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Research: Genetic Diversity Makes Bee Colonies Healthier

Genetic diversity in honeybee colonies has been shown to increase the amount of good bacteria.

honeybee

Photo: Chrissy Ferguson (Flickr)

Beekeepers across the nation are trying to find ways to make their bees resistant to mites and other diseases.

Honeybee keepers around Indiana have been fighting against diseases, parasites and pesticides for decades.

Raising And Selling Bees

Tracy Hunter of Hunter’s Honey Farms outside Martinsville sells his honey around the state, mostly at local farmers markets. He says there are many threats to his honeybees and consequently his business. He is constantly looking for ways to make his hives stronger.

“Beekeepers like to take their strong hives, the ones that survive the winter, hopefully that have some genetic traits that are going to survive these problems,” Hunter says. “And you split the hive and let the bees make a new queen or you can make a new queen yourself.”

But despite their best efforts, beekeepers like Hunter almost always lose some of their hives to disease or parasites. They end up replenishing them by buying queens and what are called “starter colonies.”

David Shenefield,  the president of the Indiana Beekeepers Association and one of the main bee vendors in the state, raises between 2,000 and 3,000 queens a year. Here how the sale of bees works. Vendors take a queen and mate it with male drones they get from other sources.

“And then also there are other breeders that artificially inseminate queens with different hygienic genetics and mite resistant genetics, and we throw all those into our gene pool and we work with different ones to keep us from having inbreeding,” he says.

They then take the queen, put her in a hive, and after a few other bees are born, they sell that starter colony to beekeepers.

Queen Promiscuity Leads To Healthier Colony

That is where some new research from Indiana University and Wellesley College comes in. One of the head researchers Irene Newton says they found the more males the queen mates with, the more diverse a colony is. And that in turn, made the colony more likely to withstand bacteria and other pathogens.

I’m not so concerned about what the genetic makeup of the bee is. If it is surviving, that is my number one goal.” -Tracy Hunter, Honey Farmer

“The bacteria that were in the more genetically diverse colonies were more likely to be beneficial. So we found a higher number of bacteria affiliated with probiotic genera like bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. And we found a decrease in bee pathogens like melissococcus and paenibacillus, which are known to cause foulbrood,” she says.

Newton says beekeepers have known for a while that more diverse colonies are generally healthier, but her research points to a specific reason–the good, probiotic bacteria the colony produces.

“And so if we can figure out what is the natural state of the microbiome associated with the honey bee and how to promote that natural state, then maybe we can help the honeybee protect itself from pathogens and from syndromes like colony collapse disorder,” Newton says.

Research In Practice Takes Time

At an orchard about 30 minutes away from his honey farm, Hunter’s bees are busy pollinating apple trees. Hunter leases his bees to fruit growers around the state. And he says bees pollinate one third of all food, so keeping those bees healthy is key.

“Pollination is the most important thing that bees do for people,” Hunter says. “We all enjoy the honey, but pollination is so vital to our agriculture today. In fact, the honey bee is responsible for 80 percent of the insect pollination.”

And while he normally does not think about the genetics of his bees, Hunter says he does use the general principals of the study.

“I’m not so concerned about what the genetic makeup of the bee is. If it is surviving, that is my number one goal,” he says.”

And based on the study results, those that have better genetic makeup are more likely to survive.

Gretchen Frazee

Gretchen Frazee is a reporter/producer for WFIU and WTIU news. Prior to her current role, Frazee worked as the associate online content coordinator for WFIU/WTIU. She graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia where she studied multimedia journalism and anthropology. You can follow her on Twitter @gretchenfrazee.

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