30 Jul 2012

Scientists look at new approach in tackling varroa

10:24 am on 30 July 2012

Scientists are looking at attacking the pest regarded as the biggest threat to honey bees by interfering with its genetic functions.

The varroa bee mite is becoming more resistant to chemical treatments and the country's leading bee scientist Mark Goodwin of Plant and Food Research, is predicting that bee-keepers may have only about five years left before most of those become ineffective.

Scientists are exploring non-chemical control options which include breeding bees that are more resistant to varroa.

Dr Goodwin says one of the most promising lines of new research involves arming the bees themselves with a new weapon to attack the parasites that are killing them, though this could be 10 to 20 years away.

He says there is some work underway involving the use of RNAi technology which he believes has real potential.

RNA is a substance in living cells which carries instructions from DNA for controlling the synthesis of proteins.

Pieces of RNA can switch genes on and off, and Dr Goodwin says it is possible to design a piece of RNA to switch off a particular gene in a particular organism without it having an effect on any other organism.

Dr Goodwin says there's the possibility of being able to feed it to a bee so it passes through the bee and into a varroa mite, switching off a gene the mite needs to live.

"So I think if we're looking 10, 15, 20 years out into the future here, some of that technology, which is pretty new to science now, offers the best real potential to do something about it. But it's still quite a long way off and we've got to deal with the here and now unfortunately".

Dr Goodwin says it's going to become more difficult and expensive for bee-keepers to keep their bees alive, and they will have to reduce the number of hives they can manage.

Plea for more to be spent on bee research

Beekeepers' Association president Barry Foster says more money needs to be spent on research into ways to combat varroa and bee diseases that threaten the industry and the essential pollination services it provides.

Mr Foster says it's a $100 million industry but less than 1% of that is put into research each year and that's not sustainable.

He says to beat parasites like varroa and advance the industry money's needed to lift the economy of beekeepers in general.