British Columbia scientists hope to tackle bee-killing mites

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SURREY, B.C. — Chemistry professor Erika Plettner gestures toward beehives surrounded by tall, dry grass as she explains the multiple pressures bees face around the world.

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Pesticides, pathogens and the effects of climate change are jeopardizing bees and their role as pollinators of global food crops, she says.

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Plettner and his team of researchers are therefore working to mitigate a tiny but deadly risk factor – varroa mites.

The team at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland is testing a chemical compound that appears to kill mites without harming bees, in hopes it may one day be widely available as a treatment for infested hives.

Varroa mites kill bees by puncturing their cuticle, or exoskeleton, creating a wound that won’t heal, Plettner said.

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This leaves an opening for disease and weakens the bees’ immune system, she said in an interview at the researchers’ experimental apiary outside Surrey, British Columbia.

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“That’s what ultimately causes (bees) to collapse during overwintering,” she said.

Plettner and his team are testing the safety and efficacy of the compound identified in his lab a few years ago, which appears to paralyze and then kill the mites.

The bees involved in the experiment move in and out of their hives as Plettner explains that researchers don’t yet understand exactly how the compound works.

“We don’t know the actual mite protein that the compound binds to, or a collection of proteins. We know the paralysis usually involves the nervous system of the mite,” she said.

Her team recently secured funding from Genome British Columbia, a non-profit organization, to work with researchers at the University of British Columbia to study how the compound affects dust mites, she added. .

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Researchers place a sheet of sticky paper under hives to collect dead mites for analysis in their lab, she said.

So far, the chemical compound shows promise as a potential treatment alongside five or six others currently available, Plettner said.

It’s important to go through different treatments from year to year, she said, because the mites are starting to show resistance to what she called the “gold standard” of existing treatments.

The varroa mite originally parasitized bees in Asia before spreading to African-European bee populations about 100 years ago, she said.

“In terms of evolution time, it’s relatively short. And that’s why our bees are so affected by this, because … in an evolutionary sense, they haven’t had the chance to develop, through selection, natural defenses.

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Efforts are underway to find bees that are more naturally resistant to mites, Plettner said, noting that one of her own hives at home had been mite-free this summer, while the neighboring hive was “boiling”. with parasites.

“Once in a while you get a pretty mite-resistant hive, and that’s a subject of very intensive research and beekeeping effort.”

It will take a few years to commercialize the compound, making it available as a treatment, Plettner said.

Researchers have yet to figure out how it works and demonstrate that it’s safe for bees, beekeepers and the surrounding environment, she said.

Mitigating varroa infestations is especially important given the range of environmental pressures bees face, Plettner said.

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Climate change is affecting the habitat ecology of bees, altering the availability of the flowers and plants they need to survive, she said.

Additionally, bees are part of a system of intensive agricultural practices that use pesticides and herbicides across Canada and around the world, she said.

“Even if near the apiary is not sprayed, the bees will fly quite far, up to two kilometers, to look for flowering plants and food,” she said. “So they can be accidentally contaminated with harmful substances.”

At the same time, many plants considered weeds and targeted with herbicides by farmers are important to bees, Plettner said.

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