Uber-tidy bees defend their hives from disease


For some, cleanliness is next to godliness. For honeybees, which are suffering a major decline, it’s a way of saving the hive from disaster. A naturally-occurring cleaning behaviour protects colonies from harmful parasitic mites, and breeding bees to be more hygienic could protect hives from the viruses they spread.

The varroa mite sucks the blood of pupae of worker bees, reducing their immunity to disease and transmitting viruses. Mites sneak into the honeycombs, then lay their eggs and feed on the larvae in the safety of the wax-capped cells. When the cells are uncapped to release the adult bees the mites are also released – ready to parasitise other members of the hive.

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Bees that have been trapped with mites are often smaller, and can show signs of infection with a disease called deformed wing virus. If present together, varroa mites and this virus can kill off a whole hive, particularly during the difficult winter months.

But hygienic worker bees can save the day. They sniff out dead or diseased larvae, uncap their cells and dispose of the contents. Although any adult mites inside may survive this upheaval, their young offspring are killed. This cleaning behaviour, if done intensively, is highly effective at controlling mite numbers and protects the hive against deformed wing virus.


Bee crisis: warmer summers will help new parasite

An exotic parasite is spreading through the world’s honey bees and global warming is making it worse, writes Robert Paxton. A new study that shows it will soon be causing widespread colony collapse in North America and Europe.

All animals are afflicted by a wide range of pests and parasites. Many are relatively benign. But for the honey bee one gut parasite in particular is a major risk, especially as summers become warmer.

Bees are fairly used to parasites. A native single-celled (microsporidian) parasite of the honey bee called Nosema apis has probably co-existed with its host for millions of years.

Back in the 1990s Ingemar Fries, a world expert in honey bee pathology, visited Beijing where he came across a subtly different and novel variant of N. apis in the eastern honey bee. He named it Nosema ceranae.

Fries thought nothing more of his scientific paper describing the species, until the same parasite was found a decade later in western honey bees (the species native to Europe) in Spain, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The epidemic goes global

This prompted a team of scientists, including me, to search for the parasite in honey bees across the world. If a recently discovered virus had jumped species and was spreading globally, that was big news for us bee experts.


By 2007 we had confirmation: it had indeed gone global, being found across the Americas, Africa and Australasia as well as Europe and its native Asia.

This represents a dramatic spread, probably brought on by increasing world trade and the movement of goods, and all within a short space of time – maybe only five years.

Worryingly, the exotic N. ceranae is far worse for western honey bees than the native parasite. It is more virulent and it weakens the bees causing them to die while away from their colony – sometimes leading to total colony collapse.

In Spain, the parasite has lead to honey bee colony collapse within 18 months of infestation.

A tough newcomer

And the exotic virus is displacing its native sister species. We staged competitions between the two in a series of laboratory experiments which demonstrated N. ceranae can indeed outcompete its rival. Our findings are published in the latest edition of the journal of the Royal Society.

For now the exotic parasite remains a rarity in northern Europe and North America. But it won’t stay this way for long.

We used a simple mathematical model to analyse the dynamic between the two species of parasite and we found the exotic N. ceranae’s competitive advantage increases the warmer it gets, perhaps a legacy of its origins in the warmer east Asian climate.

We predict that, as the world warms, beekeepers in cooler regions will suffer increasing problems.



What has happened to the Buckfast bees of Millport

A mystery slump in the bee population on the isle of Cumbrae has left the community baffled.


Estimates given suggest that upwards of tens of thousands of bees have been killed during the past year.

A beekeeping group had been set up on the island, but members have been shocked to find that several of the hives have not survived.

David Wilson of the beekeepers group expressed concerns about the situation to the ‘News’ recently, and suggested that the hives have come under attack from wasps, who can repeatedly sting unlike their bee counterparts who die off after a single sting is given off.

He said: “The hives became extremely weakened after the queen bees had left, leaving them exposed to attack.”

Mr Wilson stated that the figure could be far in excess of 10,000 of the ‘Buckfast bees’, given the number of hives in different areas of the island – the former Hush Hush listening post from WW2, local gardens, and within the grounds of the Cathedral of the Isles.

There have been growing concerns around the globe about the significant drop in bee numbers, and its potential hazardous effect on humanity.

The Plan Bee Limited Group, an eco-innovation business which offers solution for organisations a fully managed beehive service, state on their website: “It has widely been professed that without bees that man would have only four years left on the planet.

“Without bees there would be no pollination, without pollination there would be no plants and without plants there would be no animals and no more food. Honey bees pollinate around a third of the foods that we eat. University of Reading research found that in the last 20 years around a half of the honey bee population has died through mites, climate, pesticides and disorders. This is compared with a 20 per cent drop in Europe. This decline has now been called a global phenomenon by the United Nations.”

Warren Cabader, Chief Executive of Plan Bee Limited, said: “A quantity of 10,000 bees is not that many in the great scheme of things, as during the winter one hive can hold 10,000 bees approximately, and sometimes up to 50,000 in the summer.

“It could be down to a number of things such as the Varroa parasite, or starvation, but probably the biggest reason is the Varroa destructor – a mite- which is a parasite in bees and can kill the colonies.

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“If there is no queen, then the colony will die, as the queen is the mainstay of the colony and if she is not laying eggs, there there is no reproduction, and she is the lynchpin of keeping the colony going. A queen bee can lay 2000 eggs in the height of summer, and in effect, keeps the hive going.

“The Varroa parasite is virulent, and no pharmaceutical company is making in-roads to finding a cure for it. If there was some chemical which could eradicate Varroa, we would be a lot better off with our bees.”

Councillor Tom Marshall, who is a keen beekeeper, commented: “If you end up with a hive that is quite weak then it can be attacked by wasps and other honey bees. Believe it or not, in strong hives, there are guard bees, which can attack a bumble bee or wasp and drag it out of the hive.

“The hive is significantly weakened when there is no queen, and other insects will try and raid the hive. If hives become weak, you can stick them together to make a stronger hive, but these parasites can kill them off. Beekeeping, and the production of honey, goes back to Roman times, and indeed, monks in abbeys.”

The Buckfast bee is a strain of honey bee. It is a man-made bee race, a cross of many strains of bees, developed by “Brother Adam”, (born Karl Kehrle on 3 August 1898 in Germany), who was in charge of beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey, where the bees are still bred today.