Breeding a better bee

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Professor Marla Spivak studies honeybees at the University of Minnesota. She's fighting a parasite that killed up to half of all North American bees last year.

“People don’t appreciate it, or think about it much, but one-third of our table foods depend on bees.”

Mites from the genus Varroa suck blood from bees, especially young ones, weakening them and shortening their lives. Some bees end up missing wings and legs. A bad infestation can kill an entire colony.

Spivak's program breeds queen bees that produce workers that remove mite-infested pupae. Beekeepers using Spivak's queens have experienced only minor losses.

Chemicals kill mites-but hurt bees, too

Spivak says, "Beekeepers use pesticides to control insect pests. They want to kill the mite, not the bee, but mites and bees are related! And now the mites have evolved resistance to the pesticides."

"Putting pesticides into a bee colony is not a long-term solution and risks contaminating bee products (honey and beeswax) besides. My goal is to breed bees that are resistant to diseases and mite pests so beekeepers don't have to use pesticides."

Don't think humans depend on bees? Think again. Honeybees pollinate about a third of our table foods and dozens of agricultural crops. They even affect the dairy industry-cows eat alfalfa and clover, which are pollinated by honeybees.