National Geographic Magazine has come out with a story in it’s May 2015 edition that deserves some attention. I have to quibble some with the title, “Quest for a Superbee”, and am continually disturbed that editors for this and other publications insist on using one word for Apis mellifera (honeybee). I supposed this can be somewhat excused as most are not entomologists.
“Regardless of dictionaries, we have in entomology a rule for insect common names that can be followed. It says: If the insect is what the name implies, write the two words separately; otherwise run them together. Thus we have such names as house fly, blow fly, and robber fly contrasted with dragonfly, caddicefly, and butterfly, because the latter are not flies, just as an antlion is not a lion and a silverfish is not a fish. The honey bee is an insect and is preeminently a bee; ‘honeybee’ is equivalent to ‘Johnsmith’.”–From Anatomy of the Honey Bee by Robert E. Snodgrass quoted at honeybeesuite.com.
Given the above, what is the so-called “superbee” we are supposed to be looking for described in the title? The quest in reality is for a super bee (a bee that is superior). The article starts out with a description of super bee number one, developed by Brother Adam, someone it says is rarer than a human honey bee breeder, an “apicultural celebrity.” I do know of no other breeders who have a DVD based on their life. Unfortunately, this program appears to be out of stock, so I can’t confirm from it that Brother Adam died “heartbroken” as published in the article, because his “growing fame conflicted with his vocation.”
Although he is gone, Brother Adam’s honey bee continues to be celebrated. “Buckfast bees” are in great demand around the world for a variety of reasons, but principally because they started out as a solution to what was considered a big problem, tracheal mites. When I visited Israel in 2008, I was surprised to learn that most beekeepers there were using Buckfast queens from Belgium. The problem is we don’t really have a clear definition of what a Buckfast honey bee really is. Bee breeding in its infancy and in no way can be considered anything much more than developing genetic “possibility” in honey bees. As the article states, “Blindly breeding two bees that have a desired trait is like banging together two handfuls of marbles and scooping up the result.”
The article does not mention tracheal mites, the reason the Buckfast strain exists at all. It really is more of a “brand” at the moment than a breed. Tracheal mites have been totally eclipsed by Varroa mites in recent years. Thus, the goal for super bee number two is one resistant to this relatively newer eight-legged pest. The various ideas so far to develop such a bee were trotted out in the article, including VSH (Varroa sensitive hygiene), referenced but not specifically mentioned as such, and research on RNAi, originally studied by Beeologics, now a subsidiary of Monsanto Corporation. It concludes that many folks are not optimistic about the honey bee’s future and so a true “superbee” is indeed perhaps the best solution. Since this is not a bee per se, a robot seems to fit the bill and is the best humans can come up with at the moment. There is abundant evidence these “superbees” are indeed starting to be developed, but skepticism prevails in many quarters that these are the answer.
It is curious the article fails to mention that super bee number two already exists, at least in some people’s minds. And in reality it is somewhat of an homage to Brother Adam. The same ideas the celebrated Monk used to find tracheal-mite resistant stock, which became the Buckfast bee, were employed by the USDA in its Russian bee project The so-called “Primorski” stock currently distributed by the Russian Bee Breeders Association is presently available to beekeepers in the U.S. As opposed to all other so-called “breeds,” including Buckfast, Russian bees actually have specific genetic characteristics that are measurable via DNA analysis.
National Geographic of course has always been known more for its photos than necessarily its text. Thus, we probably can’t complain too much about the article, and given the fantastic pictures of honey bees in its pages, it’s still worth a look. The article also includes a wonderful map of pollination in the U.S. (Bees on the Move), and link to the incredible video showing complete development of a honey bee from egg to adult as revealed in the photographer’s TED Talk.