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Invasive Ants Carry Novel Virus and Bee Pathogens

Invasive Argentine ants frequently carry a previously undescribed virus and also host a virus associated with honey bee deaths.

The ants have spread throughout most of New Zealand and have abundant and widespread populations on every continent except Antarctica. The ants negatively impact crops and are a household problem in urban areas.

A group led by Prof Phil Lester of Victoria University of Wellington has spent 3 years collecting and analysing genomic data for populations of the ant in New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. The team found that nearly all of New Zealand’s Argentine ant populations carried the deformed wing virus, which is associated with colony collapse of honey bees.

“Argentine ants are known to raid beehives and also forage in the same environment as honey bees,” Lester said. “Such close contact is bad for bees, as their association promotes pathogen exchange,” he says.

The presence of this honey bee virus brings a new dimension to concerns over invasive species. The ants’ abundance and wide distribution, together with their ability to carry devastating viruses, means that such invasive species may have much more of a negative impact than previously thought.

The researchers also discovered an entirely new virus in the invasive pest species that could bring about the ants’ own population decline. “This virus hasn’t been seen before, but it’s related to other viruses that can devastate populations of other insect species. If managed correctly it could be used as a biopesticide both in New Zealand and overseas,” Lester said.

The team has already begun the next phase of research investigating the novel virus as a naturally-derived species-specific insecticide.

The research has been published in Biology Letters.