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Workers bees throng around a mother queen
This week at the Entomological Society of America meeting, ARS entomologist Yanping Chen reports the first evidence that a mother queen (in photo, bee with white dot on body) can vertically transmit viruses to her offspring. Photo courtesy Yanping Chen, ARS.

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Queen Bees Shown to Pass Viruses to Their Offspring

By Alfredo Flores
December 11, 2006

The first evidence that viruses can be transmitted vertically from mother queens to their offspring in honey bee colonies has been discovered by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists.

ARS entomologists Yanping Chen, Jeff Pettis, Jay Evans, Anita Collins and Mark Feldlaufer in Beltsville, Md., made the discovery by testing individual queen bees and their offspring for deformed wing virus, sacbrood virus and black queen cell virus.

The finding, reported earlier this year in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, will be discussed this week at the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Indianapolis,


The researchers examined queen feces and various tissues including hemolymph, heads, guts spermatheca and ovaries. Tissues of gut, ovaries and spermatheca, as well as the feces, were found to carry viral infections. In a separate study, the virus status of queens and their offspring was examined simultaneously. Once viruses in the queen bees were identified, the same viruses were found in their offspring, including eggs, larvae and adult workers.

According to Chen and her colleagues, this information is invaluable for improving understanding of the epidemiology of virus infections in honey bees. It could be used to predict bee colonies at risk of virus infection, which, in turn, would contribute to the development of effective disease-control strategies.

Honey bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of U.S. crops each year. The health of honey bee colonies is continuously threatened by various pathogens, with viruses posing an unknown risk because of lack of information concerning transmission and outbreaks.

The Entomological Society of America, founded in 1889, has more than 5,700 members and is the largest organization of entomologists in the world. More than 2,000 entomologists and other scientists are expected to attend this year's annual meeting.

Chen, Pettis and Evans are with the ARS Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md. Collins, formerly with the lab, is now retired. Feldlaufer, formerly with the lab, is now research leader of the ARS Chemicals Affecting Insect Behavior Laboratory in Beltsville.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.