Western Pennsylvania beekeepers abuzz on genetic engineering
A theory to solve the nation's ever-worsening bee decline through genetic engineering has Western Pennsylvania beekeepers split about whether it will work.
“We have to start working with bees that are locally adapted to the areas we keep them,” explained Dwight Wells, 77, a founding member of the Heartland Honeybee Breeders Cooperative and president of the West Central Ohio Beekeepers Association who was a guest speaker at a weekend seminar in Beaver County. “Beekeepers have got to understand their bees like farmers understand their crops and cows and pigs. Farmers are careful on the genetics they have in herds and fields big-time. They're looking for proper genetics.
“Beekeepers have to start thinking along the same line and start calling themselves bee farmers.”
Wells has worked with Purdue University geneticists since 2013 to improve the genetics of honeybees by mating them with queen bees that have adapted to chew off the legs of Varroa mites, also known as Purdue ankle biters. The parasites have long been blamed for honeybee loss because they transmit deadly diseases.
Wells said there are many theories that attempt to explain the mysterious colony collapse disorder, which surfaced in 2006. But he is convinced the main problem is linked to the Varroa mite and malnourished bees — a problem he believes is solvable by combining the genetics of mite-resistant bees with Southern, commercial bees that are not fully adapted to surviving harsh winters.
Al Fine, owner of Fine Family Apiary, is not sure the project will work in the long run.
Fine, who keeps about 130 colonies at farms and backyards throughout Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland counties, lost about 60 percent of his honey bees this winter.
“Beekeepers can't afford not to treat for mites because we have to treat them to keep business going,” Fine said.
He makes money by selling bees and honey and by renting out colonies to farmers. Business suffers when bees die off in winter, so Fine said he has a vested interest in keeping his bees alive.
To replenish his stock, he buys packages from large-scale commercial beekeepers in Georgia.
“You like your strawberries — I like blueberries — and squash is really good, and people like zucchini,” Fine said. “Bees are always going to be moved.”
According to the Atlanta-based American Beekeeping Federation, bees contribute nearly $20 billion to the country's agriculture industry by pollinating everything from apples to cranberries, melons and broccoli. Crops such as blueberries and cherries are almost entirely dependent on bee pollination. Almonds are entirely dependent on their pollination.
An estimated two-thirds of the country's 2.7 million bee colonies are transported to different farms across the nation throughout the year, ABF reports.
To keep his bees alive, Fine usually sprays them with an organic pesticide twice a year. The spray, he said, burns Varroa mites with naturally occurring acids. This year, however, he plans on using three or four treatments.
But Wells' genetic improving program is not necessarily targeting large beekeeping operations, which typically move bees long distances, said John Yakim, president of the Beaver Valley Area Beekeepers Association. He thinks the program would work if hobbyists who own five to 10 hives, like himself, introduced Purdue ankle biters to the region.
Yakim met Wells at a Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association seminar in November 2014. Since then, he said he has been learning about the practice and wants others to be exposed to it as well.
BVABA hosted its Queen Raising Seminar on Friday and Saturday in Baden. Participants received unmated queen bees that Yakim and Wells hope mate with local drones.
“This is designed for small-scale hobbyist and sideliners,” Yakim said of the genetic improving program.
But that doesn't mean he thinks the program couldn't potentially work for large-scale beekeeping operations.
“I don't see why not, even for producers with 10,000 colonies. The underlying science isn't going to change,” he said.
The science lies in combining the genes of climate survivability and Varroa mite resistance, Wells said.
The problem with bees bought by beekeepers is that most of them are adapted to live in warmer climates, such as Georgia and Florida, where most commercial stock is produced, Wells said.
“Beekeepers have been relying on chemicals since the 1980s to treat for mites. But mites develop resistance. And now they're running out of chemicals,” Wells said. “The smart ones are understanding they got to start developing their own stocks in order to kill mite spells. They're in trouble, and they realize it.”