BEEKEEPERS in the Borders may have reason to cheer this new year.
For bee scientists are saying they have found a natural way to make the deadly varroa mite, the biggest killer of honey bees worldwide, self-destruct.
The blood-sucking varroa has developed resistance to medication and is particularly feared by beekeepers in winter as depleted colonies do not have enough bees huddling together to keep warm.
But researchers at the government’s National Bee Unit and Aberdeen University are offering hope for they have worked out how to “silence”natural functions in the mites’ genes to make them self-destruct.
Dr Alan Bowman from the University of Aberdeen said: “Introducing harmless genetic material encourages the mites’ own immune response to prevent their genes from expressing natural functions. This could make them self-destruct.
“The beauty of this approach is that it is really specific and targets the mites without harming the bees or any other animal.”
Dr Giles Budge from the National Bee Unit, part of the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), said: “This cutting-edge treatment is environmentally friendly and poses no threat to the bees. With appropriate support from industry and a rigorous approval process, chemical-free medicines could be available in five to ten years.”
The discovery has been welcomed by the largest bee producer in the area, Chain Bridge Honey Farm, near Berwick, which has 1,500 hives in the Borders and north Northumberland.
The honey farm’s Steve Robson said: “We lost 50 hives this spring to the varroa mite, so this is very good news. It is also very timely as they are particularly destructive at the moment. There is nothing much you can do to eradicate the mite, which proves to be very costly, and I am certainly interested in finding out more.”
The process uses the Nobel prize-winning theory RNA interference, which controls the flow of genetic information. So far, silencing has worked with a neutral varroa gene, which has no significant effect on the mite.
Scientists say they now need to target a gene with the specific characteristics that are perfect to force the varroa to self-destruct.
Tests by other scientists have shown the treatment can be added to hives in bee feed: the bees move it into food for their young where the varroa hides.
Environment minister Lord Henley described the work by the Aberdeen scientists as “excellent”, adding: “Bees are essential to putting food on our table and worth £200million to Britain every year through pollinating our crops.”
Know the enemy
z The varroa mite, pictured above on a bee’s leg, is the biggest global killer of honey bees.
z It originally attacked the Asian honeybee but jumped to the European bee, which has a poor natural defence.
z The varroa mite entered the UK in 1992.
z The mite injects viruses, suppresses the bees’ immune system and feeds on blood.
z Beekeepers use chemical controls but can never eradicate the mite. The varroa is resistant to some treatments.
z If untreated, or if inappropriate chemicals are used, it can take just 1,000 mites to kill a colony of 50,000 bees.
z Honey bees are worth £200m to the UK economy a year through pollinating crops. In 1992 23,767 UK beekeepers had 151,924 colonies. In 2010, 21,000 beekeepers, and 116,500 colonies.