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A sweet discovery: Local honey bee researchers find way to combat mite infestations

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BATON ROUGE - As flowers start to bloom, honey bees start to buzz. The bee industry in Louisiana lost almost 10,000 colonies of bees last year. That’s around 600 million bees and about 720,000 pounds of honey.

A major detriment to the colonies is parasitic mites. Local researchers found techniques to keep away pests that decimate colonies every year.

Former Honey Bee Breeding Lab researcher and owner of Harbo Bee Co., John Harbo, began breeding queen honey bees about 20 years ago.

“Here, we got about 25 colonies in this yard,” Harbo said.

He does not breed just any type of honeybee.

“They have the genes or the alleles for Varroa resistance,” he said.

Varroa resistance protects bees from mites. This means it cannot die from a mite infestation, something that killed tens of thousands of bees in more than 5,000 colonies in Louisiana last year.

The loss of so many bees also led to a drop in honey production.

“People think getting rid of mites is almost impossible,” Harbo said. “Some have said it's like breeding sheep resistant to wolves… But we were able to do that.”

Kate Ihle, a researcher from Honey Bee Breeding Lab in Baton Rouge, recently found a new way to keep the mites away from busy bees.

“Some of the baby bees, when they're infested with these mites, they'll really slow their development down and die much faster,” Ihle said.

By studying bees in Asia that are resistant to mites, she was able to find the same resistant trait in bees in North America.

“If we are able to breed for this trait, hopefully, that will help the bees keep the mite levels even lower than they are now,” Ihle said.

Both Ihle and Harbo hope their methods reach the same goal–to keep the bee population as high as possible.

“In April, May and June, things are really hectic trying to raise the queens, get the breeding done, sell them,” Harbo said.

For now, Ihle says she will continue to research the trait so beekeepers can apply it to their hives soon.

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