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Bee scientists to force killer mites to self destruct

24 December 2010

Scientists may be able to halt global honey bee losses by forcing the deadly Varroa mite, lethal in the freezing weather, to self destruct

The blood-sucking Varroa is the biggest killer of honey bees world-wide, having developed resistance to beekeepers’ medication. It is particularly destructive in winter as depleted colonies do not have enough bees huddling together to keep warm.

Now researchers from the Government’s National Bee Unit and Aberdeen University have worked out how to ‘silence’ natural functions in the mites’ genes to make them self destruct.

Dr Alan Bowman from the University of Aberdeen said: “Introducing harmless genetic material encourages the mites’ own immune response to prevent their genes from expressing natural functions. This could make them self destruct.

“The beauty of this approach is that it is really specific and targets the mites without harming the bees or, indeed, any other animal.”

Dr Giles Budge from National Bee Unit, part of the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), said:

“This cutting edge treatment is environmentally-friendly and poses no threat to the bees. With appropriate support from industry and a rigorous approval process, chemical-free medicines could be available in five to ten years.”

Environment Minister Lord Henley said:

“Bees are essential to putting food on our table and worth £200m to Britain every year through pollinating our crops. This excellent work by UK scientists will keep our hives healthy and bees buzzing.”

The process uses the Nobel Prize-winning theory ‘RNA interference’, which controls the flow of genetic information. So far the ‘silencing’ has worked with a neutral Varroa gene, which has no significant effect on the mite. Scientists now need to target a gene with the specific characteristics that are perfect to force the Varroa to self destruct.

Tests by other scientists have shown the treatment can be added to hives in bee feed. The bees move it into food for their young, where the Varroa hides.


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