Research buzz: Professor, students identify bacterium that may kill honey bees

December 30, 2016

From: University of Wisconsin-Stout 

A University of Wisconsin-Stout biology professor and his students may have made an important discovery in the effort to determine why honey bee hives are dying out during the winters in the Upper Midwest.

Biology Professor Jim Burritt and his students have published research about a new strain of the bacterium called Serratia marcescens strain sicaria. With evidence of its killing power, they chose the name sicaria, which means assassin, and Ss1 for short.

“Our results indicate that Ss1 may contribute to the wintertime failure of honey bee colonies. We believe this is important because most beekeepers in our area lose over half of their hives each winter. In Dunn County, the percentage of winter hive failure rates has been as high as 80 percent recently,” said Burritt, himself a longtime beekeeper.

The bacterium came to light under a microscope at UW-Stout as researchers looked for a different organism in blood drawn from sick bees in Dunn County. They saw something unexpected.

“It was clear we were looking at something different. As we did more testing on the organism, we began to realize we may be working with a new threat to honey bees. We then collaborated with experts in bacterial genetics and biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who used mass spectrometry and three independent, whole-genome methods to confirm this organism had not been previously described in the literature,” Burritt said.

With evidence of a possible new disease in bees, UW-Stout then recruited beekeepers in eight west-central Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota counties and received support from the Wisconsin and Minnesota beekeeping associations to provide samples from 91 hives for testing.

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