A New Virus in Wasps Could Threaten Honey Bees

A wasp species in Hawaii has a virus that experts fear could easily spread to our most important crop pollinators.

<p>WikiMedia Commons/<a href="" title="User:EugeneZelenko">Eugene Zelenko</a><span></span></p>

A new virus has been found in a species of wasp that has the potential to spread to honey bees, among the world's key crop pollinators.

The virus, dubbed Moku, which means island in Hawaiian, was found in the western yellow jacket (Vespula pensylvanica), a wasp species that's considered an invasive pest in Hawaii. A wide-ranging general predator, the wasp feeds on a variety of arthropods, including honey bees.

Researchers from multiple institutions who collaborated on the discovery, writing in the journal Nature, are concerned that the virus could be particularly threatening to honey bees. The insects are vital to crop pollination worldwide and, by extension, to the global food supply.

As it is, honey bees already face serious threats from colony collapse disorder, in which a bee colony's worker bees disappear, and Varroa mites, which can bring about the condition called deformed wing virus and render a bee's wings useless.

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After fully sequencing the virus' genome, analysis showed the researchers that MV is most closely related to slow bee paralysis virus, which paralyzes a bee's front legs.

"Worryingly," the scientists wrote, "MV sequences were also detected in honey bees and Varroa from the same location, suggesting that MV can also infect other hymenopteran [bees, ants or wasps] and Acari [mite and tick] hosts."

The team wrote that it's not yet clear how the virus can spread from wasp to honey bee, although they suggested that flower nectar, on which both wasp and bee feed, could be a shared resource that facilitates transmission.

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"Future challenges will be assessing the biological relevance of these novel pathogens and the role they play in the ecology of their hosts," said the study's lead author Gideon Mordecai, in a statement.

"The true significance of this discovery lies in the potential ramifications that a new biological invasion could cause," offered Declan Schroeder, who runs the virus ecology group at the Marine Biological Association (MBA), which genetically analyzed the new virus.

"Could we be seeing history repeating itself?" Schroeder asked. "Similar to the Spanish invasion of the Inca and Aztec empires in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was the smallpox and measles viruses that inflicted the most damage on the individuals of these populous nations. Here we are seeing an invasive wasp bringing in a new virus to honey bees."