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

Knowledge exchange in Baton Rouge

Baton Rouge (USA), March 2014. To understand the background of VSH and the techniques for selection, the USDA in Baton Rouge was visited for the second time, this time by Renaud Lavend’Homme and BartJan Fernhout (the first time in 2013 by Ralph Büchler and BartJan Fernhout).

Tom Rinderer, Bob Danka and colleagues shared their knowledge on Varroa Resistance, their VSH program, characteristics of the VSH colonies, Single Drone Insemination, characteristics of Single-Drone colonies and the Genetic Marker development. During this visit, also John Harbo (retired from USDA), the scientist who started the (USDA-) VSH project, also shared his knowledge on the selection of VSH honeybees. Both the USDA as well as John Harbo will continue their support.

Baton-Rouge-Insemination Baton-Rouge-Marker-Test Baton-Rouge-VSH-colonies

Arista Bee Research Foundation established

Boxmeer, December 2, 2013. The Board members Marcus Gravendyck (Vice-Chairman), Rolf Wildeman (Treasurer), Danny Goovaerts (Secretary) and BartJan Fernhout (Chairman) sign the official papers to establish the Arista Bee Research foundation.