Russian Honeybees to the Rescue

With a resistance to the varroa mite, Russian honeybees might offer one solution to the backyard beekeeper’s fight against colony collapse disorder.

| January/February 2017

America’s honeybees are in serious trouble. We’ve known this for a while, anxiously watching as populations decline across the continent due to a noxious host of plagues, the greatest of which is a multifaceted disaster called colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is composed of a number of factors, from neonicotinoid pesticides to the obliteration of natural habitat to Nosema ceranae, a unicellular parasitic fungus of Asian origin that weakens bees’ resistance to the roiling pesticides they must labor through in their role as pollinators employed by industrial agriculturalists across the country.

Modern large-scale pollination procedures are hard on the honeybee. Hauled by the hundreds of thousands in tractor-trailer rigs to pollinate a range of crops — including cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons; sunflowers; and apples and almonds — honeybees must endure the inherent stresses of this wholly abnormal lifestyle while being increasingly subjected to chemical and biological threats, the latter mostly of foreign origin. Our honeybees (Apis mellifera) aren’t native to the Western Hemisphere either, originally being derived from southern Europe and brought over by the early colonists, and there is even some concern from conservationists about their varying impacts on our some 4,000 native bee species. But the fact is, modernized agricultural practices almost completely dominate the U.S. farming industry, and these bees — whose ancestors were as foreign to America as most of their human keepers’ — are absolutely critical to maintaining our current rates of crop production.

One culprit

Amid the vicious brew of harms that causes CCD, a tiny mite plays a central role in our bees’ accelerating disaster. The aptly named Varroa destructor (commonly the varroa mite) is an external parasitic mite that, like a tiny tick, attaches itself to the bee’s exterior and sucks its blood (bees’ yellowish blood, or hemolymph, doesn’t carry oxygen, a job performed by the tracheal system, and so doesn’t contain the red pigment hemoglobin). This can be enough to kill the affected bees over time, but worse yet is the infection that varroa mites spread through the entire hive. The bite of this mite, which targets only Apis species, inflicts a disease called “varroosis,” resulting in depleted weight gain, underdeveloped body size, deformities of the wings and abdomen, decreased lifespan, and, in the male drones, infertility. A significant mite infestation will lead to the death of an entire honeybee colony, usually during the hungry months of late autumn through early spring.

The varroa mite is currently believed to be the single most destructive parasite of our honeybees, producing the greatest detrimental economic impact on the beekeeping industry, and thus on some of the industrially raised crops mentioned above. Controlling this exotic menace is fraught with difficulties: the inherent dangers of pesticide application, the time-consumptive methods of removing drone pupae from the hive, and the regular replacement of honeycombs to deter absolute infestation.

An even more desperate measure is described in a 2015 report by the Centre for Agricultural and Biosciences International: “This involves moving the parent colony approximately 4 meters from the original colony site. A second hive containing newly drawn combs and the queen is placed on the original site, causing foragers to return to this hive, creating an artificial swarm. Further management procedures are undertaken after nine days and three weeks.”

It looks like a lot of physical work for the average backyard beekeeper to do over and over, but what if other critters might help in taking on these deadly mites for us? Certain species of pseudoscorpion have been known to prey on varroa mites and have been considered for introduction into the U.S., as have microbial agents such as fungal pathogens. The problem with using non-native organisms to combat a non-native threat to your non-native bees is, obviously, the accelerating influx of exotics whose long-term effects on their new ecosystems, despite careful preliminary lab research, are often hypothetical at best. Perhaps one of the simplest and least ancillary damaging methods might be the application of essential herbal oils. Thyme and spearmint have proven effective against varroa, while lemongrass contains antifungal and antiviral properties. How effective this tactic would be at the scale needed for mass pollination isn’t clear.

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