Miami researcher working to build better bees to survive what’s killing them

He discusses advances being made to protect the endangered species.

Miami University researcher Alexander Zomchek is working to build a better honey bee, using “instrumental insemination” to fertilize desirable queen bees using well-groomed male bees.

Believe it or not, a key trait to help the endangered honey bee survive is its cleanliness: how well it grooms itself to brush away harmful and infected parasites.

With World Bee Day on Thursday (National Honey Bee Day this year will be Saturday, Aug. 21), the Journal-News asked Zomchek to explain advances he and others are making to protect the endangered insects.

Working to save bees is important work because “about 1/3 of the food that we eat is pollinated by honey bees,” said Zomchek, a Miami professor of entomology, specializing in Apiculture (honey bees).

Even more importantly, “that 1/3 is not grains, it’s fruit and vegetables, and it turns out that when you think of the macronutrients that you eat — the vitamins and the minerals, not the filler stuff” about 80% of nutrients in your diet comes from that 1/3 of what you eat, Zomchek said. “Those scoops and vegetables and fruits that bees pollinate.”

“We have a codependence with honey bees, because bees equal food,” Zomchek said.

Honey bees have existed — although not on the North American continent — more than 150 million years. But only in the past 30 years, because of pathogens, parasitic mites, insecticide- and pesticide poisoning, and lack of forage, “we quite literally find our bees stepping on the definition of an extinct species,” he said.

His “beelab” is at Miami’s Ecology Research Center.

Butler County has an important history in using honey bees to pollinate the country and world. The Rev. L.L. Langstroth, who lived in Oxford, was the man who discovered how critical it was for hives to have 3/8-inch spaces in them for bees to maneuver. Using that information, he invented the moveable frame beehive in the 1850s, which still is the bee hive of choice for nearly every beekeeper today.

Bees were first imported to North America around 1642.

When Zomchek at age 10 was an amateur beekeeper on a Midwest farm, it was typical for 3% of bee hives to die out from one year to another. Now, 51 years later, he says, about 60% of hives die each year. The primary culprit is a parasite called varroa, a external mite, which appeared in this country about 28 years ago. Now, there’s not a honey hive without that parasite, he said.

To put the varroa in human scale, if we were the bees’ size, the varroa would be about the size of a tennis ball on us. It latches on to the bees, sucking blood, and also digging into the scales of bees’ abdomen and feeding off their body fat.

In a typical Ohio honey-bee hive with 40,000-60,000 bees, there can easily be 10,000-30,000 varroa mites.

That alone was pretty destructive to bees, but about 15 years ago, those mites started carrying diseases. Some 19 major viruses have been identified on those varroa mites, which he compares to deer ticks that carry lyme disease.

“How many diseases have we solved in the human population? Maybe HIV on a good day, maybe COVID-19 on a good day,” he said. “We at least have an inoculant, but it’s been years and billions of dollars, and so forth. We have no such medications” for the bees.

“So our bees are now under assault from a parasitic mite that they had never seen in the history of time,” he said. “But now they’re under assault by a sick parasitic mite that we had never seen. It is not just the mites that are taking our bees down, but it’s the diseases that they carry that are taking our bees down.”

So Zomchek and others use cutting-edge reproduction techniques where they use carbon dioxide to put desirable queen bees to sleep, and using tiny tubes and microscopes, inseminate them with genetic material from male bees that keep themselves clean.

He said some beekeepers have reported losing about 9% of hives from year to year, a great improvement over 60%.

Meanwhile, people in Hamilton recently spent Martin Luther King Day and days since creating a “pollinator park” that will provide nectar and egg-laying locations for insects, and also provide fresh food for the nearby New Life Mission in the city’s Second Ward neighborhood.

City resident Jeff Gambrell, who in 2018 persuaded Hamilton to allow bee hives in the city, recently spoke last week during a virtual Midwest Sustainability Summit about honey bees, native bees and other subjects.

“Basically, I call it ‘Darwin on steroids,’ ” he said of the genetic work — making advances what might take centuries, if ever, occur within a decade.

“We have really gone through hell and back again in the past 30 years,” Zomchek said. But he has hope because of bee breeding: “I really think we have a way out of this sand trap.”

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