Bee Genetics and Breeding

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Most large-scale beekeepers now use pesticides to kill the mites—a stopgap solution, at best. Only this time, they are using the tools of big science, including genetic modification. No chemicals, no manipulation—let the bees evolve on their own! Meanwhile, he says the pressures on the bee are enormous. Honeybees are superorganisms. Honeybees are hive minds. Honeybees are linguistic networks: One of the few nonhuman animals to communicate symbolically, they dance to explain the location of food to their fellows.

With a population of up to 80,, a beehive is like a small human city. Bumbling and buzzing, these industrious animals— Apis mellifera, as scientists call them—search flowers for tiny drops of a sugary secretion called nectar. Inside the hive they regurgitate the goop and fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. The sweet, gluey result—honey—is stored for winter food or stolen by humans. Pollen is, in effect, the male part of a plant; it transfers DNA to the female part of the flower, an essential step in reproduction. Plants can disperse pollen by wind or animals, usually insects.

As Apis mellifera hunts for nectar in flowers, pollen grains stick to its hairy body.

Rearing and breeding bees

When it visits more flowers, some of the pollen drops off, fertilizing the plant. Plants that rely on wind emit vast clouds of pollen, hoping a few grains will drift into other flowers. From an evolutionary point of view, harnessing insects is so much more efficient that insect-pollinated plants typically make one-thousandth as much pollen as their wind-dependent cousins. Not until I visit Adam Novitt do I understand how all this works.

Novitt, a beekeeper in Northampton, Massachusetts, keeps hives in his small urban backyard. Each jar of his Northampton Honey is labeled with the zip code where his bees labored. Novitt endured a two-year wait to obtain his much-in-demand Buckfast queens. Demonstrating their gentleness, he removes the tops from his hives without gloves or veil. A barnyardy smell—wax and honey and wood—rises into the air.

On the combs the bees tumble over each other like children at a day care center.


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The mites latch on like ticks or leeches, draining bloodlike hemolymph from their hosts and enfeebling their immune systems. The hive environment—steamy and warm, bees in constant contact—is as perfect for bee pathogens as a day care center is for human pathogens. He snaps his fingers. Most farmers facing insect issues turn to chemicals, such as the pesticides sprayed on apple trees to control maggots.

Even though mites and bees are more closely related than apples and maggots, chemical firms have discovered a dozen or more effective miticides. The chemicals are widely used, but not a single bee researcher, commercial beekeeper, or bee hobbyist I spoke with was happy about putting toxins into hives. In addition, scientists report, many varroa are already resistant to commercial miticides. RNA molecules in cells carry the information from genes—that is, particular segments of DNA molecules—to the cellular machinery that makes proteins, the chemical building blocks of life.

Each protein has a unique makeup, as do its associated RNA and gene. Crippling that RNA snaps the link between a gene and its protein. In theory the doctored sugar water should not affect the bee. Jerry Hayes of Monsanto Honey Bee Health hopes to have something on the market within five to seven years. In parallel efforts, two groups of researchers—Spivak and her collaborators, and John Harbo and his colleagues at the U.

All Apis mellifera larvae grow in special cells in the comb, which adult bees fill with food and cap with wax.

Super queens selectively bred to halt bee decline

Mites enter the cells just before they are sealed and lay their eggs. When they hatch, the young mites feed on the helpless, immobile bee pupae. When the fully grown bee emerges into the hive, mites dot its back or belly.


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  5. Spivak and Harbo both succeeded in breeding versions of hygienic bees by the late s. A few years after that, scientists realized that hygienic bees are less effective as the mites grow more numerous. How to overcome that remains uncertain, in part because the genetic basis of hygienic behavior is not yet understood. Similar problems beset another breeding target: grooming. By running their middle legs over their bodies, honeybees tidy themselves and each other.

    If bees groom before mites attach themselves, they can dislodge the pests. An obvious goal is a hygienic bee that grooms intensively. But breeders fear they will produce bees that primp constantly, like vain adolescents.

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    And always there is the worry that breeding for one trait will compromise others—that hygienic bees, for instance, will be aggressive or make little honey. To a geneticist, blindly breeding two bees that have a desired trait is like banging together two handfuls of marbles and scooping up the result. A consortium of more than a hundred researchers decoded the honeybee genome in Beye was part of the group.

    The next step, in his view, would be to identify genes that influence certain behaviors—and, if needed, modify them. Although scientists had produced transgenic insects since the early s, all attempts to insert genes into Apis mellifera had failed. Beye assigned the task of discovering a method to a young researcher, Christina Vleurinck.

    Science is like moviemaking: The result can be exciting, but the process is excruciating. Vleurinck had to extract eggs from a colony, inject genetic material in this case a gene that makes certain tissues glow under fluorescent light , and reinsert the eggs into the hive. Poking needles into the eggs often resulted in damaged embryos. Worker bees swiftly killed them. It was like having thousands of tiny critics, each with the ability to close the show.

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    With Beye and two other collaborators, Vleurinck gradually developed a successful technique. Still, it will take years of work before the method can be used to develop a better bee.

    Germplasm and Breeding Research - Project Apis m.

    And releasing genetically modified bees is bound to be controversial. During my visit a staffer takes me into the tent, extracts a comb from a Styrofoam bee box, and lets me inspect it. It is covered with genetically modified bees. To my untrained eye, they look exactly like ordinary bees, except unhappier.

    When not allowed to fly freely, bees get grouchy. In the course of her research, Vleurinck was stung so many times she became allergic to bee venom. A preacher in the Church of Everything You Know Is Wrong, he argues that too many scientists, even if well-meaning, are effectively part of the problem. RNA molecules in cells carry the information from genes—that is, particular segments of DNA molecules—to the cellular machinery that makes proteins, the chemical building blocks of life. Each protein has a unique makeup, as do its associated RNA and gene. Crippling that RNA snaps the link between a gene and its protein.

    In theory the doctored sugar water should not affect the bee. Jerry Hayes of Monsanto Honey Bee Health hopes to have something on the market within five to seven years. In parallel efforts, two groups of researchers—Spivak and her collaborators, and John Harbo and his colleagues at the U.

    Honey Bee Genetics: Why Breeding is So Difficult

    All Apis mellifera larvae grow in special cells in the comb, which adult bees fill with food and cap with wax. Mites enter the cells just before they are sealed and lay their eggs. When they hatch, the young mites feed on the helpless, immobile bee pupae. When the fully grown bee emerges into the hive, mites dot its back or belly.

    Spivak and Harbo both succeeded in breeding versions of hygienic bees by the late s. A few years after that, scientists realized that hygienic bees are less effective as the mites grow more numerous. How to overcome that remains uncertain, in part because the genetic basis of hygienic behavior is not yet understood. Similar problems beset another breeding target: grooming. By running their middle legs over their bodies, honeybees tidy themselves and each other. If bees groom before mites attach themselves, they can dislodge the pests. An obvious goal is a hygienic bee that grooms intensively.

    But breeders fear they will produce bees that primp constantly, like vain adolescents. And always there is the worry that breeding for one trait will compromise others—that hygienic bees, for instance, will be aggressive or make little honey. To a geneticist, blindly breeding two bees that have a desired trait is like banging together two handfuls of marbles and scooping up the result. A consortium of more than a hundred researchers decoded the honeybee genome in Beye was part of the group.

    The next step, in his view, would be to identify genes that influence certain behaviors—and, if needed, modify them. Although scientists had produced transgenic insects since the early s, all attempts to insert genes into Apis mellifera had failed. Beye assigned the task of discovering a method to a young researcher, Christina Vleurinck. Science is like moviemaking: The result can be exciting, but the process is excruciating. Vleurinck had to extract eggs from a colony, inject genetic material in this case a gene that makes certain tissues glow under fluorescent light , and reinsert the eggs into the hive.

    Poking needles into the eggs often resulted in damaged embryos. Worker bees swiftly killed them.