Bee Scientifics

So Far, Soooooo Good!

Aloha from the HUB

We are well on our way learning about Varroa tolerance selection techniques.  Our first stop was the big island of Hawaii where we had the privelage of visiting the HUB, a bee research project jointly run by PAm, the Arista Foundation, the USDA-ARS Baton Rouge Lab and David Thomas of Hawaii Island Honey Company.

The HUB is working on developing a commercially viable bee that can handle the rigours of production beekeeping and keep mite levels manageable.  The set up is impressive with bees filing the air and feral chickens scurrying through the apiary.  The breeding program consists of around 700 colonies and is connected to the honey production side of the business that runs 3-4000 colonies in each of two locations: Hawaii and Louisiana.

Queen lines are maintained and through Instrumental Insemination (II) or Artificial Insemination (AI)-same thing.  The drone stock is sourced from open mated queens that prove to have naturally low mite levels in real-life field conditions.

What struck me by this operation is the vast amount of work it takes to develop a selective breeding program that has an end goal of producing a commercially viable product.  It is possible to be hyper vigilant and focusses on a single trait- in this case Varroa tolerance- but in the process loose honey production, or disease resistance in against another pathogen.  

Breeding a bee that stands up to the rigours of our beekeeping industry AND can keep mite levels low is extremely challenging.  The key asset that the HUB has going for it is it’s data management system and the insane amount of organising and fore-thought that goes into each cross, each breeder selection, each pedigree.  This collaborative approach seems to give this program exceptional power.

The challenges here lie in our perceived need for fast results.  Breeding animals as complex as honey bees is a very slow process- the long game.  This process is tedious, time consuming, requires extraordinary organisation, demands a unique combination of practical beekeeping and laboratory skills, and is just plain hard.  Our expectations may squelch the ember before the flame.

The HUB project has been building for only 5 years and has made some great progress toward breeding commercially viable Varroa tolerant lines of bees.  These bees are a cross of various Italian stocks and are unevenly banded and are not uniformly coloured.  In Australia, I realise this would be hard to take.  We want, on top of honey production, nice temperament, disease resistance, Varroa tolerance…..we want our bees to be either yellow or black.  We want even bands, we want sisters to look uniform- at least from our breeding lines. It may be attainable to maintain racially driven breeding lines once Varroa comes, it may not.  Colour might have to go…maybe.

I will have a few more conversations with Danielle Downey from PAm, BartJan Fernhout from Arista, Bob Danka from the USDA, and David Thomas from the Hawaiian Honey Company and work out the finer details of the program and work to develop a grander understanding of this type of breeding structure.  In the mean time, just know that in Hawaii, there is a group of people that are working extremely hard to understand how commercial beekeepers can hop off the chemical bandwagon by breeding bees that can handle the mighty Varroa mite.

Some Exciting news for Survivor Stock

Australian honey bees are some of the most healthy in the world.  If they’re allowed the time, they will develop varroa resistance on their own.  Other populations have- ours can too.

Aug. 7, 2015

Some honeybee colonies adapt in wake of deadly mites

bee with might on back

A worker bee with two Varroa mites.
tree with bees

Tom Seeley
An exposed nest of a colony of honeybees living in a tree.

A new genetics study of wild honeybees offers clues to how a population has adapted to a mite that has devastated bee colonies worldwide. The findings may aid beekeepers and bee breeders to prevent future honeybee declines.

The researchers genetically analyzed museum samples collected from wild honeybee colonies in 1977 and 2010; the bees came from Cornell University’s Arnot Forest. In comparing genomes from the two time periods, the results – published Aug. 6 in Nature Communications – show clear evidence that the wild honeybee colonies experienced a genetic bottleneck – a loss of genetic diversity – when the Varroa destructor mites killed most of the honeybee colonies. But some colonies survived, allowing the population to rebound.

“The study is a unique and powerful contribution to understanding how honeybees have been impacted by the introduction of Varroa destructor, and how, if left alone, they can evolve resistance to this deadly parasite,” said Thomas Seeley, the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell and the paper’s senior author. Sasha Mikheyev ’00, an assistant professor of ecology and evolution at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) in Japan, is the paper’s first author.

“The paper is also a clear demonstration of the importance of museum collections, in this case the Cornell University Insect Collection, and the importance of wild places, such as Cornell’s Arnot Forest,” Seeley added.

In the 1970s, Seeley surveyed the population of wild colonies of honeybees (Apis mellifera) in Arnot Forest, and found 2.5 colonies per square mile. By the early 1990s, V. destructor mites had spread across the U.S. to New York state and were devastating bee colonies. The mites infest nursery cells in honeybee nests and feed on developing bees while also transferring virulent viruses.

A 2002 survey of Arnot Forest by Seeley revealed the same abundance of bee colonies as in the late 1970s, suggesting that either new colonies from beekeepers’ hives had repopulated the area, or that the existing population had undergone strong natural selection and came out with good resistance.

By 2010, advances in DNA technology, used previously to stitch together fragmented DNA from Neanderthal samples, gave Mikheyev, Seeley and colleagues the tools for whole-genome sequencing and comparing museum and modern specimens.

The results revealed a huge loss in diversity of mitochondrial genes, which are passed from one generation to the next only through the female lineage. This shows that the wild population of honeybees experienced a genetic bottleneck. Such bottlenecks arise when few individuals reproduce, reducing the gene pool. “Maybe only four or five queens survived and repopulated the forest,” Seeley said.

At the same time, the surviving bees show high genetic diversity in their nuclear genes, passed on by dying colonies that still managed to produce male bees. The nuclear DNA showed widespread genetic changes, a signature of adaptation. “Even when a colony is not doing well, it can still produce a batch of males, so nuclear genes were not lost,” Seeley said.

The data also show a lack of genes coming from outside populations, such as beekeepers’ bees.

The surviving bees evolved to be smaller, suggesting these bees might require less time to develop. Since the mites infest nursery cells in hives, the shorter development time may allow young bees to develop into adulthood before the mites can finish their development. Mite-resistant honeybees in Africa are also small and have short development times, Seeley said.

Next, the researchers will study which genes and traits confer resistance to Varroa mites. The findings may help beekeepers to avoid pesticides for controlling mites and to trust the process of natural selection, and bee breeders to develop bees with the traits that have enabled bees to survive in the wild.

The study was funded by the OIST and the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.

Australia Remains Varroa Free

Here is a nice article by the Age- a prominent Australian paper that I was interviewed for and some of my photos were published!  For now, Australia remains Varroa Free. Check it out!

Bee careful out there – a parasitic marauder is nearly at our shores


Peter Spinks

Fairfax Science Columnist

Honeybees lead something of a charmed life, as they flit about collecting nectar and pollen and producing oodles of honey and wax. But now, it seems, their carefree days might soon be numbered.

Feeling the buzz: Bees pollinate the flowers of at least one third of wild and farmed plants but their numbers are dropping due, in part, to a parasite varroa destructor which has now reached New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

Feeling the buzz: Bees pollinate the flowers of at least one third of wild and farmed plants but their numbers are dropping due, in part, to a parasite varroa destructor which has now reached New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

Populations of the four-winged insects, which pollinate the flowers of at least one-third of wild and farmed plants that humans eat, have decreased over the past three decades in the US and Britain. In part, this has been due to the prevalence of crop pesticides, the destruction of flower-rich habitats and pests.

The biggest pest threat is from a pinhead-sized parasite, Varroa destructor, an oval-shaped, reddish-brown mite that sucks the blood from bees and inflicts upon them a suite of virulent diseases, such as deformed-wing virus.
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