New hope for Honey Bees

The Varroa mite - a scourge on UK Honeybee populations
The Varroa mite - a scourge on UK Honeybee populations

Scientists may be able to halt global honey bee losses by forcing the deadly Varroa mite, lethal in freezing weather, to self destruct.

The blood-sucking Varroa is the biggest killer of honey bees world-wide, having developed resistance to beekeepers’ medication. It is particularly destructive in winter as depleted colonies do not have enough bees huddling together to keep warm.

Now researchers from the Government’s National Bee Unit and Aberdeen University have worked out how to ‘silence’ natural functions in the mites’ genes to make them self destruct.

Dr Alan Bowman from the University of Aberdeen, said: “Introducing harmless genetic material encourages the mites’ own immune response to prevent their genes from expressing natural functions. This could make them self destruct.

“The beauty of this approach is that it is really specific and targets the mites without harming the bees or, indeed, any other animal.”

Dr Giles Budge, from National Bee Unit, part of the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), added: “This cutting edge treatment is environmentally-friendly and poses no threat to the bees. “With appropriate support from industry and a rigorous approval process, chemical-free medicines could be available in five to ten years time.”

A little brown crab, the Varroa mite originally attacked the Asian honeybee, but jumped to the European honeybee which has a poor natural defence.

The mite injects viruses which suppress the bees’ immune system and then feeds on the blood and if left untreated, it can take just 1,000 mites to kill a colony of 50,000 bees.

Honey bees are worth £200million to the UK economy a year through pollinating crops, but the Honey bee populations have dropped by 23 per cent since 1992, potentially costing the economy millions of pounds.

Environment Minister Lord Henley said: “Bees are essential to putting food on our table and worth £200million to Britain every year. This excellent work by UK scientists will keep our hives healthy and bees buzzing.”

The process uses the Nobel Prize-winning theory ‘RNA interference’, which controls the flow of genetic information. So far ‘silencing’ has worked with a neutral Varroa gene, which has no significant effect on the mite. Scientists now need to target a gene with the specific characteristics that are prefect to force the Varroa to self destruct.

Tests by other scientists have show the treatment can be added to hives in bee feed. The bees move it into food for their young, where the Varroa hides.

Steve Robson, who helps run the family business at Chain Bridge Honey Farm, near Berwick, said: “We have 1,500 hives all over north Northumberland and in the Scottish borders. We lost 50 this spring to the Varroa mite, so this is very good news.

“It is also very timely as they are particularly destructive at the moment as the temperatures continue to plummet and we have deep snow. There is nothing much you can do to eradicate the mite, which proves to be very costly, and I am certainly interested in finding out more.”