Hawaii is a chain of many islands, and of the seven inhabited by people and bees, only two have Varroa mites. I know, in beekeeper minds, that quickly conjures an image of paradise and perfectly healthy booming colonies with no Varroa! Having worked with bees on all those islands since 2010, I can report with confidence that the bees on these mite-free islands fall far short of this fantasy. Although there are no Varroa, these bees are a great example of how the many years of breeding and selection have provided us with the important traits beekeepers rely on, like gentle temperament, large populations and brood nests, reduced swarm tendencies, large honey stores and winter survival. Although they were abundant and successful in Hawaii’s conditions, the bees throughout the Hawaiian Islands were not, on average, large, gentle, productive colonies. They were mostly small, mean colonies of A. mellifera mellifera, brought by ship in 1850’s, and then naturalized in the jungle without beekeeper selection or improvement. The first time I met with a beekeeper as the Hawaii state apiarist, a bee met me over 50 yards from the undisturbed colony and immediately stung me in the face! This was a hobbyist, whose colonies were captured from the jungle. He likely didn’t know any different, but his bees had traits in stark contrast to the selected stocks I was used to throughout the USA and Canada. To be fair, they were also very different than the bees kept by Hawaii’s queen producers, which were painstakingly selected and improved by breeders such as Gus Rouse at Kona Queen. (See old ABJ article).
Clearly, Varroa is a problem, and several breeding programs have sought to find and fix the naturally occurring traits which confer resistance to the mites. Decades ago, hygienic behavior, then SMR/VSH, and now grooming/mite biting traits are also being selected as prospects for a bee which can help itself against Varroa. Since 2016, Project Apis m. has supported a program cooperating with USDA, breeding VSH bees year-round in Hawaii. After several years of selecting and testing, there has been much progress to enhance the trait of mite resistance. Field trials in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Louisiana show these bees have dramatically fewer Varroa, and in the Hawaii operation, these bees have required less treatment for Varroa (graph below). This is huge progress - if we can manage bees with less or no treatment for Varroa, that could be a game-changer for beekeeping. However, this is not enough! Commercial adoption of these selected stocks requires more than mite resistance; as examples bees also need to be gentle, productive, overwinter well, and have traits suited for pollination. In short, in terms of the traits required for successful beekeeping businesses, Varroa-resistant bees need to be -- all around -- as good or better than stocks currently available. Bringing together that whole suite of optimized traits is where our efforts are now focusing.
Bee breeding programs represent the long game -- toward an ultimately more sustainable solution for Varroa mites. Breeding is expensive, often technical, and takes many years of iterative work to make gains. Our years of work are yielding results! This private-public effort includes PAm partners USDA Baton Rouge Bee Lab, Arista Bee Research,and Hawaii Island Honey Company. The project receives funding from USDA-APHIS, California Department of Food & Agriculture, North Dakota Department of Agriculture and Costco USA. Field trials are made possible by commercial beekeepers offering support (Browning Honey Company, Adee Honey Farms and Bayou Tortue Apiaries). We are grateful, excited, and looking forward to continued progress toward a Varroa resistant, commercially adoptable bee!
Please Click Here to watch a short documentary and learn more about this research project.
By Danielle Downey
Project Apis m.