Growth and good progress in 2017

Boxmeer, May 17th, 2018.

Full resistance in the US Breeding program
In the US we have been working very hard to establish a breeding centre for Varroa resistant bees, in close cooperation with Bob Danka from the USDA in Baton Rouge (supplying pre-selected semen from the USDA bee-stock and financially supporting the program), Danielle Downey from the non-profit organization Project Apis m. (financial support and administration) and David Thomas from the Hawaii Island Honey Company (infrastructure, personnel and financial support).

A dedicated laboratory was built on the Big Island of Hawaii. On Hawaii we have a long season, enabling us to produce and select multiple generations per year.

With the financial support we have been able to recruit and train 4 employees, so since last year we are able to run the program “full throttle”. We have 200 small colonies for housing our inseminated queens and 600 large hives to house our breeders and drone supplying colonies. All these colonies are tracked with our in-house developed “Queenbase” software application.

In addition, David Thomas is running all his honey production colonies in Hawaii (several thousand) with queens from the breeding program. The progress made in the program is very encouraging and also gives us a lot of information which we use in the EU breeding program (and vice versa).

With commercial queens, colonies on Hawaii required treatment up to 4 times a year (brood in the colonies year round, so a “Varroa-paradise”), in contrast, the bees from our program are currently treated less than 1 time per year on average. The best lines reach full resistance and keep the mite infestation levels very low during a full year – without any treatment.

We are now working on establishing these high levels of resistance in a broader selection of our lines. Furthermore, we also have to ensure that the lines perform well from a honey harvest and pollination point of view and that they perform well in the commercial operations on the mainland of the United States (so field-trials are being performed).

The very good results on Hawaii show us that fully Varroa resistant bees are feasible and encourage us all to keep working hard – both in the US and in the EU.

Strong growth in our EU-breeding program
We started our first year – 2014 – with 6 breeders in our breeding program. The number of breeders has grown since then from 16 in 2015, to 35 in 2016 and up to 66 in 2017! In Europe, we currently have participating groups in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Luxemburg, The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.

With the growing number of breeders and breeding groups, the number of colonies being tested in the program increased to 390 in 2016 and grew further to 646 in 2017. 134 of these colonies showed high resistance against Varroa (> 75% of the reproducing mites are removed from the brood). Colonies with this level of resistance do not need treatments against Varroa. Twelve colonies did not have any reproducing mites at all in their brood (after receiving 100 to 200 mites two weeks earlier and then checking 300-400 brood cells) and are considered fully Varroa resistant (100% VSH). As these are in most cases one-time measurements, we will perform additional measurements on these colonies and use them in 2018, to confirm their level of resistance. The queens of these highly resistant colonies are usually inseminated with just a single drone. These single drone inseminated queens allow us to make quick progress in our breeding program, but they can only be housed in small hives and have a limited life expectancy, because of the limited amount of semen they received. We are now in a position where we can also start to produce more multi (8-12) drone inseminated queens, using the material from our resistant single drone colonies. These multi drone inseminated queens can be housed in regular sized hives and we will start evaluating these queens on other important traits, like honey production and winter-survival.

We will continue to look for extra financial resources so we can further increase the number of beekeepers and colonies in the program in order to obtain the needed high diversity in the resistant pool of colonies.

Carnica, Buckfast and now also Black Bees
We started our program with Buckfast and Carnica beekeepers. These two races represent a large proportion of the honeybees in Europe and so the majority of our current program consists of different lines from these races.

However, there are local native sub-species in Europe that are considered important, given their unique set of traits and genetic background. One of these races is the Black Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) which is one of the ten recognized European bee sub-species. With the popularity of the Buckfast and Carnica, and the extinction of feral, natural wild colonies due to Varroa, several of the Black Bee populations are considered endangered and could also benefit from a Varroa resistant breeding program. So in 2018 Arista will start working with the Belgian Black Bee group in creating a first set of single drone inseminated queens, which will be tested and selected for using our established method.

Furthermore, the beekeepers on the island of Terschelling (the Netherlands) have joined up with Arista to create a Black Bee breeding program on the island, making the island a reserve for Black Bees. This breeding program will also include the selection of Varroa resistant lines, using our selection method. In 2018 we will find out how pure, how “black” the bees are on the island. Based on the findings, we will make a plan to establish a pure, Varroa resistant, Black Bee population.

Genetic Marker projects
As we now get a first base of fully resistant colonies, it becomes possible to start projects based on these bees. The standard method which we use to select for Varroa resistant colonies is quite labour intensive. It would be a big help if we could test and screen our bees with a simple (genetic) test – if only such a test would exist…

To develop such a test, it is necessary that we improve our understanding of the underlying genetics of the Varroa resistant behaviours, like Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH: the detection and removal of the mites from the brood). For this reason Arista formed a consortium with the Inholland University of Applied Sciences (Amsterdam) and Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences (Leeuwarden, Velp) and the company Bejo Zaden BV. Last summer, together, we managed to get a “RAAK-pro” project proposal approved and we have now started to work towards finding a genetic marker for the resistant behaviour. Arista will supply the bees for the project and will support Van Hall Larenstein with analysing the behaviour (“phenotyping”) of the bees. Inholland and Bejo Zaden will look for the genetic background of the behaviour (“genotyping”) by comparing bees that do and do not perform the specific behaviour. This project is supported by a committee composed of members of the NBV (Dutch Beekeepers Organization), BBV (Buckfast Beekeepers Organization), VCI (Carnica Beekeepers organization), the Laboratory of Genetics from the Wageningen University and the BVNI (Professional Beekeepers organization).

Arista has also started to support the BeeStrong project of the INRA institute in Avignon, France. 40 Arista colonies were counted last summer for VSH and bee samples were taken for genetic analysis at INRA.

Barbados project
There are a few places in the world where it is believed that honeybees have become resistant against Varroa, without the help from humans. Barbados may be one of these places. When Varroa established itself on the island in 2002/2003, the bee population crashed and most of colonies collapsed. Most of the colonies on Barbados are “feral”, so unmanaged colonies, living in the rainforest. A small number of beekeepers catch swarms of these feral colonies to populate their hives. Most of these managed colonies also collapsed, because beekeepers did not treat against Varroa.

Interestingly, after several years the beekeepers again started to get phone calls, asking them to come remove swarms. Now, around 15 years after the first outbreak of Varroa, the population is considered to be fully recovered and beekeepers catch swarms and collect honey from their colonies, just like before the Varroa reached the island.

With the financial support of Bayer, Arista is now establishing a small project on the island. This project has the aim of establishing and following an apiary with colonies for one season and regularly determine mite levels on the bees and in the brood to establish the level of Varroa resistance. Furthermore, we will try to get a first indication which trait (possibly VSH?) the bees are using to keep Varroa at bay. In addition we will check the haplotypes of the bees, to exclude the possibility that the bees now present on Barbados are immigrated Africanized bees.

At the last visit, 10 colonies (untreated) were investigated on mite levels. The colonies showed very low mite infestation levels in the brood and most of the colonies also had low levels of Varroa infestation on the bees. So first data indicate indeed high levels of resistance. Will be continued…

Personnel & organization
In addition to the financial support that was established for the genetic marker, Barbados and US-Hawaii projects, both the Adessium foundation and the Dioraphte foundation have started to financially support our breeding program! These are important contributions as we can now build a small organization that can support the quickly growing group of beekeepers in our program.

The combined funding enabled us to have BartJan Fernhout move from the Board to the position of program director and to recruit Guillaume Misslin as a project leader. In addition, the Van Hall Larenstein (VHL) University of Applied Sciences is recruiting a project technician for the RAAK-pro project, which will be working with VHL students at the Arista location.

We are very happy that Prof. Jacques van Alphen has filled the vacated Chairman position in the Board. Jacques van Alphen brings with him a large amount of experience and scientific knowledge, as he spent his whole professional life working on insect-parasite interactions.

Furthermore, the Wallonia government in Belgium has approved the funding of a project leader for Arista! To achieve this, we founded a legal entity “Arista Bee Research Belgium”. This enabled us to recruit Sacha d’Hoop de Synghem who will be dedicated to work in the Wallonia area while working closely together with the Arista team in the Netherlands.

And last but not least we have been able to rent part of a house with a large garden, giving us space for an office-lab and an apiary.

We are very excited that we can now really start pushing towards our goal: Varroa resistant bees that thrive and keep themselves healthy, without relying on chemical treatments. For this we will further work on expanding the donor base, the professional support and the number of participating beekeepers and beekeeping organizations. The ultimate goal is that all beekeepers in the US and the EU can stop all chemical treatments against Varroa, while strongly improving the health of their colonies and strongly reducing the number of colony losses. This would ensure an uninterrupted supply of honeybees supporting the agricultural industry with pollination services and honey production. It would also support the recovery of the native local European subspecies of honeybees and the re-establishment of natural populations.

Further expansion in 2016

Arberg, November 2016.

New Buckfast group in Bavaria (Germany) got off to a flying start.

In Bavaria (South of Germany) an already very active Buckfast-Beekeeper and Breeder group (having grown from 100 to 500 members during the last 5 years – has joined the other Arista VSH Buckfast and Carnica groups in the search for Varroa resistant lines.

Josef Koller, the chairman of this group, has been working on breeding Varroa resistant bees for 20 years. In recent years he has been supported by a growing number of interested people (one of them being Ralf Höling). Through his concept, he succeeded in selecting colonies that survived untreated for years. However, so far it had not been possible to make offspring inherit this trait consistently.

So, inspired by the stories from the already established Arista members, it was decided to start a Single Drone Insemination VSH project. Many emails were sent during the winter and so the group started very well prepared in the spring of 2016. More than 40 test colonies were created, using mainly two Buckfast lines that had proven to have the lowest mite counts during the previous years.

The  large experience in the group with Varroa counting (determining infestation levels), combined with the Arista experience paid off as large amounts of mites were harvested, with newly constructed buckets and many kilograms of powdered sugar, to infest the 40 test colonies.

Early August the group (combination of beekeepers, family, friends and Arista volunteers) came together for three days and established the level of VSH for each colony by counting the reproducing and non-reproducing Varroa’s in the brood.

It became clear early on that all the years with few or no treatments whatsoever (with the consequential colony losses) paid off, as in their first year, half of the tested colonies already expressed high levels of VSH. With these good results in mind, the group immediately took action and organized another insemination session in the fall to produce offspring from the colonies that were found to have the highest VSH level. 93 colonies were created and these colonies will be available in the coming years to produce drones for new Buckfast combinations.

After this very good start, the group in Bavaria with coordinator Stefan Luff, as well as the neighboring Buckfast-Süd group, are preparing themselves during this winter for the coming year, to expand the number of colonies and lines in the program.

Good results continued in 2015

Boxmeer, June, 2016.

Existing Buckfast group (Belgium/Luxemburg/France/Netherlands/Germany/Austria)

The group, established in 2014, continued in 2015 with both the pure Buckfast lines as well as the Buckfast-USDA crossed lines. More than 160 colonies were created and tested over the course of the year. In Altea, Spain, our breeding station became fully operational.

New breeders joined the team and a new group of extra volunteers was recruited to count the growing number of colonies – spending a week of their holidays to help us out!

Whereas in 2014 we had 10% of our pure Buckfast colonies in the high-VSH segment, the 2015 score was 23 of the 94 colonies (more than 20%) in this segment of 75% VSH and higher, showing a successful selection. Also in the Buckfast-USDA based lines the high VSH could be confirmed with 40% of the colonies in the high VSH segment (27 of 68 colonies).
1 Altea - Counting

New Buckfast VSH groups in the Netherlands

We are very happy to welcome two highly experienced, existing Buckfast breeding groups; the Buckfast breeding group Marken and the Buckfast breeding group Flevo. These Dutch groups have established mating stations in Marken and the Flevopolder.

Both groups started in 2015 to screen their breeding stock for regular hygienic behaviour, as there are indications that colonies with high levels of regular hygienic behaviour are more likely to also show the VSH trait.

From the best scoring colonies, 24 single drone colonies were established and counted. Two colonies were identified with high VSH (=>75%), 4 colonies had intermediate levels of VSH.

As the two groups started with completely new Buckfast lines, this is an important achievement as it will broaden our (genetic) base of high-VSH Buckfast.
2 Marken - Flevo-counting

New Carnica VSH group in the Netherlands

A very important and broadly used bee race is the Carnica bee. While already cooperating with the Kirchhain Institute in Germany (which uses Carnica), we were also able to establish a group of experienced Carnica breeders in the Netherlands, to join the Arista Bee Research program. The group created and tested 59 colonies in their first year of using the Single Drone VSH method. The very good news is that we were also able to clearly demonstrate VSH behaviour in the Carnica bee. We were able to find 13 colonies with intermediate VSH levels and 4 colonies had high levels of VSH (≥75%).
3 SDI-camo-minis -  Queen marked

Inholland University of Applied Sciences

The Inholland University of Applied Sciences (located in Amsterdam) has joined ABR and will strengthen the existing collaboration between the Genetics department in Wageningen University, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Arista Bee Research. While we have our third student working on VSH in the department of Genetics in Wageningen, now also students of the Inholland University of Applied Sciences have joined our program. These students will help us test the large number of bee samples being collected from the test colonies in the search for a VSH-marker (a test that could determine the VSH level by doing a lab-test instead of the labour intensive counting we currently do).
4 InHolland

VSH third generation breeding in US supported by Arista Bee Research

While our first visits to the USDA in Baton Rouge were used to learn the VSH methodology from our US colleagues, it also became clear that they are very much interested in the breeding experience that exists in Europe. For that reason, the USDA and a commercial beekeeper from Hawaii have requested Arista Bee Research to support the creation of a third generation VSH bee for use in the US. A collaboration agreement with the USDA and donations from the commercial beekeeper make it possible to do quarterly visits and give ongoing remote support.
5 Hawaii a

Press Release

Great step forward in breeding Varroa Resistant Honeybees

Boxmeer, February 12, 2015. Honey bee populations worldwide, important for pollination of our food crops, are being challenged by a highly damaging mite: Varroa destructor. In an effort coordinated by the Arista Bee Research Foundation a group of European beekeepers has, during last spring and summer, bred a first generation of European honey bees that can detect the Varroa mite, clean out infested brood and by doing so are expected to keep the number of Varroa mites under control. This is an important step in breeding healthier, Varroa resistant honey bees that can much better survive in an already challenging environment.

The Varroa mite creates a hole in the armor of the bee and directly weakens the bee by sucking out hemolymph (“insect blood”). In addition, viruses and bacteria can now enter through this hole causing diseases and even an early death of the bee. Chemical treatments are used on colonies, but this is laborious, has variable results, can leave residues and does not only effect the mites but can also harm the bees. Untreated colonies often collapse within 2 years from the consequences of the fast growing Varroa population. The Varroa mite is therefore considered to be the largest contributor to winter losses.

VSH-illustration-MdJThe United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shown that it is possible to select honey bees with Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) behavior: these bees can detect reproducing Varroa in brood. As these VSH bees remove the infested brood, no Varroa offspring is produced. Selection has only been limited to this trait and no resources were available yet to structurally integrate this trait in a broader base of the honey bee population.

In the spring of 2014, the European team created more than one hundred small colonies, a quarter with a USDA-VSH background and the others with a European background. The queens were artificially inseminated with only one drone, instead of the approximate ten which are normally used, ensuring that all worker bees had not only the same mother, but also the same father, so that they inherit the same traits. The EU queens and drones were selected from colonies with lower amounts of Varroa and good hygienic behavior.

After an extra infestation with Varroa mites, the colonies were investigated at the end of the summer for the fraction of non-reproducing mites in the brood, this being the key measurement for establishing the level of VSH. In total more than 20 colonies were identified with high levels (more than 75%) of the VSH behavior. Half of these colonies are from the European background, so these results show that the VSH behavior, previously shown in the USDA research colonies, is also present in European bees. The results also show that VSH behavior can be brought to a high level in a short period of time using the Single Drone Insemination technique.

The next step in the breeding program, starting in the 2015 season, will be to further select towards 100% VSH in the EU breeding stock. Once this level is reached, normal sized, multi-drone colonies will be created and thoroughly tested on other important traits like honey production, gentleness and swarming tendency. Also the selection has to be done in as many different lines of honey bees as possible to ensure a rich biodiversity and to enable its broad application in the beekeeper community worldwide.

About the Arista Bee Research Foundation

The Arista Bee Research Foundation was established at the end of 2013 with the goal to breed healthier, Varroa resistant, honey bees. The foundation is a non-profit organization, scientifically supported by senior researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA, Baton Rouge), the Kirchhain Bee Institute (Germany), the Hohen Neuendorf Bee Institute (Germany) and the Wageningen University (The Netherlands). The Arista Bee Research foundation is looking for financial support to enable the continuation of this important work.

Queens raised in Altea

Altea, December 2014. After transferring the VSH-selected Single Drone Inseminated queens to Altea in Spain, we started to raise daughter queens from them.

However, several challenges had to be overcome during the first couple of weeks. After an electricity outage (UPS was already ordered but still on its way…) we lost half of the queen-cells in the incubator.

Ants Formistop Mating Station

After re-drafting and creating the first set of colonies we realized we had another unexpected enemy: very small, but very aggressive ants (!). These small ants attacked the small colonies – they attacked the young bees, killed them, and used them for food. In some cases we could still locate a few of the older bees with the queen, escaped from the hive. So we installed specially designed ant-stops (see photo), which are filled with oil to prevent the ants reaching the small hives.

Fortunately the weather was good and we could continue breeding young queens. We now have 25 queens with brood. These colonies will be used to supply drones in the 2015 VSH breeding program.

Queen with Brood Apiary

Best high-VSH colonies transported to Spain

Boxmeer, Altea, September 2014. The best 12 high-VSH colonies have been successfully cool-transported (15⁰C) to Spain (together with colonies that will supply bees for the propagation). After a week of getting used to the higher temperatures we have inspected all colonies (no losses!) and have started to create offspring of these special bees.

Koerier Lading
Arrived Inspection

Counting the mites

Braine-le-Château, August 2014. We have finished the Varroa-brood-counting. In total more than 20 colonies were identified with high levels of Varroa resistance !!!

These colonies had levels equal to or higher than 75% Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) behavior. Half of the colonies are from European honeybee lines and half of the colonies have a mainly US origin (USDA, with proven VSH background). The colonies with 75% VSH had significantly lower (reproducing) mite levels, the 100% VSH colonies had removed almost all of the mites!

A press release will be available after review of the data by the Scientific Committee and securing offspring of these valuable queens. As the weather in Northern Europe might not be good enough to breed viable daughter-queens, colonies will also be transported to Spain.

Counting-mites-at-Paul-Jungels Champagne

Breeding, Selection & Distribution Project started

Belgium, France, Germany, Luxemberug, April 2014. In the Breeding, Selection & Distribution Project we will use Single Drone Inseminations (SDI) and brood Varroa counting to search for Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) behavior; the behavior were the bees remove brood that is infected by Varroa mites.

Several groups (representing the different races/lines) will be formed in the coming 2 years. For the Buckfast part of the project the following group of has been formed: Riad Abara, José Artus, Pascal Boyard, BartJan Fernhout, Didier Geuten, Jos Guth, Paul Jungels, Jean-Marie Lavend’Homme, Renaud Lavend’Homme, Pierre Marin, Philippe Lambert, Bernard Leclercq, Julien Perrin, Jean-marie Van Dyck.

Julien Perrin and Pascal Boyard (see photo’s) started early April with the first Single Drone Inseminations, establishing the real start of the project. In the coming months the group will strive to create between 100 and 200 single-drone colonies.

Julien-and-Pascal Julien-and-Pascal-Inseminating