“A remarkably small number of plants feed mankind. On a global basis, five crop species—rice, wheat, corn, sorghum and barley—account for some 60 percent of the human caloric intake, with 25 percent coming from rice alone. It is thus a matter of concern that our major crops have increasingly become genetically vulnerable to attacks by pests and diseases.
“Crop epidemics are as old as history. The most recent record, for example, includes the ravages of the potato blight in Ireland during the 1840’s, the coffee rust of Ceylon in the 1870’s and, in this country the wheat stem rust of 1954 and the southern corn blight of 1970. In modern times the risk of epidemics has increased greatly as agriculture—responding to demands of consumers and the market place—creates vast monocultures wherein billions of plants of a single crop species sweep across thousands of acres, the plants all genetically similar. The narrowness of his genetic base helps make possible today’s high crop yields. Should a genetically uniform variety become susceptible, however, a bounteous banquet nay ensue for pest or pathogen. Man would lament yet could survive the loss of a cultivated crop such as coffee. The loss of rice, wheat, or corn, many observers note, would be as devastating to civilization as atomic warfare.
“Plant scientists, faced with these genetic threats to crops, already bear an awesome responsibility in helping feed the world’s burgeoning population. Of the steps they can take to safeguard our crop heritage, three loom particularly important. First, to obtain germ plasm for genetic diversity, plant scientists must vigorously collect or conserve till existing plant life—including the world progenitors of our cultivated crops—before they are gone forever. Second, these plants must be maintained, either in world collections such as those of ARS, or in isolated preserves set aside and protected against genetic dilution by cultivated varieties. Third, they must breed and release varieties that incorporate a diversity of genes, enabling them to better withstand epidemics.
“Plant scientists are in for trying times. Even with valiant exertions in fostering the genetic diversity of crops, the prospect for some years is for an uncomfortably close race between the stork and the plow. But with the know-how of agricultural science and public interest and support, neither crop plant nor man need become an endangered species.”
Everything said in the above message can be translated into beekeeping, in every respect. It is this message I have been trying to get across to beekeepers in my 40 years of effort to establish a diversity of genes in bees to establish and maintain vigor, health and resistance to disease. Beekeeping is now in this dilemma of a very narrow genetic base and lack of genetic diversity. Through years of inbreeding and the consequent loss of many old genetic lines, queen breeders now find themselves without new blood lines to restore vigor and resistancy that were found in strains of bees years ago.
The races of bees that we had 50 years ago were completely different from these same races in the U. S. today. All races of bees in the U. S., Italians, Carniolans, Caucasians, are really no longer like the stock that came over here originally. No new blood has been added to the genetic pool for almost 50 years from the country of origin of these different races. Practically all of them through constant inbreeding and genetic degeneration have become susceptible to one or more diseases. Many strains of bees today cannot survive except under constant medication of drugs for Nosema, EFB, AFB, paralysis, etc. This is a dangerous situation. Drug therapy can never be a substitute for resistance to disease.
We now have a station in the U. S. that is supposed to be a bank for preserving genetic strains of bees for future use. Unfortunately, so far as I have been able to observe, most of the strains being preserved are various degenerate freaks. What we need is a storehouse of vigorous, hardy bees with completely new blood lines to create that genetic diversity to select and crossbreed new vigor and resistance into the bees which are now lost. To my knowledge, such genetic stock cannot be found in the U. S. at the present time.
In the article it mentions that to accomplish this we will need the know-how of agricultural science and public interest and support. Here is the stumbling block to the whole problem. This problem of genetic diversity with bees in the U. S. has neither the support of our beekeeping scientists nor of the beekeepers themselves. Both seem content to solve the disease problem with “magic drugs”, an easier solution to the problem than the complexities of restoring the natural resistance bees have maintained on their own over their millions of years of existence. After 40 years of effort I have not succeeded in getting any cooperation from large queen breeders to help produce and perpetuate this diversity of genes for resistance and to make it available to the many beekeepers who may be interested. Perhaps we will have to wait until an epidemic of disease resistance or immunity to drugs threatens to wipe out beekeeping.
EFB resistance to drug therapy is already becoming a serious problem in parts of the U. S., Mexico and Argentina. Recently, news of bees dying off in Virginia has been carried by the press. Its cause and cure appear, according to reports, to be a mystery. There is nothing mysterious about it; it is a sudden manifestation of genetic degeneration in certain strains of bees now used quite extensively. The cure is simple; it only needs requeening with resistant queens. In one operation of requeening, the problem can be completely solved, as was my experience in Mexico some years ago. It is a form of paralysis and in Mexico was called “Rock & Roll Disease”. In the U. S. it even sometimes was called “Farrar’s Disease” because of the high susceptibility of this strain of bees to this problem.
The big problem is to find resistant stock with which to requeen. As long as there is no interest in looking for it, it will never be found. Every beekeeper should read the above article from Agricultural Research; it may mean the survival of our beekeeping business for the future.