredible behaviours, bees can vaccinate and immunize their brood and sister workers by means of medicinal honey and food contaminated with bacteria. But where do these come from in the first place?

Natural Remedies

Floral nectar typically contains plant secondary compounds (those used for defence by the plant) which possess antimicrobial properties. This can be very useful to bees. Before the publishing of a recent study in PLoS One, we knew little more than the fact pollinators can reduce their parasite load by consuming nectar containing compounds such as nicotine.

This recent research has indicated parasitized bumblebees are taking advantage of these plant secondary metabolites in the wild, such as iridoid glycosides, and have a strong preference for visiting flowers that possess them. This quality of bees to self-medicate, by altering their foraging behaviour whilst parasitized, has massive implications for their ability to fight disease

Honeybees have other sources of medicine besides anti-microbial nectar. They have been found to collect resin from plants and incorporate it into their nests, which may help stop fungal parasities from colonizing their hive. (A study showed bees collect more of the resin when infected with fungal spores)

Final word

The fact that honeybees and bumblebees have evolved so many different ways in which to fight disease implies the risk that our wild pollinators face, as well as just how long they have been co-evolving alongside their assailing antagonists. Climate change and other drivers have recently made the problem of disease much worse, and research into this need to be rapid if we are to help our plighted pollinators.

Further Reading

Erler, S., Denner, A., Bobiş, O., Forsgren, E., & Moritz, R. F. (2014). Diversity of honey stores and their impact on pathogenic bacteria of the honeybee, Apis mellifera. Ecology and evolution, 4(20), 3960-3967.

Gherman, B. I., Denner, A., Bobiş, O., Dezmirean, D. S., Mărghitaş, L. A., Schlüns, H., … & Erler, S. (2014). Pathogen-associated self-medication behavior in the honeybee Apis mellifera. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 68(11), 1777-1784.

Richardson, L. L., Bowers, M. D., & Irwin, R. E. (2015). Nectar chemistry mediates the behavior of parasitized bees: consequences for plant fitness.Ecology.

Salmela, H., Amdam, G. V., & Freitak, D. (2015). Transfer of immunity from mother to offspring is mediated via egg-yolk protein vitellogenin. PLoS Pathog, 11(7), e1005015.

Simone-Finstrom, M. D., & Spivak, M. (2012). Increased resin collection after parasite challenge: a case of self-medication in honey bees. PLoS One,7(3), e34601.

News Roundup: Autumn 2015.

Disease eradications, Bee vaccinations and Entomophagy- catch up on all the latest entomological news stories you might have missed!

Risks of Eating Insects

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have recently published a report on using insects as a protein source for animal feed and human consumption. It found that edible insects could contain biological and chemical contaminants, depending on how the large scale insect farms were managed.

With an estimated global population of 9 billion by 2050, using insects as a high quality source of protein as feed (for chickens, for example) could give a much needed food conversion rate (lower levels of initial energy and water required). Insect meat is also a quality source of fat, fibre, minerals and vitamins.

It is estimated that insects such as flies, moths, mealworms and crickets/locust already form the diet of at least 2 billion people. There is still clearly a way to go until western cultures can adopt new foodstuffs and a better understanding of the hazards of eating insects is required for the next step.

GM Mosquitoes trial reduced Dengue by 95%

A trial where scientists released thousands of ‘friendly’ Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with a bacteria that will intended to suppress dengue fever has yielded positive results. The theory was that the genetically modified yellow fever carrying mosquitos breed with the existing population and become the dominant type, thus eliminating the disease spreading variants.

The results of the Oxitec trial in Brazil found that the disease carrying mosquito number were reduced by 95%, well below the disease transmission threshold. The control was species-specific, and the Oxitec male mosquitoes mate with the naturally occurring females of the population and their offspring die before they can transmit the disease.

New methods of pest control like this are crucial as Aedes aegypti is developing resistance to insecticides and removal of breeding sites leads to them re invading the following year from neighbouring habitats that are inaccessible to us. There is also no vaccine or specific medication currently for dengue, chikungunya or zika virus (3 debilitating mosquito-borne diseases) so the development of new methods is crucial.

Honeybees give each other Vaccinations

Once a disease takes hold of a hive, the workers of a honeybee colony become disorientated and fail to forage to feed their sisters and brood. Luckily bees naturally immunize their young against certain diseases found in their environment, and scientists have recently discovered how exactly they do this.

The latest research suggests that the queen is fed on royal jelly from pollen infected with bacteria, and these are digested in the gut and stored in the queen’s fat body. Pieces of the bacteria are then bound to vitellogenin (a blood protein) and this is carried via blood to supply developing eggs with immunity.

The industries relying on honeybees colonies and the pollination service could benefit if a similar vaccine was produced for other bee diseases- like american foul brood. The discovery of vitellogenin, the carrier of immune-priming signals, could have implications for other animals that pass on immunity to their young.

Wasps are an indicator for environmental decline

A decline in wasps is thought to be a reaction to the increased harm of pesticides on wasps, and their food resource. Wasps play a key role in ecosystems (a ‘keystone species’), and taking them out would cause many systems in an ecosystem to collapse- for example dead insects and detritus would accumulate, with pestilent flies possibly taking advantage of this and proliferating.

A possible decline in wasps that might go unnoticed is what’s called a ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, meaning that small declines in number each year might go unnoticed, despite a reduction in 50% of population over 20 years (for example).

For the 2 most recognizable species of social wasp, Vespula germanica and Vespula vulgaris, there have been reported losses in number and this has been attributed to a reduction in their food resources- wasps are carnivorous during colony development (eating dead insects, aphids, etc.) and take advantage of sugar foods (such as fermenting fruit) late in the season. The decline of wasps could therefore be a signal that insects lower in the food chain are vanishing too and endangering whole systems. Environmental decline should be indicated by more than just a decline in wasps, though!

Further Reading:


Dengue Mosquitos

Honeybee Immunization

Wasps and Ecosystems

Diseases in bumblebees and honeybees

All species of bumblebee and honeybee have associated diseases and parasites that impact on the health of populations. Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are those that pose a risk to human welfare (directly or indirectly) that affect ecosystem service production such as pollination of flowers or health of livestock. But what are these diseases and what are the factors that exacerbate them?

One commonly cited cause for colony collapse disorder (CCD) of the american honeybee (Apis mellifera) is the mite Varroa destructor. Varroa carries and transfers the viruses deformed wing virus (DWV) and acute bee paralysis virus (both implicated in CCD). Affliction with varroa mite also tends to weaken the immune system of honeybees. ‘Hygienic’ colonies of honeybees are able to remove the mites from brood cells and the workers groom themselves to remove the mite and disrupt it’s life cycle- this is a form of ‘resistance’ to the mite.

Other common parasites of honeybees include acarine tracheal mites, nosema spp (fungus that infest intestinal tracts), small hive beetle, wax moths and tropilaelaps (mites). Bacterial diseases include american foulbrood and european foulbrood and fungal diseases include chalkbrood and stonebrood. Honeybees are also susceptible to dysentery (inability to void faeces in flight) and viruses such as chronic and acute paralysis virus, kashmir bee virus, black queen cell virus, deformed wing virus and cloudy wing virus.

Researchers have found that two of these honeybee diseases (DWV and Nosema cerenae) are capable of infecting adult bumblebees. Further field work found that 11% of bumblebees were infected with DWV and 9% with N. cerenae, compared with honeybee infection rates of 35% and 7% respectively. The most likely explanation for the disease incidence in bumblebees is infection by honeybees, but bee-keepers can reduce the spread of disease by regular brood comb changes.  It is thought that ecological traits of these pollinating insects (e.g. overlapping geographic ranges, ecological niches and behaviours) promotes cross-species transmission of RNA viruses. Social behaviour and phylogenetic relatedness of social pollinators is thought to further facilitate transmission within and between hosts.

More recent evidence has suggested that commercial colonies bred for crop pollination and honey production can carry diseases (parasite infections and over 20 viruses) and be a threat to native species. Researchers found that 77% of imported bumblebee hives were contaminated with up to 5 different parasites. There is an urgent need for further research into the health of wild and imported bees and improvement in monitoring and management practices for honeybee and bumblebee colonies

Fürst, M. A., McMahon, D. P., Osborne, J. L., Paxton, R. J., & Brown, M. J. F. (2014). Disease associations between honeybees and bumblebees as a threat to wild pollinators. Nature, 506(7488), 364-366.

Manley, R., Boots, M., & Wilfert, L. (2015). Emerging viral disease risk to pollinating insects: ecological, evolutionary and anthropogenic factors. Journal of Applied Ecology.

Release of GM Mosquitoes to fight Dengue Fever in Brazil


In Rio de Janeiro, scientists have released thousands of mosquitoes infected with a bacteria that will hopefully suppress dengue fever. The theory is that the genetically modified yellow fever mosquitos (Aedes aegypti) will breed with the existing population and become the dominant type, thus eliminating the disease spreading variants.

Dengue is one of the most widespread and rapidly spreading mosquito-borne diseases in the world, with a 30-fold increase in global incidence over the past 50 years. So far Aedes aegypti have proved difficult to control with insecticides and more traditional methods. However it was discovered that A. aegypti transinfected with the wMel strain of Wolbachia showed limited dengue virus (DENV) replication. Virus-blocking persists in Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes after their release and establishment (like a vaccine). This, coupled with the ability of Wolbachia to both induce pathogen interferences and spread into mosquito vector population (i.e. become dominant) makes them ideal bio-control agents.

To achieve population suppression of Aedes aegypti using the RIDL system (Release of Insects carrying a Dominant Lethal), a large number of male mosquitos need to be released. This requires mass rearing techniques to obtain the highest quality males. RIDL is effective and an environmentally safe method of controlling mosquitoes, with no knock on effect to non-target organisms such as natural enemies.

Brazil leads the world in the number of dengue cases, with 3.2 million cases and 800 deaths reported in the 2009-14 period. Brazil has released around 11 million males in the 2012 programme, and part of the programme is also taking place in Australia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Bian, G., Zhou, G., Lu, P., & Xi, Z. (2013). Replacing a native Wolbachia with a novel strain results in an increase in endosymbiont load and resistance to dengue virus in a mosquito vector. PLoS neglected tropical diseases, 7(6), e2250.
Carvalho, D. O., Nimmo, D., Naish, N., McKemey, A. R., Gray, P., Wilke, A. B., … & Capurro, M. L. (2014). Mass production of genetically modified Aedes aegypti for field releases in Brazil. JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments), (83), e3579-e3579.
Frentiu, F. D., Zakir, T., Walker, T., Popovici, J., Pyke, A. T., van den Hurk, A., … & O’Neill, S. L. (2014). Limited Dengue Virus Replication in Field-Collected Aedes aegypti Mosquitoes Infected with Wolbachia. PLoS neglected tropical diseases, 8(2), e2688.
Peter, R., & Scott, O. N. (2014, September). Using Wolbachia infections to control dengue transmission. In 8th Cuban Congress on Microbiology and Parasitology, 5th National Congress on Tropical Medicine and 5th International Symposium on HIV/aids infection in Cuba.