Arthropods and Viruses: Levitt and Students Work to Save the Bees and Research Ticks
This is the third in a series of stories delving into the various research that College of Science faculty members at the University of Findlay are working on. In an effort to show readers, in part, what UF offers its students in the areas of science, these stories will reveal the diverse methods, processes and topics that faculty shares with students.
When this blustery and cold time of year comes around, forcing everyone to stay inside and around other people, many folks start to think about avoiding viruses passed from person to person. Abby Levitt, Ph.D., Assistant professor of biology at University of Findlay, has been thinking about viruses as well, only the ones that she and her students are focusing on are carried and shared primarily through arthropods – those invertebrate animals having an exoskeleton, a segmented body, and paired jointed appendages – particularly honeybees and ticks. It’s the kind of research that needs to be conducted to help the population of local arthropods thrive and grow, and Levitt’s passion for her students and the research she leads them through is evident in the time and care she gives to both.
There is good reason to trust Levitt as a leader of research in this area. She explained that she did her college dissertation on honeybee viruses, has worked with local beekeepers to examine their colonies and has completed a lot of work on the movement of bees and the viruses that they carry. “The way it works in the case of the honeybees is that they leave their colonies and fly out to pollinate flowers and collect nectar,” she said. “While there, they deposit viruses, and the viruses get picked up and spread to other species.”
When it comes to doing the actual research, Levitt and her students do some state-of-the art work. Samples from honeybees are collected and homogenized in what is known as an extraction buffer, where DNA/RNA is extracted using various molecular techniques. The contents are then run to show whether or not the bees have the particular virus or viruses that Levitt and crew might be looking for. “In honeybees,” Levitt said, “the virus that does the most damage is called Deformed Wing Virus. Bees will emerge from their hive and have deformed wings and shrunken abdomens and are just ill, only living for about 48 hours or so. They’re a burden on the colony as a whole because energy has gone into laying eggs, but they can’t do anything useful.” Viruses like this need to be better understood, Levitt adds, in order to attempt to eradicate them, or, at the least, slow their movement down so that the normal and essential functions of the bees can be preserved.
According to Levitt, the overall impact of the viruses carried by the bees is a bit difficult to assess. Trying to pin down exactly what is happening to the environment as a result of the viruses is necessary, yet laborious. “We know that it’s there and there have been studies done to show that the viruses have been replicating,” Levitt said. “But, just because there is a virus doesn’t mean it’s actually doing anything.”
As well as researching the overall impact these viruses have on the environment as a whole, Levitt said that there’s a need to research what kind of affect they are having on specific pollinator communities. And not surprisingly, this work is equally as arduous. “It’s also difficult to say the amount of impact the viruses have on other pollinators,” she said. “Lots of things are killing them, and it’s hard to narrow it down. Starvation is a problem. Pesticides are a problem. Bacterial and viral infections are a problem. It’s certainly hard to narrow.”
The focus on ticks, up to this point, according to Levitt, has been on bacterial infections like Lyme Disease. She added that the spread of invasive ticks to our area, and native ticks to areas where they were not previously, could be leading to more interaction with humans which leads to more and different bacterial viruses. Viral pathogens, however, like the ones that Levitt and her students are researching, have been less prevalent in the human population, but are popping up more frequently than in the past. “Likely, these viruses have been in the ticks for a while, but the tick population is increasing and growing more diverse due to the climate changing. It gets warmer in new areas and so the ticks are capable of living in those areas as a result.”
Since trees only bloom during spring, Levitt had to revamp and will take the honeybee data to the Etymological Society of America meeting this month to try and get feedback. “We’ll probably do it again in the spring,” she said. As for the collection of live ticks, the window is quickly closing on it, as well, as there is normally a high population in the spring and in the fall before the weather turns cold.
The research, however, will continue, as its importance is noted repeatedly by Levitt. “It’s good for students to have this direct and hands-on experience with these specific methods so that they’re prepared to continue the work wherever they end up,” she explained. “It’s difficult to treat what you don’t know is out there. We feel like we have a good idea of what actually is out there, but something new always seems to pop up, so it will never end.”