Killer suspects identified

The case of the disappearing honeybees is one whodunit that has befuddled scientific sleuths for years. Since 2006, 20 to 40 percent of U.S. bee colonies have “collapsed,” with their hives mysteriously and suddenly left almost empty, the bees gone without a trace. Now, a partnership between the military and academia have identified two of the suspected killers: A virus and a fungus appear to have been in cahoots to kill off the bees.

Army scientists in Maryland and entomologists in Montana have published their study in the online science journal PLoS One. In it, researchers describe how both the virus and fungus breed in cool, damp weather and harm bees’ guts. The fungus, N. ceranae, had already been identified by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, but new military software helped uncover the new DNA-based virus and helped link it to the fungus.

How the virus-fungus combination kills the bees is still uncertain, as is why bees fly off and die far from their hives. Researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana in Missoula told the New York Times the combo may disrupts memory or navigating skills, causing the bees to get lost. He said a sort of insect insanity could be another possibility.

The new information may be used to help protect bee colonies by using antifungal agents to control the fungus. As ever, the scientists say more research is needed to determine how future outbreaks could be prevented and what other factors may play a role.