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Treatment for deadly bee virus promising

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There's buzz about a new treatment that could save bee populations from a deadly virus.

Researchers at the University of Manitoba have found a way to suppress the deformed-wing virus (DWV), which has had catastrophic effects on bee colonies worldwide, causing many to have crumpled or deformed wings.

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Entomology PhD student Suresh Desai fed his bees double-stranded RNA, a treatment that prevented the virus from expressing itself in the host.

"It gives us a little bit of hope that we can manage this virus, because there is no control mechanism right now," he said.

The study, published online on Insect Molecular Biology on June 12, showed bees fed the double-stranded RNA in a syrup and then inoculated with the virus had a much better survival rate than those who weren't. RNA is much like DNA, but is in a single strand. It carries the genetic material of some viruses, including DWV. RNA is taken from the DWV and then converted into a double strand. When introduced in the bee, it suppresses the viral RNA.

"(The) double strand of RNA can basically attack the virus and destroy it inside the bee," said Rob Currie, head of entomology at the University of Manitoba and Desai's PhD supervisor. "You're making a very targeted form of defence against the virus."

Desai said DWV can pack quite a punch, being transferred through food, varroa mites on the bees and also through reproduction, where a queen bee can pass on the virus to all her larvae.

"Those bees with the virus, they cannot fly and then they die between one and two days," said Desai. "For kids, if we have a bacterial infection, we get the antibiotic, but for a viral infection, you can't get anything."

Desai fed the sugary syrup with double-stranded RNA to larvae and full-grown bees, and found it protected them against the virus.

"Those bees survived very well. Eighty to 90 per cent of the larvae in that group were surviving," he said.

The new treatment gives hope after growing concerns about declining bee populations. Desai said 10 per cent of bee colonies used to die and that number has risen to 30 per cent. Some beekeepers have even lost 80 per cent of their bees because of DWV, he added.

The next step, Desai said, is moving the treatment from the lab to colonies outside. He said there also needs to be a faster and cheaper method of producing double-stranded RNA.

Currie said it would be easy for beekeepers to treat their bees.

"Beekeepers regularly feed sugar syrup to their colonies in the fall and in the spring as part of their regular management," he said, making it simple to add a dose of double-stranded RNA to their diet.

jennifer.ford@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2012 B3

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