As you can see halfway through that video, the mites were running around on the baby bees, and the way that beekeepers typically manage these mites is they treat their hives with chemicals. In the long run, that’s bad news, so researchers are working on finding alternatives to control these mites.
This is one of those alternatives. It’s an experimental breeding program at the USDA Bee Lab in Baton Rouge, and this queen and her attendant bees are part of that program.
Now, the researchers figured out that some of the bees have a natural ability to fight mites, so they set out to breed a line of mite-resistant bees. This is what it takes to breed bees in a lab. The virgin queen is sedated and then artificially inseminated using this precision instrument. Now, this procedure allows the researchers to control exactly which bees are being crossed, but there’s a trade off in having this much control. They succeeded in breeding mite-resistant bees, but in that process, those bees started to lose traits like their gentleness and their ability to store honey, so to overcome that problem, these researchers are now collaborating with commercial beekeepers. This is Bret Adee opening one of his 72,000 beehives. He and his brother run the largest beekeeping operation in the world, and the USDA is integrating their mite-resistant bees into his operation with the hope that over time, they’ll be able to select the bees that are not only mite-resistant but also retain all of these qualities that make them useful to us.
And to say it like that makes it sound like we’re manipulating and exploiting bees, and the truth is, we’ve been doing that for thousands of years. We took this wild creature and put it inside of a box, practically domesticating it, and originally that was so that we could harvest their honey, but over time we started losing our native pollinators, our wild pollinators, and there are many places now where those wild pollinators can no longer meet the pollination demands of our agriculture, so these managed bees have become an integral part of our food system.
So when people talk about saving bees, my interpretation of that is we need to save our relationship to bees, and in order to design new solutions, we have to understand the basic biology of bees and understand the effects of stress or that we sometimes cannot see. In other words, we have to understand bees up close.
Compelling: very interesting or exciting, so that you have to pay attention
Pesticide: a chemical substance used to kill insects and small animals that destroy crops
Immune system: the system by which your body protects itself against disease
Precision: the quality of being very exact or correct
Collaborate: to work together with a person or group in order to achieve something, especially in science or art
Manipulate: to make someone think and behave exactly as you want them to, by skillfully deceiving or influencing them
Pollinate: to give a flower or plant pollen so that it can produce seeds
Emerge: to appear or come out from somewhere
Retain: to keep something or continue to have something
Procedure: a way of doing something, especially the correct or usual way