Amanda Ellis promotes the vital virtues of bees while working diligently to alter their fate.
University of Georgia scholars like Amanda Ellis promote the vital virtues of bees while working diligently to alter their fate. Some of UGA’s brightest researchers battle multiple predators, hoping to snatch honey bees back from the edge of destruction.

Amanda Ellis
and the Race to Save the Honey Bee

One sultry August morning last year, Amanda Ellis (BS, ’02; MS, ’04; PhD, ’07) stood knee-deep in sunflowers and Apis mellifera – or honey bees. Thousands of blossoms bobbed and wobbled their oversized heads. The yellow vision spread over six acres at the horticulture department’s farm headquarters on Hog Mountain Road, intended as bee food for nearly 75 hives humming on the perimeter.

Wearing protective gear, Ellis picked through the flowers, focused on the effects of a parasite she equates to a “honey bee tick.” Her work, the first of its kind, considered the specific effects of parasites on honey bees and plants.

By December, the field lay fallow and the golden vision seemed like a faded mirage. Students at the bee station expertly tended the hives to ensure they would survive the many threats nature posed for bees.

Uga “double dawg” and entomologist Ellis sits down for a coffee, explaining how and why the honey bee is in such big trouble. Back at the entomology center’s bee station, research students explore foraging, ecological issues and all manner of parasitic threats. For predators such as hive beetles and mites have decimated feral bees, Ellis explains.

She explains varroa mites are the beekeeping world’s biggest problem. “In fact, this mite has virtually domesticated honey bees in the United States. If we do not keep colonies and treat for this mite, the bees will die. This is why we have seen such a drastic reduction in feral bee colonies over the last 15 years. They are all dying because of varroa.”

Amanda Ellis spent nearly two years in South African game parks, doing research to complete a graduate degree in zoology.
Amanda Ellis spent nearly two years in South African game parks, doing research to complete a graduate degree in zoology, while her husband, James Ellis (BS,’00; PhD, ‘04), completed his doctorate in entomology at Rhodes University.

Ellis makes compelling arguments. With her empathetic smile and sobering news, she makes honey lovers want to slap a Save the Bee sticker onto their fender. Ellis believes almost everyone shares her fervor for bees. She marvels that there are more Internet searches on bees than any topic apart from religion. She and her husband keep bees and have four colonies in their backyard, yet Ellis confesses she doesn’t care for honey. Ellis has better reasons for admiring bees’ industry.

Bees are singly responsible for billions of dollars in American food production – estimated to be worth as much as $9 billion annually. Where bees once showed up as a matter of course, desperate farmers now resort to renting hives for pollination. Beekeepers truck in colonies to pollinate flowering trees, vineyards and crops where there are insufficient indigenous bees.

Ellis’s research focuses upon two tiny mites, the tracheal and the varroa, each of which have steadily destroyed healthy hives over the past two decades.

Reports say that over 80 percent of feral bees have been wiped out nationwide by parasites, reducing beekeepers’ hives by 25 percent each year. Thankfully, Ellis points out, UGA is on the leading edge of research with hopes to help engineer a better, more disease-resilient bee.

The United States has no indigenous bee. What is commonly identified as a honey bee here in the United States is European – one of several classifications, or races, of honey bee. “The Italian honey bee is known to be a good producer and gentle,” she mentions. Russian bees are notably more mite resistant. Selective breeding programs further disease resistance among popular bee races such as the Italian.

Varroa mites
Ellis researches the effects of both varroa mites and small hive beetles on pollination. She warns that if we do not keep colonies and treat for this mite, the bees will die.

While researchers have waged mite and parasitic defensives as hives are ravaged, the public’s eye has been trained on another invader. The infamous African bees, bane of Grade B films, have surfaced in Florida. “But you can have an extremely gentle Africanized bee,” Ellis points out. Again, breeding may alter many traits, including aggression.

Bees are bred for qualities that Ellis says increase their production and yet may select against traits that confer resistance. “The UGA bee lab has a major breeding program where they are trying to breed a better, more resistant bee. Once again, UGA is at the cutting edge of bee research,” she adds proudly.

“There are several groups throughout the country doing similar work in breeding resistant bees. The special thing about UGA is that we are trying to combine multiple characteristics, such as resistance, honey production, gentleness, etc. In nature, production and health do not always go hand in hand. UGA is breeding for both. This is what is most novel. It is a fascinating way to reduce the use of chemicals.” Entomologists avoid chemicals because they taint honey. They also know that varroa mites are becoming resistant to the chemicals used to control them.

Researchers developed a wire screen placed underneath hives so that the sticky mites fall through the mesh and out of the hive. The screens are part of the integrated pest management (IPM) plan that UGA scientists promote for beekeepers to use.

“Hygienic queens” are so named because their offspring actually remove brood, or baby bees, infected by varroa mites.

Bee on a flower

All pollinators (birds, bees, etc.) are scarce, yet bees are the most important of all crop pollinators. Bees transfer pollen from the anthers of a flower to the stigma of the same or different flower. This process must take place within a fixed period known as “receptivity.” Seedless watermelon flowers, for example, are receptive for only one day.

In the fragile balance of nature, a day becomes of exquisite importance. As Ellis labors in the laboratory alongside other researchers, she is keenly aware of the urgency of their work.

In the end, Ellis hopes to demonstrate that the bee’s most painful sting would be its loss.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
UGA’s honey bee program has offered the annual Beekeeping Institute, in cooperation with Young Harris College, since the 1990s. Web site: http://www.ent.uga.edu/bees/. Click on “2006 Beekeeping Institute” for the agenda and registration form.

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia offers periodic educational sessions on bees and beekeeping. State extension programs throughout the country provide public education lectures on beekeeping and other beneficial insects.

Athens honey is available for purchase at UGA. The sales support entomological research and projects. The honey is available in quart jars ($8), pint jars ($5), 16-oz. queen line glass jars ($4) and 12-oz. plastic honey bear containers ($3.50). To buy or reserve an order of honey, call 706/542-9035 or 706/542-3687.

LET US BEE MINDFUL
We massage beeswax ointments onto our nail cuticles and our faces before retiring. We buff beeswax polish into our furniture; slip an elegant beeswax candle into a chandelier; slather luminous honey onto morning toast. The signs of bee’s industriousness are everywhere – some more obvious than others – for example:

+ Pollinators are responsible for one third of all foods sold by our nation’s grocers.
+ Bees are essential to pollinate more than 100 different types of crops in the United States (including watermelons, cantaloupe, citrus and apples).
+ Beekeepers today physically transport hives to various crop locations to assist in the pollination of millions of acres of farmland.
+ Without bees to pollinate foods, crop yields could drop as much as 50 percent.
+ In recent years, beekeepers report losing 25 percent of the hives annually to various causes, including drought and mites.
+ In the United States, 80 percent of the wild honey bees’ population has already been lost.
+ Apitherapy is the practice of inducing bee stings to treat disease symptoms (including arthritis and multiple sclerosis) and also refers to eating local honey to treat pollen allergies.
+ Drones (male bees) do not sting nor gather pollen.

 

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