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Vanishing Bees May Get By with a Little Help from the Army

By Matt Sullivan
Popular Mechanics
September 2007 issue

Since last fall, the strange phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has killed off a quarter of America's honeybee population, and threatened 25 percent of our food supply. (A wide variety of crops rely on pollination.) This past spring, a nationwide effort by top DNA scientists determined that CCD is probably caused by a number of factors, including multiple bee-killing viruses. But identifying specific viruses with DNA sequencing is a slow, painstaking process.

That's where Charles Wick (then the leader of the chemical and biological detection team at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland) came in, volunteering a microwave-size invention to help the cause. Originally used to screen drinking water for pathogens, Wick's 50-pound Integrated Virus Detection System (IVDS) hits a sample with an electric charge, then counts and sizes the particles making up the sample to identify viruses. By measuring to the nanometer, the IVDS can pin down a disease in 10 minutes.

As a trial run, CCD surveyors sent Wick samples from suffering beehives, which he liquefied in a blender, filtered using a cheesecloth, and ran through the IVDS. "They'd been working on this for six or seven months," Wick says, "so we brought in a new technology and immediately detected the pathogens they were looking for."

The surveyors were astonished: Within minutes, the IVDS had found multiple suspicious viruses, kick-starting the chase for the cause of the collapsed colonies. Wick's invention is now part of the ongoing CCD effort, and a commercial version of the device has just been released.

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