Why do honey bees survive Varroa infections in Tonga?

December 28, 2015

From: Australia & Pacific Science Foundation

A project undertaken at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney and supervised by Madeleine Beekman

Albert Einstein famously said “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Nearly 50 years after his death, this quote is rising in popularity as environmentalists and the media deliver a gloomy message: the Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is in decline. Despite the obvious hype, honeybees are indeed suffering from a myriad of ailments world wide. The most important culprit is the ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor. This relatively new parasite is claimed to increase the virulence of honeybee RNA viruses, resulting in a change in viral landscape with devastating effects on honeybees. While this scenario seems plausible, direct evidence for a causal relationship between Varroa and virulence of RNA viruses is lacking.

Varroa arrived on Vava’u island in the kingdom of Tonga 10 years ago. Despite the presence of the mite, the honeybees on Vava’u maintain healthy. There are two possible explanations. Either the bees on Vava’u do not carry any RNA viruses, or the bees have an immune system that allows them to cope with the viruses. Our main objective is to collect samples from different islands within Tonga and to establish if colonies that contain Varroa lack the virulent viruses normally associated with Varroa. We will then compare the viral landscapes of bees from islands in Tonga to bees from New Zealand where the Vava’u Varroa strain originated.


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