Research at the University of Minnesota could help fight a parasite that may have killed up to half the North American bee population in the past year.
ST. PAUL, MS Research at the University of Minnesota could help fight a parasite that may have killed up to half the North American bee population in the past year.
Entomologist Marla Spivak leads a breeding program that produces queen bees with the ability to rid hives of bee larvae infested with the Varroa mite.
"We always have some mites around," Spivak said. "But they are back with a vengeance this year."
The tiny pest has decimated honeybee colonies across the country this year, worrying beekeepers and farmers who depend on the insects to pollinate their crops.
Two chemicals were used against the mites for the most of the 1990s, but the mite developed a resistance to one about five years ago and the other last year.
Honeybees pollinate about a third of the human diet and dozens of agricultural crops, from California almonds to clover for Midwest cattle to New England apple orchards.
"People don't appreciate it, or think about it much, but one-third of our table foods depend on bees," said Spivak.
She said that even the dairy industry is affected because the feed crops of alfalfa and clover are bee pollinated, unlike most grass crops, which are wind pollinated.
Ortonville beekeeper David Ellingson, president of the trade group American Beekeeper's Federation, said the breeding program is "the best hope for the future,"
Spivak's bees possess what's known as "the Minnesota hygienic trait," which allows daughters of the bees in the breeding program to change behavior in the hives. Bees with this trait clean out the bee larvae infested with the mites.
The breeding process is very slow and its enhanced bees may never reach all the different lines of bees found in commercial bee colonies or in those in the wild.
Her breeding program started in 1993. It's now being replicated in other research centers in North America and Northern Europe.
Ellingson said he has been using Minnesota hygienic queen bees "practically since day one." His losses to the mite have been modest so far, and nowhere near the 50 percent average bee losses his members are reporting.
Source: Associated Press