Bee mites beware!

  • Researchers have your number

    Wednesday, March 27, 2019
    Dr. Enrique Nelson Escobar

    Scientists looking for what's causing the decline of honeybees might have found an answer that has UMES faculty researcher Enrique Nelson Escobar optimistic their discovery can translate into boosting Delmarva farmers' crop production. 

    Escobar, an agriculture extension specialist, has a small upstart collection of hives at the university's research farm on Stewart Neck Road, where he's seen first-hand evidence that a mite known as the “Varroa destructor” can wipe out bee colonies. 

    “These are pests for honeybees that have been causing havoc in the United States, and all over the world,” Escobar said. 

    On an unseasonably warm day in February, Escobar and beekeeper consultant Dean Burroughs of Salisbury pulled combs that resemble a vertical chest-of-drawers from two hives to show a local journalist. 

    In one, bees appeared to have succumbed to an infestation of the miniscule insect related to spiders and ticks. 

    “They burrow a hole into the body (of bees),” Escobar said.  “The mites are about the size of a head of a pin.” 

    In the other hive, clustering bees were alive but in sluggish winter-season mode. 

    “Twenty five years ago you may lose 10 percent of your bees in the winter,” Burroughs said.  “Now, it's easily 50 percent or more.” 

    A joint study released recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research service and the University of Maryland reported they believe mites destroy bee colonies by feasting on the insect's organs known as “fat bodies.” Scientists previously suspected the mites caused blood disorders in bees.  

    “The fat body in the bees is similar to the kidneys and liver in mammals,” Escobar said.  “It performs multiple functions.”

    Now that apiculturists think they've honed in on how mites kill bees, they're trying to finding ways to combat the pest.  That has energized and challenged Escobar and his colleagues who work in agriculture extension. 

    The eco-system, Escobar notes, is sensitive to the introduction of new pesticides, so identifying alternative strategies is a priority.  One idea under consideration is subjecting clustering bees briefly to extreme cold to kill the mites. Another is use of new kinds of artificial material in the combs. 

    Escobar wonders if there are natural mite predators that won't harm honeybees, the only member of its species that produces a surplus amount of honey.

    Escobar said he saw a need locally to set up UMES' bee hives to be part of the network of research into how to “transfer … information along to farmers, to beekeepers in Somerset County ... so they can better treat their colonies.”