This Little-Known Parasite Is Killing America’s Honeybees

HOMESTEAD, FL - APRIL 10: John Gentzel collects honey produced by the bees at the J & P Apiary and Gentzel's Bees, Honey and Pollination Company on April 10, 2013 in Homestead, Florida. Honey bee owners along with scientists continue to try to figure out what is causing bees to succumb to the colony collapse disorder which has devastated apiaries around the country. Reports indicate that the disorder which kills off thousands of bees at a time has resulted in the loss of some 30 percent of honey bee populations among beekeepers since 2007.
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
April 22, 2014, 10:15 a.m.

Hon­ey­bees are dis­ap­pear­ing at an alarm­ing rate — and a bloodthirsty para­site is at least par­tially to blame.

Var­roa de­struct­or — oth­er­wise known as the vam­pire mite — feeds on bees by drink­ing their blood. Its bite spreads in­fec­tion and leaves un­lucky pol­lin­at­ors the worse for wear. After an en­counter with the de­struct­or, hon­ey­bees are more likely to suc­cumb to ill­ness and dis­ease, and even­tu­ally death.

“[It’s] a mod­ern hon­ey­bee plague,” Jeff Pet­tis, a re­search­er at the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment’s Bee Re­search Labor­at­ory said Tues­day at a hear­ing con­vened by the House Sub­com­mit­tee on Hor­ti­cul­ture, Re­search, Bi­o­tech­no­logy, and For­eign Ag­ri­cul­ture.

The mite made its way to the U.S. in the late 1980s and has been a hon­ey­bee scourge ever since. It’s nat­ive to Asia, where hon­ey­bees have evolved to re­pel the mite with coun­ter­at­tacks of their own, but Amer­ic­an hon­ey­bees have so far been un­able to ad­apt.

As a res­ult, bees are dy­ing off in droves. Amer­ic­an bee­keep­ers wave good­bye to roughly one-third of the bee pop­u­la­tions they keep watch over each winter. Sea­son­al hon­ey­bee deaths are com­mon­place, but the rate at which they’ve ris­en is steep. A few dec­ades ago, bee­keep­ers saw losses of 10 to 15 per­cent of the total hon­ey­bee pop­u­la­tion each sea­son. Between roughly 1990 and the present day, deaths have doubled. Sci­ent­ists have been un­able to pin­point the ex­act cause of the de­cline, but they be­lieve the bite of the vam­pire mite is a lead­ing cause.

Sci­ent­ists say ad­di­tion­al re­search is needed to de­term­ine a last­ing solu­tion to the vam­pire mite men­ace — and Pres­id­ent Obama thinks he can help. The pres­id­ent’s budget for fisc­al 2015 would in­vest more than $71 mil­lion in USDA-led re­search ef­forts to bet­ter un­der­stand the pol­lin­at­or de­cline. But it’s un­clear wheth­er Con­gress will green­light the fund. Law­makers have already taken steps, however, to boost the flow of dol­lars in­to re­search. The latest it­er­a­tion of the farm bill — signed in­to law in Feb­ru­ary — set aside money to in­vest­ig­ate hon­ey­bee health and ways to pro­tect it.

Bug-zap­ping chem­ic­als are the most ef­fect­ive way to erad­ic­ate the mite. But the para­site isn’t eas­ily kept at bay. Pet­tis told mem­bers of the sub­com­mit­tee that the pests have ad­ap­ted to the chem­ic­al stock and are now on their way to be­com­ing en­tirely res­ist­ant.

All this is cause for con­cern. The coun­try’s food sup­ply de­pends on the health of hon­ey­bees. Farm­ers rely on in­sect pol­lin­a­tion for suc­cess­ful har­vests, with foods like al­monds, mac­ad­amia nuts, cher­ries, blue­ber­ries, and plums all lean­ing heav­ily on hon­ey­bees for their sur­viv­al. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice, U.S. in­sect pol­lin­a­tion adds $16 bil­lion in ag­ri­cul­tur­al value each year. And hon­ey­bees are re­spons­ible for the li­on’s share of this total — mak­ing up three-fourths of crop pro­duc­tion.

Hope­fully sci­ent­ists act soon. It’s un­likely that hon­ey­bees will dis­ap­pear al­to­geth­er, but sus­tained pop­u­la­tion loss could hit Amer­ic­ans where it hurts. “Ul­ti­mately if no long-term solu­tions are de­veloped to slow bee de­cline, con­sumers will pay more for the food they buy,” Pet­tis said.

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