Breeding a better bee

Jul 11, 2011 By Joel N. Shurkin
Credit: pdphoto.org

The population of honeybees remains endangered, threatening the world's food supply, and scientists have decided that the best way to save the insects may be to breed a better bee.

Researchers are breeding bees with the special ability to resist the and viruses that, according to the United Nations, have killed 10-30 percent of the bees in Europe each year, almost a third of American bees, and as much as 85 percent of the bees in the Middle East. The breeding efforts are slowly starting to succeed.

Researchers at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg are shipping from hives that show some resistance to the mites across Canada. The scientists, along with colleagues at the University of Guelph in Ontario, then expose the queens to high levels of "disease pressure" according to Rob Currie, professor of entomology at Manitoba. The survivors then are bred the next season and so on -- seven generations so far.

Beekeepers usually breed bees by taking a queen from a hive, but these new efforts are designed specifically for the current situation. Breeding programs also exist at the University of Minnesota and at the Department of Agriculture's research labs in Baton Rouge, La., according to Dave Mendes of the American Beekeepers Federation.

Meanwhile, the threat to the food supply remains. Besides producing honey, bees are one of the main conduits for pollination. Worldwide, food valued at $83 billion -- $15 billion in the U.S. alone -- is at risk since more than 100 different crops depend on bee pollination.

Mites -- tiny arachnid-like ticks -- and the viruses they carry are believed to be the primary culprits behind the rapid drop in known as . In addition, a can also destroy hives.

According to the Department of Agriculture, 33.8 percent of American honeybee colonies were destroyed between October 2009 and April 2010, a 5 percent increase from the previous year.

The destruction is not uniform. In some areas, whole hives have been decimated, while in others, beekeepers report that colonies are doing well. No one knows what causes the disparity, according to Eric Mussen, extension agriculturist at UC-Davis in California.

People have been keeping bees for honey and pollination since time out of mind, but this bee plague first appeared in 1920 when mites, tiny arachnids, infested and killed off bees on the Isle of Wight off the coast of Britain. The United States passed a law forbidding the commercial importation of foreign bees to protect the domestic industry, but no one could stop the importation of mites.

In 1987, a new kind of mite first appeared in Florida and then Wisconsin and the destruction of North America hives began.

"By 1995, you could barely find a feral colony," Mussen said.

Industrial-sized bee farms were hit as were backyard hives. As some bees developed resistance, the same thing happened to the mites: spraying produced mites resistant to the insecticides. Researchers think that breeding resistant bees would be a lot easier than trying to eradicate the mites.

"We are looking for bees that are resistant to mites and with a greater tolerance to viruses because they appear to be the two main factors behind colony loss," Currie said.

An added attribute is the ability to withstand the brutal North American winters.

Currie said that normally only 46 percent of the species known as European survive the winter, but the newest generations have a 75 percent survival rate.

In order to do the experiments, the Canadian researchers even grow their own mites, "a form of anti-beekeeping," Currie said.

Mussen said some species of bees are capable of destroying the mites before the mites get them, particularly Russian bees, brought in by the USDA and now being bred in Louisiana. Mussen calls them "hygienic," capable of cleaning themselves of the mites, sometimes in organized hive-wide mite patrols.

" are very complex creatures," Mussen said.

Explore further: Aging white lion euthanized at Ohio zoo

Provided by Inside Science News Service

4.2 /5 (5 votes)

Related Stories

Asian bees threaten Australia

Jun 15, 2007

Four swarms of Asian bees found in Cairns, Australia, may pose a serious threat to the country's honey bee population.

Canada seeks to breed a better honey bee

Jun 29, 2011

Following a massive bee die-off in parts of the world, two Canadian universities on Wednesday launched an effort to breed honey bees resistant to pests and diseases.

'Swindon Honeybee' could save Britain's bees

Aug 27, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Honey bee numbers have been declining almost everywhere due to a pesticide-resistant mite called Varroa. Now a beekeeper in Britain claims to have discovered a strain of bee that destroys ...

Bees Throw Out Mites

Sep 11, 2009

Honey bees are now fighting back aggressively against Varroa mites, thanks to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) efforts to develop bees with a genetic trait that allows them to more easily find the mites ...

Scientists search for cause of bee deaths

May 14, 2007

A U.S. scientist says parasites, pathogens and pesticides are all possible suspects in the recent staggering decline in the number of the world's honeybees.

Bee scientists force killer mites to self destruct

Dec 22, 2010

The blood-sucking Varroa is the biggest killer of honey bees world-wide, having developed resistance to beekeepers’ medication over the past decade. It particularly thrives in cold winters when colonies ...

Recommended for you

A vegetarian carnivorous plant

Dec 19, 2014

Carnivorous plants catch and digest tiny animals in order and derive benefits for their nutrition. Interestingly the trend towards vegetarianism seems to overcome carnivorous plants as well. The aquatic carnivorous bladderwort, ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

stealthc
1 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2011
oh good idea, risk making the problem worse in the hopes of making it better! Plants aren't good enough so we release gmo, then find out later that the new gmo plants are a mistake but cannot go back on our decision, just like a decision like this, these people are playing god with something life on this planet depends on -- in both my example and this bee situation.
malapropism
not rated yet Jul 11, 2011
oh good idea, risk making the problem worse in the hopes of making it better! Plants aren't good enough so we release gmo, then find out later that the new gmo plants are a mistake but cannot go back on our decision, just like a decision like this, these people are playing god with something life on this planet depends on -- in both my example and this bee situation.

So you would rather shut your eyes to a very serious problem that threatens pollination (and therefore the future existence) of very many plant species, including a large number of crop plants, and hope it just goes away? Excellent idea: just don't go looking for any fruit to eat in the world that results because there won't be any.

At least these researchers are trying to do something positive before it's too late, and by using traditional breeding techniques, not more modern genetic modification technologies.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.