The busy bee–that tireless purveyor of plant pollen–has had a rough time of it lately. Parasitic mites are beating down this industrious insect that’s crucial for producing more than $15 billion worth of U.S. crops each year.
But according to scientists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), there’s hope for weary American bees. It comes from the hills of southeast Russia.
According to recent studies done at the ARS Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Unit in Baton Rouge, La., Russian bees are capable of deflecting three of the honey bee’s worst assailants: varroa mites, tracheal mites and cold temperatures.
Ten years ago, Baton Rouge bee researchers led by Thomas Rinderer trekked through Russia’s Primorsky Territory in search of bees that could naturally hold their own against varroa mites. There, bees have become battle-hardened against the blood-sucking mite, which has been harassing Russian bees for more than 150 years.
Since Russian bees were first imported by Rinderer, they have continued to impress researchers. In fact, ARS entomologist Jose Villa recently discovered just how the bees fend off tracheal mites, which kill honey bees by invading and clogging their airways.
Villa discovered that, much like other bees resistant to tracheal mites, Russian bees are fastidious and agile groomers, capable of using their middle pair of legs to brush mites away.
Villa and fellow ARS entomologist Lilia De Guzman have also confirmed that Russian bees are excellent cold-weather survivors. After studying Russian bee colonies for five winters in northeast Iowa, Villa and De Guzman found that the bees are less likely than other bees to lose hive members during harsh, cold weather. Russian bees appear more frugal with their winter food stores.
Thanks to the ARS Russian bee breeding program, promising Russian bee stock will continue to reach U.S. honey bee queen breeders. Kicking off an intensive selective breeding effort this year, Baton Rouge researchers are still striving for the ultimate Russian bee–one that embodies the important economic qualities, like mite resistance and good honey production, which beekeepers look for.
ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.