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Jan 21, 2014 12:23 PM EST

Pollen-Borne Virus Resembling HIV Affecting Already Hurting Honey Bee Populations And The $14 Million Industry They Represent

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Could scientists one day be tasked to create robotic bees or devise some other solution to pollinate plants (a $14 billion industry)? The situation isn't that desperate yet, but a virus born from pollen, spread to plants, and now found in bees is one big factor decimating honey bee colonies, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Tobacco ringspot virus is the first virus on record to jump from pollen to bees and systematically affect their entire population and hives, according to a recent study examining the decline of honey bee populations. Researchers also pointed to pesticides and "beekeeping practices that stress the insect's immune system," such as feeding them high-fructose corn syrup rather than having them rely on their own honey supply, according to the LA Times.

Complicating the situation is the nature of the virus, which operates on the same basic principles as the HIV virus: as it replicates it also mutates enough to thwart the immune's system's defense.

"They have a high mutation rate," said Yan Ping Chen, a bee pathologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory in Maryland and lead author of the study. "Because of their genetic diversity, we see a lot of host jumping."

Frequent "host jumping" Chen means researchers still aren't sure how exactly the virus is spread, including whether it can jump from bees back to plants, the role of Tobacco ringspot-carrying mites, and if the bees can give it to each other. They're also unsure of its overall impact on bee populations, given its to-be studied characteristics and the other factors affecting the species' numbers.

"I want to be cautious," Chen said. "The cause of colony collapse disorder remains unclear. But we do have evidence that TRSV along with other viruses that we screen on a regular basis are associated with lower rates of over-winter survival."

Randy Oliver, a biologist and beekeeper who was not involved in the study but has done similar work, added to that point.

"I'd be hesitant to proclaim that this virus is the cause of colony collapse, but it certainly shows the degree of our lack of understanding of the complexity of bee pathogen interactions," he said.

The $14 billion work of renting honey bee colonies for pollenating farms is spurred by crops like almonds, whose cultivators spend $239 annually for their services. As bees struggle to survive, that cost will only increase, according to the LA Times.   

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