Will Engineering a "Flexi-bee" Save Colonies from Collapse?

varroa mite photo

While there remains some discussion over the exact cause of the mysterious epidemic -- known as "colony collapse disorder" (CCD) -- that has been decimating the U.S. honeybee population, most entomologists now believe the varroa mite, a parasite that makes bees more susceptible to disease, is implicated.

Because of its relative isolation, Australia has so far been spared CCD's reach. That could all change very soon, however, according to scientists from the country's top research institution.

dead bees photo

Image from toholio
A "flexi-bee" to the rescue?
Predicting that Australia would likely succumb to the destructive parasite any day now, Max Whitten, the former head of entomology at CSIRO, said his country should engineer a bee to be resistant to the mite to protect its honey and pollination industries, reports ABC's Anna Saleh. This so-called "flexi-bee" would have a gene for resistance that could be turned on and off by a chemical used by the beekeepers.

To minimize the risk of the flexi-bee escaping into the wild and spreading the gene to other populations, it would be engineered such that the bee would only be resistant to the varroa inside the hive managed with the chemical. Whole hives of varroa-resistant honeybees could be grown in as little as three weeks if a new queen bee received the gene.

Since some bee species are already known to be naturally resistant to the mite, scientists could identify the gene responsible for this resistance and transfer it to other honeybees -- a task that will be made much easier by the fact that the entire honeybee genome has been sequenced. While it may sound straightforward enough, putting this plan in action won't be so easy.

Not so fast, say some
A number of factors, least of which is Whitten's hypothesis that the bee's resistance relies on a single gene, could complicate the scheme. Controlling who the queen bees mate with is no simple task, and using artificial insemination techniques is extremely expensive. Furthermore, to ensure that the resistance trait gets passed on, the gene would have to be dominant (if not, the resistance won't be expressed in the queen bee's offspring).

An alternative, knock-out scheme
Ben Oldroyd of the University of Sydney thinks a better idea might be to target the gene responsible for emitting the chemical signal needed by varroa mite to lay their eggs on the bees. Assuming a single gene controls the signal, knocking it out should be enough to prevent the mite from laying their eggs on the bees, he says.

As Warren wrote about last month, the consequences of inaction could be extremely detrimental for the Australian economy:

"The apiarists who managed the 673,000 registered hives in Australia, producing over 30,000 tonnes of honey annually, worth about $50 million AUD, have had keen eyes on a parliamentary committee who recently handed down their report on the bee industry.

The committee's chair Dick Adams said, "It's a little bit too simple to say without bees there's no food but there's a lot less food if you don't have a good bee population."

The spokesman for the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council (AHBIC) released a media statement saying, "The first year of the introduction of varroa destructor mite into Australia could cost the Australian economy as much as $1.7 billion, as a result of the loss of pollination services and the flow on costs to the horticultural and plant industries""

Via ::ABC Science: 'Flexi-bee' could pre-empt varroa mite (news website)

More about colony collapse disorder (CCD) and honeybees
::Haagen Dazs' Help The Honeybees: Bee Boy Mayhem
::The Latest on the Disappearing Honeybee Mystery
::Will Mankind Be Extinct In Four Years If We Lose Our Honeybees?

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