Bees are important plant pollinators in both natural and agricultural ecosystems. Managed and wild bees have experienced high average annual colony losses, population declines, and local extinctions in many geographic regions. Multiple factors, including virus infections, impact bee health and longevity. The majority of bee-infecting viruses are positive-sense single-stranded RNA viruses. Bee-infecting viruses often cause asymptomatic infections but may also cause paralysis, deformity or death. The severity of infection is governed by bee host immune responses and influenced by additional biotic and abiotic factors. Herein, we highlight studies that have contributed to the current understanding of antiviral defense in bees, including the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera), the Eastern honey bee (Apis cerana) and bumble bee species (Bombus spp.). Bee antiviral defense mechanisms include RNA interference (RNAi), endocytosis, melanization, encapsulation, autophagy and conserved immune pathways including Jak/STAT (Janus kinase/signal transducer and activator of transcription), JNK (c-Jun N-terminal kinase), MAPK (mitogen-activated protein kinases) and the NF-κB mediated Toll and Imd (immune deficiency) pathways. Studies in Dipteran insects, including the model organism Drosophila melanogaster and pathogen-transmitting mosquitos, provide the framework for understanding bee antiviral defense. However, there are notable differences such as the more prominent role of a non-sequence specific, dsRNA-triggered, virus limiting response in honey bees and bumble bees. This virus-limiting response in bees is akin to pathways in a range of organisms including other invertebrates (i.e., oysters, shrimp and sand flies), as well as the mammalian interferon response. Current and future research aimed at elucidating bee antiviral defense mechanisms may lead to development of strategies that mitigate bee losses, while expanding our understanding of insect antiviral defense and the potential evolutionary relationship between sociality and immune function.
Keywords: RNA-triggered antiviral defense; RNAi; bumble bee; dsRNA; honey bee; insect antiviral defense; viral PAMP; virus.