UK Bee Researcher Could Shape Our Future

Honey bee researcher Dr Alan Bowman of Aberdeen University has been named as someone who ‘will shape the next 20 years’ by Esquire magazine.

Dr Bowman and his team have collaborated with the National Bee Unit in York, UK to work on combatting one of the threats that honey bees face; the varroa destructor mite.

The varroa destructor mite is a parasite that feeds on the blood of honey bees. As well as weakening the bees they can pass on deadly viruses. 1,000 mites can kill a colony of 50,000 honey bees. The mites are not the only cause of declining bee populations but are thought to be a significant threat as honey bees have no natural defence against them.

Dr Bowman has developed a substance (a double stranded RNA) that can trick the mites into destroying themselves. Once exposed to the substance the varroa mite’s immune system will react as if it is combatting a virus and try to “chew it out”. This automatic process within the mite doesn’t stop and it results in the mite ‘self destructing’.

In the lab this was tested by injecting mites with this new material. As you can imagine it wouldn’t very practical to have armies of scientists roaming the countryside with tiny needles. Instead solutions of the RNA will be mixed with the sugar solutions and pollens that bee keepers periodically feed to their hives.

When a new egg is laid in a brood cell by the queen a nurse bee will seal the cell with honey for the young bee. If mites are present they will be hiding in the brood cell, feeding on the young bee and laying their own eggs.

When a hive is fed the RNA solution it will end up in the honey that the nurse bees use to seal the brood cells. The mites hiding in the brood cells then become covered in the RNA solution and the ‘self destruct mechanism’ will be triggered.

We think this is a fascinating project and a very creative and practical implementation of Dr. Bowman’s research. Lets hope it all works out!

Varroa mites are one of the themes explored in our upcoming iphone game Honey Tribe: Colony Collapse.

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