GREENSBORO - They sneak into the hives and feed. “These mites are about the size of a pizza on your own body – what they are to the bee," said Dr. Olav Rueppell, UNCG Biology Professor. "They’re sucking the hemolin from their blood, they’re injecting viruses into the bees.”
They're also thought to be one of the culprits of Colony Collapse Disorder. Scientists say between 2007 and 2013 alone, more than 10 million beehives around the world fell. Researchers don't know exactly what caused that, but say bees battle a variety of threats -- from pesticides and fungus to mites and viruses.
“Just like mosquitoes transmit malaria to humans, these mites transmit viruses to bees," said Ruepell. But now, A UNCG student's research could help honeybees fight off the pests.
“I’ve identified a chemical the baby honeybees emit to signal they’re unhealthy either from viruses of the presence of the mite," said Kaira Wagoner, UNCG Biology Doctoral Student. "That chemical then lets the adult nurse bees know something is wrong in the capped honeybee cell they can remove that sick honeybee form the hive and improve the overall health of the hive.”
“It’s a hive-level adaptation, the ultimate sacrifice that a bee can do for the good of the hive," said Ruepell. "‘I am disease, let me get removed,’ because then we’re breaking the reproductive cycle of the mite.” Wagoner says she'd like to turn the chemical into a spray so beekeepers can defend their hives as soon as they notice mites.
"Once we know the structure of the chemical, have it synthesized, but also in terms of long-term sustainable solutions, in addition to the treatment of sick hives, would be to use the chemicals to breed bees better able to recognize the chemical," said Wagoner.
Ruepell added, “We hope the side effects are a little bit benign, less harmful, because there's no toxic chemicals involved and that it is a long sustainable alternative." Wagoner's just defended her thesis, so more research and funding will be needed to develop the spray.
She says if you'd like to help the honeybees, you can always plant pollinator-friendly wildflowers and avoid using pesticides.