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.

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.