Russian Invasion – Alabama Beekeepers Discover Unexpected Ally In War Against Mites
For years, beekeepers have been locked in battle with a lethal enemy: the varroa mite. Although tiny enough to live in a single cell of a honeycomb, these pests can wreak havoc in a hive. And just when a beekeeper thinks he has them under control, they attack again. In recent years, however, USDA researchers have discovered an unexpected ally in the war on mites–the Russians.No, it’s not a Communist plot. It’s more a matter of natural selection.It seems that when settlers first brought Western honey bees into Russia during the mid 1800s they were exposed to the varroa mite, a natural pest of the Eastern hive bee. Over the years, the bees gradually developed resistance to the mite, unlike their American cousins, which only recently were exposed to the parasite.Now, USDA scientists are hoping that by introducing Russian honey bees into the United States, beekeepers will be able to reduce or eliminate their use of costly pesticides. One of the first beekeepers to participate in the research is Andy Calvert of Calvert Apiaries in Washington County. A third-generation beekeeper, Calvert has been working with USDA Research Entomologist Dr. Jeff Harris to measure mite resistance when Russian bees are crossed with commercial colonies. This spring, the researcher set up 64 bee colonies at two locations–one in Mobile County and another in Baldwin County. Some of the hives contain pure Russian bees. Others contain non-resistant commercial stock, and still others are Russian-commercial hybrids.With the colonies established, Harris then came back this summer and did the unthinkable. He infected each hive with 185 varroa mites.”My experience with non-resistant stock is that, in three to four months, we will see a 10-fold increase in the mite population,” Harris said. “We fully expect to see 3,000-4,000 mites at the end of four months. In pure Russians, we can expect to see half that.”Harris explained that the mites are parasites that feed on the blood of adult bees and reproduce within the brood cells of developing bees. As a result, adult bees are weakened, and immature bee larvae are destroyed. Webb said controlling the pest is a constant struggle for beekeepers.”The varroa mite is the number-one pest of honey bees worldwide. It’s a continuous battle to keep them under control. About the time you get rid of them, they’re back again,” Webb said.Webb estimates that it costs $10-$15 a year to treat each of his 1,500 honey bee hives. Harris hopes that by introducing Russian genetics into commercial colonies, he can reduce that cost by at least half.”Our goal is for the average beekeeper is to reduce the number of chemical treatments needed to control mites,” Harris said. “Typical treatment is to put a chemical strip in each hive for 45 days, twice a year–once in the spring before the honey flow and once in the fall after the honey flow. If a beekeeper had pure Russians, he could cut out one of those treatments.”Harris, who was raised in Elmore County and works at the USDA Honey Bee Lab in Baton Rouge, La., said the first Russian queen bees were imported in June 1997. After a seven-month quarantine, the most resistant queens were mated to produce daughter queens, and USDA began testing the bees at commercial apiaries in Iowa, Louisiana and Mississippi.Results from the tests indicate that the Russians not only are resistant to mites, but also produce honey that is comparable to commercial bees in both quality and quantity. As for negative traits, Harris said the Russian bees are more prone to swarm (relocate their hive), but he was quick to point out that they are not aggressive like the highly publicized Africanized or “killer” bees.Since 1997, USDA has imported additional Russian queens, and has even sold stock to commercial breeders to help spread mite resistance into commercial operations. Webb, in fact, owns two breeder queens, which he purchased for $500 each. He uses those, along with commercial breeder queens, to produce about 10,000 – 15,000 daughter queens a year–which he sells to beekeepers throughout the U.S.Webb’s experience in raising queens was one reason Harris approached him about the Russian research project. In addition, Webb already has a line of bees that’s resistant to another honey bee parasite, the tracheal mite, and Harris was hoping that by crossing Russians with those bees he could produce offspring that were resistant to both pests.”If some of these bees turn out to be resistant to both the varroa mite and tracheal mite, we’ll be a step ahead,” Webb said. “We could end up with breeding stock that is superior to anything else available.”Harris, however, said he expects some hybrids to exhibit good resistance to mites while others will likely show no more resistance than commercial colonies. Still, he said the research is beneficial because it helps spread resistant genes. “We want to spread resistant genes all around the U.S., but we don’t want to create monoculture,” Harris said. “It’s better to trickle out the genetics than to have beekeepers using the same pure Russian stock. The idea is that, if gene is beneficial, it will be magnified by the activity of the beekeeper.”During the next several years, Harris predicts the proportion of Russian genes will increase in the hybrid queens they produce because the numbers of Russian drones (males) available within their mating yards will increase. As a result, he said the level of varroa resistance in queens sold by breeders like Webb should increase with time.Until then, Webb said the experiment at his bee yard offers hope to U.S. beekeepers who have battled varroa mites for more than a decade. It also is good news for other farmers because, as resistance increases, researchers are seeing a return of feral bee colonies that are vital to the pollination of agricultural crops.