USDA establishes Honeybee Genetics and IPM Center

January 11, 2002

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Cornell University will be the home for a new Honeybee Genetics and Integrated Pest Management Center that will study the continuing threat from deadly parasitic mites and Africanized honeybees. The center is funded by a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems.

The grant will establish the largest university-based, honeybee research and extension infrastructure in the country.

The new center will focus on developing solutions to the two major threats to honeybees, insects that are responsible for agricultural pollination valued in the billions of dollars.

The director is Nicholas W. Calderone, Cornell assistant professor of entomology, assisted by project scientists Walter S. Sheppard of Washington State University in Pullman and Jeff Pettis of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Bee Research Laboratory, Beltsville, Md. Other supporters of the program include the USDA Sustainable Research and Agricultural Education program, the USDA Northeast Integrated Pest Management program, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, and the Organic Farming and Research Foundation.

Most of the pollination for more than 90 commercial crops grown throughout the United States is provided byApis mellifera , the honeybee. The value from the pollination to agricultural output in the country is estimated at $14.6 billion annually. Growers rent about 1.5 million colonies each year to pollinate crops.

The introduction of the parasitic bee mite Varroa destructor in 1987 and the invasion of the Africanized honeybee in 1990 have threatened honeybee colonies. "Parasitic mites are currently managed with pesticides, but as with other agricultural pests, the mite population has developed resistance to these pesticides and beekeepers will soon be without effective treatments," says Calderone. He notes that the extremely defensive Africanized honeybee could be even more devastating. This honeybee is well established in the southwestern United States and is spreading northward into the Central Valley area of California and into the southeastern United States, says Calderone. These are the principal queen and package-bee producing areas that supply beekeepers with new stock to replace losses due to parasitic mites. "The establishment of the Africanized honeybee in these areas will result in restrictions on the shipment of bees from these areas. This, in turn, will sever! ely limit the ability of beekeepers to restock their operations," he says.

Migratory pollination, which provides the majority of pollination services, might be particularly hard hit because migratory bee operators typically spend the winter in the South and travel throughout the United States to pollinate crops during the spring and summer.

The establishment of the Africanized honeybee in the southern states will result in restrictions on the movement of migratory operations throughout the country, Calderone says.

In its evaluation of methods for controlling parasitic mites, the new center will emphasize the development of mite-resistant stocks of honeybees. The breeding program will be the first to use honeybees to integrate traditional animal-breeding methods with modern molecular technologies.

Calderone says there will be an emphasis on identification and the use of molecular markers for mite resistance and other desirable traits. "Marker-facilitated selection offers the first real opportunity to transform beekeeping from an industry that has become dependent on a growing number of expensive pesticides and antibiotics into one that is free of chemical inputs and that is economically viable in today's competitive global marketplace," says Calderone.

Because the breeding populations will be maintained using closed-mating technology, they will be kept free of Africanized honeybee genes, thereby providing an unadulterated source for commercial queen and package producers.

The grant also provides funds to develop a regional extension program in apiculture and to coordinate extension activities with institutions in other regions. The Cornell University Master Beekeeper Program, which Calderone established in 1998, will serve as the centerpiece for the expanded extension program.

Cornell University

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