What makes bees sick? 

A conversation with Michelle Flenniken, Assistant Research Professor of Plant Sciences & Plant Pathology at Montana State University

Like many species, bees and other pollinators are key components of our ecosystem but are also susceptible to a changing climate. Researchers around the Nation are working to assess the impact of climate change on bees and other pollinators.

What is the question people most often ask you regarding your research?

The most common question is “What’s killing the bees?” – and unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be a simple answer. Research to date suggests that multiple biotic and abiotic factors contribute to colony health and survival (e.g., viruses, mites, microbes, bee genetics, weather, forage quality and availability, management practices, and agrochemical exposure). Although no single factor is responsible for colony losses or Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), honey bee samples from CCD-affected colonies had greater pathogen (e.g., viruses and Nosema) prevalence and abundance compared to unaffected colonies (Cornman et al. 2012; Cox-Foster et al. 2007; Johnson et al. 2009; Steinhauer et al. 2015; vanEngelsdorp et al. 2009).

What got you interested in this area of research?

High annual loses of honey bee colonies and declines of native and wild bees is a globally important problem that impacts both environmental and human health, as bees are important pollinators of numerous plant species including fruit, nut, and vegetable crops. As a virologist, I wanted to investigate the role of viruses on bee health from the individual to the colony (~ 40,000 bees) level. Research in my lab includes both laboratory and field studies and our findings will impact our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of antiviral defense, as well as more applied aspects of bee colony health. It is the perfect blend of basic science and applied research that has implications beyond the laboratory.

Tell us a little about your research ...

Research in the Flenniken Lab is aimed at understanding the role of pathogens in honey bee colony losses and elucidating the mechanisms of honey bee antiviral defense. Better understanding of the role of pathogens on honey bee colony health, and the natural mechanisms bee utilized to defend themselves against viral pathogens - may lead to the development of strategies that help mitigate bee losses.

What is the coolest part of doing your research?

There are many great aspects of investigating honey bee health including being able to work outside with honey bee colonies and have the opportunity to learn about these fascinating eusocial insects. I enjoy working with expert beekeepers and motivated students. I like sharing our research with student groups and community members – it is a great opportunity to discuss the importance of science and scientists to address global challenges.



About Michelle Flenniken

Michelle Flenniken, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology at Montana State University. Research in the Flenniken Lab is aimed at understanding the role of pathogens such as micro-organisms and viruses in honey bee colony losses and studying how honey bees defend themselves against these pathogens. Dr. Flenniken is also a frequent presenter at MSU’s Expanding Your Horizons and Peaks & Potentials programs for youth. Read more about Dr Flenniken’s research.



For more information about CLIMB please contact:
Suzi Taylor
Director of Outreach
Montana State University Academic Technology & Outreach