PhD Candidate’s Honey Bee Research Breakthrough: What are Varroa Mites Really Feeding On?

A University of Maryland PhD candidate realised that a key assumption about Varroa Mite held for almost 50 years could be entirely wrong. And he was right.

Content warning: This discovery about Varroa Mite gets a little bit grisly.

“Take your hand and put it on your face. Now imagine your hand is a parasite, a lot like a tick. But instead of sucking out your blood, it’s liquefying one of your internal organs and sucking part of that out of your body. It you are a honey bee, you don’t have to imagine…”

This is how PhD candidate Samuel Ramsey introduces us to the Varroa Mite. It also takes us to the crux of his research – figuring out what Varroa Mite is really feeding on when they attach themselves to a honey bee.

“It’s been accepted…” continues Ramsey, “that Varroa feed on the bees’ blood. But while looking through the body of research I found that we’ve been citing a study for nearly half a century that never actually proved that…”

Now Ramsey’s research project has proven this assumption was in fact very wrong. While Varroa Mites have long been viewed as “vampires”, it seems they are more like werewolves!

It all comes down to the Varroa’s appetite for an essential organ of the honey bee – the fat body. This tissue is described by the research paper as “integral to proper immune function, pesticide detoxification, overwinter survival, and several other essential processes in healthy bees”. UMD Right Now explains further:

“In addition to breaking down toxins and storing nutrients, honey bee fat bodies produce antioxidants and help to manage the immune system. The fatty organs also play an important role in the process of metamorphosis, regulating the timing and activity of key hormones. Fat bodies also produce the wax that covers parts of bees’ exoskeletons, keeping water in and diseases out.”

No wonder that honey bee colonies suffering from Varroa are more prone to colony collapse! Varroa Mites literally eat away at honey bees’ defence systems.

You can watch Ramsey explain his research in the video below, read an in depth article from University of Maryland here, or delve into the full scientific study here.

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