In defence of honey bees

One of the biggest issues facing honey bees worldwide is the Varroa mite. This mite feeds on an extremely important organ in bees and spreads viruses amongst bee populations, seriously harming hive health.

Professor Phil Lester, Rose McGruddy, Zoe Smeele
Professor Phil Lester, Rose McGruddy, and Zoe Smeele

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington PhD students Zoe Smeele, Rose McGruddy, and Tessa Pilkington are working with Professor Phil Lester from the School of Biological Sciences to help defend the world’s bee populations from Varroa. Rose and Tessa are co-supervised by Dr John Haywood from the University's School of Mathematics and Statistics.

And they don’t have to go too far away from their laboratory to do it, with hives now installed near the Hunter building at the University’s Kelburn campus. These hives include Varroa-resistant bees provided by Jason Prior and Downunder Honey, as well as Italian honeybees that are commonly reared throughout New Zealand.

“Honey bees are vital pollinators of agricultural crops, and the global food system relies heavily on their productivity,” Tessa says. “The near global spread of Varroa and its associated viruses is having a significant impact on bee populations.”

Currently, beekeepers must treat their hives for Varroa mites twice per year. If they don’t, Zoe says, their colonies will very likely collapse and die over winter.

“The problem is that there is only a handful of treatments available for Varroa, and there is evidence the mites are becoming resistant to the treatments. The chemicals used in current treatments can also be harmful to people and to bees in the process of killing the mites.”

To prevent the devastation of honey bee populations, new treatments for the Varroa mite are urgently needed. Through their PhD research, Zoe, Rose, and Tessa hope to contribute to the development of these new treatments.

“Zoe and I are testing a new way of treating Varroa mites and one of the viruses they carry, known as deformed wing virus,” Rose says. “Our treatment uses RNA to target the mites. We hope this will lead to a more targeted and effective treatment, as well as one that avoids harmful chemicals and is better for people and planet. This RNA technology is highly targeted to the Varroa, leaving the bees unaffected.”

Tessa’s research involves investigating bee colonies that show a natural resistance to Varroa. This research could lead to the breeding of honey bees resistant to the mites.

“Our research will ideally contribute to promoting global food security, given that effective and sustainable management of honey bees is critical for food production,” Tessa says.

Rose and Zoe are working with a biotech company in the United States called Greenlight Biosciences to turn their research into real-world and safe solutions for the Varroa mite problem. Their work is also part of the Biological Heritage Programme of the National Science Challenge, which aims to develop next generation and safe pest control approaches.Tessa’s research is supported by Callaghan Innovation. As well as providing the bees, Jason Prior is also an industry collaborator on the Callaghan-funded project.

“We’re very excited about this research,” Zoe says. “Because we all love the work we’re doing it doesn’t feel like work, so it’s easy to work through the challenges you face during a research project—even though we’ve had to replan or repeat parts of our project many times.”

For Zoe, a big draw of this research is the opportunity to learn more about viruses.

“I think viruses are incredibly cool and bizarre, and I think the importance of understanding their dynamics and how they evolve should kind of go without saying—especially considering everything happening in the world right now. Despite how much research has been done in this area, there is still so much we don’t know and I just feel so genuinely curious and excited about all the possibilities to learn more.”

Both Rose and Tessa had a pre-existing interest in insects. Rose has loved insects since she was a child, and Tessa is a hobbyist beekeeper—so this research was a perfect fit for both of them.

“I’m particularly excited about the real-world applications of my research to solve a major problem for the beekeeping industry,” Tessa says.

“Having access to honey bee colonies on campus is an essential part of our research. Logistically, it would be incredibly difficult to complete our experiments without easy access to beehives. I also truly hope that having them on campus for people to observe (from a safe distance) can bring some environmental awareness and perhaps stimulate some general curiosity in people’s lives,” Zoe says.