The plight of the honey bee is a well-sung sorrow that orchestrates debate in scientific, agricultural and pop culture discussions. Since the introduction of the European honeybee to North America in the 1600s as a pollination aid for agriculture, the honeybee has buzzed along, naturalizing itself onto every continent — besides Antarctica, of course.
The expansive introduction of the honeybee elevates this creature as an important member of many ecological environments, and has created a dependency for plant pollination needs, playing an important role in agriculture and food production. The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture notes that over 100 important crops are pollinated by honeybees, and increases crop yield by $15 billion each year in the United States.
The decline of honeybee populations is traced to a web of integrated issues; monocropping and lack of food viable food sources, stress from relocation, as well as a variety of diseases and mites. From 2015 to 2016, beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies to these factors. One aptly named terror of the apiary world is the Varroa destructor mite, a well-known culprit of colony collapse disorder.This parasitic mite infests colonies and attacks honeybees in all life stages, sucking fat and injecting various diseases into the host bee.
One solution to Varroa mites has been found in the Cannabaceae family, the cousin to cannabis and a brewers best friend for the last 1,200 years, the hop plant. Hops produce both alpha and beta acids. Alpha acids are highly sought after for the flavor profiles they create in the brewing process; beta acids, however, hold a potential for honeybees that was discovered in a study in 2012.
Hop beta acids (HBA) are naturally occurring organic acids produced to repel plant-sucking pests. This biological miticide is readily available through hop production and harvest. Beta acids lend natural protective powers against Varroa mites when applied at proper dilution to cardboard strips hung in hives. As the bees brush up against the cardboard strips, HBA is introduced to their bodies and spread through the colony by contact, creating a repelling shield and fatal consequences for Varroa destructor. HBA have no detrimental effect to humans or honeybees, and through a few rounds of treatment, the mite colony may collapse, or at least be defeated to a population level honeybees can overcome.
This successful study led to a new way of dealing with Varroa mites, which was accepted by the EPA in 2015 and can be found on the EPA’s registered list of approved products to combat Varroa destructor mites. Though HBA is not a complete cure-all, the natural process of lending resiliency from plant to insect holds great potential for future scientific endeavors that seek to work within natural processes and preserve species in dire straits. In this instance, the Cannabaceae family strikes again, creating a new hope for honeybees, as well as solutions for our natural world.