From Russia with hope
Friday, December 10, 2004
By STAN FREEMANsfreeman@repub.com
SOUTH DEERFIELD - The Russian queen was suspended from a branch high in a black cherry tree and Daniel Conlon wasn't standing on ceremony.
He shook the branch roughly to dislodge her.
The queen, occupying the center of a swarm of perhaps 7,000 honeybees, had particular value to him. An escapee - along with her courtiers, all drones - of one of the 150 hives at Conlon's Warm Colors Apiary here, she and her sister queens might be the key to survival for New England's beleaguered beekeepers.
In 1984, a tiny insect called a tracheal mite invaded U.S. bee hives. It sucked the life out of honeybees and its impact was devastating. Then, three years later, a second mite, the varroa mite, invaded from Asia. It was as if a pair of category 5 hurricanes struck the same small community, one on the heels of the other.
Beekeeping has never been considered a lucrative profession ("How do you make a small fortune in beekeeping?" goes the old joke. "Start with a big fortune.") and beekeepers abandoned their hives in swarms.
"It was terrible. You couldn't keep your bees alive, and it went on for 10 years like that," Conlon said.
"You couldn't see the mites. You could only diagnose them when looking under a microscope. When the tracheal mites first hit, we were just seeing populations of bees dwindling. There was no sign of sickness, no obvious disease. The queens were still laying eggs, but coming out of the winter, they would just die. We were probably losing 70 to 80 percent of our bees at that point. The same thing happened when varroa mites arrived," he said.
But now there is the hope offered by the Russian queen. To most, that phrase suggests Catherine the Great, but to an apiarist like Conlon, who was recently named beekeeper of the year by the Eastern Apicultural Society, it suggests a strain of honeybee with the ability to survive the mites.
For the better part of two hours in late summer, Conlon attempted to capture the swarm and his escaped queen, trying to lure them into a five-gallon bucket baited with a honey-drenched comb that was hoisted to their branch using a rope. The swarm finally took the bait and settled into the bucket.
Now, as the coldest days of winter approach, the Russian bees are back in Conlon's hives. This winter, as last winter, Conlon's apiary will be a laboratory for testing of the bees under weather conditions typical of New England.
The western honeybee, apis mellifera, was first imported from Europe to the United States in the 1600s because of its ability to produce large amounts of honey and wax. It is also called an Italian honeybee because of its roots in that country. Today, such bees produce perhaps a quarter billion dollars of honey annually in the United States, but they have greater worth to the U.S. economy because in their visits to flowers they collect and distribute pollen. In this way they pollinate nearly $15 billion worth of apples, peaches, blueberries and other crops each year. So when mites devastated bee hives, they also threatened U.S. agriculture.
Wild honeybees virtually disappeared because of the mites, and the number of commercial bee colonies trucked about the nation to help pollinate crops dropped from 3.2 million in 1990 to about 2.6 million now. For the first time, say growers, the availability of bees plays a part in their crop planning.
Those who keep bees have tried to battle the mites using chemical treatments, but Conlon believes the treatments just prolong the problem, that they keep weak bees alive artificially and do not allow stronger, mite-resistant bees to naturally survive and repopulate the colonies. The chemicals also eat into the beekeeper's already small profits.
A Russian queen with an advanced ability to fight off mites began as a mere theory. In 1994, a decade after tracheal mites were first seen in Florida, American beekeeping was still in disaster mode. Winter after winter, hives were being devastated by the mites.
However, the idea that a solution might be found in the cold expanses of eastern Russia had been slowly forming in the mind of Thomas E. Rinderer, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's honeybee laboratory in Baton Rouge, La.
Using a detective's logic, he pieced together clues this way. In 1891, Czar Alexander III, intent on giving Russia a port on the Pacific Ocean, drew up plans for the Trans-Siberian Railway that would connect eastern Russia with Moscow and the Europeanized west. However, Eastern Russia had no population to speak of, and when the railroad was completed in 1905, Russians were recruited from the west to relocate to the east.
Rinderer figured that some of those migrants, who included many farmers, brought their bee hives with them among all their possessions, hives filled with Italian bees.
Varroa mites were native to Asia even then. The Primorsky region, where many of the migrants settled, was in southeastern Russia, adjacent to China and across a narrow strait from Japan, where varroa mites were present but where Italian bees were not.
Bees fly about, brushing against those from other hives, and certainly at some point the Asian mites would have infested the Russian hives with their Italian bees. If so, there had now been nearly a century of adaptation by the Italian bees to the mites.
Rinderer figured that after all this time natural selection would have done its job. In each breeding season, many of the bees with no immunity to the mites would have died and many of those with some immunity would have survived. Perhaps the bees had also evolved to have social behaviors that allowed them to fight off the mites. In any case, after nearly a century, there was a chance a line of Italian bees resistant to the mites now lived in Primorsky.
Acting only on this scientific hunch, Rinderer decided to go to Russia in 1994.
"Just myself and a technician went. We inspected hives and sure enough we found bee hives where the bees seemed to be living pretty well with mites. We also found beekeepers who were not all that worried about them" indicating the problem was not a major one, he said.
It took nearly three years of negotiation with the Russian government to get permission to bring Russian queen bees to the United States for testing.
"We finally got 100 of them, however, they were in quarantine for seven months on a barrier island off the coast of Louisiana. It wasn't until 1998 that we were able to begin testing colonies."
Tests were conducted of 90 mite-free colonies headed by Russian queens. The colonies were exposed to mites and the results tracked. Three months later, instead of the nearly 11-fold increase in mites they typically found among Italian bees, they found only about a four-fold increase of mites among the Russians, and in some colonies there was no increase at all.
Since then, they have continued breeding new Russian queens and then testing them and their progeny. Today, they have narrowed the field down to 15 strains with the highest survival rates.
What does a Russian queen look like compared to her Italian sister?
"A Russian queen is dark. It is blackish with little pale yellow bands. The Italian queen would look yellow with black bands. They're very different looking, black versus yellow," Rinderer said.
He said there are several qualities that make Russian bees so successful at thwarting the mites. Part of it is that natural selection led to a bee with the genes that help its body fight the mites biologically, perhaps by producing chemicals that the mites do not like. Most importantly, though, the Russian bees have learned to pick the mites off their brethren by biting and killing them.
Little would apparently be lost if the American beekeeping community made the switch from Italian to Russian bees, he said.
"In side by side tests, the Russian colonies have produced more honey than very high quality Italian stock even though the Italian colony is a little bit bigger," Rinderer said.
This year, for the first time, purebred Russian queens - those that come from a mate of a purebred Russian queen and a Russian drone - are being made available to average beekeepers. People like Conlon are raising them and slowly the supply of Russian queens is growing. Conlon received a $5,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the work.
"It's been an uphill battle," said Rinderer. "A lot of people are aware of the potential of the Russians but the suppliers of purebred queens are increasing at a slower rate than the market for them. But I expect that in five years, there will be a whole lot more Russian hives than there are now."