UNCG Professor of Biology Dr. Olav Rueppell and his research team have just received a nearly $1 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to investigate honey bees’ natural defenses against their main pest, the Varroa mite, and how to activate them.
Varroa mites are tiny, amber-colored circular creatures that live on the bodies of the honey bees. They feed on the bees’ blood and amplify a colony’s level of infection from illnesses such as Deformed Wing Virus or Israeli Acute Paralysis.
“Bee health started to decline significantly about a decade ago in the U.S. for unknown reasons,” Rueppell said. “So that caused a lot of awareness and research. Now we understand that there’s not one single factor, but it’s a perfect storm where multiple factors interact to decrease honey bee health, and in some cases lead to the collapse of entire colonies.”
The presence of the virus-vectoring Varroa mite is now widely regarded as the most significant problem threatening honey bee health. It’s not only a problem for beekeepers and honey enthusiasts, but for human populations. Honey bees are the most important commercial pollinator both nationally and globally, and in 2000, their impact on food crops in the U.S. was estimated at $14.6 billion.
“One third of all our food depends on honey bees,” Rueppell explained.
The UNCG research team, which includes postdoctoral fellows Kaira Wagoner and Esmaeil Amiri, has been studying how mites play a role in transmitting and increasing viruses in bee populations. With the new grant, they will explore how to help bees help themselves and protect their colonies from the Varroa mites.
Worker bees sometimes demonstrate “hygienic behavior,” which means they identify comb cells that are infected by mites and uncap them to remove mite-infected honey bee larvae. Rueppell’s lab is zeroing in on the chemical signals that trigger this behavior. With expanded knowledge about the chemicals, the researchers can selectively breed honeybees for improved hygienic behavior, and they may be able to apply this natural chemical directly in the hives to encourage hygienic behavior.
The research team will also develop educational material for beekeepers and queen breeders, and train extension specialists in the use of new hive management strategies. Beekeepers in North Carolina and Minnesota will assist in testing at hives, and the research will involve collaboration with scientists at the University of California-Riverside, North Carolina State University, and the University of Minnesota.
While a major part of Rueppell’s drive comes from his innate curiosity about insects and the natural world, he also seeks to solve applied problems.
“I’m particularly satisfied when practical relevance meets exciting scientific discovery and we gain some fundamental insights while helping with practical problems,” he said. “That’s the best kind of research.”
By Susan Kirby-Smith
Photograph of Dr. Rueppell by Martin W. Kane
Videography by Katie Loyd