Laboratory of Molecular Entomology and Honeybee Pathology (L-MEB)

The Laboratory of Molecular Entomology and Honeybee pathology is led by Dirk De Graaf. His team performs fundamental research into honeybee pathology, physiology and toxins of honeybees and related insects. The Laboratory provides services for diagnosing honeybee diseases and is a corporate partner of Honeybee Valley, a collaborative platform to combat the decline of honeybees.

Honeybee pathology

Honeybee pathology and health has always been the main research axis of bee researchers at Ghent University. In 2001 Dirk de Graaf and Frans Jacobs developed a diagnostic test for American foulbrood of honeybees which enabled the fast laboratory confirmation of clinical observations on the bee stand. As one of the first tests using a genetic fingerprint of the causal agent in honeybees, it is listed in the OIE (Office International des Epizooties) Manual of Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines for Terrestrial Animals and is now used worldwide.

Since then, many other diagnostic methods for bee diseases have been developed and our focus widened to include Microsporidia, Trypanosomatidae, Apicomplexa and viruses. The link with monitoring of bee mortality and association with pathogens is evident and has recently been widened outside the European continent.

In recent years we have been involved in genome consortia and have tackled fundamental questions on virulence factors and immunity. We remain interested in beekeeping with studies on the genetic background of Varroa-tolerance and its application in beekeeping practice. More recently we have also developed a focus on diseases of wild bees.

Physiology of honeybees

Dirk de Graaf teaches Biomedische Fysiologie in the Biochemistry and Biotechnology study program Physiology of Insects in the Biology study program. An important area of his research indeed centres on physiological processes. In line with the theme of honeybee pathology and health, our interest focuses on the mechanisms underlying the immunity of honeybees towards their pathogens. Recently we broadened our interest to include a wider range of stressors that threaten honeybees and wild bees. With colleagues from KU Leuven a consortium was set up to unravel the physiology behind the altruistic behaviour of honeybees.

Toxins of honeybees and related insects

One of the very first research lines of the team was dedicated to the toxins of hymenoptera or membrane-winged insects, the group that included honeybees and bumblebees. This was facilitated by the fact that L-MEB (then the Lab. of Zoophysiology) was in the same department as the labs of Jozef Van Beeumen and Bart Devreese who were pioneers in proteome analysis. This enabled the molecular analysis of the toxins of different bees, wasps and bumblebees and provided us with access to large international genome sequencing consortia, resulting in notable output in top journals such as Nature and Science.

Some of the newly discovered toxin components were later shown to be involved in allergic reactions that some patients develop a (bee)sting (for example icarapin or Api m 10). Our research into the immune suppressive properties of Ichneumon wasps may have a biomedical application related to anti-inflammatory drugs.