Friday, April 07, 2006

Mite Wars

One of the most interesting threats to bees and beekeeping in general is the dreaded Varroa destructor. The origin of this species is under dispute. Wikipedia has an interesting article that highlights the difficulty of finding out how this parasite got so well established.

Varroa destructor was until recently thought to be a closely related mite species called Varroa jacobsoni. Both species parasitize the Asian honey bee, Apis cerana. The mite species originally described as V. jacobsoni by Oudemans in 1904 is part of the same species complex, but not the same species that made the jump to Apis mellifera. That jump probably first took place in the Philippines in the early 1960’s. Only after Apis mellifera were imported to the Philippines, it came into close contact with Apis cerana. Varroa as a parasite of Apis cerana, also became a parasite of Apis mellifera. Up until 2000, scientists did not positively identify Varroa destructor as a separate species. In 2005, we know that the only varroa mites that can reproduce in colonies of Apis mellifera (Western honeybee) are the Korea and Japan/Thailand genotypes of Varroa destructor. Varroa jacobsoni is a fairly benign parasite of Apis cerana. This late identification in 2000 by Anderson and Trueman led to some confusion and mislabeling in the scientific literature.

The mite is with us. However, like all paracites it does not want to kill its host, but rather use it as an energy source for its own reproductive cycle. The best parasites exist in a balance with the host and sometimes even make it stronger. Varroa destructor is clearly decimating beekeeping, but some beekeepers are using specialized breeding programs to create bees that can co-exist with the mite or at least keep it undercontrol. One of the nucs that Michael and I are buying comes from Kirk Webster at Champlain Valley Bees & Queens. Mr. Webster is so popular that he does not even need a website and his queens and breeding program are very popular. Mike and I just got notification that we will be picking up an eight frame nuc for $150. He told me on the phone that his hives have been chemical free for several years and is selecting for hardiness and hygiene. Helping along natural selection with special breeding programs is our only hope of avoiding a chemical treatments that will eventually be toxic to bees and humans.


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