In many parts of the world, honeybees and other bee species face quickly diminishing numbers that could very easily turn into extinction, with one of the most prominent causes being varroa mites. With this threat being as potent as it is, the beekeeping industries in many countries, such as the one in Australia, are taking precautions to try and protect their bees, with the Land Down Under being especially vigilant because varroa mites have yet to invade their population of honeybees.
This is a fairly controversial topic that has divided Australia’s beekeeping industry, asking the question of if they should risk creating a species of bee that is immune to varroa mites but by doing so potentially introducing different but harmful viruses. At the same time, should the Australian beekeeping industry sit by idly as key pollinators are picked off? For a few, the solution lies with the creation of tolerant bees through genetic means.
Given that honey bee species are declining in many parts of the world, there are those within the beekeeping and science fields who believe the future for bees lies with artificial insemination. This process would ensure that bees are of the best stock genetically, with the ability to survive many viral and bacterial threats. This microscopic procedure may also hold the key to the problems presented by varroa mites—by producing a bee species immune to them.
Varroa mites are external parasites known for attacking honeybees, and they can reproduce only inside honeybee colonies. This is why they’re responsible for the collapse of many colonies in many countries, but, surprisingly, Australia is one of the few countries untouched by varroa mites. New Zealand, with just a bay between it and its larger, continental neighbor, has already seen the varroa mite invade thousands of its bee colonies. With this threat so eminent, some Australian beekeepers who want to create stronger, more tolerant honeybees have had sperm from New Zealand bees flown over for inseminating their bees. However, cross-breeding presents issues of its own, such as deformed wing virus (DWV).
Which is Worse: Varroa Mites or Deformed Wing Virus?
According to Ron Clarke, who is a beekeeper involved in an artificial insemination bee program, believes varroa mites are much more harmful than DWV. “We should be able to get that stock in here and help us to overcome the shock of varroa mites because we’re going to lose a lot of hives,” Clarke said. “In every industry, you’re going to get your ‘for and against,’ but at this point in time, until the beekeeper feels it hitting his hip pocket, he’s not exactly in tune with what we’re trying to do.” It’s believed both DWV and varroa mites will hit Australia together, as DWV can be spread via varroa mites.
However, many disagree about whether the risk of introducing DWV is worth it, such as Trevor Weatherhead, who is the executive director of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council. “Our biosecurity is paramount within Australia, and we want to shut off all pathways that we can that will bring in something that will affect our industry here in Australia.”
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