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Blog – bees, beekeeping & other sticky subjects

Seeking the beekeepers’ Holy Grail

In La Rochelle, there is an apiary that should interest every beekeeper. Despite the marauding Asian hornets carrying off bees for afternoon tea, the bees are calm and anyone can walk amongst these queen-breeding nucleus hives without protection or fear of being stung. But that’s not the real reason beekeepers should be interested. The bees in this apiary are being bred to try to find a strain resistant to the varroa mite.

Continuing the work of Brother Adam in Devon, England, Apinov chief Dr Benjamin Poirot and PhD student Gabrielle Almecija are breeding bees in search of a strain that can withstand the varroa mite. It’s a long process, but they can speed it up using artificial insemination.

I turned up on a Friday afternoon in early July to find them collecting a couple of hundred drones in the apiary and bringing them into the lab to extract their semen. Inside, Gabrielle administers the last rites by squeezing the semen from the drone. It’s not that simple and it’s a very delicate operation – every batch must be uncontaminated by anything other than the drones’ semen, so there are a few rejected specimens along the way.

Using a microscope, Benjamin then uses a precise suction device to pull the semen into a syringe which will keep the contents sterile ready for the next stage of the operation – the insemination of the queens. Those artificially mated queens will then be given to beekeepers in the la Rochelle area for them to test the results.

The research is at an early stage, but Benjamin and Gabrielle are confident that progress can be made towards finding that Holy Grail for beekeepers – the varroa-resistant honey bee.

To assist with the research, Apinov is seeking an intern for the summer. So if you’d like to work with bees and have free lodgings right beside the apiary, get in touch with Dr Benjamin Poirot.

Apinov is Vita’s partner in France, so we keep very close contact and will hear the results as they are discovered.

Asian hornet decapitating a honeybee

Earlier this month, Bejamin Poirot of Apinov (Vita’s partner in France) had been telling me that Asian hornets were making their presence felt early this year.

On a visit to his test apiary in La Rochelle, western France, it wasn’t long before we saw Asian hornets predating the bees. They weren’t causing big losses (yet), but we were able to follow one as it landed on the apiary netting to consume its catch.

Benjamin explains what is happening: “The Asian hornet is trying to cut the abdomen from the head of the bee. Only the thorax is consumed by the hornet.”

Secrets of Asian hornets’ nests

Dr Benjamin Poirot of Apinov points to a tree where an Asian hornet nest was undetected until autumn when the leaves fell

If you think it’s easy to spot an Asian hornet nest, think again!

At Apinov (Vita’s partner in France) in La Rochelle, Dr Benjamin Poirot has a wealth of experience in dealing with Asian hornets, so you might expect that a nearby nest would give obvious visual clues. Not so!

An Asian hornet nest very near his office went undetected until the leaves fell in autumn.

How can the hornets keep their huge nests so secret?

They give very few visual clues indicating the whereabouts of their home. You might expect Vespa velutina to fly straight back to its nest with it its prey. It doesn’t. It flies to a nearby perch — any direction — to behead up its catch.

So, watching Vespa velutina after it has caught a snack won’t help much. You might expect to see a lot of traffic to and from the nest — there isn’t.

However a new tagging system is emerging that may be able to track its whole flight path.

And to catch Asian hornets predating your bees in late summer, there’s Apishield.

 

Asian hornet – the lost opportunity

Dr Jean Haxaire recalling, at IMYB 2018, how he found the Asian hornet in 2004.

At the 2018 International Meeting of Young Beekeepers last week, adults in the group had the honour of meeting the man who first discovered the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) in France and learning o an early missed opportunity.

Dr Jean Haxaire, associate professor at the University of Agen, discovered an Asian hornet quite by chance in some fruit near Bordeaux in 2004. Immediately realising that this could be significant, he identified the strange insect as Vespa velutina and alarm bells in his head started ringing. He knew of the reputation of hornets in the Far East and therefore realised that this could be a serious threat to France.

Dr Haxaire rapidly published an article in a scientific journal, but was very disappointed that reaction was muted and no-one seemed to want to take action.  Sadly, his worst fears were to be realised as the hornet became established and within a couple of years its spread throughout France and beyond became unstoppable. If action had been earlier, there might have been some hope in preventing its spread, but now he says we must regard it as a native of France – even though it is an uninvited guest.

Dr Haxaire is now certain that, as first thought, the intruder came in a consignment of bonsai plants. Genetics and trading patterns indicate with some certainty that it came into Bordeaux via Shanghai.

The good news might be that at least velutina wasn’t one of its Far Eastern relatives that can be many times its size! The bad news is that it is an amazingly adaptable insect.

With graphs showing how the demographics of a nest changes through the season, Haxaire emphasised the importance of destroying nests early in the autumn before foundress queens emerge. When they do appear, the problems of further spread become enormous. In France, the trigger date for the first emergence of the queens is usually around the end of September.

The extent to which velutina predates on bees is strongly correlated with the environment – in cities, the predation is greatest because there are relatively fewer dietary alternatives to honey bees.

Attending the IMYB event a few days later, Dr Benjamin Poirot a honey bee specialist from Apinov in La Rochelle said that the situation in France this year at the beginning of July is very serious. He says he has never seen so many Asian hornets so early in the year. And he should know – for the past several years he has frequently been called out to destroy nests when they are found.

Varroa Hotspots Mystery

Hotspots of varroa resistant to many treatments have developed over years of use and mis-use. While the basic principles of resistance to treatments are understood, the details remain a mystery as bees and beekeepers face an adaptable pest.

In France, Gabrielle Almecija, a PhD student at the University of Tours, has recently begun a three-year research project about resistant varroa. Part-sponsored by Vita Bee Health and Apinov (Vita’s partner in France), Gabrielle is already studying varroa in Brittany where resistance to some treatments seems low, and varroa in the Alps where resistance seems high. Why there should be such a difference is far from clear, but it is typical that there is considerable variation between geographical areas.

As the first stage of her research, Gabriele will be lab-testing varroa mites to define levels of resistance: how much of a treatment is required to kill a certain proportion of mites? At the moment, she must travel to and from each area, but plans to establish a protocol, a reliable scientific method, by which the time-consuming travel will not be required.

Once resistance levels can be defined, possibilities for further research and practical action open up. Just four months into the research, Gabrielle’s work is showing great potential.

This honey bee-related project is not Gabrielle’s first encounter with bees. Previously she has studied and has given presentations on urban forage in her home area of Marseilles and has studied brood disease and queen breeding. It was in La Rochelle that she first met Benjamin Poirot of Apinov who is helping to supervise her PhD.

Here’s a gruesome glimpse at what she is finding:

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