Keeping honeybees healthy has become a challenge for beekeepers. One main reason is a threat that has been wiping out bees since the late 1980s: the varroa mite.
"It's a parasitic mite that feeds on the blood of adult bees and on the brood. It also transmits virus, and it suppresses the immune system of the bees," explains Penn State honeybee expert Maryann Frazier.
It's basically like having a 6-pound house cat attached to your side, sucking the life out of you. These mites wiped out colonies across the world. And treatments were, and still are, pretty limited. In fact, the way most beekeepers treat bees for mites sounds a little crazy: They actually spray bees — which are, of course, insects — with low-dose insecticides. The hope is they'll kill the mites, but not the bees.
"But you can imagine how difficult it is to control a mite on a bee with a pesticide," Frazier says. Still, the strategy has worked well enough to at least give colonies a fighting chance.
But a co-op of about 100 beekeepers stretching from Michigan to Tennessee is trying a different approach. On his farm near Slippery Rock in Western Pennsylvania, beekeeper Jeff Berta lights a smoker to check on one of his all-star queen bees. This queen, he says, could be the future of honeybees in Pennsylvania.
"No. 18, there," Berta says, pointing to a queen with a little fluorescent yellow tag on it. "That little disc there with the '18' on it, we call those our NASCAR bees because they have numbers on them."
No. 18 is bit of a science experiment, funded with money from the USDA. This queen's mother is from a Vermont colony that survived disease and cold winters. And then Berta had her artificially inseminated by Purdue University scientists who were raising bees that demonstrated a unique, mite-fighting grooming behavior.
"The bees will take the mite and they will bite the legs and will chew on the mite," Berta says. "And if they bite a leg off of the mite, the mite will bleed to death. So the bees are actually fighting back. That's the type of genetic line we're after right now."
So now with every egg No. 18 lays, she passes on those leg-biting behaviors — making a colony that can rid itself of mites naturally, with no help from pesticides. It's a huge breakthrough.
But the breeding project can't end there. Because Berta can't artificially inseminate every queen, any descendants of No. 18 that turn into queens themselves will most likely just fly off and mate with any old drones within a few miles. That means if Berta's beekeeping neighbors don't have strong bees, too, they can easily dilute his carefully selected lines.
"So you can't produce a stock and say, 'Now I'm done! And that was it! Now we can sell it everywhere!' " says Penn State bee geneticist Christina Grozinger, who works with Berta. "You have to constantly re-select and constantly have to have people very interested in working as part of this effort."
That's why Berta and the co-op of beekeepers happily give eggs from their best colonies to their neighbors and swap queens to try out new genetics. It's all part of shifting the paradigm from a system where beekeepers simply buy new bees every year to a lasting neighborhood of bees that can slowly create real survivors.
"There really isn't any bee that laid the golden egg," Berta says. "Genetics with honeybees is more like a river, and the river is always changing."
Lou Blouin is a reporter for The Allegheny Front, a public radio program based in Pittsburgh that covers the environment.