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OSU researchers to lead $4.2M grant study on honeybee disease

A honeybee flies near a honeycomb.
Lynn Ketchum
A honeybee flies near a honeycomb.

A persistent disease is killing honey bees, affecting farmers across the US. Now, a team of researchers—including several from Oregon State University—are on the case.

OSU is teaming up with three other universities, with funding from the US Department of Agriculture, to investigate European foulbrood disease. It’s a bacteria that can turn honey bee larvae to mush. It’s become a serious problem for beekeepers and farmers over the past six to seven years.

Professor Ramesh Sagili leads the team at OSU. “Honey bees are really critical pollinators, and our food production is dependent on them, their health and well-being,” he said.

The four-year study will track over 1500 commercial bee colonies as they pollinate bee-dependent crops like highland blueberries and almonds in Washington, Oregon, California and Mississippi. Researchers are looking for the disease and for the factors that might make some bees more vulnerable to infection.

The study is focused on western honey bees, the most prolific pollinator in the United States. Sagili said researchers estimate at least one third of food grown in the US relies on honey bee pollination.

Unfortunately, a combination of stresses and diseases mean that about 30% of commercial colonies in the US are lost each year. Those losses hurt yields for crops that rely on the intrepid insects.

This comprehensive, longitudinal study aims to understand all the contributing factors for European foulbrood disease. Researchers could then develop strategies to pass on to beekeepers and farmers to keep their colonies and crops healthy.

Chrissy Ewald is a freelance reporter for KLCC. She first reported for KLCC as the 2023 Snowden Intern.