Genetic warfare could save the honey bee from gruesome parasitic death

Scientists at Aberdeen University are developing a weapon against a parasite of the honeybee that dispatches its victim in a most gruesome manner.

Researchers at the university have developed a genetic technique that is able to effectively switch off genes inside the parasitic Varroa mite, which is a large-scale threat to the European population of honeybees, writes the Beeb.

Though it is noted that the treatment is at an experimental stage it’s hoped it will be able to halt the destruction of the vital pollinating insects by the parasite which is rather sinisterly titled Varrao destructor.

According to Dr Giles Budge of the National Bee Unit in New York, the way that the crab-like parasite kills a bee is straight out of a sci-fi horror – the human equivalent of an attack by a Varroa mite would be like having “an organism on your back that’s about the size of a dinner plate, which creates a hole through which it can feed and through which its family can feed”.  Nasty stuff.

In order to combat the mite, a method known as RNA interface (RNAi) was developed which involves planting a small piece of genetic code into the parasite.  The code is then able to cancel out a specific gene and therefore switch it off.

The scientists added the genetic material to a solution which they were then able to apply to the Varroa mites while they are in the bee hive. 

The mites lie in wait for several days in the food that is provided for honeybee larvae by other bees, which means that bee-keepers can then target them all at once.

The genetic targeting means that it’s possible to target the mite while leaving the bees and other pollinating creatures like ladybirds alone, which has been a problem for bee-keepers in the past.

According to Dr Alan Bowman of the University of Aberdeen, RNAi essentially fools the immune system of the mite into attacking itself. 

While the RNAi technique is certainly viable, it could be years before the necessary testing and certification is complete.