This year my husband and I signed up to participate in the Michigan Pollinator Initiative. Basically, as a participant, you have the opportunity to participate in various research projects. I just received an email from the organizer, Dr. Meghan Milbrath, with the opportunity to order Michigan x Ankle Biter breeder queen for $150 on the condition that you are willing to make at least 100 queens available for sale. Their hope is that this project will result in the addition of genetic material that yields desired traits to flourish within the honeybee population.
So, what’s an Ankle Biter bee?
Dr. Greg Hunt, at Purdue University, is breeding what he’s called ankle-biters. Now, I’m going to attempt summarize what this means and you’ll be nice because I’m not a biologist 🙂
Dr. Hunt and his team have been breeding from queens who come from colonies with significant grooming behavior. Bees are natural cleaners, but the researchers were looking for queens whose colonies were more “aggressively” cleaning. Specifically, Hunt’s bees bit the legs off of varroa mites – a pest that is devastating the honeybee population. Once legless, the mites eventually die. His bees also have some of the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) trait, but I think the leg-biting is the exciting new element here.
As a review, varroa mites are present in most hives. They feed on bees and their larva. The result of this is bee death as they spread Deformed Wing Virus through the colony. Typically a colony can handle a small mite presence, but in more recent years, mite presence has grown to epic proportions. As a beekeeper, a big part of what you’re looking for when you inspect a hive, is the presence of varroa.
There are ways to treat varroa mites. There are, of course, harsh chemicals and also some natural treatments (spices, essential oils). We have never treated in any way for mites because we’ve never noticed a huge impact, however, we’re now starting to wonder if some of our weaker colonies have been this way because of mite presence.
Anyway, if beekeepers are able to introduce the ankle-biter trait into honeybee colonies, this might mean the bees can begin to solve the problem themselves. This is interesting and also makes me curious if there will be a consequence of this behavior. Will bees who eat the legs off of varroa be more aggressive? Will it change their hygiene in any other areas of the hive? Will the death of the varroa lead to the increase in a different, new pest? All the reasons why I love science. Any one answer only opens the door to 100 new questions!
I’m not sure we’ll spend the money to obtain a queen. Committing to raising a 100 queens is no small task and we have never attempted queen-rearing at that level. It’s definitely going to be a conversation for the dinner table, however!
Here’s Dr. Hunt’s presentation about the ankle-biter honeybee (it also includes information about the effect of pesticides on honeybees):