Notwithstanding the characteristics of African honeybee races that pre-adapt them to varroa tolerance, the lack of breeding and artificial selection in African honeybees is certain to be a critical factor in varroa mites not becoming a major problem in South Africa as it has almost throughout the world. Varroa tolerance requires constant selection pressure to maintain the tolerance, the selection pressure provided by free-mating and unmanaged colony survival. In contrast, a very large proportion of the commercial beekeeping industry in the USA depends on the purchase of commercially-produced queens with limited genetic variability, which are often poorly mated and infected with various pests and diseases (Camazine et al 1998).
A similar situation exists in commercial beekeeping operations around the world. To compound it, beekeepers are forever introducing bees from across the globe in an effort to deal with local pests and diseases. All in all, the commercial bee population is generally not genetically diverse and not locally adapted. This is in complete contrast to the African honeybee population which is almost totally unselected, and probably as genetically diverse now as it was a thousand years ago. Bailey (1999) and Allsopp (1999) have argued that selective breeding for “quality” by and for beekeepers has decreased the resistance in honeybee populations to a wide range of pathogens. Highly intensive selection has decreased genetic variability and selected against critical “bee tolerance” factors such as swarming and defensiveness (Bailey 1999).
A more sensible approach would be to: (a) Manage naturally occurring regional strains of honeybee, rather than importing strains from elsewhere. This is particularly important in Europe and Africa where Apis mellifera is indigenous and less so where it is an exotic species. (b) Practise “primitive” beekeeping as is the case in Africa by allowing natural selection processes to determine which are the most significant characteristics for selection and not the beekeepers or bee scientists, at least to some extent. It is also best to use an un-manipulated wild population, and for this population to be as large as possible.
Other researchers (e.g. Danka et al 1997; Rinderer et al 2001) have argued that there would be no natural resistance to varroa, and that all unmanaged colonies would be eliminated with only especially bred commercial stock being able to survive. Chemical or biotechnical treatment of colonies (Van Dung et al 1997; Goodwin & Van Eaton 2001), and the breeding of selected stock to develop resistance (Rinderer et al 2001), are held as the only way to maintain colonies faced with the varroa mite. There have also been suggestions that this resistance needs to be maintained through controlled mating and/or gene based selection made possible by the Honeybee Genome project (Evans 2005), much as happens in many varieties of livestock and plant crops.
The existence of naturally occurring varroa tolerant honeybee populations around the world makes a mockery of these claims, and I would argue that this methodology, albeit seductive, would be ineffective, as has been the case with bee breeding in general. Captive breeding programmes and especially gene selection programmes can never adequately keep up with the changing environment, certainly not to the extent that a “live-and-let-die” approach can. Allowing natural selection to determine who the winners are, will always be the most sensible strategy. This may not sit well with generations of bee-masters and bee scientists, but the dominance of unmanaged bees takes some explaining away. The success of A.m.scutellata in the Americas and the failure of bee diseases in Africa, are two examples that support this approach.