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Can We Make a Better Honeybee?

September 07, 2015

Honey Bees

Building a Heartier Honey Bee

Loss in honeybee populations and excessive die-offs has become all too common for beekeepers. It is so common, in fact, that beekeepers are resorting to ordering more bees when they lose a hive. While this may seem like a plausible solution, it puts an increased strain on honeybee breeders to turn out more insects to meet the increasing demand. Additionally, breeding and buying replacement honeybees does not solve the root issue of why honeybees are dying at such an alarming rate.

In an attempt to take care of the root of the bee population problem, researchers and backyard beekeepers are working together to attempt to “build” a better, stronger honeybee. Surprisingly they are not attempting this through genetic engineering – instead, they are working with good, old-fashioned selection. Currently, there is a co-op of around 100 beekeepers, from Tennessee to Michigan, that are working together in an effort to “build a stronger honey bee.”

Jeff Berta, a commercial beekeeper that is part of this co-op, took some time with MichiganRadio.org to take a look at this ongoing effort. While inspecting one of his hives, Berta pointed out a queen bee with the number 18 on its back. “Number 18, she is there. That little disc there with the 18 on it, we call those our Nascar bees there because they have numbers on them,” Berta said. Bee number 18 is one of his “all-star” queen bee who is also a science experiment.

Number 18 is the queen bee of a Vermont colony that has survived quite a few trials including disease and cold, harsh winters. Berta had the bee artificially inseminated by scientists at Perdue University who are developing bees with a natural resistance to varroa mites. “The bees will take the mite and they will bite the legs […],” he says. “And if they bite a leg off of the mite, the mite will bleed to death. So the bees are actually fighting back. That's the type of genetic line that we're after right now.”

Since the insemination, every egg queen number 18 lays she also passes along the “leg biting behaviors” and natural instinct to fight back against the varroa mite. This is important since it allows the honeybees to be able to naturally fight off a mite infestation on their own without the additional help of even more harmful pesticides. This is a huge breakthrough for the advancement and survival of honeybees but the work does not stop here. Building stronger bees will mean inseminating more strong queens.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out as well as if beekeepers in other countries will follow suit. Most notably, the beekeepers in New Zealand farming Manuka honey. The colony collapse disorder is affecting both production and price, so consumers will more than likely be keeping a sharp eye to this story as well.

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