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Russian Bee Queens Eyed for Mite Resistance

By Jan Suszkiw
November 3, 2000

Twenty Russian honeybee queens enjoying a respite on Grande Terre Island, La., may soon become very busy indeed, helping breed new generations of commercial bees that resist parasitic varroa mites. Agricultural Research Service geneticist Thomas Rinderer and colleagues have been studying the Russian queens since July at a quarantine apiary on Grande Terre.

If the Russian honeybees get a clean bill of health--meaning they harbor no foreign or domestic diseases--Rinderer’s group will transfer them in November to apiaries at ARS’ Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Laboratory, Baton Rouge, La.

There, next spring, the Russian queens will be evaluated again. Then Rinderer’s group will challenge all 40,000-60,000 members of each hive with up to 300 mites per hive. The 1/16th-inch-long mite sucks blood from adult bees and their brood. Severe infestations can destroy a susceptible hive unless checked with chemical “miticides.” However, handling concerns, the cost to use the chemicals, and the potential for mites to develop resistance, have driven scientists’ search for bees that hold their own against the parasites.

In tests by Victor Kuznetsov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Russian queens’ original colonies showed excellent varroa mite resistance. The Russian and American bees are the same species, Apis mellifera. But the Russian bees, from eastern Russia’s Primorsky region, have evolved to possess natural resistance traits due to heavy mite selection pressures there. This summer marks ARS’ third importation of Russian bees, an ongoing effort aimed at broadening the genetic diversity of prior introductions of these bees into domestic hives.

The Baton Rouge trials will help show to what degree the Russian queens’ American progeny withstand mite infestations through inherited resistance traits, such as grooming behaviors or physiological defenses. In 2002, the scientists will supply about 40 of the queens’ daughter bees to cooperating apiaries in Iowa, Mississippi and Louisiana for further evaluations.

In the United States, honeybees now pollinate about $14.6 billion’s worth of food, fiber and feed crops.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific agency.

Scientific contact: Thomas E. Rinderer, ARS Honey Bee Breeding and Genetics Physiology Research Unit Baton Rouge, La., phone (225) 767-9280, fax (225) 766-9212,