Bee geneticist applauds work of researchers

Coromandel beekeeper Dr Oksana Borowik has observed bee losses in her hives.
CHRIS HILLOCK

Coromandel beekeeper Dr Oksana Borowik has observed bee losses in her hives.

AN internationally trained scientist and specialist in bee genetics has applauded the work of two independent scientists who identified a new pathogen that may be linked to significant colony losses of bees in the Coromandel region.

The director of Genetics Otago and lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Otago, Associate Professor Peter Dearden said the scientists who identified the new pathogen were "excellent people who deserve full credit for their work". 

Dearden was awarded the Royal Society of New Zealand's Callaghan Medal for science communication in 2014 for the outreach work of Genetics Otago and his involvement in communicating genetics research on honey bees to the beekeeping industry and the public.

He said Coromandel beekeeper Dr Oksana Borowik was a highly-trained scientist whose sound observations of bee losses in her hives in spring led her to start asking questions about the cause of those losses and prompted her to call in a diagnostic laboratory to investigate. 

Dearden said the Gisborne diagnostic laboratory dnature, run by technical director John Mackay, had done an "absolutely brilliant" job of identifying a parasite (Lotmaria passim) that attacks the intestine of bees and had not been seen before in New Zealand.

"This gives me some surety that what we are looking at here is serious,"  Dearden said. "They are not crying wolf lightly. They have found something and they think it's important."

"We have bee deaths occurring that are unusual and there are signs that there are pathogens involved that we haven't identified before. Those two things give us reason for concern for what is happening there."

The Lotmaria pathogen was one of a mix of pathogens recently discovered in honey bees, he said.

"It's hard to tell if we're finding these things because we're looking harder or we're finding them because they are increasing in frequency and are much more significant than they used to be."

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He said it was also hard to tell if the new pathogen was responsible for bee losses or not, "but it's certainly worrying."

"I think we need to be very careful to be monitoring bees in these areas to see if this is spreading, whether it's a localised phenomenon or whether we are going to see major losses of bees this winter in the North island,"  he said.

Dearden said it was almost irrelevant if bee losses could or could not be attributed to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon linked to pesticide use and blamed for the unexplained disappearance of huge numbers of bee colonies in Europe and North America. 

"Part of the issue is we don't really know what CCD is," he said. "We have an unusual number of bee deaths. They have symptoms perhaps similar to what you would expect for CCD, but we don't know what causes CCD. We can't identify a single culprit, so it's very hard to say if this is the same phenomenon that we have seen overseas."

Dearden said it was difficult to pinpoint the reason for recent bee deaths on the Coromandel, Wairarapa and Raglan regions. But he said scientists had been astounded at the levels of another bee pathogen Nosema Ceranae found in surviving hives on the Coromandel peninsula.

"This is not a slight increase; it has been quite a large increase in pathogens," he said.

"The problem really is one of cause and effect. We really don't know if bees are dying, which allows pathogens to increase in numbers, or whether the increase in pathogen numbers is causing the bees to die."

"The question is: Can we find a link between the pathogens and these bee losses and, if we can, what can we do about it?"

 - Stuff

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