Six-legged Threat for Bees

Invasive ants from South America transfer deadly viruses

Jan 07, 2016
Ants may carry viruses that are deadly for other insects, such as honey bee

Invasive insect species such as Argentinian ants, Linepithema humile, can carry new types of pathogens and infect native insects. For the first time, scientists at the Victoria University of Wellington and the Institute of Environmental Science in New Zealand have studied what kinds of viruses these ants can transmit. The researchers detected a new virus called Liniepithema humile virus (LHUV-1). In New Zealand, the ants also carried the better known Deformed Wing Virus (DWV), which can end up being deadly for honey bees. The study was published by the Royal Society.
Argentinian ants, one of the most widespread invasive ants, form large colonies. This formation enhances the spread of pathogens between individual ants. Moreover, other insect species can be infected. For example: If ants raid beehives, they can transfer viruses to honey bees.
To find out which viruses these ants transfer, the group of scientists collected samples of these ants from New Zealand, Australia and the country of origin, Argentina. In the laboratory, scientists analyzed samples of the insects’ RNA and DNA, searching for the genome of the virus. The ants from all three countries were infected with LHUV-1. Eventually, when the pathogens transfer to other insect species, they can cause a whole population to die. In addition, honey bee colonies may be affected.
Particularly in New Zealand, Argentinian ants put the honey bees’ health under acute threat because these invasive ants also transfer DWV. Infected bee larvae will develop deformed wings so once the adult worker bees hatch they will not be capable of flight. The scientists carried out additional tests and came to the conclusion that DWV replicates in the Argentinian worker ants, whereas the queens were not infected at the time of examination.
This study underlines that invasive species such as these ants can indirectly become a source of danger for native insects; so further research is needed. The scientists in New Zealand want to expand their study to find out whether other insect species worldwide transfer LHUV-1 and, if so, which ones. Moreover, the scientists want to identify the characteristics of this new virus. Their findings could help other researchers develop solutions to stop the spread of this virus in the future.
 However, LHUV-1 could also have a positive impact: The study revealed that the virus replicates in the ants. Therefore, the scientists assume that the insects also fall ill due to the pathogen, which could be a reason for some declines in the ants’ population levels. As a result, the virus has the possibility to be used as a biological control for Argentinian ants.

Find further information in the scientific publication, published by the Royal Society.
Get to know the Institute of Environmental Science and the Victoria University of Wellington.
You can read more about other invasive species and how they affect honey bees in our BEENOW Magazine.

Image Source: Flickr
Photo: Matthew Townsend
License: CreativeCommons

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