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Honeybee researcher at ֱ works to understand disease threatening pollinators, specialty crops

Contact: Meg Henderson

Priyadarshini Basu investigates a hive.
Priyadarshini Basu investigates a hive. (Photo by Ramesh Sagili, Oregon State University)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Tiny but mighty, the humble honeybee carries the weight of the world’s enormous agricultural system on its delicate wings. However, the bacterium Melissococcus plutonius, commonly known as the causative agent for the European foulbrood disease, or EFB, threatens the lives of these industrious insects and health of the crops they pollinate—most notably blueberries.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honeybees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. each year, including more than 130 types of fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Priyadarshini “Priya” Chakrabarti Basu, assistant professor in Mississippi State’s Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology, is investigating the causes of and proposing solutions to mitigate EFB’s spread and impacts.

“Surveys reported that nearly half of commercial honeybee colonies in the U.S. died last year,” said Basu, who is also a scientist in the university’s Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. “Although EFB is just one of many factors that threaten our colonies, its impact on beekeepers and crop producers is keenly felt as pollination and production costs rise, and those increases are passed on to consumers. The health of our bees affects all of us.”

She explained that for many years, beekeepers across the U.S. and Canada have reported EFB in their colonies, specifically those going to blueberry pollination, and they’ve become increasingly hesitant to send their bees to blueberry production.

The four-year, $4.2 million study—part of a USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative to support these specialized ag industries—is led by Ramesh Sagili, associate professor of apiculture at Oregon State University. Scientists from Washington and California are joining Sagili and Basu to conduct a two-year field study seasonally rotating a series of honeybee colonies among blueberries and other crops in each participating state. During each rotation, the team will investigate the effects of crops, weather conditions, nutritional landscape, fungicides and other environmental factors contributing to EFB. They also will study the effectiveness of probiotics as a treatment.

Following the field work, the team will conduct an economic impact study of EFB on the blueberry production industry, providing a larger context to their discoveries about the nature of the disease. By the end of the four-year period, their findings and management strategies will be published in a variety of scientific journals, stakeholder publications and media outlets.

To begin, the bee colonies in the Western states will start their journey in the early spring from California almond tree groves. From there, they will travel to blueberry farms and then rotate to later-season crops such as fruit trees for the remainder of the year. In Mississippi, the colonies are taking a slightly different path that complements the different climate and growing seasons in the South. All colonies will replicate their rotations for a second year.

“We’re conducting the study this way because EFB can be very unpredictable—some years are very bad, but there are also years where cases are very low,” said Basu.

Her part in the study deals with a different blueberry variety and slightly different rotational schedule. While the Western states are looking at northern highbush blueberries, Mississippi’s most prevalent variety is rabbiteye, which is more conducive to a warmer, humid climate and blooms earlier in the year. The Mississippi bees will rotate to honey production for the rest of the year instead of moving on to pollinate other production crops.

Assisting with the project are Bound’s Blueberry Farm in Wiggins, which operates a large production of rabbiteye blueberries, and three Mississippi beekeepers who have donated colonies to the project: Austin Smith of Petal and Steven and Richard Coy of Stone County.

“As a commercial beekeeper, I am very interested in this research and collaborating with Dr. Basu and her team,” said Richard Coy. “Beekeepers work hard to maintain our colonies, and we all benefit from research that gives us more knowledge and tools to keep our bees healthy.” 

In addition to the site work, Basu is guiding her graduate student Mckaela Whilden of Bryan, Texas in conducting molecular work—evaluating the nutritional quality of the pollen samples collected from the cropping systems across all four states and examining the nutritional physiology of the honeybees from all experimental colonies across all states.

“We want to learn whether nutritional stress, or not getting enough nutrients from the landscape, is a factor in contracting EFB,” she said. “We’re also studying the expression of some key genes, which may tell us more about the nutritional physiology of the colonies.”

For more information on the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, visit .

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