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Honeybee parasite could be tripped up by its distinctive walk – study

Researchers have discovered that a tiny parasitic honeybee mite has a distinctive walk (PA)
Researchers have discovered that a tiny parasitic honeybee mite has a distinctive walk (PA) Researchers have discovered that a tiny parasitic honeybee mite has a distinctive walk (PA)

A tiny parasitic honeybee mite has a distinctive walk, researchers have found.

They hope that listening for the unique vibration caused by the Varroa mite’s stride pattern could help them spot if it is infesting a hive.

Scientists at Nottingham Trent University have identified the signature strut of the 1mm creature.

And they have been able to distinguish it from honeybees in a colony using hi-tech monitoring equipment.

According to the researchers, the findings pave the way for remote and non-invasive monitoring for Varroa mites – currently one of the greatest threats to the honeybee – in hives.

Currently, beekeepers across the world need to manually check their hives for mites, but this can be very time-consuming, as well as disturbing and distressing to the colonies.

Dr Harriet Hall, a researcher in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology, said: “The importance of monitoring and managing Varroa mites within honeybee colonies is crucial to ensuring we have healthy hives.

“Accurate monitoring for mite populations is critical to allow for the appropriate timing of treatment methods.

“Despite an abundance of Varroa studies, very little is known about mite gait, but we have now identified that it has a vibratory signature that is highly different to that of the other invertebrates tested in our study.

“This, along with the unusual anatomy of the Varroa, offers tantalising indications that the gait pattern may even be unique to this species.”

Wild honeybee colonies are in decline as a result of Varroa, habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change.

Managed honeybee colonies are not declining to the same extent, but Varroa is a large problem that can contribute to colony collapse.

The initial work involved testing in the honeybee brood cells – cells in the honeycomb where bee larvae develop into adults – as this is where mites spend much of their time.

The researchers used ultra-sensitive equipment capable of detecting vibrational traces from individual mites.

After analysing corresponding video footage, they were able to develop an algorithm capable of discriminating between mites and bees.

Researchers also collected different insects such as woodlice and beetles to allow for further discrimination and established that Varroa mite walking patterns are distinguishable from other invertebrates.

The mite’s movement is described as efficient and rapid – and walking speed, the stride of each leg and the way in which legs collide with the surface are all factors attributed to its unique walk.

The tiny creatures have eight legs and walk with their forelegs raised above the ground, using the three other pairs to move.

They have an unusual anatomy, significantly different to other mites in their muscular structure and body and the first joint in each leg has greater flexibility and movement than in other arachnids, researchers say.

The mites negatively impact a variety of honeybee functions and biological processes, including cognition and immune system.

Experts suggest that if colonies are not well managed for infestation, they are likely to die between six months and two years after the parasite takes hold.

Nottingham Trent University physicist Dr Martin Bencsik said: “The Varroa mite yields tiny vibrations when it walks and jolts which, to our great surprise, we found we were capable of picking up with a sensor 20,000 times heavier than the mite. Being able to further analyse, and discriminate its gait amongst other invertebrates, is the most splendid outcome of our recent research endeavours.

“We are given a perception of the mite’s life more intimate than ever before possible, and this is just the beginning.”

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.