What would the world look like without honeybees? In theory, if there were no honeybees, it could drastically change our lives. Bjorn Lagerman, though, never wants to know the actual answer to that question. but the honeybees current worst foe, Varroa Destructor, is killing off honeybee hives at intense rates. Bjorn’s in the middle of a machine learning project to save the bees from the vampirish Varroa.

Below is a partial transcript. For the full interview, listen to the podcast episode by selecting the Play button above or by selecting this link or you can also listen to the podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and Overcast.

Bjorn Lagerman: My name is Bjorn Lagerman. I live in the middle of Sweden. When I look back in my younger days, I remember, I sat in school, looked outside the window and decided I wanted to be outside. You know, I was raised in a stone desert in the middle of Stockholm in the old town; that’s a medieval town. And inside the blocks, there were sort of an oasis of water and fountains and green in this stone desert, but the streets were very old streets. And then the contrast was that in the summertime, I spent that in the countryside, and that was total freedom—you kow, lakes, rivers, forests, and my parents let us do what we wished during all the days, just come home for dinner. So when I was 22, I thought bees might be a reason to spend more time in nature. So I went to the nearest beekeeper, . . . and he sold me my first colony, and from there on, I was really hooked.”

Ginette: “I’m Ginette.”

Curtis: “And I’m Curtis.”

Ginette: “And you are listening to Data Crunch.”

Curtis: “A podcast about how data and prediction shape our world.”

Ginette: “A Vault Analytics production.”

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Ginette: “Imagine for a minute what the world would look like without bees. The image is potentially pretty bleak: we’d have much less guacamole, fruit smoothies, chocolate everything, various vegetables, pumpkin pie, peach cobbler, almond butter, cashews, watermelons, coconuts, lemon, limes, and many more food products. Let’s not forget the obvious—we wouldn’t have honey, which man can’t replicate well.

“But fruits, vegetables, and chocolate aren’t the only food stuffs that would be affected. Bees support other animal life. They pollinate alfalfa, which helps feed dairy cows and boost their milk production, and on a more limited basis, alfalfa helps feed beef cows, sheep, and goats. Statistics vary, but bee pollination affects somewhere between one to two thirds of food on American’s plates. Beyond food, bees help grow cotton, so without bees, we’d have to rely more on synthetics for our cloth.

“Honeybees in particular are incredibly hard workers. They pollinate 85 percent of all flowering plants. They collect from just one flower specie at a time, and in turn, the pollen they carry fertilizes the flower’s egg cells. One industrious honeybee worker can pollinate up to 5,000 flowers a day. One honeybee hive worth of workers can visit up to 500 million flowers a year.

“With a reduced bee population, it gets harder to produce food. Let’s take an example. California grows 85 percent of the world’s almonds, and it takes at least 1.7 million hives to pollinate them, and since there aren’t a ton of bees in California, most of these hives need to be commercially trucked in. When you compare the 1.7 million+ hives needed to pollinate almonds to the fact that there are around 2.8 million managed honeybee colonies in the United States, it’s stunning. That’s about 60 percent of managed bee hives in the United States that need to be trucked into California every year during the almond pollination season. If there were a shortage of bees in the United States, there would be worldwide almond scarcity. Product scarcity would likely drive up food prices on foods bees pollinate.

“Imagine if humans had to fill the pollination gap left by honeybees, and this human labor, or expensive machinery, will likely drives up the costs for food. Whether you agree with the people who think a bee fallout would kill the planet, if we were to lose our honeybees, we’d at very least have a much less varied diet.”

Curtis: “This is a potential future problem that some people have been working really hard to avoid because more recently, there’s been a scare that bees are disappearing. Some for unknown causes, and some for known causes. What we know is that honeybees face fierce foes. You may have seen the National Geographic’s video that showed that 30 Japanese hornets can slaughter 30,000 honeybees from one hive in a matter of three hours. Today, however, we’re focusing on a different kind of honeybee foe. One that is infinitely more destructive and much more subtle. It currently the worst threat to honey bees, more than any other enemy. It’s basically the honeybees’ vampire—the Varroa destructor mite. These mites suck the life out of their victims and pass them viruses that might leave them with deformed wings so they can’t fly.”

Bjorn: “The beekeeper notices nothing for two years, and then suddenly the population of Varroa explodes; it’s like a logorithmic exponential, and so from just a few tens or hundreds, there are suddenly thousands of them. In the end, they kill the hive, and about 25 or 30 percent of the bee colonies in a country just disappears the first coming years, before the beekeeper learns how to handle it.”

Ginette: “Bjorn’s neighbor had 800 colonies, and he lost 500 of them to these Varroa mites during the summer, and over the winter, he lost another 250  to the mites.

“For beekeepers, like Bjorn and his neighbor, who deal with colonies that have lots of these mites, they find their bees are visibly agitated.”

Bjorn: “If there are more than one Varroa per 100 bees, phoretic bees, you can see how the bees are really stressed; they are waggling, they rush around, they are very disturbed.”

Ginette: “Phoretic bees are adult bees.”

Bjorn: “The mite is not very big, but compared to the bee it is. It’s about 1.5 millimeter big. It’s like a small crab. It’s a mite. It has eight legs, not six. And it’s just like if we had big brown crabs crawling around our bodies sucking our blood, you know. And they try to hide wherever there is a small crack that can shield them between segments, and the bee tries to groom one another, but the mite, it has adapted to make it very hard for the bees to grab.”

Curtis: “If you put yourself in the bees’ situations, it’s easy to see how they’re agitated. They can have more than one Varroa on them at a time, and this is like having something or a few some things the size of a guinea pig to a small cat sucking your blood. And while you could easily throw off cat or guinea pig, the bee has a really hard time getting the mites. They get them from bees new to the area.”

Bjorn:People transport them to new places, and from there it spreads three kilometers per year naturally, and since it’s not recognized, the first years in the area, then game over. The mite is everywhere, and you can never get rid of it. With the best chemicals there is, I mean, the most effective, you can kill 99.9 percent, but if there is one mite left in the colony or in the area, it will in three years be thousands of them again. So, we will never win that fight.”

Ginette: “Bjorn’s bees experienced infestations while he was a high school science teacher. And his students helped him identify how bad the infestation was.”

Bjorn: “I had collected debris from the bottom of the beehives, and I had my students examining this debris, and I told them, if you can find a mite here, you will get one crown per mite. I had to lower that really fast because I would have been ruined; there were hundreds of them, you know. And I was really shocked that there were because I hadn’t seen them, and that’s the really hard thing with Varroa—that you don’t discover it until too late.”

Curtis: “So if one solo mite is in a honey bee colony in an area, how do they spread to neighborhood colonies? It turns out that beehives aren’t exclusive clubs. If you’re a friendly bee, as most bees are, you’re instantly welcomed into a neighboring hive’s party.”

Bjorn: “The mite jumps onto a bee, and when the bee goes out, it returns and enters the wrong hive. It could be a small gust of wind that put them one meter aside, and then they are heavy and tired, so they land on the wrong spot, and then they are allowed to get in if they pollen and honey with them.

“And also, drones are easily let in in any hive, and they can fly around the countryside and join hives several kilometers away. Some bees that wait in the evening if it comes rain, they wait under a leaf and wait for the rain to stop. Maybe they stay there for the night, and maybe in the morning when they gets warm again, they find a hive nearby. They can find it by the scent.”

Ginette: “Once the Varroa destroyer hitches a ride into a new colony, it hops off the bee and enters a baby bee cell, which is generally opened until it’s capped. Once the adult bees close the baby bee’s cell over with wax, the Varroa mite immediately starts feeding off the baby bee, and it starts producing babies of its own.

And then once the baby bee is done growing and comes out of its cell, these baby Varroa mites along with the mother mite come out and either attach to other adult bees or go into other baby bee cells to make more Varroa mites.”

Curtis: “As honey bees have been shipped around the world, this once contained mite has been introduced to other honeybees. In 1963, imported honeybees introduced the mite to Hong Kong and Singapore. Next, they popped up in Europe and South America in the 70s, North America in the 80s, and they’ve been spreading like wildfire. As far as we currently know, Australia is the only continent that doesn’t have this particularly dangerous strain of Varroa yet.”

Ginette: “So now you know the problem, but what can beekeepers do about it? They can use chemicals to treat highly infested hives, but the downside of this approach is if even one mite survives, in three years, the infestation will be back again, and maybe the mites will start to become resistant to the chemicals. In the long run, this approach won’t do anything.”

“But Bjorn has a plan.”

. . . Above is a partial transcript. For the full interview, listen to the podcast episode by selecting the Play button above or by selecting this link or you can also listen to the podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and Overcast . . .

Music and Sound Sources:

Little Tomcat” Josh Woodward; License: Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0);

Bees” Benboncan; License: Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0);

Some Sources: