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In search of a better bee

By Published: December 27 2011, The Washington Post

On a farm on the outskirts of Frederick, Kelly Rausch and Adam Finkelstein crack open a wooden beehive whose design dates to the 19th century. Inside, they point out a superbee they have made for the 21st century.

In two months, the carefully bred queen bee has built a large, productive colony that knows how to cluster against the cold and fill the winter larder with honey.

More important, her bees have sought out and destroyed a sneaky parasitic mite that feeds on their baby sisters. “The bees are definitely taking care of everything,” said Finkelstein from behind his veil.

The desire for a bee that will look after itself may seem pretty basic. But with as many as one-third of honeybee colonies routinely dying off each year and the rest requiring extraordinary care, the quest for a better bee has become critical.

Scientists are trying to find the cause of colony collapse disorder, the five-year-old phenomenon of worker bees suddenly disappearing. Other maladies abound and may be a factor in the disorder: new pests and diseases, the effects of pesticides and the strain of industrial-scale pollination.

Farmers rely on the insect not just for honey, but also to pollinate much of our food.

From their five bee yards in Frederick County, Rausch and Finkelstein run a business called VP Queen Bees, which supplies breeder queens to producers at up to $165 a queen. The producers, in turn, propagate daughter queens by the thousands and sell them to commercial beekeepers and backyard hobbyists for about $30 each.

The object: a queen that will pass on to her colony the traits of disease and pest resistance, gentleness, productivity and winter hardiness.

The single greatest threat is an Asian mite called the varroa. It feeds on honeybee young and adults and spreads viruses.

Commercial beekeepers have turned to heavy feeding and medication to try to keep hives strong in advance of their biggest gig of the year. In the new year, beekeepers will assemble more than a million hives — half the nation’s stock — in the almond groves of California’s San Joaquin Valley, to ensure a successful pollination of the 2012 nut crop.

One of the bright spots has been the development of a bee that battles the mite.

Marla Spivak, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, began breeding bees to fight back nearly 20 years ago. She froze pupae and waited to see which colonies would fastidiously remove the corpses from the hive. This hygienic trait, first observed in the 1940s when young were killed by disease, was effective in breaking the life cycle of the mite. She called her queens Minnesota Hygienic.

Separately, scientists at the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s honeybee lab in Baton Rouge were studying why some of their hives had low mite levels. After about 10 years of work, they finally figured it out. The bees in those colonies were able to detect mites hiding in sealed cells and feeding on developing young. The bees uncapped the cells and dragged out the mites, along with infested brood. Hybridizers label these neatnik bees varroa sensitive hygienic (VSH).

Tom Glenn, of Glenn Apiaries in Fallbrook, Calif., has worked with the lab to produce VSH breeder queens for queen producers around the nation. After 10 years, about 25 percent of the nation’s honeybees have significant hygienic behavior in their DNA, Glenn said.

As vital as the hygienic bee is, the breeder must preserve existing desirable traits — a reluctance to sting or swarm, for example, as well as genetic diversity as a hedge against future diseases or pests.

“That’s why gains are so slow,” said Susan Cobey, a bee geneticist at the University of California and Washington State University. “I would say we are just in the infancy of bee breeding.”

Finkelstein, however, says he thinks he is close to achieving his primary aim of creating a bee that can survive with just basic husbandry. He says he hasn’t medicated his hives in 14 years.

Another challenge is that unlike with apple or cattle breeding, for example, the average bee breeder cannot control the male line. The queen mates on the wing with 2o or so drones from surrounding colonies. The most able breeders are getting around this by artificially inseminating virgin queens with the semen from known drone stock, a technique perfected by Cobey. Only a handful of hybridizers can do it. Glenn is one. Rausch is another.

Creating a superbee is one thing, getting professional beekeepers to accept it is another. For now at least, there is enormous resistance by the commercial beekeeping industry to using improved bee stock without the continued regimen of medication and supplemental feeding.

“The large commercial beekeepers are essentially farmers, and they’re risk averse,” said Robert Danka, a research entomologist at the government’s Baton Rouge lab. “This is a very dangerous parasite we’re dealing with, and a vast majority believe if you stopped treating with chemicals, their bees will die,” he said.

Pat Heitkam, a major queen producer in Orland, Calif. said he spends “in excess of $40,000” a year medicating his queens against gut disease. “I’m not sure it’s necessary,” he said, but he can’t risk selling diseased bees to his customers.

Under a new initiative, entomologists are working with queen producers in California to evaluate colonies for the strongest stock. Organizers hope that this, in turn, will lead to the selection of hardier bees and, ultimately, less reliance by beekeepers on chemical treatments. The 20 producers in the program raise about half the queen bees sold in the United States.

Near-term salvation may come from backyard hobbyists, who are more willing to risk losing an unmedicated colony.

Karla Eisen of the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association tracked the fortunes of more than 40 hives over two years and found the survival rate of locally sourced hives and queens — most of them from Rausch and Finkelstein — significantly outperformed traditionally sourced queens and bee packages from the South.

After two winters, 74 percent of the local colonies were still alive compared with 40 percent of the Southern bees.

“They call it the James Bond approach,” Spivak said. “Live and let die. You keep colonies without any medications. In theory it sounds good, except you reduce the gene pool” by losing bees that might have other valuable breeding traits.

Everyone agrees that a bee that could survive pests without the stresses of chemicals “would make beekeeping a lot easier,” said Reed M. Johnson, an entomologist at Ohio State University. In the nightmarish maze that the honeybee has found herself, breeding, he said, “is really our way out.”


Discovery News  By Cristen Conger | Thu Nov 12, 2009

Super-Sniffing Bees Combat Colony Pest
Government-developed honeybees are equipped with a keen sniffing ability to root out a deadly parasite.

Government scientists have developed a population of honeybees that can root out the Varroa mite, a main culprit in a honeybee die-off. In an effort to stem a massive bee die-off, government scientists have developed a population of honeybees that can root out a main culprit in the epidemic -- a parasite that feeds on pupae in nests and spreads viruses within hives. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists hope the population of Varroa mite-detecting honeybees could potentially improve the health of the overall honeybee population. Domestic honeybee stocks have been waning since 2004 because of a mysterious illness scientists call colony collapse disorder, which causes adult bees to forsake their broods. During the winter of 2007, the disorder wiped out around 1 million colonies in North America.

Honey bees are under attack by something nasty and mysterious; researchers are hunting it down. In addition to stemming the tide of honeybee die-offs, the USDA hopes that the effort to eliminate the varroa mite threat could buoy the $8 to $14 billion food industry that relies on commercial honeybee pollination. "Varroa is still considered the number one pest of honeybees worldwide," said Jeffrey Harris, an entomologist with the Honeybee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Unit in Baton Rouge, La., which is part of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service. For more than 20 years, varroa mites have not only decimated millions of honeybee colonies in North America; they've also grown resistant to pesticides. The tiny parasites invade a honeybee colony and feed off honeybee hemolymph, which is the mixture of blood and fluids inside the insect's body. Varroa mites especially target immature pupae in capped broods, or covered hive cells, stunting their growth and causing wing and leg deformities. The pests are also vectors for virus. Within two years, varroa mites can destroy an entire colony. But some bees have a low-frequency genetic trait termed varroa-sensitive hygiene (VSH) that enables them to better locate and remove varroa mites from hives. These bees team up to open the covered brood cells and remove the mite-damaged pupae and any accompanying varroa mites from the hive. We do think they're much better at smelling the odors associated with varroa-infected cells," Harris said. After identifying and isolating that genetic trait, Harris and other USDA entomologists have now developed a population of honeybees with a high expression of the VSH. In a field trial of 40 colonies, those with the highest levels of VSH showed significantly lower mite infestation and bee mortality than the control groups. The study results were published in the Journal of Apicultural Research. Harris emphasizes that the VSH honeybees aren't meant for mass reproduction as a pure stock, since that would result in excessive inbreeding, with single queens mating with up to 20 drone bees. "By outcrossing them and breeding VSH queens with non-VSH bees, it guarantees that there will be mongrels and mutts out there to keep the genetic diversity up," Harris told Discovery News. Although Dr. Keith Delaplane, director of the Honeybee Program at the University of Georgia, agrees that varroa mites are one of the top contributors to Colony Collapse Disorder, he has reservations about the long-term potential of breeding for the VSH trait. "These specific characteristics tend to erode pretty quickly unless the beekeeper is applying stiff selection to the colonies," Delaplane said. The VSH trait expresses infrequently in the wild and some stocks, such as Russian honeybee, have developed some mite-resistance naturally over time. Delaplane thinks it's important weigh the pros and cons of selectively breeding for traits versus promoting more "hybrid vigor" by allowing queens to mate of their own accord. "Natural selection doesn't necessarily favor traits we think it ought to favor," he notes. From a commercial standpoint, VSH bees have so far met the USDA's expectations of thwarting varroa mite infestations and fulfilling their crucial roles as pollinators. "As far as performance, they do just as well as the other lines in terms of making honey and pollinating," said Tom Glenn, professional beekeeper and owner of Glenn Apiaries in Fallbrook, Calif. In 2001, Glenn began artificially inseminating pure VSH queens from the USDA Honeybee Research Unit. To limit inbreeding, he impregnates the queen with semen from around 200 drones, rather than the 10 or 20 she would normally mate with. He doesn't breed bees that are too closely related. Considering the reproductive and hygienic success he's witnessed with the VSH colonies, Glenn is optimistic that the honeybee industry is on the right track toward recovery from the varroa pest and Colony Collapse Disorder. "Actually, [the VSH bees] have been doing so well that in 2002 we stopped treating for the mites altogether," Glenn said.

Cristen Conger is a staff writer with


VSH - The state of the art line of bees for controlling mites and diseases

VSH stands for Varroa Sensitive Hygiene, a naturally occurring trait of honeybees. This behavioral trait causes the worker bees to detect, uncap and remove varroa infested brood. Disrupting the reproduction of the varroa mites in this way effectively limits the population growth of the mites, often eliminating the need for miticide treatments.
This line of bees was selectively bred by USDA scientists in an impressive example of science working with nature to provide a sustainable solution to a very serious problem.
In 2001, Glenn Apiaries entered into a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the USDA Bee Breeding Lab in Baton Rouge, LA. to propagate and distribute VSH queens. All of our lines now have the VSH trait incorporated.

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