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A new honeybee emerges from a brood cell. In her six-week life span, this worker bee will forage for food, make honey—and raise the next generation

Quest for a Superbee

Can the world’s most important pollinators be saved? How scientists and breeders are trying to create a hardier honeybee.

This story appears in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Brother Adam must have known he had become a beekeeper at an unlucky time. It was 1915, and he was a 16-year-old novice at Buckfast Abbey in southwest England. Rapid bee die-offs have been recorded for centuries, but the catastrophe that confronted the young monk was unprecedented. A mysterious disease had wiped out almost every apiary on the Isle of Wight and now was devastating the rest of England. Brother Adam found his hives suddenly vacant, bees crawling beneath them, unable to fly. That year he lost 29 of the abbey’s 45 hives.

Scientists eventually linked the disease to a previously unknown virus. But the research came too late to save Britain’s native dark brown honeybee. Almost all the surviving hives were hybrids, the progeny of local drones that mated with foreign-bred queens. The apparently superior vigor of these blends made Brother Adam think about breeding a disease-resistant bee.

In 1950, after years of preparation, he finally got his chance. Commandeering an old abbey car, he traveled over the next 37 years through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, collecting more than 1,500 queens: the hardworking bees of northern Turkey, the hyper-diverse bees of Crete, the isolated bees of Sahara oases, the deep black bees of Morocco, the tiny orange bees of the Nile, the supposedly placid bees of Mount Kilimanjaro. He took his exotic menagerie to a remote station in the moors, miles from other bees with their unwanted genes. Performing countless breeding tests in pristine solitude, he created the Buckfast bee—a superbee, as it was quickly dubbed. Tan-colored and robust, it was reluctant to sting, zealously productive, and resistant to what had come to be called Isle of Wight disease. By the 1980s Buckfast bees were sold across the world. Bee breeders are rare. Brother Adam had become something even rarer: an apiculture celebrity.

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A syringe places a minute droplet of phenothrin on a honeybee—sedated in a paper cup—to test the effects of the potent insecticide in this experiment by Louisiana State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because honeybees return to hives at dusk, they seldom come in contact with such chemicals, which are usually sprayed at night. But researchers have discovered that even tiny doses can have negative consequences for honeybees.

But honeybees were again under assault. An Asian mite with the evocative name of Varroa destructor had invaded Europe and America. “Only a fully resistant, genetically endowed race or strain,” Brother Adam proclaimed in 1991, will be “the ultimate answer to this menace.” But before he could begin work, Buckfast’s abbot, convinced that Brother Adam’s growing fame conflicted with his vocation, removed him from his post. He died, heartbroken, in 1996. “Nobody really took his place at the abbey,” says Clare Densley, who two years ago restarted Buckfast’s storied beekeeping operation.

All the while, conditions worsened in Beelandia. In 2007 reports of “colony collapse disorder”—swift, terrible deaths of entire colonies—suddenly mushroomed across Europe and the Americas. News reports called it a “threat to global agriculture” and an “unprecedented catastrophe for the planet.” The headlines were justified: Insect pollination, mostly from honeybees, is critical to one-third of the world’s food supply.

Honeybee Metamorphosis

From tiny hatching eggs to quivering pupae to hair-sprouting adults, worker honeybees develop at lightning speed thanks to a time-lapse video of 2,500 images.

Bee researchers, many inspired by Brother Adam, rushed to understand colony collapse. Most have concluded it is not a single problem, as first thought, but a lethal amalgamation of pests, pathogens, habitat loss, and toxic chemicals; varroa mites are a critical component. Most large-scale beekeepers now use pesticides to kill the mites—a stopgap solution, at best. To avoid chemicals, some bee researchers are returning to Brother Adam’s approach: Superbee Version 2.0. Only this time, they are using the tools of big science, including genetic modification. Others tout the opposite approach, one even more natural than Brother Adam’s. No chemicals, no manipulation—let the bees evolve on their own!

“Unfortunately, none of these approaches has yet produced a sufficiently mite-resistant and productive bee. And by ‘sufficiently’ I mean a bee that’s a game changer,” Keith Delaplane, director of the University of Georgia’s honeybee program, told me. Meanwhile, he says the pressures on the bee are enormous. “I stand in front of beekeepers and say, ‘You all tell me the success stories.’ I do not see any hands going up.”

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In 2007 headlines shouted about “colony collapse disorder,” a frightening new phenomenon that was wiping out hives around the world. Most researchers now believe that it is actually a deadly mix of pests, pathogens, pesticides, and habitat loss. The single worst element is Varroa destructor, a pinhead-size Asian mite, shown here atop a bee pupa.

Honeybees are superorganisms. Honeybees are hive minds. Honeybees are linguistic networks: One of the few nonhuman animals to communicate symbolically, they dance to explain the location of food to their fellows. Bee people use such metaphors but admit they don’t quite capture these complex, fascinating creatures and their ultra-organized communities. With a population of up to 80,000, a beehive is like a small human city.

Bumbling and buzzing, these industrious animals—Apis mellifera, as scientists call them—search flowers for tiny drops of a sugary secretion called nectar. Bees slurp the nectar into their “honey stomachs,” which break down the sugars. Inside the hive they regurgitate the goop and fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. The sweet, gluey result—honey—is stored for winter food or stolen by humans. A pound of clover honey, ecologist Bernd Heinrich has estimated, “represents the food rewards from approximately 8.7 million flowers.”

When you watch bees single-mindedly labor to make honey, it’s hard to believe that their greatest role in nature is something they are entirely unaware of: distributing pollen. Pollen is, in effect, the male part of a plant; it transfers DNA to the female part of the flower, an essential step in reproduction. Plants can disperse pollen by wind or animals, usually insects. As Apis mellifera hunts for nectar in flowers, pollen grains stick to its hairy body. When it visits more flowers, some of the pollen drops off, fertilizing the plant. Plants that rely on wind emit vast clouds of pollen, hoping a few grains will drift into other flowers. From an evolutionary point of view, harnessing insects is so much more efficient that insect-pollinated plants typically make one-thousandth as much pollen as their wind-dependent cousins.

Not until I visit Adam Novitt do I understand how all this works. Novitt, a beekeeper in Northampton, Massachusetts, keeps hives in his small urban backyard. His is an artisanal, locavore operation—“I’m at constant risk of sounding like an extra in Portlandia,” he says, referring to the hipster-skewering television series. Each jar of his Northampton Honey is labeled with the zip code where his bees labored. Novitt endured a two-year wait to obtain his much-in-demand Buckfast queens. Demonstrating their gentleness, he removes the tops from his hives without gloves or veil. A barnyardy smell—wax and honey and wood—rises into the air. On the combs the bees tumble over each other like children at a day care center.

Some of Novitt’s bees are stippled with reddish, pinhead-size dots: Varroa destructor. The mites latch on like ticks or leeches, draining bloodlike hemolymph from their hosts and enfeebling their immune systems. The hive environment—steamy and warm, bees in constant contact—is as perfect for bee pathogens as a day care center is for human pathogens. “The mite opens up the road; the bacteria or fungus or virus does the rest,” Novitt says. He snaps his fingers. “Pfft!—colony collapse.” Before varroa, he tells me, beekeeping was mostly a matter of bee-having—“they needed minimal attention, most of the time.” Since the mite arrived, “you really have to keep them.” Beekeeping, he says, should actually be called “mite management.”

Most farmers facing insect issues turn to chemicals, such as the pesticides sprayed on apple trees to control maggots. Even though mites and bees are more closely related than apples and maggots, chemical firms have discovered a dozen or more effective miticides. The chemicals are widely used, but not a single bee researcher, commercial beekeeper, or bee hobbyist I spoke with was happy about putting toxins into hives. In addition, scientists report, many varroa are already resistant to commercial miticides.

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A bee extends its proboscis to drink sugar water from a cotton applicator at a Pennsylvania State University lab. To measure the effects of agricultural chemicals, researchers are comparing the rate at which two groups of bees—one group that has been exposed to farm sprays and one that has not—learn that puffs of scented air will be followed by rewards. Increasingly, scientists believe that many compounds thought to be safe for bees subtly harm them.

A different, potentially nontoxic treatment is envisioned by Beeologics, an arm of the agribusiness giant Monsanto, which uses RNAi (the last letter stands for “interference”). RNA molecules in cells carry the information from genes—that is, particular segments of DNA molecules—to the cellular machinery that makes proteins, the chemical building blocks of life. Each protein has a unique makeup, as do its associated RNA and gene. In RNA interference, cells are targeted with a substance designed to attack a specific variant of RNA. Crippling that RNA snaps the link between a gene and its protein. In the Beeologics version, bees would be fed sugar water containing RNAi, which disables mite RNA. In theory the doctored sugar water should not affect the bee. But when mites drink the bees’ hemolymph, the mites will also take in RNAi—and it should affect them. It’s as if you could kill vampires by eating pizza with garlic sauce.

Jerry Hayes of Monsanto Honey Bee Health hopes to have something on the market within five to seven years. The biggest challenge, he says, is creating a stable product—something beekeepers “can ride around with in a truck in Montana when it’s a hundred degrees out.”

Problem is, Marla Spivak says, RNAi is still a single-purpose tool. Spivak, of the University of Minnesota, is the only bee researcher ever to receive a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. “If you target one specific area,” she argues, “the organism will always make an end run around it.” Staving off the beepocalypse, in her view, ultimately requires a “healthier, stronger” honeybee, one that can fight mites and disease on its own, without human assistance.

In parallel efforts, two groups of researchers—Spivak and her collaborators, and John Harbo and his colleagues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—sought to breed mite-resistant bees. Although their approaches were different, they took aim at the same target: “hygienic” bees.

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A honeybee larva is raised in an experiment at a Penn State University lab to see if a particular agricultural spray additive affects its development and survival. Preliminary studies showed that the additive, thought harmless, kills the larvae.

All Apis mellifera larvae grow in special cells in the comb, which adult bees fill with food and cap with wax. Mites enter the cells just before they are sealed and lay their eggs. When they hatch, the young mites feed on the helpless, immobile bee pupae. When the fully grown bee emerges into the hive, mites dot its back or belly. Unlike most honeybees, hygienic bees can detect mites inside sealed cells, probably by smell, then open the caps and remove infested bee pupae, interrupting the mite’s reproductive cycle.

Spivak and Harbo both succeeded in breeding versions of hygienic bees by the late 1990s. A few years after that, scientists realized that hygienic bees are less effective as the mites grow more numerous. How to overcome that remains uncertain, in part because the genetic basis of hygienic behavior is not yet understood. Similar problems beset another breeding target: grooming. By running their middle legs over their bodies, honeybees tidy themselves and each other. If bees groom before mites attach themselves, they can dislodge the pests. An obvious goal is a hygienic bee that grooms intensively. But breeders fear they will produce bees that primp constantly, like vain adolescents. And always there is the worry that breeding for one trait will compromise others—that hygienic bees, for instance, will be aggressive or make little honey.

Ultimately, solving these quandaries will require molecular biology, argues Martin Beye, a geneticist at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany. To a geneticist, blindly breeding two bees that have a desired trait is like banging together two handfuls of marbles and scooping up the result. It’s much more effective to identify specific genes responsible for the desired traits and insert them. A consortium of more than a hundred researchers decoded the honeybee genome in 2006. Beye was part of the group. The next step, in his view, would be to identify genes that influence certain behaviors—and, if needed, modify them.

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Encircled by nurse bees, a queen in an experimental mite-resistant colony extends her tongue to be fed. The queen, bred by USDA researchers, is "hygienic"—she produces workers that instinctively detect and kill mite-infested pupae. Scientists are now developing hygienic bees that also have traits valued by beekeepers: docility, hardiness, and prolific honey production.

Although scientists had produced transgenic insects since the early 1980s, all attempts to insert genes into Apis mellifera had failed. Beye assigned the task of discovering a method to a young researcher, Christina Vleurinck. Science is like moviemaking: The result can be exciting, but the process is excruciating. Vleurinck had to extract eggs from a colony, inject genetic material (in this case a gene that makes certain tissues glow under fluorescent light), and reinsert the eggs into the hive. Time after time the new genes didn’t take. Poking needles into the eggs often resulted in damaged embryos. Worker bees swiftly killed them. It was like having thousands of tiny critics, each with the ability to close the show. With Beye and two other collaborators, Vleurinck gradually developed a successful technique. Still, it will take years of work before the method can be used to develop a better bee. And releasing genetically modified bees is bound to be controversial. “This is new ground,” Beye says. “People will want to be careful.”

Vleurinck’s bees are kept in a tent, sealed off from the outside world, as required by German laws about transgenic organisms. During my visit a staffer takes me into the tent, extracts a comb from a Styrofoam bee box, and lets me inspect it. It is covered with genetically modified bees. To my untrained eye, they look exactly like ordinary bees, except unhappier. When not allowed to fly freely, bees get grouchy. In the course of her research, Vleurinck was stung so many times she became allergic to bee venom. “I’m not allowed inside with them,” she says.

All of this makes Phil Chandler, the author of The Barefoot Beekeeper, roll his eyes. A preacher in the Church of Everything You Know Is Wrong, he argues that too many scientists, even if well-meaning, are effectively part of the problem. “We cannot solve our difficulties by using the type of thinking that created them,” Chandler says. He’s referring to the “persistent delusion” that humans can control nature. Better bees can be built, he believes, but only by bees themselves. The biggest enemy of honeybees, he contends, is not mites or viruses but industrial agriculture. Many scientists ruefully agree. The disagreement comes over what to do about it.

A century ago many crops were still pollinated by feral bees. Then family farms turned into agribusiness operations. Bees need to forage for food much of the year, but fields devoted to single crops typically have flowers for just a few weeks, while weeds that could tide bees over are killed by herbicides. So few bees now exist that farmers must rent hives from huge commercial outfits that transport them from crop to crop in 18-wheelers. The peak or nadir occurs every February and March, when about 1.6 million hives from all over converge on California’s Central Valley to pollinate almonds. In a few frenzied weeks, the hordes help produce about 80 percent of the world’s almond supply.

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On a secluded California ranch, Bret Adee opens one of his 72,000 hives. South Dakota-based Adee Honey Farms, the nation's biggest commercial beekeeper, trucks bees all over the West to pollinate fruit trees—a practice both critical to agriculture and stressful for bees. Since 2011, Adee has worked with the USDA to test the hardiness and honey production of its mite-resistant bees in the field.

I meet Chandler near Buckfast Abbey, at a gathering of beekeepers. Many around him agree with his diagnosis. Still, they look vexed when he says that the best thing to do for varroa would be … nothing. Keep bees healthy and well fed, but let evolution work. For ten years or more, beekeepers might lose most of their bees, he concedes. But natural selection would eventually lead to some kind of resistant bee. “We have to think of these issues in terms of what is best for bees,” he says. “Not what is best for us.”

Chandler is not optimistic about the future for Apis mellifera; Densley, the Buckfast Abbey beekeeper, is worried, but more hopeful. To cheer them up, I tell them about Harvard University’s RoboBee project: an effort to create tiny, pollinating drones. In principle, the technology is feasible. Autonomous robots identify flowers by color, hover above them, and insert soft probes that pick up pollen. It might take the pressure off real bees, I suggest.

Chandler doesn’t look reassured. Densley too seems less than enthusiastic. “I’m not ready for a world of mechanical bees,” she says. “I think I like the ones we have.” She, like other bee people, is waiting for something to happen.