Nature, Science

Viruses Trick Bees into Pollinating Infected Plants

The cucumber mosaic virus tricks bees into moving it from plant to plant.
A bee pollinates a cucumber flower. Photo: Shutterstock

Bees fly from plant to plant, taking pollen from one to another in the process. Of course, we’ve known this for a very long time, which is why we refer to them as pollinators. They also contribute greatly to about 75 percent of the crops we grow, which is why so many people are concerned about declining bee populations around the world.

It turns out that bees also move viruses from plant to plant, or at least the cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) which result in plants that have smaller, less tasty yields.

The bees are dupes in this process, though. The virus changes the chemical makeup of the volatiles, the particles that produce smells, so that the bees are more attracted to the infected plants. This works for the plants and the virus, as they both get to breed and spread. The bees don’t seem to be affected by the virus.

But, scientists think that if we can find a way to similarly trick bees by making them prefer modified crops, they might pollinate them more, which would result in larger crop yields. The trick is to not rely on the virus, but to find a way to either make the plants smell better, or get the bees to come to the plants in the first place.

Scientists have isolated the factor of the virus which reprograms the plant’s DNA, so with that information, we might be able to do the same without needing the virus. This could be a more ecologically friendly way to increase crop yields than relying on pesticides to keep out unwanted insects. In fact, plants use smell to both attract pollinators and to keep predators away, so maybe we could find a way to modify existing plants to attract more bees and fewer pests.


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