Checking honeybee health by testing honey DNA

a chunk of honey comb is cut from a hive
Zack Bateson lifts a honey sample from a hive to be tested for the DNA of pathogens that cause diseases which can contribute to the death of a bee colony.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Hundreds of bees buzz around Zack Bateson as he bends over a frame from a hive that's loaded with honey.

Using a small tool, he lifts a dripping square of honeycomb into a container.

He needs about one and a half teaspoons of translucent golden liquid. Bateson will take the sample back to his lab and run it through a PCR test. It’s the same process used to detect the COVID-19 virus.

This bee disease test looks for fragments of genetic material from pathogens.

"We're able to detect viruses, bacteria and fungal pathogens that are found in bees, that are also found in the honey,” said Bateson. “So the honey is a great way to survey for various diseases in bee yards. It's a nice, quick, easy sample."

Bateson is a research scientist at the National Agricultural Genotyping Center in Fargo. The non-profit develops genetic tests for diseases, tracking invasive plants and other problems in the ag industry.

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a man looks into a bee hive
Rich Burns pulls a frame of honeycomb from a hive to be tested on Wednesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The lab has been running DNA tests on dead honeybees from across the country since 2016.

They started by testing for nine viruses and two bacteria in adult bees. Now they can test for 18 different pathogens.

Initially the tests could only identify the presence of viruses and other pathogens harmful to bees. Now the testing can quantify the level of each pathogen in the hive, providing beekeepers with more detailed information about the health of their bees.

Bateson collects about 200 bees from this hive, dropping them into a container with rubbing alcohol. The alcohol kills the bees. It's a common way of testing for invasive varroa mites in bee colonies. The mites can spread disease and are considered a significant contributor to the loss of honey bee colonies.

a large test tube filled with dead bees
Zack Bateson holds a tube of dead bees. DNA testing can determine the viral, bacterial and fungal disease load carried by a bee. Bateson is now using the same process to track pathogen DNA in honey samples.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The loss of bee colonies is a problem for commercial and hobbyist beekeepers who often lose hives to disease, especially over the winter months.

Pathogens, loss of habitat and pesticides are all thought to play a role in honey bee colony loss.

Testing honey instead of bees would be more convenient said Bateson, and honey from several colonies in a single location could be combined in a one test, providing a snapshot of disease in a group of bee hives.

These hives belong to Rich and Lisa Burns, who are hobby beekeepers on a small acreage about 20 minutes southeast of Moorhead.

"The more research and more data that you get, the better we can find results for whatever problems we’ve got coming up, or potential problems coming up,” said Rich Burns.

"Anything that we can do to help with the beekeeping cause, you know, we want to do that," said Lisa.

Lisa Burns is past president of the Red River Valley Beekeepers, a hobby beekeepers group. She’s encouraging other hobbyists to participate in this project, which will test honey samples from hobbyists and commercial beekeepers.

a woman looks at a hive of bees
Beekeeper Lisa Burns watches at research scientist Zack Bateson collects a honey sample from one of her hives on Wednesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Commercial bee operators often blame hobby beekeepers for spreading disease and pathogens.

There’s also research indicating that commercial bee hives moved around the country to pollinate crops carry a higher load of viruses and other pathogens.

"There's always this kind of butting of heads with the commercial and hobby beekeepers,” said Lisa Burns. “And so it will be really interesting to find out if really the hobby beekeepers are creating a problem."

This project might help clarify that question.

"We wanted to start looking at the hobbyists here in Minnesota and North Dakota for this project, and we want to compare commercial versus hobby colonies as close as we can to see if that assumption is true,” said Bateson.

a man holds a wooden frame of honey comb
Rich Burns examines a frame filled with honey. Burns and his wife Lisa are participating in a research project to test honey for DNA from pathogens that harm bees.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

In several years of testing adult bees for pathogens, Bateson said they've found certain viruses are good indicators of whether a honeybee colony will survive the winter.

"And so we're kind of using them as an indicator of health. We can use these pathogens as a way to say, ‘Hey, this colony is potentially stressed because we're seeing a lot of different pathogen diversity in a particular hive,’” he said.

Lisa Burns thinks this quick, easy disease monitoring test could also be an important tool for educating hobby beekeepers about disease.

"Don't just get the bees because they're cool, you know, you’ve got to manage them, you know, just like having kids or dogs you know, you’ve got to take care of them."

Zack Bateson will be collecting honey samples from hobbyist and commercial bee hives for several more weeks as he works to validate the process of testing honey for genetic evidence of bee killing pathogens.