Good news for bees? Varroa mites have genetic holes in their armour

Seemingly indestructible Varroa mites have decimated honeybee populations and are a primary cause of colony collapse disorder, or CCD.

Zachary Huang, an entomologist at Michigan State University, describes the mite is the greatest threat to honeybee health worldwide,

“They have developed resistance to many pesticides, so it’s urgent that we explore and target these genes to develop better control methods.”

A promising development is the discovery by MSU scientists of genetic holes in the pests’ armour that could potentially reduce or eliminate the marauding invaders.

The team’s results, published in the current issue of Insect Science, have identified four genes critical for survival and two that directly affect reproduction.

The mite sucks the blood of honeybees and transmits deadly viruses. Its lifecycle consists of two phases: one where they feed on adult bees (the phoretic phase) and a reproductive phase that takes place within a sealed honeycomb cell, where the mites lay eggs on a developing bee larva.

The double-whammy of eating bees and spreading disease makes Varroa mites the number-one suspect of honeybee population declines worldwide.

Controlling such pests depends on either eliminating them or reducing their ability to reproduce. The MSU team used RNA interference to identify the key genes, which could achieve these outcomes. They injected the mites with double-stranded RNA, or dsRNA.

Interfering reduces transcription of a specific gene, the first step of making a gene, a piece of DNA, into a protein. This process, also known as “gene knockdown,” has been successful in reducing the mating success and the number of eggs produced by cattle ticks, which threaten cows and other livestock around the world.

Using this approach, the team identified two genes that caused high mortality in Varroa mites — Da and Pros26S. In fact, Da killed more than 96 percent of mites. They also identified four genes — RpL8, RpL11, RpP0 and RpS13 — that control reproduction.

Earlier research has shown that a combination of dsRNAs can be fed to bees at the colony level. Varroa mites absorb the “genetic cocktail” via bee blood and their population was reduced. Future research will explore whether a single-gene approach can be scaled up and achieve the same effect at a colony-wide setting. Using a single gene with a known mechanism will be more cost effective and safe to the honeybees.

The results may have applications beyond honeybees, too.

“It’s worth noting that Da reduced reproduction in species of mosquitoes and Drosophila,” Huang said.

Future research could help not only protect honeybees, but also reduce disease-carrying mosquitoes or crop-damaging pests, he said.

Goldsmith announces $35m for advanced genomics research

The Government will invest up to $35 million over seven years in Genomics Aotearoa, a new collaborative science organisation supporting advanced genomics research, Science and Innovation Minister Paul Goldsmith announced today.

Genomics is a fast-moving, data intensive research field which underpins a wide range of science of increasing importance to New Zealand, Mr Goldsmith says.

Led by the University of Otago, Genomics Aotearoa is an alliance between the Universities of Auckland and Massey, Crown Research Institutes AgReserach, ESR, Landcare Research, and Plant and Food, and 32 associate organisations including researchers and end users of genomics and bioinformatics.

From health research to the primary sector and the environment, there are considerable social and economic gains on offer from the new collaborative platform, Mr Goldsmith says.

Genomics involves data-intensive computing to decode the DNA of plants, animals, and humans to understand how groups of genes interact with each other and the external environment. It is not genetic modification, which is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome.

“This investment will establish Genomics Aotearoa as a collaborative platform of genomics research that grows New Zealand’s capability, builds international connections, and develops the tools and technologies that will support our genomics researchers in delivering excellent science,” Mr Goldsmith says.

“The new platform will accelerate genomics research in New Zealand, and thereby speed up our understanding of diseases like Kauri dieback, how to counter pest animal species, and develop new medical treatments for diseases such as cancer.”

Funding will come from the Government’s Strategic Science Investment Fund and follows a competitive two-stage application and assessment process managed by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Genomics Aotearoa presented a strong proposal that was comprehensive in scope and ambition, and seeks to cement national collaboration between genomic researchers and end-users across all life sciences of relevance to New Zealand’s economic, environmental and social wellbeing,” Mr Goldsmith says.

“This platform represents a new, strategic approach to Government investment in genomics research that allows us to build on our existing capability while remaining nimble enough to respond to future technological opportunities.”

MBIE will now work closely with Genomics Aotearoa as the platform undergoes a six month establishment phase which will involve developing a research agenda and work programme.

More information is available HERE.

 

Dairy industry body joins GIA biosecurity partnership

The Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand (DCANZ) has become the 15th and largest industry sector to join the Government Industry Agreement (GIA) biosecurity partnership.

DCANZ is the national organisation representing the dairy processor and exporters sector, comprised of 11 members responsible for 99% of the milk processed in New Zealand.

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said the dairy industry is a crucial part of New Zealand’s economy, making up over a third of all New Zealand total exports.

“It is vital we work together to prepare and respond to biosecurity threats.

“The discovery of the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis near Waimate is a real reminder of how important biosecurity is to the dairy sector. It’s good practice for all farmers to have an on-farm biosecurity plan.

“As the recent Biosecurity 2025 Direction Statement outlines, biosecurity is a shared responsibility. We need everyone working together sharing their expertise and experience.”

The signing of the agreement was attended by Mr Guy, Trade Minister Todd McClay and representatives of all major dairy companies

Other signatories to the GIA include:

  • Vegetables NZ
  • TomatoesNZ
  • Kiwifruit Vine Health
  • New Zealand Pork
  • Pipfruit New Zealand
  • New Zealand Equine Health Association
  • Onions New Zealand
  • Forestry Owners Association
  • New Zealand Avocado Growers’ Association
  • New Zealand Citrus Growers Incorporated
  • Potatoes New Zealand
  • New Zealand Winegrowers
  • Ministry for Primary Industries

No nutritional benefits of milk in light-proof bottles, Consumer NZ finds

Testing claims that light-proofed containers protect the vitamins in milk, Consumer NZ testing found little difference in nutrient content between major milk brands.

Fonterra-owned Anchor launched light-proof bottles four years ago, in response to research showing “light can cause damage to vitamin B2 and A”, the company said on its website.

Anchor stated:

“This isn’t good. Why? Well, because vitamin A is important in aiding healthy eyesight and immune system, whereas vitamin B2 helps your body turn food into fuel helping you feel less tired and run down.”

But Consumer NZ testing of five trim milk brands – Anchor, Home Brand, Meadow Fresh, Pams and Signature Range – shows miniscule differences in vitamin A and B2 content. Meadow Fresh sells its milk in “semi-opaque” bottles, the other three brands have transparent containers.

Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin says the tiny differences between the brands had no significant impact on the overall vitamin intake of a person eating a balanced diet.

“When we asked Fonterra for evidence of the nutritional superiority of milk stored in a light-proof bottle, it agreed there wasn’t any. We think consumers reading the company’s claims about vitamin content might be misled into thinking Anchor milk in light-proof bottles has a dietary advantage over its competitors.”

Fonterra has now changed the description on the Anchor website to refer to the taste difference of milk in light-proof bottles instead of a nutritional benefit.

Consumer NZ tested varieties of trim milk as experiments referred to on Anchor’s website concluded lower-fat milk was the most susceptible to vitamin A degradation.

Full test results and more information is available at consumer.org.nz and in the August edition of Consumermagazine.

IFP apples compare favourably with organic crops in biodiversity study

Dr Louise Malone has led a Plant & Food Research study comparing the biodiversity of modern, best-practice commercial apple orchards with organic orchards.

The survey of plants and 210,000 insects caught in traps in 15 Hawke’s Bay orchards found orchards managed using the Integrated Fruit Production system, or IFP, had similar or even slightly better biodiversity index scores than the organic orchards.

Libby Burgess, one of the study authors, says international markets are increasingly interested in the ecological impact of food production.

“They want to know how we grow crops, as well as what we produce,” she says.

Working in partnership with the grower organisation, New Zealand Apples & Pears Inc., scientists and growers developed the IFP system specifically to find ways to control pests that would have the lowest impact on the environment. Once proven in trials it was rapidly adopted in commercial apple orchards in the late 1990s.

A range of practices, such as monitoring pest numbers with pheromone traps, minimised the use of chemicals. That made it possible to make the best use of what is now the main weapon against pest species: carefully-vetted introduced natural enemies, or biological control agents.

Because IFP is now a mature system the Plant & Food Research team decided it was time to have another look at the impact it was having on plants and insects, and to compare IFP orchards’ biodiversity directly with organic orchards.

They found insect species sometimes differed between the IFP and organic orchards but every orchard had ample species to carry out ecological functions such as nutrient cycling and pest control.

Dr Malone says the outstanding feature in the results was that the traps collected around 10 times more Froggatt’s apple leafhoppers in organic orchards than in the IFP orchards. The sap-sucking leafhopper Edwardsiana froggatti is a serious pest, causing leaf damage and affecting bud and fruit development. Apart from this result, the survey showed undetectable differences in pests across orchard types.

“More importantly perhaps, there were no differences in the abundance and diversity of the key natural enemies that help to keep apple pests in check,” Dr Malone says. “This result shows IFP is protecting those beneficial species as intended.”

Ms Burgess says another key result satisfied another market priority.

“We were surprised and pleased to see that native or endemic species made up around 40% of the total in all orchard types,” she says. “That’s what overseas markets want to see – that biodiversity and especially local flora and fauna are protected – and that is what we’ve got.”

Dr Malone says the survey provides proof that IFP works.

“IFP works – and probably even better than we had hoped. The fauna in IFP orchards is just as rich as it is in organic orchards and that’s great news for the way we operate our orchards and for our brand overseas.”

New Zealand Apples & Pears technical manager Tim Herman is delighted to see the proof that biodiversity in IFP orchards is on a par with organic orchards.

“This data shows that what we are doing in IFP matches that in our organic production systems and helps us underline the environmental credentials of IFP in our export markets,” he says. “Export markets continue to challenge us to do better and minimise our environmental footprint. This demonstrates that we are meeting their expectations.”

The study is published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment.

Jo Goodhew bows out by calling for GM policy to be based on proven science

Retiring National MP Jo Goodhew began her valedictory speech by addressing “the many peoples, all voices, all mountains, all rivers” whom she thanked for coming to support her.

This injection of animist sentiments belied the tribute she played to science.

She recalled her ministerial involvement in the food safety scare in 2014 sparked by a threat to contaminate infant and other formulas with 1080 and in a scare at Christmas 2015 caused by the contamination of imported frozen berries with hepatitis.

Almost every single one of those frozen products was already labelled with its country of origin. It is not so long ago that New Zealand apples were also contaminated by a worker with hepatitis A.

So the answer is health and food safety officials working closely to identify and trace food-borne illnesses fast. Excellent traceability systems on the part of producers are essential and COOLs are only a marketing tool that works when the origin has a great reputation, which is exactly what New Zealand has.

Ms Goodhew also recalled her work on developing the National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry which she said will significantly reduce the numbers of consents required each year.

And she took pride in the Government’s work in tackling allocation, reliability of supply, measuring quality, cleaning up poor-quality fresh water, requiring stock exclusion from waterways, and mapping a path to restore degraded waterways.

But most significantly, she said

“It is high time New Zealanders woke up to the importance of genetically modified organisms and our future in the fields of health, plant, and animal genetics, and, through that, environmental protection.

“Gene editing can help us cure cancers, eradicate wilding pines as well as four-legged pests, develop grasses that assist us to reduce methane emissions, and so much more.

“The debate has to be less about fear of the unknown, and more about safe and proven science.”

Ms Goodhew was first elected to Parliament as MP for Aoraki in 2005 and was elected as MP for Rangitata in 2008, 2011 and 2014.

Evidence affirms intensive farming is bad news for NZ’s native bees

Scientists have produced the first evidence that the more farming intensifies in New Zealand, the less our native bees like it.

While ecologists worldwide are concerned about the decline of native bee populations, in New Zealand very little research has been done on the 27 endemic species, which play an important role in pollination not just of native plants but also agricultural crops.

In a new study from the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences, researchers planted fields of flowering plants in areas with intensive and non-intensive agriculture in the surrounding landscape. They then collected and identified insects visiting the flowers at each site to measure the abundance of different pollinator species.

The study found that at plots surrounded by high-intensity agriculture, exotic pollinators such as the honeybee thrived, with populations increasing by 150 per cent.

Conversely, native bee numbers in those plots declined by 90 per cent.

Because native bees nest in natural, unmodified soil and only forage for food within a limited range from the nest, they are vulnerable to intensive farming, study author and doctoral candidate Jamie Stavert says.

“Native bees were very common at low-intensity sites but were mostly absent from high-intensity sites and this has important implications because native bees play a vital role as pollinators of many native plant species and crops in New Zealand.”

Mr Stavert says the study is the first indication that intensification of agriculture is having a strong negative impact on native bee populations and we are in danger of becoming too reliant on the ubiquitous honeybee.

“The exotic honeybee is an important crop pollinator and no-one disputes that,” Mr Stavert says. “But they are also vulnerable to disease and we cannot become too reliant on one species for pollination.

“The health and resilience of our native and agricultural ecosystems comes from biodiversity. We need a wide range of pollinators to do the job.”

Although the study was focused on agricultural areas, Mr Stavert says people can do practical and simple things in urban gardens to help native bees. This includes planting native species that flower at different times of the year, protecting areas of bare soil for nesting and reducing insecticide use.

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The study is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.