BEEKEEPERS in the Borders and north Northumberland are taking great encouragement from scientists’ claim that they have discovered a natural way to make the deadly varroa mite, the biggest killer of honey bees worldwide, self-destruct.
The blood-sucking varroa has developed resistance to medication and is particularly feared by beekeepers in winter as depleted colonies do not have enough bees huddling together to keep warm.
But researchers at the government’s National Bee Unit and Aberdeen University are offering hope for they have worked out how to “silence” natural functions in the mites’ genes to make them self-destruct.
The discovery has been welcomed by the largest bee producer in the area, Chain Bridge Honey Farm, near Berwick, which has 1,500 hives in the Borders and north Northumberland.
The honey farm’s Steve Robson said: “We lost 50 hives this spring to the varroa mite, so this is very good news. It is also very timely as they are particularly destructive at the moment.
“There is nothing much you can do to eradicate the mite, which proves to be very costly, and I am certainly interested in finding out more.”
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 any other animal.”
Dr Giles Budge from the National Bee Unit, added: “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.”
The process uses the Nobel prize-winning theory RNA interference, which controls the flow of genetic information. So far, silencing has worked with a neutral varroa gene, which has no significant effect on the mite.
Scientists say they 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.
Environment minister Lord Henley described the work by the Aberdeen scientists as “excellent”, adding: “Bees are essential to putting food on our table and worth £200million to Britain every year through pollinating our crops.”