Bee health complexity requires scientific solutions

June 18, 2015

From: Mississippi State University | Office of Agricultural Communications

By Keri Collins Lewis,  MSU Ag Communications

STARKVILLE, Miss. — A lifelong beekeeper and Mississippi State University Extension Service apiculture specialist offers an unusual list of reasons for bee colony death.

“My top three reasons for bee colony death are Varroa mites, Varroa mites and Varroa mites,” said bee expert Jeff Harris. “This is my sarcastic response to the heavy emphasis in the press on the effects of insecticides and other pesticides on honey bees.


“What is lost by an oversimplified view of colony health is that honey bees suffer from myriad parasites, diseases and other stressors that are more commonly associated with the death of the colony,” he said. “Most scientists studying honey bees would rank Varroa mites and the viruses they vector to honey bees as, hands down, the number one killer of honey bees in the world. Most non-beekeeper members of the public have never heard of Varroa mites. Even some new beekeepers don’t know what they are.”


“One extremely bright glimmer of hope in the battle against Varroa mites is the selective breeding of lines of honey bees that exhibit strong mite resistance,” said Audrey Sheridan, entomology research and Extension associate with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Sheridan said Harris has brought to MSU his extensive bee breeding experience from his former employment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bee Lab in Baton Rouge

Beginning in 1997, Harris and his USDA colleagues selected for bees that have a trait termed Varroa Sensitive Hygiene. Bees with the trait can detect Varroa mites in the combs of their nests, and they remove the bee pupae infested by the mites.

This nest-cleaning behavior stops the mites’ reproductive cycle.

“Jeff is working to improve stocks of VSH bees specifically for Mississippi’s beekeeping environment,” she said. “The big take-home message from scientific research is that our biggest single health issue in beekeeping can be mitigated by using stocks of bees bred for resistance to a parasite.

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