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Saving Honeybees

How a small investment in researchers is helping farmers deal with the most harmful bacteria killing their honeybee hives.
Research  |  Apr 14, 2014  |  By Shane Bevell

UNLV microbiologist Penny Amy is working on a cure for American foulbrood disease (AFB), which once found in a bee hive requires destruction of the hive. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)

School of Life Sciences microbiologist Penny Amy is researching the pathogens that target and kill the bacteria that have played a key role in the decline of the honeybee population.

Paenibacillus larvae play a role in American foulbrood disease (AFB), the most destructive bacterial disease for honeybees. Beekeepers frequently must burn entire hives because the disease can spread quickly to other colonies.

This threatens the agricultural industry because pollination by honeybees is essential for one-third of U.S. food crops, including apples, soybeans, almonds, and citrus -- crops valued at $15 billion per year.

The situation has grown worse as many strains of P. larvae have developed resistance to antibiotics. However, those strains remain vulnerable to viruses such as the ones Amy and graduate student Diane Yost are researching as a possible method of controlling AFB.

Amy used the Research Fund for Innovation and Development award to travel to Washington state to observe and treat infected hives. They conducted a spray treatment of a very sick hive and of one that was not badly infected. They then took samples from hives that did not appear to have AFB but which had either died or had other problems in order to verify for the keepers whether AFB was present.

The AFB phage research was the basis for Yost's master's thesis. Amy and additional students continue conducting lab-based experiments with larvae using the new incubator that was purchased using the RFID funding.