2024 Science, Technology and Environment

Yan Ping (Judy) Chen, Jay D. Evans

Revolutionized bee disease diagnosis and treatment, introducing cutting-edge technologies to detect virus pathogens and developing novel medicines to enhance bee health and prevent colony collapse.

Honeybees are vital to the world’s food supply, but their populations have been mostly in decline over the past two decades due to various factors, including habitat loss, pesticide use, global warming, the rapid evolution of pathogens and antibiotic resistance.  

Judy Chen and Jay Evans from the Agricultural Research Service have developed therapies to reverse colony collapse and revolutionized bee disease diagnostic systems by introducing innovative molecular and genomic technologies into the search for treatments.  

“Their scientific leadership and 22-year collaboration have led to the development of solutions to improve the health of honeybees and other pollinators,” said Simon Liu, administrator at the Agricultural Research Service. “They have shared those solutions with beekeepers, farmers, regulators and researchers to ensure the health of pollinators and the agricultural production that depends on them.”  

Elizabeth Hill, a research coordinator in the USDA Office of the Chief Scientist, said Chen and Evans are “absolutely at the forefront and recognized as leaders in their field for all things related to bee health, especially virology. 

“Their work in identifying and treating these viruses is vital for maintaining a healthy and nutritious food supply,” Hill said. 

Honeybees are vital to the world’s food supply, pollinating $18 billion worth of agricultural products in the United States every year, including 150 varieties of fruits, nuts and vegetables.  

Using molecular and genomic technologies 

Chen and Evans—known as the Bee Team—liken their work to being bee detectives. They also use epidemiological modeling to link health effects to causes to find cures for current diseases and understand future threats. 

By applying molecular and genomic technologies to bee research, “We know every single gene in their bodies,” Evans said. “We can find out if their immune genes are turned down in some way or aren’t active.” 

Their work focuses on four broad categories: bee-specific pathogens and other organisms that cause disease; parasites like Nosema carnae that affect the honeybee’s digestive system; environmental stressors such as pesticides or lack of nectar diversity; and poor bee management practices.  

Chen calls herself a “a bee doctor.” Evans said he “treats each colony like it is a human patient.”  

Developing new treatments 

Chen and Evans were the first to report the presence of the Nosema parasite in U.S. honeybee populations, the cause of a devastating disease for bee colonies.  

The only registered treatment for Nosemosis has been the antibiotic Fumagillin-B, but it has been linked to antibiotic resistance. By working with a new class of medicines based on RNA interference instead of antibiotics, Chen and Evans are developing alternative treatments.  

Their use of genetically informed therapies and antimicrobials derived from natural plant extracts also led to effective treatments for Varroa, a parasitic mite that damages honeybees and transmits deadly viruses.  

To help bees sickened by pesticides, Chen and Evans also came up with “bee detox technology” that uses cyclodextrins, a family of sugar compounds that can neutralize pesticide residue in hives. Beekeepers can put cyclodextrins directly into sugar syrup so all bees can ingest it and spread it throughout the hive. 

Chen and Evans said they believe these natural remedies have immense potential as low-cost and safe treatments for bee diseases and will not cause resistance problems. They also are looking for new therapies based on chemicals bees already collect from plants, like oregano and mint. 

Chen and Evans have actively shared their findings and treatments with farmers and other researchers in the field. Their diagnostic techniques have been adopted worldwide and are compiled in the COLOSS BEEBOOK-Standard Methods for International Bee Research, a practical manual incorporating more than 2,000 standard methods in all fields of honeybee research. 

Both said that seeing the broader application of their work is the most rewarding part of the job.  

“A lot of what motivates us is seeing how hard farmers and beekeepers work to provide food for the world. We enjoy being part of the general effort to keep that food safe,” Evans said.