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BIG WINTER LOSSES IN THE BEE WORLD.

Honey producers are trying to build up their bee numbers as fast as they can this spring while the price of honey remains at near-record highs.

Wintertime bee mortality was unusually high this year due to starvation from the long, cold winter.

This is a case where it was so cold, for so long, that bees could not move to where their honey was inside the hives.

Many Ontario beekeepers are reporting losses as high as 50 to 75%. A normal winter beekeepers would see a loss of about 10 to 20%.

But in a colder-than-normal winter, bees located on the top of the hive are farther from the honey supply, their wintertime food source. They will be first to starve.

Honey prices were already sky-high this year as a result of last year's drought and an import ban on Chinese honey. Ontario and American beekeepers report greater-than-average bee mortality due to a cold winter and may not be able to fully take advantage of the higher honey prices.

Meanwhile the wholesale price of honey remains at around $2.00 a pound. That is almost double the price per-pound level of a few years ago

Producers can rebound by splitting their hives, or purchasing frames of bees, called a nucleus, with a laying queen.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE BEES GONE?

As bee trucks arrive to pollinate Maine's wild blueberry crops, scientists are looking for new ways to control a tiny parasite that has been killing honeybees for more than a decade.

The bloodsucking varroa mite, together with another mite, has nearly wiped out honeybees in the wild and its growing resistance to chemicals has made heavier losses a fact of life in colonies maintained by beekeepers.

That means the search is growing more urgent for new ways to control the tricky and unpredictable parasite, which was blamed for killing off about half of Maine's hives last winter.

The varroa mite turned up in Maine in 1987 in bees that were imported from Florida, where the mite made its first appearance that year.

The mite, with some help from an even tinier villain known as the tracheal mite, has wiped out an estimated 90 percent of wild honeybees in the United States.

The varroa mite, about the size of the head of a pin, attaches to a bee larva after growing within a sealed-up cell in a bee colony. Then it spreads to the rest of the colony, transmitting viruses and bacteria as it goes. The tracheal mite sucks the blood of an adult honey bee from within its breathing tubes.

Because of the die-off, honeybees have virtually disappeared from playgrounds and backyards across the United States.

The survival of commercial honeybee operations has depended largely on the vigilance of the beekeepers and a chemical called fluvalinate, which is marketed under the name Apistan.

But beekeepers noticed a growing resistance in the mid-1990s.

Now, many beekeepers have turned to the insecticide Coumaphos, marketed by Bayer Corp. under the name CheckMite. But not all beekeepers are following suit and losses are mounting.

Other solutions are in the works. USDA is selling breeder bees from eastern Russia that are genetically resistant to the varroa mite, to breed with bees in the United States.

Some growers have experimented with other species including bumblebees, but honeybees are widely preferred because they can pollinate many different crops.

The varroa mite entered Canada about five years ago and has become a serious problem to beekeepers, although not quite as bad as the US. One of the ways in which the mites are transmitted is when migortory beekeepers move their hives in order to follow the flower bloom or move bees into orchards for the pollination of apples and pears.

See related story below.

Parasites Threaten Crop Pollination.

As honey bee colonies slumber through the harsh winter season, two potentially devastating parasitic mites are threatening their survival.

The problem is actually two parasites -- the tracheal and varroa mites -- that have migrated from the U.S. and are making a new home in Ontario, Canada beehives. These mites have the potential to devastate the province's bee population, causing not only a shortage of honey but major problems for fruit and vegetable producers who rely on bees to pollinate their crops. It's estimated that honeybees account for 80 per cent of all pollination, and are responsible for ensuring approximately one-third of the food supply.

But a research program at the University of Guelph is stemming the potential devastation with an integrated program that uses genetics and traditional pest control methods. Led by Medhat Nasr, a technology transfer specialist for the Ontario Beekeepers Association based at the U of G, the program has achieved an 80 per cent drop in mortality rates in bees infected with mites, and increased the production of queen bees -- which are crucial for commercial beekeeping -- from 2,500 in 1990 to approximately 15,000 this year.

"Bees are mainly used for crop pollination in Ontario, not for honey production,"says Nasr. "If these parasitic mites take over, we'll see a drastic decline in crop yields over the next few years."

Varroa mites infest bees at an immature stage in their development, leading them to grow into adults with deformed wings, low weight and a greatly reduced lifespan. Equally devastating is the tracheal mite which lives inside the bee's trachea (breathing tube). Once inside, tracheal mites breed and reproduce, filling the bee's lungs with their offspring and inhibiting breathing capacity. If an infected bee doesn't suffocate, its ability to fly long distances to pollinate crops is hindered.

Nasr is employing integrated pest management (IPM) techniques to control the mites. Rather than solely relying on chemicals for pest control, IPM integrates other methods such as breeding and special management practices to keep pest populations at bay.

Recently, Nasr successfully bred bees that are attractive to the tracheal mites for a shorter span of their life, decreasing the opportunity for mites to infect young bees.

Nasr has also studied the effectiveness of formic acid as a means of repelling mites. Formic acid is a natural product produced by ants, and is also found in honey. Nasr found formic acid to be 90- to 95 per cent effective against both tracheal and varroa mites, and it leaves no residue in the honey or wax.

Part of Nasr's mite control program involves alternating the use of Apistan_ a chemical currently used to control mite infestations_ with formic acid. Generally, Apistan is applied to hives twice a year, but by alternating it with formic acid, beekeepers need to apply it only once. This reduces chemical use and delays the emergence of Apistan-resistant mites which, according to Nasr, have already emerged in the U.S.

"IPM doesn't lead to the complete eradication of the mites," he says. "But it does reduce the likelihood of beekeepers becoming over-reliant on a pesticide. It's more effective in the long run." This research is sponsored by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the CanAdapt program (administered by the Agricultural Adaptation Council), the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs and the Beekeepers of Ontario.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by University Of Guelph for journalists and other members of the public. The University Of Guelph is the original source of the story.

Honey Helps Heal.

HONEY AN ANCIENT GREEK BALM FOR SORES and abscesses, has fallen into disuse. After all, who wants to drizzle the sweet, sticky, golden goo on a burn or wound?

New Zealand biochemist Peter Molan, for one. After nearly 20 years of research, Molan has come to the conclusion that honey cleans and heals wounds better than the dressings and ointments used in hospitals.

"I've just been asked to send some honey over to a hospital in Britian where they have a teenager who has a wound so painful that they have to give him general anesthetic every time they change the dressing," he told a ballroom full of rapt beekeepers at Apimondia 99 recently.

Nolan works with doctors and nurses at Waikato Hospital in Hamilton, New Zealand.

They are setting up a pilot study to assess honey's efficacy as a treatment for bedsores, diabetic foot ulcers and other hard-to-heal lesions.

When he burns himself in the kitchen at home, as happened recently, he automatically reaches for the honey as first aid.

About 50 studies, published in the British Journal of Surgery and other journals, attest to honey's ability to maintain a moist healing environment, banish infection, promote new skin growth and prevent scarring.

Clinicians who are skeptical haven't read the literature, Molan said. "Most would be surprised to know there have been randomized, controlled trials which have proved that it's more effective than the two most widely used treatments for burns," he said.

Those treatments are silver sulphadiazine ointment and polyyurethane film dressings.

Molan said he does not have the complete answer to how honey works, but said bees add enzymes to nectar to turn it into honey. "One of those enzymes produces hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid," he said.

Honey releases its hydrogen peroxide slowly, so it is less damaging to skin tissue than the drugstore type, he said. Molan said that in the last 10 years, medical personnel in New Zealand, Australia and Great Britian have rediscovered honey as a wound dressing.

He has helped design honey impregnated dressing pads and honey packaged in tubes, so they aren'y getting it from grocery-store jars. "It definitely helps, in getting honey recognized as a medicine, to have it looking like a medicine," he said.

Molan said he has found that New Zealand manuka honey has a more potent antimicrobial action than other honeys. {Article by Rebecca Wigod, Vancouver/The Canadian Press}

Bees -- Latest Weapon In Cancer Fight

The sting of a bee may soon be used to kill cancer cells. Scientists at CSIRO Molecular Science are modifying bee venom to develop cancer treatments that should have fewer side effects than other drugs used to fight the disease.

A research project to utilise an active ingredient from bee venom as a potential cure for cancer has been funded by a $670,000 grant from the Commonwealth Government's Industry Research and Development Board. Participants in the project, CSIRO, the Oncology Research Centre at the Prince of Wales Hospital (POWH) and CSL, will contribute further funds towards the $1.3 million project.

The venom in the bee sting contains a number of active ingredients, the main one being mellitin, a molecule that kills cells by slicing through the cell walls, destroying the cells.

"What we have done is to modify the structure of the mellitin molecule to remove the part that causes the allergic reaction while still maintaining its ability to kill cells," CSIRO scientists Dr Werkmeister and Dr Hewish say.

One problem the researchers have to get around is targeting the killing activity of mellitin to cancer cells only and not to normal healthy cells. They plan to achieve this by attaching the modified mellitin to an antibody molecule that specifically recognises cancer cells. This combination of a toxin and an antibody is known as an immunotoxin.

The research team at CSIRO and POWH aims to produce immunotoxins as new cancer drugs that can attack a wide range of cancer cells. This approach should overcome the major drawbacks of chemotherapy treatment.

"Chemotherapy drugs are not specific; they attack normal cells thereby causing unwanted side effects such as hair loss, vomiting and weight loss. Such symptoms limit the amount of drug that can be administered and hence its effectiveness," Dr Hewish says.

The concept of using molecules such as immunotoxins as "magic bullets" for cancer treatment is not new and scientists have created a number of immunotoxin drugs with toxins derived from plants and bacteria. These immunotoxins, however, are extremely toxic and produce a number of serious side effects that limit their clinical application.

Dr Werkmeister points out that mellitin is far less toxic than the plant and bacterial toxins used in earlier work and thus new immunotoxin drugs from it may reduce potential side effects while still retaining the specific killing of target cancers.

"This is a fantastic opportunity to take some fundamental research observations and develop them into a potential drug to treat a major disease, such as cancer. It is especially pleasing to see an Australian innovation being supported by companies such as CSL Limited and the IR&D Board," said Dr Simon Carroll, the divisional commercial development manager.

"We still have a fairly long way to go with this research. We are still some time from clinical application, but we are very optimistic," Dr Werkmeister concludes.

Pictures are available on the World Wide Web at: http://www.csiro.au/news/mediarel/mr1999/bee.html

More information:

Mr Warrick Glynn, warrick.glynn@molsci.csiro.au

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by CSIRO Australia for journalists and other members of the public. If you wish to quote from any part of this story, please credit CSIRO Australia as the original source.

BEE-MINE. JUNE 99

Honeybees not only collect honey and pollen, they are being trained to sniff out explosives.

Honeybees equipped with radio tags no larger than a grain of rice may one day be used to detect antipersonnel land mines on battlefields and elsewhere.

As farfetched as it might seem, a collaborative project seeks to train and track entire colonies of bees that may be conditioned to prefer something other than honey, such as TNT, the primary component of land mines.

Ultimately, it may be possible to carry a hive to a site and release the bees to search for explosives or other things, such as methamphetamine-making ingredients or nuclear waste.

The project, led by University of Montana entomologist Jerry Bromenshenk, depends on several factors -- particularly whether bees can smell and be taught to find TNT.

The Red Cross estimates there are 80 million to 120 million land mines in 70 countries around the world and that 60 people a day are killed or maimed by buried mines. In some developing countries, thousands of acres of productive land are unusable because they are death traps.

If the bees can indeed be trained to seek out explosives, the next step is to find a way to keep track of them.

That's where the radio tags come in. Several years ago, PNNL developed a first generation of radio-frequency tags for the garment industry to track inventory. The tags are similar to the microchips implanted by veterinarians as permanent identification for cats and dogs.

The researchers brought some 20,000 bees in two hives to Richland for three days of tag testing.

The tiny tags were carefully glued to the bees. To make them easier to work with, the bees are chilled in a refrigerator for four minutes, then the tags are attached to the bees' abdomens with tweezers.

The tags have a 10-character code that identifies each bee individually. The tags are read by sensitive instruments attached to a portable hive which records when the bees leave to forage, the direction they go and when they return.

A special spectrometer would be installed in the hive to "sniff" the bees for the presence of TNT residue.

The bees as "flying dust mops," picking up samples everywhere they go. Land mines leak small amounts of explosives into nearby soil and water, and the TNT residue eventually makes its way into some plants.

In the tag tests, researchers learned that the bees were not dissuaded from returning to the hive by the radio-tag reading equipment.

They also found that the 27-milligram tags they planned on using were a little too heavy for the bees; 25 mg is better.

The Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also are part of the project, paid for by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.


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