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Quest To Build Varroa-Tolerant Bees

Wednesday 21 August 2002

*Latest Results From Varroa Research Show Building A Stock Of Varroa-Tolerant Bees Is Possible

Latest results from varroa research show building a stock of varroa-tolerant bees is possible, said MAF's Varroa Programme Coordinator, Paul Bolger today.

"The best of the test colonies at HortResearch in Ruakura are showing a reduction of up to 19 percent in the reproduction or hosting of the parasitic bee mite.

"The first question this research project set out to answer was whether New Zealand honey bees displayed any tendency within the existing gene pool to resist or suppress varroa. At this stage the answer we are getting back is yes, which is good news for the future prospects of lessening the impact of varroa on the New Zealand primary production sector in terms of its inevitable spread," said Paul Bolger.

HortResearch scientist Dr Mark Goodwin said the bee breeding programme has the potential to make "quite substantial gains in a relatively short timeframe. It is technically difficult because we have to carry out artificial insemination on queen bees".

"Bee breeding is seen by most commentators at the only viable, long-term solution to varroa control. The key now is to breed successively more resistant generations and to ensure this research is sustainable," said Dr Goodwin.

"Of course obtaining results in the lab is one thing. Once we have developed a resistant strain our next goal will be to successfully move the results out into the field. Our research has drawn queens from beekeepers and queen producers from all over New Zealand and as soon as we have a viable closed population we will start providing bees back to the industry. This could take several years.

Tolerance to varroa is defined as the ability of a honey bee colony to co-exist with an infestation of the mite, where varroa exists in the colony but the populations do not grow to damaging levels because most of the mites are unable to reproduce. Non-reproducing mites either die before laying eggs, stop laying eggs or only produce a male mite.

Varroa expert Dr John Harbo, of the United States Department of Agriculture, says scientists will know the process of spreading genetic resistance has worked when wild bee colonies begin to return and commercial hives survive without being chemically treated.

"This is not an overnight solution so we are also continuing our substantial work on the development of integrated programmes for varroa control in New Zealand. This includes research into alternative treatments such as the organic varroa treatment products approved through MAF earlier this year," said Dr Goodwin.

Varroa research received funding of $589,129 in Budget 2002. HortResearch's bee breeding programme was the biggest project by dollar amount, receiving $117,713 for the current financial year only.

MAF carried out an economic impact assessment in 2000 which suggests that, under beekeeper management only, varroa would be likely to cost New Zealand's horticultural, pastoral, arable and beekeeping sectors at best around a total of $400 million and at worst around $900 million, in present value terms, over the next 35 years in total.


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