Honey of an invention stings bee nemeses

Contact: Zachary Huang, (517) 353-8136, bees@msu.edu; or Sue Nichols, University Relations, (517) 353-8942, nichols@msu.edu

An MSU entomologist’s invention has left him with a sweet problem.

Way more than a bit o’ honey.

Zachary Huang, associate professor, is making advances in the fight against mites that have decimated honeybee populations across the nation, creating a cousin of the electric chair for the parasites. His success is measured in pounds – a bumper crop of nearly 3,000 pounds of pure, raw honey from Michigan State’s hives.

“I don’t see myself as only a scientist, I’m trying to think in beekeepers’ shoes,” Huang said. “I want to find what they need from pest control. It makes me a better member of society.”
Bee with a mite on it

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Huang’s Web site

He’s definitely scoring points with the bees by inventing a way to effectively combat the mites. The variety Varroa destructor, which invaded the United States in 1987, get themselves sealed into the cells with bee larvae. There the nursery stowaways suck on the larvae, weakening them, and breed.

Mites can destroy a colony within two years if left unchecked. They have developed resistance to pesticides, which also can contaminate honey.

Huang’s years of research led him to the realization that by far, a mite’s favorite bee host is the drones – bees produced from unfertilized eggs, lack stings or the ability to gather pollen. They benefit the hive if needed for mating, but otherwise are superfluous to the colony. The drone’s gestation in the cells is three days longer than worker bees, allowing the mites a bigger window to reproduce and thrive.

Mites also are acutely temperature sensitive. For years European beekeepers have removed the frames that house the cells of drone larvae, stuck them in a freezer and exterminated the mites. Killing the drones as well isn’t a problem in honey colonies.

Huang said that’s impractical for most large-scale beekeepers, since it’s too labor intensive.

He has invented the Mite Zapper, which is a patented battery-powered heating grid for the incubating cells. Beekeepers heat the cells enough to kill the mites, but not so much that it melts the wax from which the cells are made. Beekeepers don’t have to remove the frames.

The technology is licensed by a Detroit company called The Mite Zapper.

This year, MSU’s 60 hives – which house some 3 million honeybees – have produced one and a half tons of honey. Huang credits keeping the mite populations in check. An added bonus: a bumper crop of sweet clover in the MSU area.

The unpasteurized honey soon will be sold online at shop.msu.edu in one- and two-pound jars. Proceeds will go back to Huang’s research.


Author: Zachary Huang

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