Friday, October 4, 2013

Bees and Bugs


Recently I was laid low by a virus, the flu virus. My head ached, sinus congested, eyes and nose streamed. My bee suit hung glumly form its hook, slumped, hoping for better days. We all know this physical feeling of total depletion. We wait for our immune system to win the battle. And it does. 

Because the bee hive is a super organism you can look at its health as whole, as the hive's immunity. In the mid-eighties bee colony immunities in Europe and the States became familiar with one of its greatest adversaries. The varroa mite or varroa destructor, as it is officially called, is tick like bug that uses its two pronged tongue to penetrate the exoskeleton of the bee and live of its hemolymph (blood for bees). Once it has traveled into the hive, riding on the back of an unsuspecting bee, it jumps into a brood cell and it is here were it reproduces undetected in the capped cell. Its offspring lives off the developing baby bee, weakening and deforming the future generations of the hive. Each mother mite will produce 6 eggs, one male and the rest female. So that as the colony of bees grows so does the mite, exponentially. Eventually, in most cases, the colony succumbs to this pest dwindles and dies.

Moreover viruses, like Deformed Wing Virus, are spread from bee to bee as the mite bites into and feeds on them. Destroying the immunity of the hive like a dirty needle.

The mite has many genetic cousins and in the global melting pot with bees being moved all over the world we have managed to cook up this particularly destructive genotype, first discovered in Southeast Asia. It arrived in Europe and the States in the mid 80s and since has decimated both commercial and feral colonies around the world. It is estimated that only 2% of the original wild colonies remain in the US.

Varroa was discovered in New Zealand much later, in 2000, where more than 30 000 hives were lost and more than 2000 commercial beekeepers pushed into 'forced retirement'. Now all bee hives, hobbyist and commercial, are treated for mites. The big bad Bayers provide the the strips which you hang between the frames of comb in your brood box. It apparently is harmless to the bee. One of my jobs as a handlanger is to remove and dispose of the expired strips. 

Pest management is now part and parcel of beekeeping and there are very few beekeepers who are able to be organic. Varroa arrived in South Africa in the 90s but thankfully (very thankfully) it is not as big a problem. I don't treat for them and I think many commercial beekeepers don't. It could be because our bees are stronger, being indigenous, with better hygiene habits and are more likely to bite and clean these blood suckers off one another?

As beekeepers treat for varroa it grows stronger and more resistant to the chemicals. It has  morphed and grown more resistant over the years but bees have not. It means that now more than ever beekeepers are guardians of these incredible creatures. And wild bees? Encourage them in your gardens, plant more flowers don't use pestices/insecticides. Bee well.

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