Dutch Honey Bees Resistant to Varroa Mite Imported to Australia to Help Guard Against the Pest

Thursday 29 July 2021

We have covered introductory information on queen production in previous blogs, meanwhile there are current practices and research working at the cutting edge of this aspect of our industry.  The use of selective breeding, artificial reproductive technologies, and controlled mating are improving honey bee stocks worldwide.  In this week’s blog, we will explore a recent article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with exciting news on beekeepers’ fight against varroa mites! We discuss the implications of this work for Atlantic beekeepers and how this links to local research around improving Canadian honey bee stocks.

Dutch Honey Bees Resistant to Varroa Mite Imported to Australia to Help Guard Against the Pest

Managing for varroa mites has become a standard part of the beekeeping season for most of the world. In 2013, a global effort by apiarists began in earnest to try to mitigate the impact of varroa mites on honey bees. Together with support from European and American beekeepers and entomologists, Dutch apiarist JanBart Fernhout began practicing intense selection and controlled mating to develop a progeny of bees resistant to varroa infestation. His highly focused breeding program progressively bred queens and drones of higher hygienic behavior until he finally attained a stock of varroa resistant honey bees!

Only a scarce few regions in the beekeeping world remain free of varroa mites and Australia is one of them. Consequently, importation of any honey bee material is extremely limited on this continent. This is why beekeepers and scientists are thrilled with the successful importation of the varroa resistant stock of bees from the Netherlands, which were first subject to intensive screening and quarantine. Australians are hopeful that this successful importation might pave the way for more safe imports.

After screening, Australian bee breeder David Briggs managed to encourage the new stock to mate with one another, allowing him to then collect fresh, young larvae for his own breeding purposes. Briggs sought to raise queens using the imported, varroa resistant Dutch bees and artificially inseminate them with sperm from highly selected Australian drones. In this way, an Australian varroa-resistant honey bee stock could be locally available to beekeepers. The initial breeding was successful. With skill and a microscope, he was able to carefully inseminate the queens with semen collected from Australian drones. Artificial insemination is the most controlled form of honey bee breeding. When spring comes in Australia, the bees from this first successful breeding will begin laying eggs and the breeding program will continue to develop the Dutch-Australian varroa resistant stock.

Another region where varroa mites have yet to spread is our very own province of Newfoundland and Labrador! Like Australia, Newfoundland has strict importation laws and protocols. Perhaps in the future, the successful import of varroa resistant bees may offers one option to support this provinces beekeeping industry. Furthermore and nearer to home, there are Canadian scientists who are also working hard to improve our own stock of bees in Canada. Dr. Pierre Giovenazzo is one such scientist from Quebec. 

Dr. Giovenazzo has undertaken research to improve the Canadian bee stock through selective breeding. His work explores the possibilities of improving early spring development, honey production, winter consumption, and hygienic behavior, in addition to resistance towards varroa infestation. These traits would be beneficial to Canadian beekeepers in the face of long, northern winters. Complimentary to this work, Dr. Giovenazzo has most recently published research on overwintering Canadian queens in queen banks. With the development of successful mass-queen overwintering, Canada can become less reliant on imports of queen honeybees in the spring. With this comes reduced risk of invasive foreign pests and diseases and a honey bee stock more strongly adapted to our particular environment.

Reproductive technologies and selective breeding techniques have proven to be powerful tools in improving other livestock species.  Practices like artificial insemination are common place in, for example, dairy cow production.   How these emerging technologies and practices will be fully applied to honey bee husbandry is yet to be determined but we are entering an exciting time when science and research will blend more fully into our hands on beekeeping practices for the overall benefit of our industry!


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