The New Zealand Herald
Beekeeper takes aim at varroa mite
By KATRINA MEGGET
Whangarei apiarist David Yanke is on a crusade to fight the varroa mite - with enough imported bee semen to impregnate 61 virgin queen bees.
The destructive mite has plagued the North Island since April 2000 and there have been two suspected cases in the South Island.
Says Yanke: "We are facing a very nasty pest and have to do something different to what were doing now."
Enter the carnica honey bee semen from Germany.
Overseas studies have shown that carnica bees are more resistant to the varroa mite and that this increased tolerance is inheritable.
This, plus the growing resistance among varroa mites to pesticides, means a varroa-tolerant bee is the only way to go, Yanke says.
Yanke, who was born in Canada, has been an apiarist since the mid-1970s.
He came to New Zealand on a visit, met his partner here and has worked as a beekeeper since 1981.
He had been thinking about breeding hybrid bees since the late 80s, but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that the idea became reality.
Although the 0.8ml of semen he brought from Germany is minuscule by human standards, in the bee world it is pretty impressive.
Semen, says Yanke, is the safest way of bringing genetic material into the country, although it would be easier to import breeder queens or the eggs.
Some people in the industry, however, do not agree with what he is doing, despite the number of possible benefits.
Concerns have been raised that the introduction of hybrid bees will bring in viral diseases and increased swarming, which is a trait not favoured by many beekeepers.
National Beekeepers Association of New Zealand president Jane Lorimer says: "It could be good for the industry, but until we know how they'll perform it's anyone's guess."
She says New Zealand conditions might have a different effect on the hybrid's behaviour, just as possums introduced into New Zealand have become rampant pests.
But Yanke says the risk of viruses is negligible.
This view is echoed by Paul Bolger, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries' varroa programme co-ordinator.
Yanke says the modern carnica stock swarms no more than the Italian bees, which are the current breed in New Zealand.
Federated Farmers bee industry group spokesman Lin McKenzie says even if the bees did swarm, it would only be a management problem.
He says the tolerance the bee semen offers is very attractive and its hybrid vigour is particularly advantageous.
Although the beekeeping industry is divided on the merits of the introduced semen, it seems the only answer to the varroa mite may be through genetics.
A looming fear is the arrival of the mite in the South Island, along with the worry that when it gets there it might already be resistant to the pesticides currently used.
Yanke believes that if varroa tolerance were introduced to the South Island before the mite arrived, it would diminish the threat posed by varroa.
The South Island would be hit hard by varroa because of its reliance on honey production alone, particularly clover.
The north enjoys the diversity of honey bee pollination services and the economically successful manuka honey production and export.
The introduction of varroa to the South Island would make bee business much less viable.
Estimated cost of the varroa mite up to 2035:
MAF estimate - middle-case scenario
I believe that those figures are for New Zealand alone - BR