The plight of the threatened honeybee was made a national priority last month when President Obama announced the first National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators — a multifaceted plan aiming to save the honeybee and other vulnerable pollinating insects from ongoing population declines.
Fifty miles west of Washington, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a small Loudoun County nonprofit organization has been working steadily toward the same goal as it tries to cultivate a genetic line of honeybees that is specifically suited for survival in the metropolitan region and beyond.
Concern about the declining number of honeybees in the United States has increased in recent years, with experts noting that the honeybee population is less than half of what it was at the end of World War II. The crisis became especially apparent in 2006, when many commercial beekeepers were alarmed to find their hives suddenly abandoned.
The phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, is caused by a myriad of factors — including shifting climate patterns, the use of pesticides and genetically modified farming methods, and a slew of deadly pathogens. The repercussions are both environmentally and economically profound: Honeybees play a vital role in the food chain, and honeybee-pollinated crops have an impact of about $24 billion a year on the U.S. economy, according to the White House.
On a national level, the new strategy will use a variety of methods to combat the problem, including placing restrictions on pesticides and restoring millions of acres of pollinator habitat. Locally, Loudoun’s Sustainable Honeybee Program — a volunteer-based organization with more than 50 bustling bee colonies in Neersville, Va. — is focused on the bees themselves.
“Our goal is to build a more sustainable bee,” said Alex McLellan, chief operations officer for the Sustainable Honeybee Program. “It’s what we call a ‘hygienic’ bee, which is essentially a more naturally capable bee.”
The program launched about 16 years ago as a for-profit business focused on raising queen bees, McLellan said. But over time, as the dangers to honeybees nationwide became more apparent, the mission of the group changed.
About six years ago, the group became a nonprofit organization with the goals of creating a bee that is better positioned for survival and teaching beekeepers how to strengthen their own colonies. The organization operates under the guidance of Billy Davis, an Eastern Apicultural Society master beekeeper, who also leads classes at the Northern Virginia Teaching Consortium and gives presentations to many beekeeper clubs and groups across the region and the nation, McLellan said.
So how exactly do beekeepers create a “hygienic” line of bees?
The answer, McLellan said, is in the basic principle of evolution — survival of the fittest. The program accelerates that process, he said, by selectively breeding bees that demonstrate traits that are critical to survival.
In other words, the bees have to pass a few tests.
“We look for certain characteristics — the principal one is hygienic behavior,” McLellan said, meaning the ability of the bees to “detect and remove diseased bees from the colony.”
The beekeepers test this behavior by using liquid nitrogen to deliberately destroy a certain number of bees, usually about 100, in the honeycomb, McLellan said.
“Then we come back 24 hours later and see how many have been removed,” he said. “If they have removed 100 dead bees, then we consider the hive to be 100 percent hygienic.”
The group tests for other characteristics as well, McLellan said, “but this is the most important — their ability to take care of themselves, to detect when things aren’t right and take corrective action.”
It’s an especially critical trait, he said, because one of the most dire threats to honeybees is a parasite called the varroa mite, which can transmit dangerous viruses and bacteria to bees.
The Sustainable Honeybee Program tries to breed bees that exhibit certain cleaning behaviors, such as self-cleaning or partner-cleaning, that can help them remove the mites before they become a problem, McLellan said.
“What we do is a combination of looking at our own stock and speeding up their process of evolution, and also introducing other hygienic stocks from other lines,” he said, adding that the group is awaiting the arrival of two new hygienic queen bees from Louisiana.
The group also shares its bees with donors, providing a small bee colony in exchange for a contribution of a certain size. Eventually, McLellan hopes the organization will develop other funding sources — right now it gets most of its money from private donations and has an annual operations budget of just $10,000 — so that healthy colonies can be offered to qualified beekeepers without requiring a donation.
So far, most of the program’s bees are in the commonwealth, but the lines have also been distributed in surrounding states, he said.
“There’s a lot of interest in what we’re doing, and people want to participate,” he said. The group has grown significantly since its founding, he added, but its members have even greater ambitions.
“I would like to see us be at a point where we could say that we’ve built a bee that’s capable of surviving in Virginia and in the surrounding regions,” he said, “and also that our methodology could be duplicated by others, so it has the greatest possible impact.”