Researchers find parasite hijacks honey bee’s iron supply

February 22, 2021

Researchers have found that a parasite that causes the most widespread disease in honey bees affects the bee by “hijacking” its iron nutrients.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service scientists found that Nosema ceranae, a fungus that causes death or major problems to a honey bee’s intestinal tract through a disease called nosema disease, absorbs the iron bees collect from their flower pollen diet before the bee can use it to boost its immune system or for reproduction and development.

A bee’s immune system can sometimes rid itself of the parasite, but if it fails, the parasite uses a protein used by bees to bind and transport iron from pollen out of the bee’s stomach and diverts the iron for its own use.

That “hijacking” causes the honey bee to produce more and more of the protein, called transferrin, to divert more iron from the bee’s system until it is starved for it.

"This only results in greater iron deficiency for the honey bee as the increasing transferrin level just gives the N. ceranae the opportunity to scavenge even more iron from the bee host for its own proliferation and survival," entomologist Yan Ping "Judy" Chen, one of the study researchers, said in a statement.

The finding could allow researchers to find a treatment for regulating iron or synthesizing transferrin in the future.

Researchers find parasite hijacks honey bee’s iron supply