Friday, July 27, 2001
BY ROSEMARY PARKER
It’s cheap, easy, chemical-free, and 90 percent effective – and the research scientist who invented the Spartan Mite Zapper hopes it may be the salvation of America’s multimillion-dollar commercial honeybee industry.
Honeybees across the country have been ravaged in recent years by a plague of alien mites that suck the vigor from bees; in Michigan, wild bees have almost disappeared. Untreated, entire commercial hives can be wiped out in a year or two, and there’s no easy way to control the voracious parasites.
Or at least there hasn’t been until now.
“A lot of people are kicking themselves, saying: ‘Why didn’t I do this?’ ” said Zachary Huang, an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s entomology department.
The Spartan Mite Zapper works as a sort of hi-tech electronic pesticide. It uses a special coated wire embedded in the hive and attached to a 12-volt battery. The wire heats up and the mites die.
Huang is presenting his invention and the results of its testing this weekend to a joint meeting of the beekeepers associations of Michigan and Ontario in Sarnia, Ontario.
The problem is Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that attaches itself to immature stages of the honeybee and sustains its own life by sucking the life away from the bee. Ridding bees of the mites has been difficult and expensive, Huang said. Chemical pesticides have the potential of contaminating the honeybee products, such as honey, beeswax and pollen.
Applying the pesticides is tricky business too, because the timing of the application must hit the mites when they are vulnerable. Also, in some areas mites are becoming resistant to the chemicals used to kill them. Finally, Huang said, the cost of the chemical controls shrinks the already small profit margin for beekeepers.
Nonchemical controls have had their drawbacks, too. Many European beekeepers use a labor-intensive management method that traps the most heavily infested bees and freezes the portion of the hive in which they reside. This method works well but is time-consuming and impractical for large commercial operations.
A lay person would have no trouble understanding the concept of Huang’s device – it cooks the mites – or of operating it – attach a couple of wires sticking out of the bee hive to a battery and wait five minutes. The most difficult part of understanding Huang’s device is grasping the fundamentals on which it is based, the social order of the bee and the biology of the mite.
Huang said drone, or male, bees develop within the commercial bee hive in a separate portion of the hive, in slightly larger cells. In commercial hives, beekeepers can easily isolate the drone comb.
Mites strongly prefer parasitizing the drones, 10 to 1 over the other bees in the hive. In theory – and in field trials – a beekeeper can kill more than 90 percent of the mites in a hive by killing those on the drone bees, Huang said.
“The device takes advantage of the weak point in the mite’s biological cycle,” Huang said.While it is possible to selectively kill the mites, Huang said, beekeepers may prefer to kill the infested drone pupae as well since they serve little purpose in the hive and are of no commercial importance.
It may be a year or more before Huang’s Mite Zapper is commercially available, he said, but he anticipates its cost at about $1 per colony per year, about an eighth of the cost of chemical treatment. With an estimated 2.3 million bee colonies in the nation, Huang said, the device could save millions of dollars each year.Bill Rose, president of the Kalamazoo Nature Center and a former hobbyist beekeeper himself, said Huang’s Mite Zapper sounds especially promising since it does not rely on any chemical pesticides.
“If there’s a mechanical way to do it by heat, it sounds like it has a lot of potential to really help out,” Rose said.Unfortunately, Huang’s invention doesn’t reduce mite infestations among native or wild honeybees. “Eventually the wild colonies will develop natural resistance mechanisms to survive the mite,” Huang said. “It looks like they are slowly doing that.”
ROSEMARY PARKER can be reached at 694-6709 or firstname.lastname@example.org.