Evolution of Varroa tolerance in feral honey bees

Varroa destructor on a honey bee pupa. Photo by Gilles San Martin CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED https://flic.kr/p/8G93FU Varroa destructor on a honey bee pupa

Most Australian honey bees will die in the coming years due to the establishment of Varroa mites, which spread deadly viruses. This will distrupt Australia's economy, and alter ecosystem-level pollination. However, some feral bee populations (those living in the bush away from humans) will survive and evolve resistance. We aim to find them, and understand how they resist Varroa. Being the last continent colonised, we have a unique opportunity to collect before and after Varroa data and see natural selection in progress.

Achieving commercial-scale resistance to Varroa elusive because resistance mechanisms are poorly understood. While feral bees may rapidly evolve resistance to Varroa, how this happens is unclear, largely because no pre-invasion genetic data exist. We will sample pre-Varroa bees throughout Australia, and monitor the populations for the evolution of resistance, with a goal to identify responsible genes. These mechanistic insights can be used to improve commercial strains.

This project combines pure science -- how do animals evolve resistance to pathogens? -- with important implications for Australia's food security. If we are able to breed resistant bees, this work could even have global implications, since there are no fully resistant commercial bee strains

For Australian and New Zealand students (citizens or permanent residents) this project is funded by the CSIRO iPhD program, which involves a collaboration with a CSIRO lab, industry placement, and a four-year stipend of $46,000 per year.