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Scientists have identified an important immune response in the semen of male honey bees, a discovery that may help researchers better protect colonies against disease.

Honey bees face a barrage of threats from all angles: disease, pesticides, pollution, shrinking habitats. Recently, researchers at the University of Western Australia set out to explore the battle between bees and the fungal parasite Nosema apis. The fungal disease causes dysentery and can trigger colony collapse disorder.

Scientists with the UWA Centre for Integrative Bee Research, CIDER, identified immune molecules in bees who avoided or successfully battled a Nosema apis infection. The molecules were found in significant quantities in the bees’ semen, suggesting the males employ their immune defenses to protect their sperm and avoid sexually transmitted diseases.

“We already knew that substances in bee semen were able to recognise and kill Nosema apis very efficiently,” Julia Grassl, CIDER research fellow, said in a news release. “However, it is surprising how quickly sick males can activate an efficient response to protect their sperm and ultimately the queen against the disease during mating.”

Bee populations are declining around the world, threatening crop production. As scientists get a better idea of what exactly ails the planet’s honey bees, researchers are beginning to turn their attention to potential solutions.

The newly discovered immune molecules, detailed in the Journal of Proteome Research, could be used to develop medications for infected bees. The new research could also help scientists breed bee varieties with better resistance to harmful parasites.