Anand Varna Bee talk

Anand Varna speaks to an audience during his TED lecture about saving bees with modern science.

Maybe you have caught a glimpse of that viral video about bees that has been making its way around the Internet. It’s the one where you can view the first 21 days of a bee’s life condensed into 60 seconds.

I doubt you would forget it if you saw it, so I won’t explicitly link to that video again here. What I will do, however, is link you to a recent TED talk from Anand Varma who talks about why the bee population is having such a hard time in the U.S. and what he and researchers at the USDA Bee Lab in Baton Rouge are trying to do about the problems that face these important creatures. Within that talk, you will also find a playback of the 60-second clip I described above.

The lecture is short, and Varma provides only the basics of why the bee population is declining and why it could disastrous to have that trend continue. I have written about the decline of the bumble bee here at Industry Buzz before and have mentioned that both pesticides and parasitic attacks are main factors in what have caused this population decline. Hives react to these stressors by sending out young bees to do the work that older bees may have done in the past. The young foragers die earlier than their counterparts; as that trend continues, hives become smaller and pollen production is less.

Varma expands on the idea that parasites are a major factor in the health of bees everywhere. He specifically mentions the varroa destructor mite that attacks certain species of bees when they are still developing in their hives. During their incubation period, the mite sucks their blood thereby weakening their immune system and making them more vulnerable to disease.

Researchers in Baton Rouge, Varma said, discovered that some bees have a natural ability to defend against mites. They then took queen bees and entered them into an experimental program where, through artificial insemination, the queen would breed mite-resistant offspring. It worked, but the offspring inherited traits that were not desirable to interaction with humans such as gentleness and the ability to store honey.

It is at this point in the talk when Varma begins to question how we perceive bees. As humans, we need pollinators to help grow our crops, and since bees complete such a large percentage of that pollination, we have a stake in their survival. Furthermore, we also want bees to continue to be act the same as they always have — non-aggressive — and be able to produce as much honey and pollinate as many flowers and plants as possible.

When taken in that light, it sounds as if humans must control the bees as we do many other species. Personally, I do not like the idea of controlling other species for our own good, and it appears as if Varma shies away from that concept as well. Yet, we know that the bees are necessary for the proliferation of food crops and that our scientists have enough knowledge to potentially help them conquer the mites that harm them. There is a fine line between outright control and mutual cooperation.

Researchers are now working with local beekeepers to insert their mite-resistant bees in with those beekeepers’ animal populations. If all goes to plan, the mixing of these species will hopefully continue to resist mites as well as be gentle and properly make honey. Varma insists that this outcome would be the best of both worlds and would preserve the relationship that humans have cultivated with bees over many years. It would be terrible to lose them, so it is good that people are coming up with ways to help and save them.