Russian Honeybees to the Rescue

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by Stephen R Ausmus USDA-ARS
Scientists in the ARS Beneficial Insects Research Unit at Weslaco, Texas, have found that a strain of the fungus Metarhizium anisopliae is deadly to Varroa mites, such as this one on an adult worker honey bee's thorax.

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

oval white insect with small dark round dot

Amid the vicious brew of harms that causes CCD, a tiny mite plays a central role in our bees’ accelerating disaster. The aptly named Varroadestructor (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.”

close up of inside bee colony

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.

Potential new solution

Given the economics of what’s at stake, researchers are reaching even further afield. Enter the Russian honeybee, of the same species as the “Italian” bee we depend on here, but a hybrid native to extreme southwestern Russia, in a chilly region called Pimorsky Krai, bordering China and North Korea. There, this particular Apis mellifera, brought east by Ukrainian settlers in the dying days of Czarism during the 1890s, has coexisted with the varroa mite for more than 100 years. Hoping they might understand this acquired resistance, researchers from the USDA Honey Bee Research Lab in Baton Rouge took the trip to find out for themselves in the 1990s.

close up of honey bee on bright orange butterfly milkweed

They discovered that the Russians were indeed twice as resistant to varroa, as well as being highly resistant to yet another diminutive bug, tracheal mites, which are likewise harmful to Italian bees. In a remarkable example of the speed with which evolution can adapt some species to new environments, during this short window of time, the hearty Russian bees developed a 50 percent rate of resistance to varroa.

Even in those relatively sunny days before the deathly cloud of CCD eclipsed the American beekeeping industry, varroa mites, first detected in 1987 in an apiary in Wisconsin, were already taking a heavy toll. In 1997, an increasingly desperate USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) sent agents to Russia’s Far East to collect 100 queen bees from 16 dispersed beekeepers for transport to the agency’s holding pen at the ARS Honeybee Quarantine Station on Grand Terre Island in the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans.

close up of inside bee colony

Lilia De Guzman is a research entomologist with the Lab. She says, “In Russian honeybees, there is a suite of resistance mechanisms (brood and mite removal to name two) that acts as one to substantially suppress mite infestation.” I asked her about the remarkable speed with which the Russian bees developed resistance to varroa mites. De Guzman noted that “development of resistance can be observed in a comparatively short period of time because both bees and mites have short generation times; both are exerting selective pressures on each other.” Total freedom from varroa, even for the adaptive Russian bee, is, according to De Guzman, a doubtful expectation: “No, I don’t think full immunity is achievable. It would be nice to think so, though, just not likely. I don’t think ‘immunity’ is the right word when you are talking about varroa mites; I prefer using resistance or tolerance.” So long as the Russian strain can keep varroa infestation to a manageable level, in other words, it’s the best we can hope for … and a far cry from the devastation varroa has heaped upon the American beekeeping industry thus far.

honey bee on pink flower with green background

Springtime honeybee foraging.

The testing was thorough. Russian queens were introduced into Italian colonies that had been treated to reduce mite populations below detectable levels. Varroa mites were simultaneously being reared in strictly segregated colonies to provide a source of inoculum mites for the test, and purely Italian colonies were maintained as watchdogs for any potential threats the Russians might be bringing to North American bees. Sticky board traps were inserted at the base of all the hives to assess the degree of varroa removal. The results were clear: non-resistant (purely Italian) colonies had 65 to 75 percent brood infestation, while the mixed Russian/Italian colonies had an average of 48.1 percent. Based on this study, 40 sturdy Russian queen bees were selected as breeders to lead the charge against varroa for America’s struggling Italian bees.

From east to west

Charles Walter runs Walter’s Wholesome Goods out of Morgantown, West Virginia. He relates his experience with Russian bees, and the effect they’ve had on his honey business. A friend urged him to try Russians, and while initially dubious, he gave them a go under controlled conditions. The results were immediately gratifying, he says, with an “explosive growth” of his colonies and an upward spike in their overall health that clearly “outperformed the Italians” he’d raised for years. He was particularly pleased with the relatively quick acceptance of the Russian queens by the Italian workers and drones; together they’re now producing “gobs of honey” for his business.

close up of honey bee on yellow comb

Sometimes more traditional apiarists stubbornly stick to their traditional bees, Walter said, and this can cause problems such as “swarming,” in which more than half of a colony, led by their imperious queen who has left behind eggs containing her royal successors, succumb to a building dissatisfaction with their surroundings (perhaps including their Italian neighbors serving as a magnet for varroa) and float away as one in a gyrating, humming cloud. Once out of the hive, the secessionists gather thickly on a tree trunk about their leader while the colony’s ace foragers scout out a new home, swiftly scanning the surrounding area for a more suitable area rich in resources and distant from competitors. When a likely new locale is found, a scout will return to perform variations on the famous “waggle dance,” one of the most complex forms of nonhuman communication, to persuade other scouts to follow her back to a potential hive site — the more excited the scout’s dance, the better the locale’s conditions.

Domesticated queens need abundant drawn combs in which to lay their eggs and ample space to expand the brood nest, or they’ll go elsewhere, but aside from assiduous upkeep, the real solution to swarming, Walter says, is for people to simply accept the superiority of Russian bees and make them the dominant domestic bee in the U.S. They are especially excellent for the backyard beekeeper interested in working gentle bees and honey production.

The importation and dissemination of Russian bees, and their increasing acceptance among apiarists, offers a promising means of combating at least one major factor of CCD, and thus helping to ensure the continued cornucopia of an American farmland whose global importance will only grow along with the world’s booming human population. “More and more people are giving Russians a try,” Walter says. “They were suspicious at first, but once they see the results, they’re not going back. Russian bees are the best thing since sliced bread.”

Slathered, of course, in delectable, homegrown Russian honey.

Sources for Russian Honeybees

Russians are highly resourceful, and so they don’t build a lot of brood early in the springtime until there is plenty of food available and the weather is settled. By the time the bees hit full-stride, approximately 1/3 of the crops needing pollination have come and gone. Hence there are a limited number of breeders for Russian queens because lack of demand in the commercial pollination world.

When you introduce a pure-mated Russian queen into any hive of bees, eventually all the bees in the hive will be Russian. If your hive requeens itself, the new queen will mate with any and all drones in the area, and the offspring will be Russian hybrid bees, which are not nearly as resistant to varroa mites and usually have an unpredictable temperament. Instead, when it’s time to requeen, buy another pure Russian queen, so your hive maintains varroa resistance and gentle behavior.

You can find a Russian queen breeder at Russian Honeybee Breeder.

– Caleb Regan, with help from Kim Flottum, Editor-in-Chief at Bee Culture magazine

There may be snow on the ground and ice on the trees, but your bees are a balmy 96 degrees inside their honeybee hive.

William H. Funk grew up in rural southern Kentucky where he enjoyed working with his farm’s honeybee hives, especially watching tanagers swoop down to catch the smoke-addled bees when the hives were being attended to. He regularly writes about wildlife and other rural issues for a variety of national publications.

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