Bee disease hiding in the honey

Gopika Kottantharayil Bhasi loves honey. Not because it tastes good, or its many health benefits, but because it holds the secrets to the health of bees.

Gopika is the first recipient of the Shah Rukh Khan La Trobe University PhD Scholarship, established in recognition of the Bollywood actor who was presented an Honorary Doctorate at the University in 2019. The scholarship is made possible by the University’s long-standing partnership with the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne.

After a two-year delay due to COVID travel restrictions, Gopika arrived in Melbourne in early 2022 and is now halfway through her three-year PhD studying diseases in bees, with the aim of developing a fast and low cost way to diagnose diseases through honey.

The timing couldn’t be more important: bee pollination is integral to global farming and biodiversity, but diseases and pathogens carried by the bees can cause the complete death of a hive, drastically reducing bee populations and therefore, food production.

The devastating varroa mite has been prevalent in bees in India for more than 20 years, however it was discovered for the first time in Australia in 2022 and eradication efforts - estimated to have cost more than $130 million, with about 30,000 hives destroyed – have failed. Australian beekeepers are now learning how to live with the disease.

Gopika was researching gut pathogens in Asian elephants in India when SRK presented her with the PhD scholarship. She swapped her study from one of the world’s largest animals to one of the smallest because their existence is so integral for human survival.

“Bees are essential because they are an important livestock species and if we want food, we want bees, because they are major contributors to crop pollination,” she said.

Gopika's research offers vital insights into the complexities of bee health and the factors contributing to population decline, through the early detection of bacterial infections like American or European Foulbrood, along with fungal diseases such as Chalkbrood and Nosemosis and identifying the impact of opportunistic pathogens within the bee’s microbiota.

Rather than inspecting bees for the pathogens, she’s testing honey from around Australia for signs of the pathogen’s DNA.

So far, she’s received more than 100 honey samples from Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. After optimising an extraction method for getting environmental DNA from a honey sample, she has been able to identify DNA from pathogens lying within the honey.

“I’ve examined 135 samples, and more than 80 per cent have tested positive for the major bee pathogens like American foulbrood, European foul brood and Nosemosis, and even parasites like small hive beetles and greater wax moth,” she said.

“It’s a non-invasive method, we’re not killing bees, we are not affecting them, we’re just looking at the honey samples.”

At the end of 2023, none of the samples had shown the presence of varroa mite.

Gopika is now reviewing patterns in the sample results, including any regions where the pathogens were detected, weather patterns that affect bee behaviour, and biodiversity within the bee’s diet – all of which can affect a bee’s health, and that of an entire hive.

“Bees, like all animals, are susceptible to bacteria, viruses, and parasites. When your health and nutrition are at their best, you are more resistant to harmful factors. Environmental issues, including chemicals used to protect crops from insects and weeds, climate change, food availability and other factors, could adversely affect bee health, making them more susceptible to pathogens,” she said.

For example, Nosema ceranae and Nosema apis cause infections in the bee’s gut andare prevalent during peak winter. Bees are often simultaneously infected with a variety of pathogens, which further decrease their colony health and make them vulnerable to other challenges.

“If their health is getting adversely affected, these pathogens can be more active. So, it’s important to maintain their good health,” Gopika said.

Gopika said the use of honey DNA could be important to establish early and effective measures to contain pathogens at the local or regional level, and prevent widespread impact.

“We are looking for a less expensive and less time-consuming method to test for diseases. Some of the pathogens that I’m looking at are not well studied anywhere, not even in Australia, so it will be great for beekeepers to know about them and understand their impact and treatments,” she said.

Gopika said it was a privilege to be selected as the first female candidate for the inaugural Shah Rukh Khan La Trobe University PhD scholarship.

“I came to Australia with lot of expectations and dreams of developing my understanding of science and research, as La Trobe has world-leading laboratories. I have learned a lot from basics to sequencing here, and have a lot more to explore,” Gopika said.

“I am happy to be part of the La Trobe AgriBio centre and working with Department Head Professor Travis Beddoe, who has provided amazing support.

“I am looking forward to learning more about bees and their pathogenesis.”

Gopika’s final paper will be presented in 2025.

About the Shah Rukh Khan La Trobe University PhD Scholarship

The PhD scholarship recognises the humanitarian and social justice achievements of Shah Rukh Khan (SRK). It is the only PhD scholarship endorsed by Shah Rukh Khan in the world.

It is designed to support aspiring female Indian researchers who want to make a meaningful impact in the world and enables recipients to study at La Trobe University in Melbourne for four years.

The scholarship is made possible by the University’s long-standing partnership with the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne.

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