A new chemical compound discovered by Simon Fraser University researchers could help honeybees around the world fight off deadly mite infestations.
Led by chemistry professor Erika Plettner, SFU researchers and members of the beekeeping industry are currently trialing the potential treatment at apiaries in British Columbia and Alberta.
“We discovered a substance that can paralyze the mites and eventually kill them, and it doesn’t seem to have too much of an effect on the bees. These field trials are very important to demonstrate efficacy in the colonies and are the next milestone toward actually using the treatment for real,” says Plettner.
At one of the test sites in South Surrey, researchers are conducting a randomized trial involving 40 bee colonies that have been exposed to the varroa mite.
A deadly parasite of honeybees, varroa mites are a global problem for beekeepers.
Once they infiltrate a colony, the pests feed on bees, taking bites out of them, injuring them and making them vulnerable to secondary disease.
If allowed to fester, the mites can wipe out entire colonies over the winter months.
“In terms of the size of the problem, it is worldwide,” says Plettner. “In Canada, we register colony loses every year due to a variety of causes during wintering, but the weakness that the mites cause is definitely a factor.”
A limited amount of chemical treatments currently exists, but mites are starting to show signs of resistance so new treatments need to be added to the mix of options available to protect bee colonies in the long term.
The compound being trialed by SFU is codenamed 3C36.
“Like many discoveries, this was serendipity,” says Plettner. “We discovered this substance as part of a big screen we did for feeding deterrents for moth larvae. It was the best one we found, so when we started working with bees it was logical to test this substance on the mites.”
So far, Plettner says the results are encouraging.
Researchers put down sticky sheets with a grid underneath the test colonies and regularly sift through all the materials that fall to the bottom of a hive.
They document and compare the number of dead mites found in hives being randomly treated with 3C36, a control substance (one of the currently approved treatments) and those that are left untreated.
“The sticky sheets under the hives help us take a snapshot of what’s falling down and we can take them back to the lab, put them under a microscope and count them,” says Plettner. “It’s very promising. We have noticed that our compound does cause greater mite fall than the control group.”
If the team continues to see success, they plan to look for licensing partners and seek to gain federal approval for the compound to be deemed safe for use.
“At this point, varroa management is a reality of beekeeping. In order to do this successfully and not lose our tools to resistance – which is just a part of evolution – we need to use different tools throughout the years,” said Plettner. “Having very sick honeybees is not a good thing for other insects as well, since the viral diseases the mites vector can spread. This is why, as beekeepers, we have a responsibility to make sure our bees are healthy.”