Honeybees, like other insects, have an immune system and can fight off viral diseases, but their ability to do so has been suppressed in recent years. Other research has shown that certain pesticides can weaken honeybee immune systems, as well as diminish bee sperm.
Yet another problem, according to Wenseleers, is "the free trade in bee queens, which are shipped around the world." If these bees are infected with deformed wing virus, they can easily pass it on to their daughter workers.
Deformed wing virus in all of its forms - both obvious and covert - is part of the so-called "Beepocalypse," also known as Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been years in the making. Starting around the year 2006, beekeepers reported tremendous losses, with hives reduced up to 90 percent in some instances.
Solving the longstanding problem is proving to be very challenging. To prevent the deformed wing virus from spreading, Wenseleers hopes that beekeepers will "rely more on locally acquired bee stocks, to avoid diseases from spreading."
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Since parasitic Varroa mites are also known to transmit the virus to honeybees, efforts to control these pests are ongoing. Wenseleers said that "some beekeepers think that the best course of action may in fact be a very simple one: just let nature take its course and let the bees themselves develop Varroa resistance."
On the other hand, he added, the agrochemical company giant Monsanto has been trying to develop a method called RNA Interference (RNAi) to combat bee and other animal diseases, including deformed wing virus. RNA is a molecule in the cells of plants and animals that helps to make proteins.
Wenseleers explained that the method relies on mixing synthetic RNA in a sugary syrup fed to bees. The synthetic compound "is designed to bind to specific genes of the pathogen or parasite, thereby preventing it from replicating." The technique still needs refinement, possibly because the synthetic RNA is not stable enough over long periods of time.
"With further development, though, this revolutionary new method could well have a lot of promise to treat viral diseases, including in crops, livestock or humans," Wenseleers said.
WATCH: The Future of Bees