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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.


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.

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  • Alexander Buer

    The last time someone tried to improve on the productiveness and survivability of bees W.E. Kerr accidently bred the "Killer Bee".. somehow I don't think we should mess with nature anymore than we already have and start to repair the damages we caused, not add more damage.
    Of course I know that the danger of "Killer Bees" is overhyped by the media and only 1-2 people are actually killed per year but the damage the over-taking bees had on existing hives was enormous.

  • Michael Cober

    We don't need a better honeybee we need better humans to restore our environment to its better state.
    If you eliminate systemic pesticides then you will eliminate CCD (I know there is debate about this but the anecdotal evidence is compelling) and the current honeybee we have will be perfect for the job. We keep changing things to accommodate the changes/affects we've made to the environment instead of changing how we interface with the environment. We keep looking at things from the wrong perspective and this is just another case.

    To say that breeding a super bee is because you are trying to 'cover all aspects of the issue' is disingenuous. It is being doen to act as a band-aid solution to a greater problem so you can be lazy and not actually address the difficult issues at the root of the problem.

  • Allan Shore

    I started an early effort to create a Green Gold initiative, which seeks to develop a virtual resource for pulling together two of the planet's truly delicious sweet and savory ingredients - honeys and cheeses. In so doing, I hope to give a voice to all of the smallest of farmstead harvesters or food artisans to enable their efforts to have the power to change the circumstances that threaten the bees and our food supply overall. Most nations recognize the economic value of these kinds of resources, but investors don't easily see the value - meaning, as CaptainComplexity rightly notes, that the only viable solutions are those that perpetuate many of the causes of the problems to begin with. See http://honeycheeseguys.wordpre.... Sorry for the plug but I can't find others seeking similar empowerment solutions. 

  • captaincomplexity

    How about banning the pesticides which we know are one of the main problems in the colony death syndrome? But no, FC would rather trumpet a technofix to a technoproblem. If the fix works, someone else can make money with the fix, as the pesticide companies continue to make money with the pesticide fix, until the whole barmy recursive nest of global capitalism collapses like a house of cards taking us all with it. In management theory (Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell) there is the idea that every solution brings its own problem which requires a further solution. That's what's going on here. Drug treatment is the best example - every drug has side effects which 'need' treatment by other drugs and so on. Bigger fleas have little fleas... until the dog dies. The alternative? Stop seeing organisations/the world as a machine, start by listening humbly to the messages coming to you. In the case of the bees, and therefore the starvation and death of much of humanity, it is clear that bees are stressed. Can we identify and remove some stressors? Yes we can. FDA do you job.

  • marty hapaira

    I think FC has previously put up some compelling evidence against the use of systemic pesticides and the disastrous impacts on bees. I agree with the other commenters that it is time to work with nature, not continually fighting it.