Team aims to find bee disease solution

Commission groups grant $200,000 to help reduce bee colony starvation, loss



Brandon Hopkins, assistant research professor in the Department of Entomology, speaks about how new research may lead to fewer honeybee losses on Wednesday at Food Science and Human Nutrition building.

CHERYL AARNIO, Evergreen reporter

A WSU research team will study refrigeration storage in hopes that there will be fewer losses from parasites during almond pollination.

The grants from the Almond Board of California and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission totaled $200,000 for three 20-foot by 8-foot cargo containers, which will arrive in August, said Brandon Hopkins, assistant research professor in the department of entomology.

Once the team received those grants, they applied for and received a $500,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. With this, they can push forward on the research and focus on collaboration with the Bee Informed Partnership. The researchers will study refrigerated storage of bees under commercial beekeepers, Hopkins said.

The Bee Informed Partnership will take samples of the bees and collect data, which will allow them to measure the disease transmission, he said.

The purpose of this research revolves around the Varroa mite, Hopkins said.

“Varroa mite is, far and away, the biggest problem in beekeeping,” he said.

Varroa mites reproduce inside the cells with brood — young, developing bees — and the parasites feed on them, Hopkins said.

By putting honeybee colonies in a cold, dark place like refrigeration storage, the queen bee will stop laying eggs, which means no growing bees will be in covered honeycomb cells, he said.

“The mites are really hard to kill when they’re in the brood [and] when they’re capped behind cells. If there’s no brood, the mites are just crawling around on the bees and any little thing you do that controls mites works really well,” said Entomology Department Chair Steve Sheppard.

The cover on the cell makes treating for mites difficult, Sheppard said.

There are safer chemicals for bees that can be used to treat for mites when there is no brood, Sheppard said. With brood, the keepers have to use long-lasting, synthetic chemicals to kill the mites because the chemical lingers until the brood come out.

The mites will not all be killed, but most will die — about 97 percent, Hopkins said.

“The idea is to keep [the mites] at a low enough level where it doesn’t cause damage to the colony,” he said.

Beekeepers take their bees to California in the winter, so they can pollinate the almond crop in February, Hopkins said. A beekeeper could not wait until February to take thousands of colonies to California.

With refrigeration storage, the bees can be taken to California in January instead of in November since they essentially hibernate in the storage, Hopkins said, which would reduce bee losses.

In California, beekeepers nationwide put their bee colonies all in one place, called holding yards, he said.

“One really unusual thing is this crop of almonds. It requires well over a million colonies to pollinate them, so it’s requiring more than half of the managed colonies in the United States to be on a single crop at a weird time of year,” Sheppard said.

Beekeepers have seen issues with the holding yards in recent years. Some beekeepers lose 40 percent of their colonies because of them, Hopkins said.

The bees are close together. They are hungry, so stronger colonies rob the weaker colonies of food. This adds to disease transmission throughout the colonies because weaker colonies typically have diseases, Hopkins said.

Refrigeration storage will help reduce these bee burglaries, he said.

Sheppard also said the stability in temperature will help reduce starvation, since bees eat more to keep their temperature at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. When the bees are kept in a 40-degree refrigerator, they only have to compensate for 30 degrees and will eat less than when they are outside in the winter.

Another benefit to refrigeration storage is people do not need to be paid to go and take care of or feed the bees, Hopkins said, unlike when they are in holding yards in California.

“By using this indoor storage, it gives the beekeepers a big advantage in treating the mites,” Sheppard said. “The mites are one of the worst problems for the bees.”