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Can Spider Venom Save the Honeybee?

Posted by Stefan Sirucek in Weird & Wild

Controlling pests is a constant challenge for farmers. Months of hard work can disappear in no time as insects munch their way across a planted field.

Synthetic insecticides can beat back the swarms, but they also affect other creatures. A new study, just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, offers hope for the future—a bio-based poison that zaps only the bad bugs.

The new pesticide, based on the venom of a particular spider, kills common agricultural pests but leaves honeybees unharmed. (See “Honeybees in East Africa Resist Deadly Pathogens.”)

The bee-friendly nature of this pesticide is a big selling point. Honeybees are vital pollinators, but their numbers are declining around the world. There’s still much debate about the causes, and about the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), but conventional pesticides are thought to play a major role in the increased mortality. Toxins known as neonicotinoids have already been banned in the European Union because of their adverse effects on honeybees.

Pesticide Recipe

The new pesticide recipe starts with the venom of an Australian funnel-web spider, Hadronyche versuta.

Spider venom is a good candidate for an eco-friendly insecticide base because it’s created to kill pests in the first place. “Most spiders, when they try to get their prey, they’re targeting other insects,” says Elaine Fitches, a science officer at the Food and Environment Research Agency in the U.K., who co-authored the new study.

The venom contains useful component parts called peptides that differ in their targets and effects.

“The venom of funnel webs has been well studied and contains hundreds of peptides,” explains Pierre Escoubas, president of VenomeTech, a French company that specializes in developing venom-based therapies.

Many of those peptides are toxic to vertebrates, adds Escoubas, who was not involved in this study. “But some specifically target insect nervous systems while being harmless to vertebrates, and are thus good candidates for the development of novel biopesticides.”

To make the new biopesticide, scientists created a “fusion protein,” combining a spider-venom peptide and a kind of protein called lectin from the snowdrop plant.

The venom peptide would normally degrade in the insect’s gut when eaten. But the lectin acts as a carrier that allows the venom to pass from the gut to the central nervous system, where it has its intended lethal effect.

Researchers tested the venom-based pesticide on several common agricultural pests, including potato beetles, aphids, and armyworms. The toxin worked, disrupting nerve transmission and causing paralysis.

Happy Honeybees

The results were quite different when researchers tested the biopesticide on the European honeybee, apis mellifera mellifera. It was harmful to bees only in very high doses. At lower doses, in the range that bees might encounter in the field, it had no effect on survival or on the bee’s memory or ability to learn. (See “U.S. Honeybee Losses Not as Severe This Year.”)

The fact that the venom doesn’t bother bees is a significant discovery. “You’re talking about something that’s going to be pretty much benign,” says Fitches. “It benefits the environment.”

Why bees seem to be largely immune to the biopesticide’s effects may be rooted in genetics.

“Receptors of toxins … can vary slightly between insect groups,” says Escoubas. “Therefore various insect classes may be more or less sensitive to the effect of a given toxin. In this case, bees are apparently not very sensitive.”

The potential of the new pesticide lies in its specificity, say researchers—in its ability to target pests without harming threatened pollinators.

Major Step Forward

“It is important that governments and industry develop pesticides that are as specific to their target pests as possible,” says Geraldine Wright of Newcastle University, another study co-author.

“Our work shows that, depending on the metabolic target, it is possible to make insecticides that do not affect honeybees.” (See: “Intimate Portraits of Bees.”)

Escoubas called the findings  “a major step forward,” noting the importance of both the apparently selective nature of the pesticide and the fact that a protein-based pesticide would degrade rapidly and not linger in the environment long-term.

More research is required to assess the safety of the new pesticide—especially how it affects other beneficial insects such as bumblebees and wasps. But if it comes into regular use someday, that could be very bad news for pests and very good news for everyone else.



Evolutionary history of honeybees revealed by genomics

In a study published in Nature Genetics, researchers from Uppsala University present the first global analysis of genome variation in honeybees. The findings show a surprisingly high level of genetic diversity in honeybees, and indicate that the species most probably originates from Asia, and not from Africa as previously thought.

The honeybee (Apis mellifera) is of crucial importance for humanity. One third of our food is dependent on the pollination of fruits, nuts and vegetables by bees and other insects. Extensive losses of honeybee colonies in recent years are a major cause for concern. Honeybees face threats from disease, climate change, and management practices. To combat these threats it is important to understand the evolutionary history of honeybees and how they are adapted to different environments across the world.

"We have used state-of-the-art high-throughput genomics to address these questions, and have identified high levels of genetic diversity in honeybees. In contrast to other domestic species, management of honeybees seems to have increased levels of genetic variation by mixing bees from different parts of the world. The findings may also indicate that high levels of inbreeding are not a major cause of global colony losses", says Matthew Webster, researcher at the department of Medical Biochemistry and Microbiology, Uppsala University.

Another unexpected result was that honeybees seem to be derived from an ancient lineage of cavity-nesting bees that arrived from Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. This stands in contrast to previous research that suggests that honeybees originate from Africa.

"The evolutionary tree we constructed from genome sequences does not support an origin in Africa, this gives us new insight into how honeybees spread and became adapted to habitats across the world", says Matthew Webster.

Hidden in the patterns of genome variation are signals that indicate large cyclical fluctuations in population size that mirror historical patterns of glaciation. This indicates that climate change has strongly impacted honeybee populations historically.

"Populations in Europe appear to have contracted during ice ages whereas African populations have expanded at those times, suggesting that environmental conditions there were more favourable", says Matthew Webster.

The researchers also identified specific mutations in genes important in adaptation to factors such as climate and pathogens, including those involved in morphology, behaviour and innate immunity.

"The study provides new insights into evolution and genetic adaptation, and establishes a framework for investigating the biological mechanisms behind disease resistance and adaptation to climate, knowledge that could be vital for protecting honeybees in a rapidly changing world", says Matthew Webster.


West’s historic drought stokes fears of water crisis

By Joby Warrick

WILLOWS, Calif. — When the winter rains failed to arrive in this Sacramento Valley town for the third straight year, farmers tightened their belts and looked to the reservoirs in the nearby hills to keep them in water through the growing season.

When those faltered, some switched on their well pumps, drawing up thousands of gallons from underground aquifers to prevent their walnut trees and alfalfa crops from drying up. Until the wells, too, began to fail.

Now, across California’s vital agricultural belt, nervousness over the state’s epic drought has given way to alarm. Streams and lakes have long since shriveled up in many parts of the state, and now the aquifers — always a backup source during the region’s periodic droughts — are being pumped away at rates that scientists say are both historic and unsustainable.

One state-owned well near Sacramento registered an astonishing 100-foot drop in three months as the water table, strained by new demand from farmers, homeowners and municipalities, sank to a record low. Other wells have simply dried up, in such numbers that local drilling companies are reporting backlogs of six to eight months to dig a new one.

In still other areas, aquifers are emptying so quickly that the land itself is subsiding, like cereal in a bowl after the milk has drained out.

How many straws can you stick into one glass?” asked John Viegas, a county supervisor who, after months of fielding complaints from constituents about water shortages, recently was forced to lower his own well by 40 feet. “People need to realize you can’t water everything.”

The shrinking of the aquifers has added a new dimension to the concerns over the historic drought that continues to shatter records across the Western United States. The parched zone now spans a dozen states and nearly 600 counties, from southern Texas to the northern Rockies, and includes fields and grazing land that produce a third of the country’s beef cattle and half of its fruit, vegetables and winter wheat. Prices for most of these products have soared this year.

Hardest hit is California. As of last month, nearly 60 percent of the state is officially in an “exceptional” drought — the highest level, above “severe” — and meteorologists are seeing no immediate change in a relentlessly dry forecast. Indeed, scientists are warning that the state’s cyclical droughts could become longer and more frequent as the climate warms.

If that happens, the elaborate infrastructure built to deliver water to the state’s 38 million residents and 27 million cultivated acres may not survive the challenge, new research suggests. Already the drought has led to the “greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture,” said a study last month by researchers at the University of California at Davis.

A massive shift to groundwater helped farmers survive this year, but if pumping continues at current rates, some of the state’s aquifers could soon be depleted, the study warned. One of the authors, Richard Howitt, a professor emeritus of resource economics, likened the problem to a “slow-moving train wreck.”

“A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account,” Howitt said. “We’re acting like the super rich who have so much money they don’t need to balance their checkbook.”

The study estimated that 5.1 million acre-feet of water will be pulled from the state’s underground reserves this year, a volume roughly equivalent to the storage capacity of Lake Shasta, the state’s biggest reservoir and third-largest lake after Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea.

Damage to aquifers is viewed as more serious because, once depleted, an aquifer takes far longer to replenish — often decades or more, compared with a few years for an empty reservoir, said Thomas Harter, a groundwater specialist from the university’s Land, Air and Water Resources Department.

“It’s a downward path,” he said. “We cannot do what we did this year on a permanent basis.”

Worst drought on record

Droughts in California are hardly new. Big ones come around every decade or two, the Western equivalent of the super-hurricanes that occasionally strike the East. The archeological record points to far worse droughts in the distant past, including some that lasted more than 50 years.

But that was before millions of people lived along the coastal bays, and before the state’s great Central Valley sprouted one of the most productive agricultural districts in the history of the planet.

Still, the current drought is the worst in California’s recorded history, and some of the costs are as visible as the retreating shorelines and bone-dry marinas of the state’s fresh-water lakes. Dozens of California cities and towns have imposed tough restrictions on water use, and many have posted fines of up to $500 a day on violators. In the state’s parched woodlands, fire crews chased 140 new wildfires in just the past week.

Large cities such as Los Angeles have coped with the water shortage by drawing from dedicated reservoirs constructed after previous dry spells, part of a celebrated “drought-proofing” effort promoted by politicians and urban planners. But those stores of water could also be threatened if the drought continues, scientists say. State officials have had to scramble to find drinking water for smaller towns and villages where supplies have all but run out.

In the state’s farm belt, the drought’s effects are less obvious, obscured by miles of still-lush walnut orchards and vast rice plantations where the knee-high green stalks mature in shallow pools of brown water. But the damage has been severe here, too. Some of it is visible in dry irrigation ditches and barren fields belonging to farmers who received no water allotment this year. Other wounds are hidden, such as aquifers that became contaminated with salt or farm chemicals after months of overpumping, or household wells that now pull up nothing but air.

It was never supposed to get this bad. For decades, the Central Valley’s farmers relied on their own form of drought-proofing: a vast network of reservoirs and irrigation canals built over decades to capture annual snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountains. And to recoup the costs of expensive irrigation systems, they switched to more profitable crops such as almonds, walnuts and rice, which require still more water.

But no one counted on having consecutive seasons in which the mountain snows never arrived. This year, the high peaks have been all but bare, causing the already depleted reservoirs to drop further. What was left in the canals had to be divvied up among thousands of farmers based on a complex seniority ranking, with large quantities set aside by law to ensure the survival of natural wetlands and salmon fisheries downstream.

Jeffrey Sutton, who supervises 140 miles of irrigation channels in the western Sacramento Valley for the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority, warned his customers to expect less water this year. It was even worse than he feared: While some farmers ended up with 75 percent of their usual allotment, many others received nothing at all.

“This was the first year it ever went to zero,” Sutton said from an office overlooking the network’s cement-lined main channel. “You can’t allocate water that’s not there.”


New program launched to boost honeybee population

by MBJ Staff

Published: August 14,2014

JACKSON — In light of the decline of honeybee populations around the world, the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, in cooperation with several other agricultural organizations, has launched the Mississippi Honeybee Stewardship Program.

This program outlines the basic standards that should exist between farmers and beekeepers when bees are located in or near agricultural production areas.

“Mississippi currently produces from 1 million to 1.5 million pounds of honey each year, with an economic wholesale value of approximately $1.4 million to $1.8 million,” said Farm Bureau President Randy Knight. “State beekeepers also produce queens and packaged bees worth more than $750,000 annually. Beeswax has a total wholesale value of approximately $45,000. Because of the importance of the honey industry, farmers and beekeepers have seen the importance of working together.”

One component of the program is the development and distribution of the “Bee Aware” flags that will be used to clearly identify hive locations that are near farmers’ crops. The flag, colored like the body of a bee, should be placed in a location that is highly visible by farmers operating ground-driven spraying equipment or by aerial applicators.

The level of cooperation between farmers and beekeepers has been high enough so far to keep the program voluntary in Mississippi. In some states, however, laws have been passed requiring beekeepers and farmers to follow certain procedures.

Farm Bureau developed the Mississippi Honeybee Stewardship Program with the support and cooperation of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Mississippi State University Extension Service, the Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Association, the Mississippi Beekeepers Association, the Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association and the Mississippi Ag Industry Council.


Ohio Officials Creating Honeybee Habitat In Highway Median
Monday August 11, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A state agency is turning a southern Ohio highway median into a honeybee paradise in an effort to create habitats for a bee population that has been declining in recent years.

The Ohio Department of Transportation planted wildflower seeds in two, 1-acre lots along Ohio 207 in Ross County in June to start a three-year process creating habitats for bees and other pollinators.
A department spokeswoman says the seeds beginning to germinate are a mix of native Ohio wildflowers intended to provide much-needed food for honeybees and beautify the road.
The Columbus Dispatch reports other parts of the state plan similar plantings.
Increasing numbers of diseases and pests in recent years have thinned colonies and threatened Ohio's agriculture industry, which relies on bees to pollinate more than 70 crops.


How sweet it is: Honey bee bacteria help break down carbohydrates

First metatranscriptome of bee gut finds 19 different bacterial phyla

July 28, 2014

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The digestive tract of the world’s most important agricultural pollinator, the honey bee, is a complex fermenting tank that serves up energy-providing short-chain fatty acids thanks to a host of microbial groups that reside in what an Indiana University biologist has described as an intensely intertwined and entangled microbiome.

Work from the laboratory of Indiana University biologist Irene Newton to create the first metatranscriptome of the honey bee gut has shed new light on how those organisms work together and apart from one another to carry out the dominant function of the gut microbiome: carbohydrate metabolism.

“The honey bee eats a primarily plant-based diet made up of foraged foods such as nectar and pollen," said Newton, an assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology at IU Bloomington. "Therefore, we focused our analysis on processes relating to carbohydrate metabolism, which are most relevant to the honey bee and which also dominated our transcriptomic dataset.

“In the honey bee gut microbiome, we saw expression of genes involved in fermentative processes, including the production of short-chain fatty acids, known to serve as an energy source and directly modulate the immune response of other animal hosts.”

Genes matching 19 bacterial phyla were identified, but dominating the communities were bacterial groups representing bacilli, gamma-proteobacteria and actinobacteria. Looking at how the entire group of microbiota could metabolize carbon-rich food sources by taking up sugars and fermenting carbohydrates, the team then developed a model of metabolism for the various microbial members.

One prominent microbial class in the bee gut, bacilli, is not able to make amino acids, but the other prominent classes -- actinobacteria and gamma-proteobacteria -- are believed to be able to synthesize all essential amino acids and may provide them to other members of the microbial community and to the bees themselves.

Bacilli, on the other hand, were found to encode and express enzymes involved in the production of short-chain fatty acids, such as acetate and lactate, that may be used by the host bee and by other microbial community members. As an interesting side note, two potential products of metabolism by the bacilli include a carbon storage and anti-freeze compound called 2,3-butanediol, which is used by microbes to prevent intracellular acidification, and acetoin, a chemical that produces a butter flavor in fermented foods.

The team’s sequencing strategy also uncovered historically overlooked bacterial groups in their dataset like clostridia, enterobacteriaceae and flavobacteriaceae. Clostridia, which had never been considered a significant contributor to the honey bee microbiome, contributed 46 different genes in the metatranscriptome -- a study of the complete set of messenger RNA molecules produced in the cells of the entire group of interacting organisms -- including genes involved in metabolism of short-chain fatty acids.

Finally, the team tested some of the predictions based on metatranscriptomic data using community metabolic profiling, an assay that allowed the researchers to detect the ability of a microbial community to utilize specific carbon compounds.  The team found that the bee gut community was able to utilize amino acids as well as a large array of saccharides and organic acids, supporting their predictions based on metatranscriptomics. The researchers also found differences between individual bees with regard to both metatranscriptome composition and metabolic profiling, suggesting that the bee microbiome composition and function can differ dramatically from bee to bee.

“We saw major differences in predicted metabolic pathways and in carbon utilization between individual bees from the same hive,” Newton said of findings published in the journal Environmental Microbiology. “This result suggests that key environmental or life history variables like age, genetics, diet and season can dramatically affect gut microbiome composition. Understanding the mechanism behind these community shifts will be critical for understanding how gut microbiome composition and activity relate to overall honey bee health and nutrition.”

2014 Annual WAS Conference

Missoula, Montana

September 17-20, 2014

37th Annual Meeting of the Western Apicultural Society (WAS), plus an International Workshop on Hive and Bee Monitoring, Saturday Short Courses for Beekeepers, and the Missoula Honey Harvest Festival;

The WAS Conference will be nested in a number of other events happening at the same time, or within days, including the 2nd International Workshop on Hive and Bee Monitoring, a "Color Run" (about 2,000 runners?), and the Missoula Honey Harvest Festival.  The WAS Conference will have a wide variety of speakers, on topics such as latest bee research from the U.S. and Canada; bee diseases; pesticides.  Broadening out, there will be presentations on climate change; native and urban plants for honey bees and native pollinators; and encouraging the use of locally grown crops and practicing sustainability in crop production.

The President's Message contains much more information on various aspects of the program, which is not yet finalized.  So return to the "Conference" link from time to time for updates.

This would be a good time to consider lodging for the Conference.  The Doubletree by Hilton Hotel might be the best bet.  It is a full-service hotel (Finn and Porter Restaurant, free shuttle from and to the Missoula airport, etc.) within walking distance of the campus.  The hotel address is 100 Madison Street, Missoula, MT.  Phone: (406) 728-3100.  The other, newer hotels, are on the opposite side of town.  They are too far away to walk to the campus and parking on campus is extremely limited.

For more information please visit:


Venom gets good buzz as potential cancer-fighter

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 11, 2014 — Bee, snake or scorpion venom could form the basis of a new generation of cancer-fighting drugs, scientists will report here today. They have devised a method for targeting venom proteins specifically to malignant cells while sparing healthy ones, which reduces or eliminates side effects that the toxins would otherwise cause.

The report was part of the 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society. The meeting, attended by thousands of scientists, features nearly 12,000 reports on new advances in science and other topics. It is being held here through Thursday. A brand-new video on the research is available at

“We have safely used venom toxins in tiny nanometer-sized particles to treat breast cancer and melanoma cells in the laboratory,” says Dipanjan Pan, Ph.D., who led the study. “These particles, which are camouflaged from the immune system, take the toxin directly to the cancer cells, sparing normal tissue.”  

Venom from snakes, bees and scorpions contains proteins and peptides which, when separated from the other components and tested individually, can attach to cancer cell membranes. That activity could potentially block the growth and spread of the disease, other researchers have reported. Pan and his team say that some of substances found in any of these venoms could be effective anti-tumor agents. But just injecting venoms into a patient would have side effects.  Among these could be damage to heart muscle or nerve cells, unwanted clotting or, alternately, bleeding under the skin. So Pan and his team at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign set out to solve this problem.

He says that in the honeybee study, his team identified a substance in the venom called melittin that keeps the cancer cells from multiplying. Bees make so little venom that it’s not feasible to extract it and separate out the substance time after time for lab testing or for later clinical use. That’s why they synthesized melittin in the lab.

To figure out how melittin would work inside a nanoparticle, they conducted computational studies. Next, they did the test and injected their synthetic toxin into nanoparticles. “The peptide toxins we made are so tightly packed within the nanoparticle that they don’t leach out when exposed to the bloodstream and cause side effects,” he explains.

What they do is go directly to the tumor, where they bind to cancer stem cells, blocking their growth and spread. He says that synthetic peptides mimicking components from other venoms, such as those from snakes or scorpions, also work well in the nanoparticles as a possible cancer therapy.

Pan says the next step is to examine the new treatment approach in rats and pigs. Eventually, they hope to begin a study involving patients. He estimates that this should be in the next three to five years.

The researchers acknowledge funding from the University of Illinois.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 161,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio


Buzzworthy Breeding To Bring Back Bumble Bees

August 11, 2014 7:21 am

Some scientists are going to great lengths to help the agreeable Western bumble bee make a comeback.

You might not have noticed, but this important pollinator of both flowers and greenhouse crops has nearly disappeared from the landscape. An introduced fungal disease is suspected of decimating populations of the fat and furry Western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis).

Researchers with the U.S. Agriculture Department have identified some surviving colonies that show disease tolerance. Now a federal bee lab in Utah is collaborating with experts at Washington State University to reestablish the native pollinator. USDA entomologist Jamie Strange is leading a captive breeding project to improve stock fitness. That even includes artificial insemination of the small insects.

"We have this instrumental insemination that we're working on developing at this point," explained Strange. "It is still in its infancy, but we hope that we can actually remove sperm from the males and then inject it into the females like they do with certain honey bee breeding programs."

Strange says commercial pollination companies that truck bee colonies from farm to farm are eager for him to succeed.  "As honey bees become more limited and more expensive, they're looking for alternatives. We're here to help them," said Strange. "Growers are interested in using bumble bees to supplement pollination in berry crops, orchards and other places."

"When you have both honey bees and wild bees present, you have improved yields from both working together," observes collaborating entomologist Steve Sheppard at WSU. "There are certain crops where bumble bees are much better" pollinators, he said during a telephone interview.

Sheppard noted that British Columbia's large industry of hot house tomato growers relies on non-native bumble bees for pollination. He said honey bees typically fly to the ceiling if released in a glass house.

In any event, sooner or later either species tends to get out. "If Jamie can develop a regionally more appropriate species there could be a lot of interest to use it in Western states," said Sheppard. Non-native imports "could displace or harm native bumble bees. That's the logic to not take a species that does not occur in West and put in glass houses."

Some states, including Oregon, do not even allow the import of non-native bumble bees to minimize the risk of unleashing disease or unwanted competition with native species.

Bumble bees and honey bees can be fairly easily distinguished. Bumble bees are fat and furry. The smaller and slimmer honey bee more closely resembles a wasp. Honey bees live in large hives, while bumble bees tend to cluster in smaller nests which do not produce surplus honey.

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