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Greene Laboratory Scientists Investigating Bee Colony Collapse Disorder

Honey Bee
Billions of bees across the United States are estimated to have died because of CCD.

Researchers at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health Jerome L. and Dawn Greene Infectious Disease Laboratory are playing an important role in the investigation of so-called bee colony collapse disorder (CCD). Their work, as reported recently in the New York Times, focuses on viral disease incidence as it relates to honey bee colony deaths, specifically the increased deaths in bee colonies with unique symptoms.

The disorder is so-named because bees leave their hives in search of nectar but fail to return, resulting in the collapse of the entire colony. Estimates suggest that billions of bees have died in the United States and other countries have reported the disorder.

Bees play an integral role in the world food supply and are essential for the pollination of more than 90 fruit and vegetable crops worldwide. The economic value of these agricultural products is placed at more than $14.6 billion in the United States alone. In addition to crops, honey bees also pollinate many native plants within the ecosystem. The increased deaths in bee colonies seriously threaten the ability of the bee industry to meet the pollination needs of fruit and vegetable producers.

The Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group, a collaboration of researchers from across the country—including Pennsylvania State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mailman School’s Greene Lab and others—are working to identify potential causal factors and devise preventative measures to disrupt the disorder. The ultimate goal is to ensure strong colonies for pollination.

Diana Cox-Foster, professor of entomology at Penn State, testified on March 29 before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture on the group’s ongoing research and highlighted the Greene lab’s participation in the efforts.

Greene lab scientists W. Ian Lipkin, Thomas Briese, Gustavo Palacios and Sean Conlan are using state-of-the-art technology to identify the cause of CCD and assist in addressing this threat to the world food supply.

W. Ian Lipkin
Professor W. Ian Lipkin is also a professor of neurology and pathology at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Lipkin, who is director of the Greene lab, and his team at the Greene Lab and Northeast Biodefense Center are investigating whether there are new or reemerging pathogens responsible for CCD. Many pathogens have the ability to impair the immune defenses of their hosts. While none of the known pathogens in CCD bees have been identified as having immunosuppressive abilities, the team is working to identify all microbes and viruses associated with CCD colonies and anticipate isolating many new pathogens not previously associated with bees.

“We have developed tools to provide comprehensive, differential diagnosis of infectious diseases, including those caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi or parasites,” notes Lipkin. “These tools provide unique opportunities to rigorously address the challenges of pathogen surveillance and discovery in a situation such as this one.”

Published: Apr 20, 2007
Last modified: Apr 25, 2007