ecosystem researcher investigates honey bee health

Michelle Flenniken works with honeybees

While the food we most associate with honey bees is the sweet gooey stuff we put on our toast, bees play a much larger role in ecosystems around the world. Bees are essential pollinators of many agricultural crops, and if a honey bee colony collapses, nearby food crops are at risk.

Recently, bee colonies have experienced increased losses, and just why these colonies decline is a research focus for IoE Faculty Fellow Michelle Flenniken. Her work is one component of a comprehensive Institute on Ecosystems and Montana EPSCoR research agenda to understand linkages between microbial systems and larger scale ecological processes under a variable and changing climate. The plight of honey bees is an excellent opportunity to connect research on an important ecological process—pollination—to food production, a vital human need and a significant economic driver for Montana.

Flenniken, a research professor in the MSU Department of Plant Sciences & Plant Pathology, focuses on honey bee health. Specifically, she studies the molecular mechanisms underlying host-pathogen interactions in agriculturally important systems. Flenniken has received research stimulation support as part of the Montana EPSCoR RII Track-1 project. Her multidisciplinary research spans microbiology, virology, ecology, and agriculture and requires that she work closely with honey bee keepers across the country.
Flenniken knows that honey bee colony deaths are associated with higher pathogen levels, but the specific pathogens, hosts, and environmental factors that drive these declines remain unknown. Her work is ongoing, including studies of honey bee antiviral defense, honey bee pathogen monitoring, pathogenesis of the recently discovered Lake Sinai viruses, understanding honey bee immune system response, and examining the role of agrochemicals. She hypothesizes that the impact of pathogens on honey bee colony health is governed by additional factors, including host responses and the microbial context of infection. Using cutting-edge research methods, she is examining agrochemical exposure on pathogen abundance. A detailed molecular analysis is used to identify the combinations of genes, microbes, and metabolites that augment and lessen the effects of pathogenic infections.

Increased understanding of these factors may lead to strategies that can help bee keepers mitigate honey bee colony losses. And, discoveries of honey bee immune genes and pathways may reveal evolutionarily conserved innate immune pathways in other social organisms. In other words, what she learns about honey bees can help us better understand other complex ecological processes related to agricultural systems.

What Flenninken learns will not only directly impact Montana’s agricultural producers but will also help to inform how ecosystems operate across micro to landscape scales. As top-down drivers such as climate change affect ecological processes, a better understanding of these systems will help predict ecosystem vulnerabilities to change and identify best practices to mitigate and adapt.
Flenniken’s Rough Cut Science talk is available at


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