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Building a stronger honey bee

Honey bee die-offs are so common now that beekeepers generally just order more bees when they lose a hive. But this has put a lot of pressure on bee breeders to raise more and more bees. And that is only bringing the quality of bees down.

But researchers and backyard beekeepers are now teaming up to build a better honey bee. And not through genetic engineering—through good old-fashioned selection.

Credit Lou Blouin/The Allegheny Front
Typically, beekeepers insert rectangular wooden frames into beehives so that bees will store honeycomb neatly inside the box. As urban beekeeper Steve Rapaski found out, this is what happens when you forget the frames: The bees will build a free-form comb inside the empty box, much like they would do in the wild in hollow trees.

Beekeepers have plenty of tough days. But this... this is a good day.

“My mouth is full! We’re eating honey that is fresh from the hive,” Pittsburgh beekeeper Steve Rapaski says. “And it’s so delicious."

Rapaski hasn’t been around to check on this particular hive in about a month. And now the bees have built a crazy, jagged, mini-mountain range of foot-tall honeycomb inside an empty bee box.

“The good news is that it’s what we call fresh cut-comb honey,” Rapaski says. “But it’s what we call a major screw-up by a beekeeper that should have put frames in there a month ago.”

As far as screw-ups go, it’s not really a big deal.

The varroa mite

But beekeepers aren't really allowed a whole lot of real screw-ups these days.

Credit Zachary Huang / MSU
The varroa mite is the most serious threat to honey bees worldwide.

And that’s not because of colony collapse disorder. Scientists actually don’t see much of that these days. Bee researcher Maryann Frazier says the main thing that’s been wiping out honeybees since the 1990s is actually a parasite called the varroa mite.

“It’s a parasitic mite that feeds on the blood of adult bees and on the brood,” she says.

And it’s basically like having a 6-pound house cat attached to your side, sucking the life out of you. Treatments for these mites were, and still are, pretty limited.

Get this: We actually spray bees — which are, of course, insects — with insecticides. The hope is that we’ll kill the mites, but not the bees. The approach has worked well enough to at least give colonies a fighting chance. But out on a farm in western Pennsylvania, beekeepers are trying a new approach.

A science experiment with bees

“Let’s go light a smoker and look at some bees,” commercial bee breeder Jeff Berta says.

He's part of a co-op of about 100 beekeepers stretching from Michigan to Tennessee that's trying to build a better honeybee.

“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 says.

Number 18 is one of Berta’s all-star queen bees. She’s also a bit of a science experiment.

This queen’s mother is from a Vermont colony that survived disease and cold winters. And then Berta had her artificially inseminated by Purdue University scientists, who developed bees with natural resistance to mites.

Credit Lou Blouin/The Allegheny Front
Maryann Frazier, a researcher at Penn State's Center for Pollinator Research, tests the effects of pesticides on honeybee colonies.

“The bees will take the mite and they will bite the legs and will chew on the mite,” 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.”

So now with every egg No. 18 lays, she passes on those leg-biting behaviors—making a colony that can rid itself of mites naturally, with no help from pesticides.

It’s a huge breakthrough. But the breeding project can’t end here. Because Berta can’t artificially inseminate every queen, any descendants of No. 18 that turn into queens themselves will likely just fly off and mate with any old drones within a few miles.

Meaning, if Berta’s beekeeping neighbors don’t have strong bees too, they can easily dilute his carefully selected lines.

Bee geneticist Christina Grozinger says you have to be in it for the long haul.

“And so, you can’t sort of produce a stock and say, ‘Now I’m done! And that was it! Now we can sell it everywhere!’” she says. “You have to constantly re-select and constantly have to have people very interested in working as part of this effort.”

That’s why Jeff Berta and the co-op of beekeepers happily give eggs from their best colonies to their neighbors and swap queens to try out new genetics.

It’s all part of shifting the paradigm from a system where beekeepers simply buy new bees every year, to a lasting neighborhood of bees that can slowly create real survivors.

Lou Blouin is a reporter with the environment news program, The Allegheny Front.