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Super Bees Could Save Us From A Food Crisis

In order to salvage what's left of our dying bee population, scientists are working on breeding a better honeybee, resistant to pests and viruses and impervious to cold.

bees

Colony collapse disorder first appeared in 2006. But while the North American honeybee population has dropped precipitously recently (one beekeeper tells Fast Company that his 2010 honey crop was the smallest in 35 years of beekeeping), honeybee populations had been declining for decades due to insecticide-resistant mites and viruses. Instead of trying new insecticides, researchers are trying a different approach: breeding stronger bees.

Viruses and mites have, according to the U.N., killed 85% of bees in the Middle East, 10% to 30% of bees in Europe, and nearly a third of American bees each year. This is a big deal—over 70 of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world's food are pollinated by bees (that's $83 billion worth of crops).

So researchers at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg have started to ship queen bees from hives that exhibit some resistance to mites across Canada, where they are exposed to "disease pressure." Each generation of survivors is bred for the next season, the theory being that eventually a mite-resistant brand of bees will emerge.

Not only can the supercharged bees withstand mites, but they can better withstand winters compared to their regular honeybee counterparts. Only 46% of European honeybees normally survive the winter, but the mite-resistant bees have a 75% survival rate. These are hardy stock.

Mite-resistant bees are probably not the panacea to our bee crisis. Because while mites and viruses certainly contribute to our bee problems, they don't tell the whole story; pesticides, climate change, and even cell phone use are all also suspected as possible CCD culprits. At the very least, breeding better bees may give us time to figure out more of the reasons that the pollinators are disappearing—before it's too late.

[Homepage image: Flickr user urtica; Top image by Flickr user BugMan50]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.