217 - O'Shea-Wheller - Are varroa resistant bees ready for primetime with the POL line?


Andony Melathopoulos: [00:00:00] If you're a beekeeper in the Pacific Northwest, you're probably just starting to take your honey off your honey crop off. And you're digging down into your brew nest, crossing your fingers that you have low levels of AOA mites. And if you are not a beekeeper, you no doubt have heard about this.

Might pest. It is the single largest pest of honeybees in the United States, Canada, but in many other countries around the world, Now the management of this might and you have to manage this might otherwise the colonies will collapse has largely been done with a car side. Some of them natural car sights some of them synthetic but all the same.

It has been a challenge to manage these mites and the holy grail that's always been held out is the possibility of bees that are resistant. To mites. Now there's been a number of efforts towards finding resistant stocks. And one of the most promising has been associated with a trait known as Varo sensitive hygiene.

And on this [00:01:00] episode, I am really pleased to talk with Dr. Thomas Oche Weller. Now Dr. OSHA Weller is a research fellow based at the university of. In the U United Kingdom. But before that, he was at Louisiana state university working closely in collaboration with the us department culture on their pole line.

This is a line that exhibits high levels of Varo sensitive hygiene and has been combined with some commercially important traits for beekeeping. Now I had known about the pole line, but I didn't know about this research. This is remarkable research involving hundreds of colonies and tracking them over time.

And it has. Amazing details that you probably haven't heard anywhere else. It's like a first glance. And the reason this first glance is even possible is because it was recorded on the way to the airport from Lethbridge to Calgary, Alberta Thomas wasn't driving, but Renada from the tech transfer program.

The Alberta. Beekeeping commission was. And thank you. Ranata for taking us safely [00:02:00] all the way back and allowing us to record this episode. So without further ado let's let's learn about the poll line and the prospect of VA might resistant bees in our time. This week on pollination.

Hi, Thomas. Welcome to pollination. It's a pleasure to be here. Where are we? Right now?

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: We are in the rolling planes of Alberta, Canada.

Andony Melathopoulos: Renata from the Alberta tech transfer team is driving us and we are headed to Calgary from the Southern Alberta beekeepers. Association meeting where you gave a couple talks.

It was a great, it was a great meeting, eh? Yeah, it was a lot of fun. Yeah. We lots of great talks. We got to hear about canola pollination and you came up from the UK to talk give two talks. And one of your talks was on bees that are resistant to VA. Can you tell us a little bit about the specific Varo resistance that you were talking

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: about?

Yeah. So the particular. I was talking about were stock known as pole line, which was at the time, at least an experimental stock [00:03:00] and

Andony Melathopoulos: they pole line, like, how do you spell that?

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: That's P O L and then what does that stand for hyphen line? And it stands for pollinator line as in genetic line combined together in a hilarious pun.

Andony Melathopoulos:

Okay. All right, keep going. So

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: the thing about these bees really is that there's a twofold aim from the breeding program was. Start with Vara sensitive hygiene. So a trait where the bees will remove infested brew cells with OA to keep might levels low, and then start to outros that with very productive commercial, Italian colonies over many years.

Because one of the problems that we face in honeybee breeding is that when you're selecting for Ferra resistance, it's hard to balance Ferra resistant bees with very productive bees. That will be good for beekeeping and work in the

Andony Melathopoulos: industry. Oh, I remember in the early days of Vara sensitive hygiene people always complain that, they don't have a lot of a, but they're just not, great for beekeeping.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: Yeah. And that was something that came [00:04:00] up. Actually a year or two ago at the earlier stages of this, when I was giving some initial talks about what we were doing and I'd often get audience questions saying, yeah, but VSH, they're not, , they're not very productive. And so it was, it's almost a nice segue into saying this is where we're going with.

This is to produce something that solves that issue because we know VSH works. So all we really needed was that other piece of the puzzle, which was productivity, I say all we really needed. It takes years and years of To achieve that.

Andony Melathopoulos: That's good to, okay. So VSH, cuz people have heard of VSH and me, what's the difference between that and the pole line, this, the pole line has VSH in it, but it is, it's an a, it's a good beekeeping being stock.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: Yeah. So what we did to, produce pole line is we took pure vs HBS and then we took very productive piece and we crossed them. And then we conducted year after year with very large numbers of colonies. We left them out with no treatment and then come. End of the season and then select only the colonies that have both low overall levels and [00:05:00] high population sizes and good honey production.

Then you repeat this process and eventually you end up with something that kind of delivers on both fronts.


Andony Melathopoulos: great. Okay. So this line is produced and tell us a little bit about how, still, I imagine getting to that point and going through the work of developing a stock for a beekeeper, that's fine, but they wanna be able to see that this is gonna have dur.

Verite resistance and good survival and good qualities. Tell us a little bit about the experiment you were describing to see if this was in fact, the case to give the beekeeper some confidence in the pole line stock.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: So to do that, we had a very large scale field study in the United States, which was spread across several different regions south region with Louisiana and Mississippi, and then the Dakotas up in the north and then also California.

There's a lot of urban pollination going on. And what we did was we took around 720

Andony Melathopoulos: colonies. Wait a second. You took 720 colonies.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: Obviously not me personally, but , it's a lot of these. It is a lot of be. And yeah, it was [00:06:00] a lot of work, a lot of logistics I think to, I should mention now this was only really possible because of both being able to work with the U S D a, they have a lot of resources and also having really good collaborators in the beekeeping industry who already had the sort of logistics pipelines.

Kind of large scale projects to work. That really facilitated us to be able to conduct the experiment.

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. So you had these 720 colonies. And what did you do to, how did you, what was, how did you manipulate the genetics?

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: So the split for the colonies was that half of them were these pole line bees, the ones we wanted to try out.

And the other half we took standard industry Italian colonies that were the best available standard that they would usually use. Because we really needed to compare. Performance of pole lines to what the current best option is to see whether we are delivering an improvement or not.

And the way we did it was we split half and half in terms of that. And then within each of those two stocks for half of the colonies, we gave them a normal levels of my treatment. So two [00:07:00] treatments, and then the other half of the coin is they only received initial treatment to stabilize might levels.

And then they were just left to their own devices to face the absolute worst for our scenario that we could imagine.

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. So there's. Mind getting this right. There's four groups. You have, you split them in half, get this really good Italian commercial stock half get the pole line. And then within those two halves, you some got treatment regular treatment and others didn't.

Is that correct? Correct. Okay. All right. And so that allows you to see the effect of not having the treatments. Cause I imagine that's what you really wanna, a beekeeper really wants to see with a line like this is if you didn't treat or if you treated minimally you would, you wouldn't have your roam light levels, wouldn't get up high.

Your colleagues wouldn't die and things like that. Yeah.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: So there was a kind of twofold goal on this. The first one is, as you said, seeing really to put them to the test, first of all, what is gonna happen? Are they gonna. Reasonable rates of survival. And secondly, how do the commercial colonies respond [00:08:00] in that same scenario?

Because you need to show that it's a bad scenario normally, but it's fine for poll, if you're gonna actually say anything, but the other part of it was the reason we had the treated colonies as well is because we know in reality that beekeepers are probably going to treat regardless, so we were also interested in, is there an advantage if you're just operating as usual and you're having pole line bees versus commercial bees, do. All provide some example, even some advantage, even if you're treating both of them or is it only an advantage if you're not treating?

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. So tell us how did the RO look in this experiment, did it, in fact, the pole line have lower verite over the season than the untreated Italian

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: colonies?

Yeah. So it was quite a stark finding in the end. What really happened was that that it was a pretty. In terms of Vara, which makes sense, because we had all these untreated colonies for a large part of the experiment, but for the commercial Italian colonies that weren't treated Vara levels basically [00:09:00] exploded.

And so by the end of the winter, really, there was less than 30% survival, I think, in the low twenties. And then for the pole line colonies, they did a lot better and achieved up to around 60% survival. So really it was in. Of performance, the pole line colonies had more than double the rate of survival of the commercial Italian colonies.

So it was a really nice contrast in that respect.

Andony Melathopoulos: For our listeners in Alberta, we are just driving through the Tana Claire's home, which is it's looking good today anyways, back to the

Okay. But back to the episode, so I, you had a really wonderful graph. It was nice. You actually, the graph had each colon. And the verite levels. And then the colonies that died in the winter, they had a red line and you could just see in the regular Italian stock, that was untreated. That just there was this sad, September, October, November, December period, where they all just turned red.

And [00:10:00] then, but there were very few, there were some colonies that had died in the pole line, but it was but it was a lot smaller. Yeah, it was, it looked like just four, five or something outta that big pool. Yeah. What

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: happened? I think a few of the pole line ones did end up getting high and that, that killed them.

But yeah the situation was you'd look at it and think, okay, that's manageable with the pole line, whereas with the commercially, it was just, yeah. Total decimation, unfortunately.

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. And if the other thing that I was notable because people often talk about viruses that you act the, it was really remarkable.

You track the viruses a whole range of viruses, I believe across time various periods. What did you find there?

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: I suppose the key finding, which wasn't really that surprising given the Vara situation was that for the most. For the key OA transmitted viruses. So especially deform wing virus, a and deformed wing virus, B pole line colonies kept fairly consistently lower levels of viral, tighter in their colonies than did the commercial colonies.

And that, [00:11:00] that makes sense because lower VA lower viral transmitted viruses follows on. Then we also looked at some viruses that were less coupled like black queen cell virus. And actually it was interesting almost as a control to see that there wasn't any difference between the two stocks for black queen cell virus, which again makes sense because that's not dependent from bar

Andony Melathopoulos: that's.

Okay. That's I think that's a really interesting finding and just the, just so that I understand. So we, all people have heard in the past that some viruses are really strongly associated with viral levels that are really strongly correlated. There's likely a. Causal relationship between the two Def form wing cell viruses.

One of them, when you have a lot of RO mites, virus levels go up, but some viruses are really not related with Varo, like black queen cell virus. They're not associated when people correlate the two things together. And there you saw the black queen cell virus kind of cycle independent of the stocks, which really kinda in, paradox, not paradoxically, but.

Is a really great indication [00:12:00] that that this line is really going to not only have that double benefit of potentially keeping verite levels down, but those viruses associated with verite will also seem to be lower. Yeah, exactly. Okay. The big question everybody has now, this is great.

I imagine. You can it sounds like what I'm getting from this is that you could have pole line bees. And if you, I guess the, this is a harsh experiment, but if you didn't have treatment your colonies would have higher survival, but I imagine most people would still treat.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: Yeah. I can't think of that many, especially commercial beekeepers that would do that.

Not treat when they just do it anyway and they can. There's no reason not to for them.

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. So they may, but they've got an added assurance level or they may treat less frequently. Oh, sorry.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: I think the thing just dropped off okay. I'll just check it's

Andony Melathopoulos: plugged in. Say yeah's okay.

Okay. We are at the Claro home gas station right now, by the way oh, the sides it is, I've stopped this [00:13:00] gas station many a times. It's a great gas station. The shell station has good sandwiches inside if you're on a long road trip with an Alberta, which we are, but anyways, coming back to it.

So we've got these so we have, you may use a couple treatments, but I guess what beekeepers wanna know. I've got now on this insurance level, I might be able to cut my treatments down. This is probably research that still yet needs to be done. But if I do that I gonna still skip the performance out of my stock in terms of honey production, in terms of brew buildup, what I noticed, maybe that's work, that's still underway and analyzing that data, but what are.

What can you say about performance of these

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: stocks? Yeah. Some of this work has been done, but hasn't really been published yet, but there's been some more recent trials where they took a derivative stock while Helo bees, which are the sort of commercial offshoot in terms of the breeding program from pole line bees.

So the genetics are really the same. They took Helo bees in North Dakota and they compared them to. Carly in Italian [00:14:00] crosses, which again were like the best. Performing standard bees that they could find for that particular region and what they did was they treated for mights, the Olian Italian cross bees, and then they didn't treat the Hilo bees at all.

And then they compared the performance

Andony Melathopoulos: from that. Oh really? Oh, that's a stringent test.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: Yes. And they found. The ELO bees actually still outperformed the treated. Really, and in fact, I should note that in our own experiment, we saw the same thing. The survival rate of the untreated pole line was equivalent to that, of the treated commercial.

So it, the thing we liked to say was that the added genetic benefit of the OA removal of the stock was equivalent actually to that, of. Chemical mic treatment of amateur in this case.

Andony Melathopoulos: Wow, that's remarkable. Okay. So this sounds like a great stock. Like maybe just the last question I wanted to ask is you talked a little bit about Helo and the project APM has been working with the U S D a Baton Rouge Blab [00:15:00] to.

Get this stock out to people. Can you, what tell us a little bit about that program and how it's from what you know, and we'll have to get project APM on a, on an episode to also describe this. Yeah. And

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: I'm sure they'd be very happy to talk about it. So the Hilo breeding program is really a sort of a effort to take what was initially this sort of experimental stock of pole line and make that commercially available at a large.

For beekeepers. So that occurs in Hawaii near, near Hilo, hence the name and that program is involving quite a few breeders and they're really just making the Queens commercially available. And I should probably do a shameless plug and say, you can visit their [email protected] for a lot more

Andony Melathopoulos: information.

Oh no, you should be proud of that. That's a good,

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: I am not financially reimbursed for promoting . I think it's,

Andony Melathopoulos: For me personally, and I'm not, I have. No pony in this horse, but I just think it's a really great model from U S D a partnering up with project APS M and getting something into the hands of beekeepers.

Cause it seems like for, we also, in the meeting, I think you had a provocative talk about [00:16:00] how, the interface between research and what beekeepers needs are. And for a long time, there's. Talk of, breeding bees for resistance and it hasn't materialized. And it seems this was the first time that this has crossed that threshold.

I really, I also liked your talk because you embedded videos from Bob Danka, where he was very he wasn't. Pushing up the stock. He was very, if it doesn't work in a commercial operation, as this is useless or something I can't to paraphrase .

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: Yeah. Yeah. I really like that particular clip because it shows the philosophy behind this program, which was occurring over, Two decades effectively of work and it really was based around producing something that actually delivers, which I think is very valuable.

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. Let's take a quick break. We have a segment that we do with all our guests that I have not told you about, but it's gonna be fun. I promise. And it'll it'll take us to the outskirts of Claire's home. Okay. We're back. And we're just we're on the outskirts of Claire's home going down the number two.

It's into Calgary. So with that, I wanted to [00:17:00] ask you do you have any book recommendations? Are there books that you really want our listeners to check out?

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: I'm not really much of a reader. I'm because I'm horribly dyslexic and it takes me forever to read, but the one book that I can always recommend that I really is the once and future king by T.

Which is the kind of original king Arthur mytho by th Y is a great offer and it's an amazing book because it can combines philosophy science and mythology all into one. And you. Definitely

Andony Melathopoulos: worth for read. Oh, wait a sec. So this is, when was this written? Is this like a 20th century date?

Fifties, I believe. Oh, okay. Yeah. And so it's like a recounting of the art theory tale. It is.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: I it's almost hard to describe but

Andony Melathopoulos: it's fiction. It's not non-fiction no it's fiction. Yeah. Oh, and that's all you're gonna give us

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: yeah, no I almost was about to say, I don't read books, so I can't really recommend, but I think that's probably the only book I can recommend.

With good confidence on my

Andony Melathopoulos: part. Listeners you're in good hands. Okay. How about go to tool? What kind of tool do you rely

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: On your, yeah, that's easy. That would [00:18:00] be a computer. I think I couldn't really do any of the The work that I do without computer .

Andony Melathopoulos: I think you were you I jest or maybe seriously you were pointing out and I will point out this part of Claire's home is a speed trap.

Like it is always, yeah. Okay. Anyways and Renada is taking us so sorry. Can we, listeners can barely even, yeah. There's. Just got pulled over. Barely listeners can barely hear the bumps in the road cuz we're like, we're not as like carefully navigating. It's just amazing. It's

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: pretty high stakes, interviews the police are

Andony Melathopoulos: after us and yeah.

yeah, there's gonna be a chase scene at the end. Okay. But yeah. So I think you were saying in Jess that or maybe in serious, you're really. As a researcher, when you have large data sets to analyze, as opposed to, my tendencies I like to produce the data, but I don't like to, I'm very, I'm not in my happy place when I have to analyze it.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: Yeah. So I'd say I'm almost the diametric opposite of [00:19:00] that. I've been not in my happy place, quite a few times in a B yard in the middle of summer in Louisiana. with a lot of. Sticking

Andony Melathopoulos: out my

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: skin. So yeah. Yeah. I can say that. Yeah. I prefer being a computer.

Andony Melathopoulos: Are there programs that you find for doing analysis that are essential for you?

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: Yeah really like R just because, everyone uses it. It's so flexible. There's always new packages coming out and being updated. The community really is what I think makes it really great. I also quite like using some of the AI tools in. Python and Anaconda. So I PI torch's quite a nice one.

What's the name again?

Andony Melathopoulos: PI torch, because I remember the other thing that you've been working on is invasive Vespa wasps to the UK. And you've been working on AI identification tools. Yeah. So

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: we've been trying to develop with some colleagues from the Exeter center for AI and data analysis.

Although I think I get the name wrong, but it has an acronym. Can't remember. But basically we've been developing [00:20:00] some AI tools for detection of invasive species because we're in a really interesting situation in the UK where Vesper Latina, which is an invasive Asian Hornet, not the giant Asian Hornet, which is Vesper Mandarin, but this other particular Asian Hornet is spread all the way across large swaves of Europe.

And it's a concern for beekeepers because they'll Hawk outside of the front of hive. So they'll hover and wait for returning. And they'll grab them, usually bite their head off and carry them away. And what happens is over time, it leads to the bees, just Cing foraging known as foraging paralysis.

And then the colonies can then staff because they're no longer foraging. So this particular species is in France and Spain, but not yet established in the UK, but we get blow over of Queens on almost as, oh, really?

Andony Melathopoulos: So the Queens is gonna blow over once in a while and you find them on and the Southern, Southern UK.


Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: And so far, the the UK government. For has had a pretty effective extermination program where they've been able to eradicate all of the [00:21:00] colonies as they appear, but it relies on public reports, which are notoriously unreliable. And there's so much that comes in that has to be sifted through.

So there's a large burden of work. So we are really just trying to transition to a completely automated system that is also environmentally sustainable in that it's a passive monitoring system. Doesn't use any trials.

Andony Melathopoulos: Oh, great. So you've been using this torch software to kind. Do this learning and develop these automated tools.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: Yeah. I really should give credit here to our colleague Andy Corbit, who is much more experienced than any of us when it comes to data science and AI. Okay. And we've been working with him to build a really nice data set and labeling and a system that can rapidly identify these these Hornets and while ignoring everything else that isn't a Hornet, which is, I think really, almost the most important part of this.

We'll again, shameless, self. But we'll be giving a talk about this at, for extra data science week, which I think is in two weeks time. Oh, great. Which I think will be online for anyone who's

Andony Melathopoulos: interested in that. Oh, I, here, [00:22:00] the Pacific Northwest with the giant Asian Hornet, I think everybody is looking for good tools to make sure that we can identify contain the boss population.

That's great. All right. Our last question is, do you have a favorite pollinator? AXA group

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: species. Yeah. I was thinking about this one. Could we say that the answer pollinated group? I think we could, oh, you knew this was coming. Let's be honest

Andony Melathopoulos: here. Okay. Alright. You tell, make the picture.

For the ants I'm listening.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: I've read a lot about how ants can displace pollinator interactions by harassing the pollinators .

Andony Melathopoulos: But

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: in one of those papers, I read that the native ants in. I think this was in an area of South Africa, maybe the, is it the thin boss region where they have all the flowers and things that they found, they they removed the native or excluded the native ants from being able to reach the plants and do anything that actually decreased to pollination [00:23:00] efficacy of success.

Oh, which suggests that tangently the ants, at least in this case were doing something which I think gives me the right to pick ants as the. Chosen and pollinates and shoe on them in.

Andony Melathopoulos: So I have to say it was a lot of fun walking down Lethbridge with Thomas because every time an aunt appeared on the sidewalk, we'd all stop.

And it just, it grew my attention to this diversity. That's on every city block everywhere.

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: Yeah. It's a very unhealthy habit but I do enjoy it.

Andony Melathopoulos: Thanks for joining us on this episode and have a good flight

Thomas O'Shea-Wheller: this evening. . A pleasure. And hopefully the wind is less intense than it was on the way in on the landing.

Andony Melathopoulos: Absolutely.

Varroa resistant bees have been on the horizon for over a decade. This week we learned how close these lines are to being used commercially through a recent study of the POL line.

I am a research fellow based at the University of Exeter in the UK, interested in the ecology, behavior, and epidemiology of social insects. Currently, I am involved in projects examining the relative drivers of honey bee colony losses, the dynamics of parasite-pathogen interactions in determining colony health, and the potential for invasive hornets to impact native and managed pollinators.

Prior to this, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Louisiana State University, investigating honey bee epidemiology and breeding in collaboration with the USDA. The principle focus of this work was the validation of Varroa-resistant stocks for use in large-scale pollination operations.

While much of my work is focussed upon pollinators, I utilize a number of social insect models, as they provide powerful and fascinating tools with which to probe both applied and fundamental questions in biology. To this end, my ongoing research includes the development of AI-assisted tracking and detection systems, thus providing analytical tools to better understand colony organization.

Links Mentioned:

Dr. O’Shea-Wheller website

Follow him on Twitter: @TOSheaWheller

Dr. O’Shea-Wheller’s book recommendation:

The Once and Future King (1958)

Dr. O’Shea-Wheller’s go-to-tool for working with pollinators:

Computers, lots of computers!

Dr. O’Shea-Wheller’s favorite pollinator:

Proformica (the only ant genus for which has solid evidence of pollination activity)

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