Uncovering honey’s hidden potential in bee health

By Our Reporter
Bees are essential because they are an important livestock species and if we want food, we want bees, because they are major contributors to crop pollination: Gopika Kottantharayil Bhasi

Gopika Kottantharayil Bhasi, the first recipient of the Shah Rukh Khan La Trobe University PhD Scholarship, is making waves in bee disease research. Her work goes beyond the love for honey’s taste or its health benefits, focusing on the secrets it holds about bee health.

Gopika’s journey to this research began with a scholarship established in honour of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, who received an Honorary Doctorate from La Trobe University in 2019. This scholarship, supported by the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, allowed Gopika to pursue her PhD despite a two-year delay due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Now in Melbourne, she is midway through her three-year PhD aiming to develop a quick and cost-effective method to diagnose bee diseases using honey.

Bee pollination is vital for global farming and biodiversity. However, diseases and pathogens can devastate hives, significantly reducing bee populations and, consequently, food production. The varroa mite, a destructive pest, has plagued bees in India for over two decades and was detected in Australia for the first time in 2022. Efforts to eradicate it have cost over $130 million and resulted in the destruction of around 30,000 hives. Australian beekeepers are now learning to live with this disease.

Gopika’s fascination with studying disease began in India, where she researched gut pathogens in Asian elephants. The shift to studying one of the smallest but equally significant creatures came with her scholarship. She emphasises the crucial role bees play in crop pollination, essential for food production.

Her research delves into early detection of bacterial infections such as American and European Foulbrood, fungal diseases like Chalkbrood and Nosemosis, and the impact of opportunistic pathogens within the bee’s microbiota. Instead of examining bees directly, Gopika tests honey samples from across Australia for pathogen DNA.

With over 100 honey samples from various states, she has optimised a method to extract environmental DNA from honey, identifying DNA from major bee pathogens. “I’ve examined 135 samples, and more than 80 per cent have tested positive for major bee pathogens like American foulbrood, European foulbrood, and Nosemosis, and even parasites like small hive beetles and greater wax moth,” she says. Notably, none of the samples tested so far have shown the presence of the varroa mite.

Gopika’s research is now focusing on patterns in the sample results, including regional pathogen presence, weather patterns affecting bee behaviour, and biodiversity within the bee’s diet. These factors all influence bee health and hive survival. She highlights that bees, like all animals, are vulnerable to bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Optimal health and nutrition can increase resistance to harmful factors, but environmental issues such as pesticide use, climate change, and food availability can adversely affect bee health, making them more susceptible to pathogens.

For example, Nosema ceranae and Nosema apis cause gut infections in bees and are prevalent during winter. Bees often suffer from multiple simultaneous infections, further compromising their colony health and making them more vulnerable to other challenges. Gopika underscores the importance of maintaining bee health to keep these pathogens at bay.

Using honey DNA for disease detection could establish early and effective measures to contain pathogens locally or regionally, preventing widespread impacts. “We are looking for a less expensive and less time-consuming method to test for diseases. Some of the pathogens that I’m looking at are not well studied anywhere, not even in Australia, so it will be great for beekeepers to know about them and understand their impact and treatments,” she explains.

Being selected as the first female candidate for the inaugural Shah Rukh Khan La Trobe University PhD scholarship is a significant honour for Gopika. She came to Australia with high hopes and dreams of advancing her scientific knowledge and research capabilities. At La Trobe, she has learned extensively, from basic techniques to sequencing, and is eager to explore more.

Working at the La Trobe AgriBio centre and under the guidance of Professor Travis Beddoe has been a fulfilling experience for her. Gopika is enthusiastic about continuing her research on bees and their pathogenesis, with her final paper expected in 2025.

The Shah Rukh Khan La Trobe University PhD Scholarship celebrates Shah Rukh Khan’s humanitarian and social justice contributions. It supports aspiring female Indian researchers, enabling them to study at La Trobe University in Melbourne for four years. The scholarship is a testament to the university’s enduring partnership with the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne.

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