By Alex Inberg
Varroa Project Lead, Monsanto
As I read daily media articles about honey bee health and the importance of honey bees as pollinators to our food supply and the environment, I feel compelled to offer my perspective as a scientist working on finding a solution to improve the health of honey bees. While many explanations for the widely-debated phenomenon of colony collapse have been circulated, to this date, scientists can agree only on the fact that multiple factors contribute to honey bee demise.
Since 2009, I have been involved in research to develop products based on RNA interference (RNAi) that would improve honey bee health. I can testify first-hand that the R&D process takes a very long time and requires significant financial investments. At Beeologics, a start-up Israeli company, we were able to focus on just one problem that may contribute to colony collapse – the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV).
Since Monsanto purchased Beeologics in 2012, we have been able to significantly expand the scope of our research thanks to access to state-of-the-art resources and financial capital. The honey bee health research facility Monsanto opened recently in Israel enables scientists to use advanced molecular biology methods and contains experimental facilities that create a realistic hive-like environment, as well as a field experimental platform.
As part of Monsanto, we can tackle so much more than we were able to do as a small company. In line with Monsanto’s commitment to honey bee health, we are focused on addressing two of the biggest problems that affect honey bee health: Varroa, a parasitic mite that attacks honey bees and multiple viruses that the Varroa mite helps transmit to honey bee colonies.
Our research is focused primarily on employing RNA interference (RNAi) – a naturally occurring gene silencing phenomenon discovered by the Nobel-prize winning scientists Craig Mello and Andrew Fire – to disrupt the negative effects of the Varroa mite and viruses on honey bee health. The idea is to rely on RNAi, which is based on mechanisms that occur in nature in plants and insects, to specifically target the Varroa mite and the virus genes in order to disable them. This new technology, called BioDirect™, has the potential to develop safe, specific and sustainable solutions to protect honey bees from diseases.
Discussing innovations is always exciting, but it is also important to understand the journey a new technology takes from the discovery stage until it becomes a viable product. BioDirect™ Varroa and virus products are now in the discovery cycle. This means that we are collecting extended genomics data to understand the Varroa mite and the viruses that attack honey bees so we can target them specifically with the treatment. The goal is to turn down or silence the activity of a specific gene that will prevent viruses from replicating themselves maintaining low viral load and will cause the Varroa mite to die or disable its reproduction. We also need to understand the most optimal ways of formulating the active material and the best way to administer it to the organisms of the Varroa mite and the accompanying viruses.
Some teams are working on developing field testing analytics that will allow them to measure in precise detail the effectiveness of the newly developed remedies. Monsanto scientists are collaborating closely with academics to conduct the first field trials.
The beekeeping world is in desperate need for a precise, safe and sustainable solution to combat the Varroa mite and honeybee viruses and since research takes time, we may have a long way to go until a product is brought to market. Nevertheless, when you combine rigorous science with groundbreaking technology, the outlook is optimistic.