How genetics could bolster honey bee defencesBiosecurity
A new study is looking into the possibility of breeding honey bees to be disease resistant and more heat tolerant in the face of climate change.
- A new project will explore the potential of using emerging technologies to introduce beneficial traits to honey bees.
- It will provide recommendations to the Australian horticulture sector on what options are technically feasible, desirable to growers, environmentally sound, supported by existing regulatory frameworks and publicly acceptable.
- Researchers are interested in the possibility of breeding honey bees to be resistant to insecticides, diseases and be more heat tolerant in the face of climate change.
The detection of the deadly Varroa mite in honey bees in New South Wales last year has been the catalyst for a new project aimed at bolstering the defences of Australia’s precious pollinators.
Apples are dependent on pollinators such as honey bees and native bees for production, while one third of Australian food that ends up on our plate is dependent on honey bee pollination. 
Macquarie University synthetic biologist and research group leader, Dr Maciej Maselko, said in the wake of the Varroa mite detection, conversations with colleagues about how to help strengthen pollination security led to a new research project now underway.
The Hort Frontiers Pollination Fund project, Opportunities for insecticide resistant honey bees for pollination security (PH22000), will explore the potential of using emerging technologies to introduce beneficial traits to honey bees.
What does the project involve?
Maciej is leading the project which will provide recommendations to the Australian horticulture sector on what options are technically feasible, desirable to growers, environmentally sound, supported by existing regulation and publicly acceptable.
“This project is a one-year study to understand the opportunity and risk landscape and see whether or not it makes sense to proceed with breeding honey bees using emerging genetic technologies,” Maciej said. “We are in the early stages of the project, designing the surveys and identifying stakeholders we will engage with.
“We want to have meaningful discussions with industry stakeholders and the public so that they understand the scope of options and get an understanding of what, if any, breeding of honey bees using emerging genetic technologies would they find to be acceptable.
“We also want to understand how these different types of traits might impact existing agricultural practices, what modifications are likely to have a net environmental benefit, and which ones may cause harm and we should avoid.
“For example, if we breed honey bees to be pesticide resistant to support them through issues like Varroa mite, how is that likely to impact production practices? We want to understand views across our stakeholder including growers and the public.”
“But these are hypotheses we want to go out and test by having conversations with farmers who are having to make these sorts of decisions all the time.”
Maciej said while the Varroa mite issue was one of the factors that spurred the project, researchers are also interested in the possibility of breeding honey bees to be resistant to other types of diseases and be more heat tolerant in the face of climate change.
Using tools to accelerate breeding gains is another significant potential benefit.
“For example, if you have a strain of honey bee that has several particular traits that you like, and another strain that has other traits that you would like to introduce, normally, you would have to crossbreed and backcross over multiple generations, which can be very time consuming,” Maciej said.
“But if we understand the nature of these traits and their genetic basis, then potentially we can introduce a few genetic changes that you want to a strain in one step to produce strains with a combination of desirable traits in much shorter timeframes.
“We need to know what those actual markers are, and some of that will be improved through a more thorough understanding of the basic biology of these bees.”
The project will see researchers conduct a global review of current research into insecticide resistant honey bees and stingless bees, focusing on emerging genetic technologies like gene-editing. Maciej said he knows of two research groups in Germany and Japan who have successfully bred honey bees using gene-editing.
With tools already existing for emerging genetic technologies like gene-editing in European honey bees, Maciej said they would likely be the main focus of research to understand its feasibility and grower and public perception and views on this approach, while they would also survey the potential of other species including native bees.
The project will also see researchers consult with the horticulture and beekeeping industries to develop a prioritised list of the insecticide groups of concern that Australian work should focus on.
Updates on this project will be communicated in future editions of AFG.
This article was first published in the Winter 2023 edition of AFG.