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Saving the Bees With Bugs

Oct 28, 2014 08:00 PM EDT

Even as US companies and agencies continue to turn away from the deadly pesticides that left local bee populations despondently low, a natural factor is still making recovery earned. Now researchers behind a new study say that they discovered a nature-made solution to this natural problem.

Bee experts have known about the disease American Foulbrood for centuries. Aptly named, the disease is a bacterial infection that targets the brood of the hive, their larvae, in particular. It is a notoriously hardy disease known to resist most antibiotic treatments. There is a history of beekeepers burning entire hives to the ground in order to ensure the disease does not make its way to their other bees.

While a problem, American Foulbrood was completely natural and manageable, but in the wake of massive bee population decline with the widespread use of neonicotinoids in the United States, the disease is now making it particularly difficult for remaining bee populations to recover.

Now researchers at Brigham Young University say they have found a natural counter to the Paenibacillus larvae bacterium that causes the foulbrood disease.

"Phages are the most abundant life form on the planet and each phage has a unique bacteria that it will attack," senior researcher Sandra Burnett explained in a news release. "This makes phage an ideal treatment for bacterial disease because it can target specific bacteria while leaving all other cells alone."

This sounds simple, but finding a phage that is already naturally specialized to hunt down American Foulbrood's cause was an exceptionally daunting task for the researchers, and reportedly took some time.

After it was discovered though, it was a simple process of applying the phage to an infected hive via a sugar-water solution.

"Just the nature of a phage itself is that it's self-replicating at the expense of the bacteria," Burnett added. "It multiplies itself so there are more of them to hunt down the bacteria. Then as soon as the host is gone, the phage just disappears."

After a significant time spent gene sequencing, Burnett and her colleagues believe they have identified five phage types that could be candidates for honeybee treatment.

The work is detailed in full in the journal BMC Genomics.

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