Aquaculture news

Honeybees are under threat from the deadly verroa mite.
5 December 2014

Breeding healthier honeybees

A new research project is underway to breed honeybees tolerant to the devastating varroa mite.

Scientists at Cawthron Aquaculture Park are applying their world-leading expertise in selective breeding and cryopreservation for the aquaculture sector, to breeding honeybees tolerant to the varroa mite pest.

The project is a collaboration between Rainbow Honey, Business Development Company and Cawthron (all Nelson, New Zealand, based).

"We are working with nature to give bees a helping hand to build up varroa tolerance," says Rainbow Honey Managing Director, Philip Cropp.

"Our aim is to develop an environmentally sustainable alternative to chemical treatments for varroa that will make the bee population healthier and cheaper to maintain, and provide pollination security for all bee-dependent agricultural sectors, while reducing reliance on chemical pesticides."

A worldwide problem

Honeybees are under threat worldwide, as varroa has decimated the numbers of wild bees. Farmed bees only survive the deadly pest due to the intervention of beekeepers. In New Zealand, varroa treatments cost beekeepers around NZ $10.8 million just to keep the industry afloat.

But it's not just the honey sector affected by a dwindling bee population. Many primary production sectors depend on bees to pollinate fruit, seed and vegetable products, while producers of animal products are dependent on bee-pollinated forage species.

Finding a solution

With varroa now starting to show resistance to the pesticide treatments, an alternative is crucial. That's where Cawthron comes in.

"Our focus is on applying our science to producing the strong, healthy bees industry needs to be sustainable," says Cawthron scientist Dr Mark Camara.

"We see a future where honey bees will be selectively bred, just like cows are in the dairy industry, and we're excited to be applying our expertise in genetics and breeding to this project."

The scientists are beginning by investigating better ways to preserve bee sperm using short-term storage and cryopreservation, which has revolutionised selective breeding for a number of domestic animals.

"Being able to select and store quality sperm gives us more options in the breeding process," says Cawthron scientist Dr Serean Adams.

"It gives us complete control over when matings are carried out and who with, so we can select the best performers and make the most of the genetic diversity in New Zealand's honeybee population."

The project is funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries' Sustainable Farming Fund, AGMARDT, the Honey Industry Trust and Zespri®, with support from eight commercial beekeepers.