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Honeybee health to be discussed at March 28 Café Scientifique

BOZEMAN, Mont. - Michelle Flenniken, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU's College of Agriculture and co-director of MSU's Pollinator Health Center, will be the featured speaker at the university's u...

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Photo by Mikkel Pates, Agweek

BOZEMAN, Mont. –  Michelle Flenniken , assistant professor in the  Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology  in MSU’s  College of Agriculture  and co-director of MSU’s  Pollinator Health Center , will be the featured speaker at the university’s upcoming Café Scientifique.

Flenniken will present “What's Killing the Bees? The Impacts of Pathogens and other Factors on Honey Bee Health” at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, at the Baxter Hotel Ballroom in downtown Bozeman. The event is hosted by MSU and co-sponsored by its  INBRE  and  COBRE  programs. It is free and open to the public.

Flenniken’s talk will examine the importance of pollinators and outline current facts and uncertainties surrounding honey bee health. Throughout the talk, she will also emphasize the importance of basic scientific research in addressing complex problems.

“Honey bee health, at both the individual and colony levels, is affected by multiple biotic and abiotic factors, including pathogens, chemicals, the availability of quality forage, climate and specific weather events and more,” Flenniken said. “It’s important to consider these factors separately and synergistically in order to understand how these factors influence bee health.”

According to Flenniken, honey bee health became a topic of public concern in 2006 when commercial beekeepers began reporting higher-than-average bee colony losses. Since 2006,  annual losses of honey bee colonies has averaged more than 33 percent, which is up from a historic average of 10 to 12 percent, she said.

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Flenniken’s presentation will also examine bees within larger economic and public-health contexts by addressing the ways in which bees impact agriculture and food security.  

“Bees are important pollinators of plants in both agricultural and non-agricultural landscapes, and honey bees are the primary pollinators of many fruit, nut and vegetable crops,” Flenniken said. “Without bees, the diversity of produce and nutritional value of our typical western diet would be dramatically reduced.”

According to baseline statistics released in 2016 by the  Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service , honey bees are responsible for pollinating an estimated $15 billion of U.S. crops each year. Yet even as bees reliably contribute billions of dollars each year to the agricultural economy, higher annual colony losses place additional burdens on commercial beekeepers to keep pace with those losses, Flenniken said.

“Beekeepers have been trying to adapt to these challenges, but it’s difficult for any agricultural producer to weather 30 percent losses or more year after year,” she said. “Though beekeepers have continued to meet agricultural demands for pollinators by splitting their colonies more frequently, high levels of annual losses are concerning to beekeepers, growers, scientists and members of the general public.”

Flenniken will conclude her talk by highlighting current research efforts of faculty affiliated with MSU’s Pollinator Health Center, including ongoing investigations into the impact of pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, fungi and trypansomatids (a type of single-celled organism) on honey bees and understanding honey bee immune defense mechanisms.

Flenniken is a microbiologist and an assistant professor at MSU whose primary research interest involves investigating honey bee host-pathogen interactions. Flenniken earned a bachelor’s in biology from the University of Iowa, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana and received a Ph.D. in microbiology from MSU. She completed her postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco.

Café Scientifique provides a relaxed setting for people to learn about current scientific topics. The concept started in England in 1998 and has spread to a handful of locations in the United States. Following a short presentation by a scientific expert, the majority of time is reserved for lively conversation, thoughtful questions and respectful dialogue. Refreshments are provided free of charge.

Housed at MSU, Montana INBRE and COBRE are each Institutional Development Award Programs (IDeA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under grant numbers P20GM103474 and GM103500, respectively.

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Contact Bill Stadwiser with Montana INBRE at  (406) 994-3360  or william.stadwiser@montana.edu  for more information about the Café Scientifique concept or check the Web at  http://www.inbre.montana.edu/cafe/index.html .

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