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SMARTBEES Report Summary

Project ID: 613960
Funded under: FP7-KBBE
Country: Germany

Periodic Report Summary 1 - SMARTBEES (Sustainable Management of Resilient Bee populations)

Project Context and Objectives:
Global apiculture is currently facing a deep crisis, characterized by increasing parasite and pathogen pressure in combination with a rapid loss of biodiversity. In Europe, the spread of the parasitic mite Varroa destructor has led to a situation where the quasi-totality of colonies have to be treated with acaricides in order to keep losses at an acceptable level. At the same time, sustainability of the Euro-pean beekeeping industry is reduced by a strong contraction of its genetic basis. At least two of the European subspecies of the Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) are acutely threatened by disappearance, and the population size of most others is rapidly decreasing. SMARTBEES aims to stabilize beekeeping within the EU, by characterizing what is left of honeybee diversity, and catalysing the involvement of local breeders in its conservation and improvement. Moreover, we aim to explore mechanisms of disease resistance in European bee populations, both phenotypically and genotypically, and advance knowledge on the interactions between bees, parasites, and viruses vectored by the latter. The project is divided into 10 workpackages (WPs):

WP1 aims to phenotypically characterize different European subspecies of A. mellifera regarding traits that confer resistance to parasites and viruses, and to elucidate the transcriptomic and genomic basis to these.
In WP2, we aim to create tools for the breeding of resistant and diverse bees, based on local stock. One of these tools will be the multi-language website, which allows local breeders to benefit from the use of modern quantitative genetics. A second tool is a DNA-chip to rapidly detect subspecies affiliation and presence/absence of genetic resistance factors.
WP3 encompasses the creation of an inventory of European honeybee diversity, the identification of genetic markers for subspecies diagnosis, and the detection of possible selective sweeps related to the advent of Varroa.
The objectives of WP4 are to promote the use of regionally adapted bees, by analysing beekeepers’ reasons for/against working with these bees, the relationship between local adaptation and disease sensitivity, and the current status and future requirements of conservation efforts.
The main purpose of WP5 is to suggest new extension tools and regionally adapted communicative strategies for sustainable management of resilient bee populations on European level. We aim to achieve this through an almost Europe-wide survey to understand beekeepers’ needs and expectations, and by analysing knowledge and information systems representative of the European bee sector.
WP6 encompasses the launch of breeding programmes for all European subspecies, and first steps towards the breeding of resistant, locally-adapted stock.
WP7 participates in this effort by establishing networks of breeders to run performance tests. It also aims to promote participation in other project activities and disseminate the results of SMARTBEES, by means of the project webpage and newsletter.
WP8 centres on the understanding of bee resistance towards deformed wing virus (DWV), which is vectored by Varroa and thought to be responsible to an important part of Varroa-related damage to colonies. We are determining how the immune system of bees interacts with the virus, whether honeybee resistance to DWV can be influenced through external stressors or changes of the diet of bees.
DWV is also at the core of WP9, in which we are elucidating the diversity of viral sequences, how the virus may be adapting to its vector (Varroa), and which consequences these adaptations may have for DWV virulence.
WP10 finally encompasses the management of the project, facilitation of interactions between partners and the fulfilment of obligations towards the European Commission.
Project Results:
During the reporting period, the SMARTBEES-partners have made significant progress towards the characterization, protection, and sustainable use of European honeybee biodiversity, and towards the understanding of interactions between bees, Varroa mites, and viruses.

Identification of resistance factors of bees (WP1) was initiated by producing samples of resistant and sensitive bees/colonies. More than 44.000 worker bees were screened for the expression of brood hygiene, and 30 colonies were screened for their sensitivity towards DWV. Strategies for the molecular analysis of these samples have been devised, and the first samples have been sequenced.
WP2, the development of tools for (resistance) breeding, has been initiated by organizing the online translation of the breeding website into nine European languages, and by gathering information from partner countries to enable optimization of breeding strategies for each population. The development of a DNA-chip for rapid genetic screening of resistance traits/subspecies affiliation has started off by testing an efficient way of sampling/transporting bee DNA.
In WP3 sampling of all honey bee subspecies of Europe was initiated in 2015 and is continuing in several areas. The SMARTBEES Samples Database was created for sample management. To date, more than 1500 samples have been registered, and processing for whole genome sequencing and morphometric analysis has begun.
Work in WP4 (promotion of honeybee diversity) has designed a questionnaire in collaboration with WP5. It has been translated into 13 languages and launched through the SMARTBEES web page. A preliminary analysis of the answers shows the need for improving the knowledge among many beekeepers, regarding the value of conservation of local honey bee subspecies. In addition, a webpage for the conservation areas in Europe was established.
WP5, the development of extension tools, has started off by surveying beekeepers and -breeders across Europe on their preferences and needs (D5.1). The survey will be open until November 2016 and will incorporate more countries/languages this year. To understand the context in which communication has to be implemented, we are analysing six regional knowledge and innovation systems within the European beekeeping sector. We have developed a model for information gathering, and will start implementing it.
Field testing and selection of local bee populations (WP6) was initiated by 20 training events, in which a total of 320 beekeepers from 21 European countries participated. A protocol for performance testing was developed, translated into 16 European languages and published online ( It is supported by a Smartphone application ( 128 testing stations with a total number of 1621 colonies from 9 subspecies were established. Additionally, 130 testing colonies were established for assessment of VSH traits in populations of particular interest.
An efficient dissemination strategy for the project was devised in WP7, which includes the multi-language SMARTBEES website ( and the biannual newsletter. Partners have presented the project in over 50 interviews, articles, and conferences. WP7 has also synthesized information on established conservation initiatives.
In order to determine the basis of resistance of honeybees to DWV (WP8), we have injected 3800 larval bees with DWV and the resultant changes in the bees are currently being investigated. Methods to collect saliva from Varroa have been developed permitting the analysis of its bioactive components. An investigation into the molecular basis of the interaction among the „bee – DWV – varroa“-system revealed an interference of the immune system which favours both varroa and DWV. The ability of nutritional factors to protect bees against Varroa and DWV is currently under investigation.
In WP9, the characterization of virus adaptations to the honeybee/Varroa-system has been furthered by improving qRT-PCR methods capable to detect and quantify DWV strains. Tick cell lines were tested for DWV propagation, and 8 of them showed increasing or constant levels of DWV RNA. These cell lines require further optimisation but should provide a model system to analyse the shift of the DWV-mutant cloud when DWV switches from the honey bee to the Varroa mite.
An efficient management structure for the project (WP10) has been established, including a cloud-based collaborative IT-structure and a consistent reporting strategy for all partners. The consequences of the restructuring of partner FERA were handled successfully.

Potential Impact:
• A comprehensive understanding of how varroosis and viruses damage honeybees, and of resis-tance factors on the side of the bees. This encompasses the identification of genes involved in resistance towards the varroa mite and towards DWV, of mite-derived factors suppressing host immunity, and a wholistic view of mite-virus-bee interactions. It also includes an understanding of DWV-adaptability to its hosts. Some of this research will be of broader importance for the understanding of host-pathogen/host-parasite relationships. The study on dietary influences of bee susceptibility is expected to offer a scientifically-grounded understanding of optimum nutrition to enhance the resistance of bees to DWV. Moreover, it will form the basis for the development of molecular tools for selective breeding of resistant bees. Ultimately, it will contribute to reducing colony losses.
• A basis for maintaining genetic diversity of European honeybees. A central element here is a sound assessment of the present state of intraspecific diversity, and the development of stan-dardized molecular tools for systematic analysis. This is completed by a network of existing con-servation initiatives, and by an understanding of beekeepers’ reasons for working (or not) with local bees. Another central part is the establishment of dedicated and well-trained breeder groups working with their respective “local” bees. Together, these results will further hopefully kick-start the conservation through utilization of endangered European subspecies and ecotypes of Apis mellifera.
• Structural and methodological support to European bee breeders. Through an understanding of knowledge and information systems within the beekeeping sector, we will suggest regionally adapted extension tools. State of the art methods of quantitative genetics will be made accessible to breeders of all European subspecies through the programming and multi-language translation of a central, but regionally adaptive online breeding platform. A low-cost DNA-chip will allow fast and reliable screening of potential breeding queens for systematic affiliation and resistance traits. These measures are expected to reduce the advance of highly-bred lines of A.m. carnica, A. mellifera or Buckfast-bees on local bees, thereby enhancing their acceptability.

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