Humans Are Spreading Deadly Bee Virus, Study Says

A honeybee with pollen on its legs.

The deformed wing virus is decimating bee populations worldwide, and it is spreading because of human trade and the transport of bees, a new study reports.

“It’s largely a man-made problem,” said Lena Wilfert, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Exeter and an author of the report.

Dr. Wilfert and her colleagues analyzed genetic data from honeybees and Varroa mites, which infect the bees with the virus and feed on their larvae. After gathering samples from 32 locations and 17 countries, they traced the major routes by which the virus spread.

The researchers found that the virus, which originated in Asian bee populations, first spread to Eastern and Western Europe, and then moved to North America, Australia and New Zealand.

“It was driven by the trade and movement of honeybee colonies,” Dr. Wilfert said. According to her study, which appears in the journal Science, the virus is spreading largely because of the transport of European honeybees.

On its own, deformed wing virus does not seem to be a major threat to hives. The infection typically results in deformed wings and other developmental abnormalities in infected bees. When a hive also has Varroa mites, however, the combination is deadly: The mites eat larvae and infect high numbers of bees with the virus.

“We rely on pollinators both for crops and for biodiversity,” Dr. Wilfert said. “We need to consider our impact not on just honeybees but so many other pollinators that have no one to take care of them.”

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