Lifting the curse of the Varroa
New Brunswick beekeepers are all abuzz about a new, environment-friendly way to eliminate a mite that's killing thousands of bees.
Bees are feeling the bite of a nasty parasite called the Varroa mite. So tiny that you can't easily see them with the human eye, the small red mites are a menace to bees, especially bee larvae.
"They hatch but they're deformed," explains beekeeper Paul Vautour. "They have deformed abdomens and wings and they can't fly properly and they can't forage for honey and pollen. So, the hive eventually collapses."
The mites are threatening New Brunswick bees, which are essential for spreading pollen on plants that produce vegetables and berries.
"Bees are incredibly valuable for pollenating crops. Without bees you'd have nothing to eat. No blueberries, no strawberries, no raspberries. They're worth a billion dollars to agriculture in Canada," says Heather Clay, of the Honey Council of Canada.
The Varroa mite is attacking bees across the country, but it first appeared in New Brunswick back in 1989. When it first appeared, New Brunswick beekeepers depended on special poisonous strips to keep them in check. Every fall, beekeepers would place them between the bee trays to kill the mites. The chemical strips worked. The mites died and the bees thrived.
That is, until two years ago.Vautour says the bees just suddenly began dying. "They became resistant to this chemical. And we never noticed. Our bees kept dying but we didn't know why."
The Varroa mite had become resistant to the chemical poisons and they killed 40 per cent of Vautour's bees. He wasn't alone, most beekeepers also suffered the curse of the Varroa.
Beekeepers are now seeking a multi-step solution that could include natural compounds like formic acid. It doesn't work that well at the moment, but scientists are developing better application methods.
They're also working on a screen that would trap the Varroa. The two-step process is called integrated pest management.
Beekeeper Ralph Lockhart says it's the best approach. "In the long term when we perfect all the integrated pest management techniques, that'll be the way to go. We won't be dependent on one treatment like we were before because when that treatment fails we lose our bees."
Beekeepers hope a combination of chemical and mechanical techinques will permanently take the sting out of the Varroa.