America's domestic and wild honeybees have taken a beating this year
from a combination of parasitic mites and a bitter winter. Now, a newly
introduced sturdy Russian honeybee is helping to fortify America's
Honeybees pollinate more than 90 food, fiber, and seed crops in the United States, valued at U.S. $14.6 billion each year. The small but vigorous beekeeping industry produces honey, beeswax, and other products for direct consumer use, and beekeeping is a hobby for more than 100,000 Americans.
But since the mid-1990s, bees have been suffering from an invasion of deadly mites and the diseases they carry. The mites have eliminated most of North America's wild honeybees and devastated domestic hives, particularly in the northeastern states.
This problem shifted from being critical to being a crisis in 1997, when varroa mite populations that are resistant to the only registered chemical for their control were found.
The hardy Russian honeybees can resist attack by varroa mites, eight-legged parasites that are among the worst enemies of honeybees worldwide. In the United States, these mites have attacked bees in almost every state. Though only about one-sixteenth-inch in size, they can destroy a hive of tens of thousands of bees in as little as six months.
Until now, toxic chemical pesticides and cumbersome integrated pest management techniques have been the primary protective tools of American beekeepers.
There is some hope for improvement this year, especially for beekeepers who can afford to spend $500 on a queen. Apiarists in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Iowa who have been testing the Russian bees since 1999 have results that point not only to mite resistance but also to exceptional winter hardiness.
The Russian bee tests have been conducted by beekeepers in cooperation with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Research Service at the Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics, and Physiology Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Compared with domestic honeybees, the Russian bees are more than twice as resistant to attack by varroa mites, according to tests at the lab by geneticist Thomas Rinderer and his colleagues.
The tests are part of the Agricultural Research Service's goal of providing U.S. apiarists with 36 to 40 elite lines of breeder queen bees derived from Primorsky Territory in Russia's Far East. There, long winters and heavy mite selection pressures allow only the sturdiest bees to survive.