Collaborative research efforts between members of the 88th Civil Engineer Group Natural Resources Program, the Propolis Project and researchers at Penn State, Purdue and Central State Universities have yielded promising results in the production of honey bees that are naturally able to defend themselves from harmful varroa mites.
Honey bees are one variety of insects known as pollinators and are critical to the pollination process of a third of the food people consume, such as fruits and vegetables, said Dwight Wells, a beekeeper with the Propolis Project.
According to the project’s website, its mission is to combat the recent decline of pollinators in the Midwest and restore healthier honey bee populations in Ohio.
“In recent years, honey bees have shown an accelerated rate of decline, due to a number of factors, including increased susceptibility to diseases and pests, such as the varroa mite, a lack of proper forage, pesticide exposure and poor hive management procedures,” Wells said.
The Propolis Project came into being around 2014 thanks to support from the Levin Family Foundation, which supports agencies in Dayton and surrounding areas that feed, clothe, educate and provide health-related support to people in need. The project started in 2014 to increase pollination at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on Huffman Prairie, Wells said.
The initial federal government guidance to support habitat restoration projects for pollinators was issued in a June 20, 2014, presidential memorandum, creating a federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.
Wells, who has also served as president of the West Central Ohio Beekeepers Association since 2010, began his collaboration with Purdue University in 2011 with their honey bee breeding program. At the same time, he started trapping feral – or wild – honey bees in western Ohio, based on his work with both Purdue and Penn State.
Wells and personnel from the base Natural Resources Program also began keeping bees at Wright-Paterson in 2014. Darryn Warner, Natural Resources program manager at the base, has supported the effort from the beginning.
“A lot of people don’t realize or think about it, but a beehive that is managed by people is nothing more than like a dairy cattle herd or a feedlot of pigs that have to be managed and cared for. They lose some of their natural behaviors that wild bees still exhibit,” Warner said.
“After four years of research, Dwight [Wells] has recently confirmed the honey bees on base, through natural selection, exhibit ‘chewing behavior,’” said Danielle Trevino, Natural Resources specialist. “This behavior, only exhibited in a small percentage of honey bees, protects them from the varroa mite. The mite is perhaps the most serious threat to honey bee colonies worldwide.”
Wells has been working with Penn State through U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, or SARE, grants since 2015, and in 2016 he was conducting tests of honey bee chewing behavior, using a microscope to check for chewing behavior on the mites from feral stock and bees on base and throughout western Ohio when he discovered the bees had started to evolve through natural selection and kill the mites naturally.
“When the mites came into Ohio in 1987 there were no resistant bees in Ohio in the feral stocks. We had around 40,000 feral bees, but, by 1992, all the feral bees were killed by the mites,” said Wells.
Commercial beekeepers were using chemicals to kill the mites on their bees, treating their bees up to 10 times a year to kill the mites.
“That is not sustainable,” said Wells. “Honey bees are used for pollination. As an example, there are 1.2 million acres of almonds grown in California that have to be pollinated by honey bees. Commercial beekeepers take out 2.4 million colonies of bees every year to California to pollinate the almonds from Feb. 15 to March 15. Then they have to get the honey bees out of the orchards because the almond growers spray fungicide on the trees. This is not a sustainable system, and it’s starting to fall apart because of the chemical use the bees are getting hit with.”
“Killing a bug on bug hasn’t been good,” Wells said. “This has been going on for 35 years and because mites inbreed and create a new generation every two weeks, they have developed resistance to the chemicals, and we’re running out of chemicals. Researchers know we need to have bees that have become a natural enemy of the mites. Mice and mites both reproduce exponentially, but mice have natural enemies – dogs, cats, snakes, mouse traps. Mites, until now have had no natural enemies.”
Wells also works with the Heartland Honey Bee Breeders Cooperative at Purdue, helping to share information, techniques and disease-resistant genetics between queen producers in seven states.
“It’s a community of land grant universities, people at the base, and others working together. We’re finally getting enough people on board to fight this mite,” he said.
When the Wright brothers were at Huffman Prairie in 1904-1905, they were learning to be able to control their airplane in flight and teach themselves to become pilots. While they were here, Amos Ives Root, who was an Ohio entrepreneur who developed innovative beekeeping techniques during the late 19th century became the only eyewitness to publish articles about the successful airplane flights made by the Wright brothers here, according to Root’s website.
Now, 113 years later, innovation, technology, and people with a desire to save pollinators have come together again at the birthplace of powered flight to help honey bees fly, fight and win against a foe with no natural enemies.