Become a fan on Facebook Follow us on Twitter USDA Blog Feed Watch USDA videos on YouTube Subscribe to receive e-mail updates View USDA Photos on Flickr Subscribe to RSS Feeds

Helping Honey Bees’ Health

The black dot on this honey bee is a varroa mite--a parasite that sucks vital fluids like a tick, although it also acts like a mosquito transmitting viruses and other pathogens to the bee.

The black dot on this honey bee is a varroa mite--a parasite that sucks vital fluids like a tick, although it also acts like a mosquito transmitting viruses and other pathogens to the bee.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

You’ve probably heard that the honey bees in this country are in trouble, with about one-third of our managed colonies dying off every winter. Later this week, we will learn how the honey bees survived this winter. With severe weather in a number of areas in the U.S. this winter, a number of us concerned about bees will be closely watching the results.

While scientists continue work to identify all the factors that have lead to honey bee losses, it is clear that there are biological and environmental stresses that have created a complex challenge that will take a complex, multi-faceted approach to solve.  Parasites, diseases, pesticides, narrow genetic diversity in honey bee colonies, and less access to diverse forage all play a role in colony declines.  To confront this diverse mix of challenges, we require a mix of solutions – the odds are that we won’t find one magic fix to help our honey bees.

The parasitic mite Varroa destructor remains the major factor in overwintering colony declines. The varroa mite’s full name is Varroa destructor, and it is perhaps the most aptly named parasite ever to enter this country. An Asian native that arrived here in 1987, Varroa destructor is a modern honey bee plague. The problem is that varroa mites are becoming resistant to the miticides used to control them.  And while there are folk remedies and organic treatments, none of those work as well. New treatments are in the pipeline, but another miticide can only be a short-term solution as the cycle of new treatment and new resistance continues.

Varroa destructor.

Varroa destructor.

USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is looking to the genetics of both the mite and the honey bee for long-term solutions. ARS has put together a program to breed bees that can naturally resist varroa mites. For example, some bees have a propensity for nest cleaning and grooming behaviors, including aggressively kicking varroa-infested pupae out of the hive. The idea is to breed bees specifically to intensify such traits.  ARS is also working on improving nation-wide epidemiological monitoring, finding genetic and/or biochemical disruptors and a host of other possibilities to help beekeepers and honey bees fight off varroa.

More important work like this ARS research could be supported by USDA in the future.  As part of the current budget, USDA has requested $25 million to establish the Pollinator and Pollinator Health (PPH) Innovation Institute.  The PPH would be administered by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and, with help from stakeholders, would be responsible for addressing the biological, environmental and management issues associated with the wide-spread decline of honey bees and other pollinators in our country. If established, the PPH will support the activities already identified in the joint USDA-Environmental Protection Agency action plan and build on current pollinator research and extension projects.

USDA’s dedicated scientists and researchers are working to help the honey bees.  There are other pollinators, and some crops like corn, wheat, rice and even soybeans are mostly wind-pollinated, but the 90 or so crops that managed honey bees pollinate for farmers—berries, nuts, fruits and vegetables—are what add color, taste and texture to our diet. So USDA scientists are working to find a solution to varroa mites and other problems associated with honey bee health, so you continue to enjoy the bounty of US agriculture.

ARS entomologist Jeff Pettis (right) and retired ARS cytologist Bill Wergin examine a highly magnified photo of a honey bee infested with varroa.

ARS entomologist Jeff Pettis (right) and retired ARS cytologist Bill Wergin examine a highly magnified photo of a honey bee infested with varroa.

10 Responses to “Helping Honey Bees’ Health”

  1. Patricia Gorman says:

    Help-can you give me an email address, telephone # or whatever to contact someone in the Dept of Ag. We have a hive of bees that has been detached from the lid of a storage unit on our patio. The hive w/bees are now attaching to garden tools in the unit. Does Dept of Ag assist in moving the hive. We live in San Diego. Thanks

  2. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    Hi Patricia – thank you for your comment.

    The San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/awm/bees.html, which oversees honey bees in your area, states they do not remove bees from private property. They also do not recommend that inexperienced people attempt to remove bees themselves. The bees may become agitated and you and others may be stung. The website directs people “to contact a pest control company (look under “BEES” in the yellow pages) to find a local company that operates in your area,” especially considering honey bees in San Diego County may be Africanized and more likely to sting on less provocation and in greater numbers. You may also try contacting a local beekeeper to see if they would be willing to come and take the honey bees.

  3. Lynda says:

    NO mention of pesticides ?

  4. Tracy Velazquez says:

    Here is the website for beekeepers in San Diego who do swarm removal. Please don’t spray them!

    http://www.sandiegobeekeepingsociety.com/swarm-list.php

  5. Royal Rife says:

    I’ve been reading about this for years and have not seen anything about the mites.
    WHAT ABOUT THE PESTICIDES????
    Can someone cite any peer reviewed papers about this?
    Where did these mites come from or are they also a result of climate change?

  6. sharon allen says:

    R.R.—Did you read the above article? They came from ASIA IN 1987!!!!!!!!

  7. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    Author’s Note (Brian): Thanks for the comment, Lynda. Pesticides poisoning through exposure to pesticides applied to crops or for in-hive insect or mite control would be one of the environmental stresses referred to the blog. Further, the line “Parasites, diseases, pests, narrow genetic diversity in honey bee colonies, and less access to diverse forage all play a role in colony declines,” was corrected on May 16, 2014 to include pesticides, which inadvertently became pests during editing so the line now reads: “Parasites, diseases, pesticides, narrow genetic diversity in honey bee colonies, and less access to diverse forage all play a role in colony declines.”

  8. ed says:

    the government and all the major news outlets have been saying for YEARS that WE have been causing the bees to die because of global warming/climate change and by using insecticides…HELLO?

  9. Leon Gerek says:

    One of the most overlooked areas of decline in bee habitat is the backyard. Each year, homeowners spend millions of dollars on lawn care products that promote non-bee friendly lawns. Simple products that rid yards of dandelions and non-blade forms of grass. The USDA and National Bee Societies need, to promote grass blends containing high amounts of clover and small flowering ground cover flowers.

  10. Leon Gerek says:

    The “Picture Perfect Lawn” needs to be replaced with an environmentally more diverse product. No more just Lush Green Blades, clover and yes dandelions need to have a place in our yard habitat. the clover withstands heat and dry spells better and offers the bee population food after spring blooming. A “Campaign” needs to with first, college campuses and golf courses. Also, more and more High School and Colligate athletic fields are being resurfaced with artificial turfs. These should be the last places to go “UnGreen”. The world dose not need more “parking lots”. The value of “Green space” should made a part of the institutions’ charter and vision statements.

Leave a Reply