Diseases, pests and the mysterious phenomenon of colony collapse disorder pose a dire threat to the U.S. beekeeping industry and, in turn, to the $20-billion-a-year crop industry that relies on insect pollination. Because of these increasing pressures, the ranks of managed bee colonies have plummeted in recent years. On average, beekeepers are losing 30% of their colonies every growing season.
While the exact cause of colony collapse disorder is unknown, researchers believe it to be the result of a combination of factors, one of which is the Varroa destructor (V. destructor) mite, a pest introduced to the country in the late 1980s. V. destructor, difficult to control because it has become pesticide resistant, attacks bees by sucking their blood, thus spreading viruses among colonies and weakening individual bees, making them susceptible to pesticides not intended to harm them.
Rather than relying on pesticides and antibiotics to control V. destructor and related diseases — a method that has become part of the problem — University of Minnesota Entomologist Marla Spivak is advancing effective strategies that help bees help themselves.
Spivak and her team have received six SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grants since 1997 to support their work showing beekeepers how to identify and breed for hygienic bees — bees that are adept at spotting infected immature bees (larvae and pupae) and quickly removing them from the nest before a disease or pest can get out of control in a colony. “We mostly research ways for bees to keep themselves healthy, using their own natural defenses so we can avoid chemical inputs,” Spivak says.
While much of Spivak’s research focuses on the European-imported honey bee—the primary victim of colony collapse disorder—she and her colleagues have also turned their attention to the wide range of native bee species that are also embattled, yet serve an important role in crop pollination. In 2010, Spivak co-authored and SARE published Managing Alternative Pollinators, a first-of-its-kind technical guide for rearing and managing key alternative species.
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