Notes from the Field: The Maelstrom of Bee Viruses

I recently completed my PhD (yay!) and started my postdoc (eep!). I’m working at Martin-Luther University in Halle-Wittenburg. It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with the genetics of coevolution, I studied it in snails and trematodes in New Zealand for the last 6 years. So this postdoc is a change of pace in a very similar subject.

#pollinatorselfie

#pollinatorselfie

I’m studying the genetics of host-parasite coevolution in bees and their viruses. Specifically, I’m looking at host shifts, the genetics of increased virulence and the effect of recombination and migration on local adaptation. WHO’S EXCITED JUST BY READING THAT LAST SENTENCE? Me.

Honey bees with their varroa mites (the red dots near their wings)

Honey bees with their varroa mites (the red dots near their wings)

Let’s start with a little background. Bees have been declining across Europe and the US for the last few decades and the reason why isn’t quite clear. One hypothesis is that it is due to infestation with varroa mites, tiny mites that feed on the hemolymph of honey bees and increased in prevalence across Europe over the past few decades (similar pattern around the world except for Australia). However, the extent to which the varroa kills/harms/reduces the fitness of honey bees is unclear.

 

Enter the virus (and me, really). There are a series of viruses that are found in bees everywhere, including in honey bees, bumble bees and wild bees, Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). But it’s been at relatively low levels, and doesn’t seem to cause serious mortality within hives. Unless, that is, DWV occurs with varroa mites. Then the virus sweeps through the population, annihilating the hive. So, is this increase in virulence of DWV associated with an ecological shift, such that the varroa mites are injecting the virus when they feed, rather than the bees simply eating the virus when it’s found on flowers? Or is it a genetic change that has caused the virus to sweep through populations where it previously was fairly benign. And does this effect honey bees, or is it spilling over into the bumble bee and wild bee populations?

Honey bees with DWV.

Honey bees with DWV.

Which brings me to the field. The first step of my postdoctoral position has been to collect honey bees and bumble bees from islands off the coast of Scotland. Why islands? Because everything on the mainland is saturated with varroa mites. To compare the effect of the virus on bumble bee populations with and without varroa we’re looking at three types of islands: islands without honey bees (varroa can only infect honey bees), islands with honey bees and that don’t have varroa, and islands with honey bees and varroa. The list of things I want to do with this data is long, and will involve another post (stay tuned), but for starters we’re looking for transcriptional difference between the virus in these three types of islands.

And maybe looking at local adaptation. Or trying to understand how long it takes negative frequency dependent selection to act within an haplodiploid population. Or using spatial covariance to find the genomic regions involved in coevolution. Stay tuned kids, this is going to get exciting.

In the meantime, I’ve got to go collect some more bees.

Where the bees are. In this case, Colonsay Scotland.

Where the bees are. In this case, Colonsay Scotland.

 

Pokemon GO- bad for evolution education?

There are many reasons Pokemon GO is great. People are getting outside, exercising more, and generally becoming more engaged with their communities.

But it’s not great for the public’s understanding of evolutionary biology.

Why you might ask? Read about it over at Forbes.

And if you want a studio that is working on making a game that’s good at teaching evolution, check out Polymorphic Games. It’s a collaborative effort to develop games that teach evolution, but are as fun as Grand Theft Auto.

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Advancements in the evolution of the female orgasm

Male orgasm is pretty easy to figure out. Without it, there is no insemination, so evolutionarily if you can’t get off you can’t make babies. Pretty straight forward.

The female orgasm however is more of a mystery. It is unclear why it occurs (and to some, unclear HOW it occurs).

So the recent research on the evolutionary origin of the female orgasm in The Journal of Experimental Zoology… earth shattering.

Read about the results over at the New York Times!

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Corpse flowers UNITE!

I don’t know if you have noticed, but there are a lot of corpse flowers in bloom right now. Given that these plants (Amorphophallus titanum) flower rarely, this is a particularly interesting feat. At the moment there are 10 foot tall corpse flowers open (and stinking ) in Washington, D.C., Bloomington, Indiana, and Sarasota, Florida.

That’s in addition to blooms earlier this year in Chicago, Charleston, Illinois, and Winter Park, Florida.

Given that there are only there have only been 157 Amorphophallus titanum that have been recorded in bloom between 1889 and 2008, that’s a lot of corpse flowers blooming in just one country over just one year.

WTF?

Read about possible reasons why over at Atlas Obscura!

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