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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.

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