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Charles Wick

Charles Wick was photographed on a bee farm in Street, Md., by Thomas Arledge.

Saving the Honeybee

Who: Charles Wick, ’71, ’73, ’79
Known As: Cutting-edge Microbiologist, U.S. Army
Known for: Discovering the reason why honeybees are dying off

Charles Wick, ’71, ’73, ’79, may not wear the trademark deerstalker hat and smoke a long-stemmed pipe but when it comes to bees, he’s an ace detective. In fact, his acumen helped provide the answer to one of the most troubling mysteries in today’s natural world: What is killing the honeybees?

Officially called “colony collapse disorder,” the bee “plague” is so serious it has been threatening U.S. food production. Some experts suggest that because bees are essential pollinators for many different kinds of plants, up to one-third of America’s yearly food crop could be wiped out eventually if the epidemic spreads throughout U.S. agriculture.

While insects have not been his field of study, Wick brought to the problem a 28-year career as a nuclear, chemical and biological weapons expert with plenty of molecular detective experience. Wick retired from the Army in 1999 as a Lieutenant Colonel with 25 decorations and citations for his cutting-edge research. Currently a microbiologist with the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center northeast of Baltimore, Wick holds the patent for the Integrated Virus Detector System (IVDS) that allows the military to test for and identify biological threats.

In the case of the bees, Wick used mass spectroscopy imaging—measuring a compound based on its mass and recreating it as an image—to track peptide sequences in the bee protein. By pinpointing the structure of the peptide DNA, he and his team were able to identify a “foreign” protein from viruses and fungi that had attacked the dead bees.

After two years of investigation, Wick’s team discovered that every dead bee was carrying a unique peptide belonging to a bee-attacking “iridescent virus,” as well as a protein from a fungus (nosema ceranae) known to be lethal to bees.

Wick and his team worked with researchers at the University of Montana in Missoula and at Montana State University in Bozeman to discover that a virus/fungus combination was giving the bees a killer double-whammy. It appears the combination of the two did the deadly damage as neither the virus nor the fungus can kill bees independently.

How did Wick and his team of Army researchers end up working with academic researchers in Montana? Nothing less than serendipity. Wick’s brother, David—who studied botany and microbiology at the UW from 1971 to 1976—understands how his brother’s rapid virus screening instrument worked. David, a Montana entrepreneur, happened to catch a television interview with a Montana researcher who talked about bees. He also happened to have met the researcher and retained his business card. The two research teams with their disparate perspectives came together because David Wick imagined the possibilities.

Although the army/academic liaison did not produce a cure for the problem, figuring out the cause produced concrete advice for beekeepers. Because both pathogens—the virus and the fungus—flourish in cool, wet conditions, Wick counseled beekeepers to keep the bees as warm and dry as possible.

Ask Charles Wick how he and his germ analysts figured out the puzzle and he’ll tell you it was “mostly a mostly a matter of looking at what was right there in front of your nose.”

Wick credits his ability to really “see” as a scientist to an experience he had as a UW undergraduate walking around campus with Forestry Professor Reinhard Stettler, now a UW professor emeritus. Wick asked Stettler what he should study to become a scientist. Stettler pointed to a pine tree and said, “Why don’t you study that? See what you can learn about it on your own, then get back to me.”

“What Professor Stettler taught me that day was how to look closely at things,” Wick says. “That’s the first step on the road to discoveries.”

Tom Nugent is a Michigan-based freelance writer who has written for a range of publications including The Washington Post and People magazine.

5 Responses to Face Time

  1. C. Chase says:

    I remember as a child, seeing a bee on every single clover flower in my yard – now I am excited to see 3 bees in one day. It is obvious that it is something environmental, and I have long suspected that imidacloprid is the insidious culprit in bee die-offs.

    Today I read an enlightening article entitled “In Honeybee Mystery, Plot Thickens And Suspect Emerges” By AMY ELLIS NUTT (Newhouse News Service May, 2007)

    A few quotes from the article:
    “The possibility that neonicotinoids are at the heart of the bee die-off implies a far more complex problem because of the widespread use of pesticides. Every year these chemicals are applied to hundreds of millions of acres of agricultural lands, gardens, golf courses and public and private lawns across the United States. Their use on
    major crops nearly tripled between 1964 and 1982, from 233 million pounds to 612 million pounds of active ingredients. And since then, their use has exploded. By 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported 5 billion pounds of pesticides used on U.S. crops, forests, lawns, flowers, homes and buildings.”

    “The potent chemical can be sprayed on plants, or coated on seeds, which then release the insecticide through the plants as they grow.”

    “A 2004 University of North Carolina study, for instance, found that some neonicotinoids, in combination with certain fungicides, increased the toxicity of the “neonics” to honeybees a thousand-fold.”

    “I don’t think there is one smoking gun,” said Hayes. “When neonicotinoids are used on termites, they can’t remember how to get home, they stop eating and then the fungus takes over and kills them. That’s one of the ways imidacloprid works on termites — it makes them vulnerable to other natural organisms. So if you look at what’s happening to honeybees, that’s pretty scary.”

    “Last week the five-state Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium released a progress report on colony collapse disorder. Its findings included “the high prevalence of fungi in adult bees” which seemed “indicative of stress or a compromised immune system; these symptoms have never been previously reported.”

    “In sublethal doses, however, research has shown that imidacloprid and other neonicotinoids, such as fipronil, can impair honeybees’ memory and learning, as well as their motor activity and navigation. When foraging for food and collecting nectar, honeybees memorize the smells of flowers and create a kind of olfactory map for subsequent trips.”

    “However, in laboratory and field studies, honeybees exposed to imidacloprid seem to wander off, which may explain, say scientists, why hives all over the world are turning up empty.”

    It seems to me that since the symptoms of CCD are identical to the results of imidacloprid on termites, and since lawn maintenance has resorted to chemically coated seeds including grass and flowers, the culprit is obvious. Not only that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the increase in various human cancers may be connected to this pesticide as well.

    Italy, Germany and Slovenia have suspended certain uses of the neonicotinoids based on concerns for bees. In France imidacloprid has been banned on sunflowers since 1999 for the same reason. But in the U.S. Bayer regularly runs TV commercials on the benefits of Merit, Advantage and a host of other Bayer products containing this destructive chemical. It has become commonplace for corporate profits to trump the truth, and why the scientific community doesn’t have the character or will to speak out on this glaring travesty confounds me — although I’m sure it has something to do with greed.

    Entire article at:

  2. Reinhard Stettler says:

    Charles, I’m proud of you. Let’s get in touch!


  3. Thomas Heller says:

    Great article both for highlighting the work of Charles Wick and the frightening but compelling comments of C. Chase. It would be appreciated to include C. Chase’s professional background.

  4. Arnetta Cheatham says:

    I need bees for my fruit trees! I don’t see any out here near the Hood Canal. So far, I’ve seen only two bumble bees this year.

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