The Varroa mite, also known as Varroa destructor, is a tiny red-brown parasite that clings to the outside of a honey bee’s body, feeding off the bee’s body fat. Varroa mite infestation leads to physical malformation of the honey bee, transmission of viruses, abnormal brood pattern, impaired flight, low rate of return after foraging, reduced life span and reduced body weight. Other issues caused by the varroa mite, such as weakened immune systems, sunken brood cappings and larvae issues, negatively impact the entire colony. A few years ago, several types of bees made the endangered species list, and each year approximately 40-60% of the population die off because of the Varroa mite. But these tiny parasites aren’t just a giant problem for beekeepers worldwide. Because bees help to pollinate about 80% of the world’s plant life, the varroa mite is a serious problem for everybody.
Luckily, it seems that a young woman from Greenwich, Connecticut may have the answer. Meet Raina Jain, a 17-year-old student who recently graduated from Greenwich High School and is headed to the University of Connecticut in just a few weeks. This past year she worked on a science project that has the potential to solve one of the world’s large-scale problems. She has designed an entranceway for beehives that can stop a varroa mite infestation in its tracks.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Raina about her project. She told me that her project was inspired by the work of Dr. Samuel Ramsey, who has a Honey Bee Lab at the University of Maryland. “Dr. Ramsey was a speaker at the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS), which was a fair I competed in during May of 2018. I visited his presentation about varroa mites affecting honey bee populations worldwide. I took a deep interest in the topic and invited him to my lab a couple months later,” Raina explained. An award-winning researcher, Dr. Ramsey has studied how varroa mites feed on and kill honey bees. Commenting on what inspired her work, Raina said, “it can be easy to disregard creatures as small as bees, but the truth is we are dependent on them.”
When she learned about the damage varroa mites can cause she knew that something had to be done. Her idea was simple. Create an entryway that deposits small amounts of thymol onto the bees. This naturally occurring pesticide kills off the mites while not harming the bees, the honey, or the wax inside the hive. Throughout the day each foraging bee will go through the entryway about 40 times. Each exit and entry replenishes the thymol onto the body of the bee and the mites gradually die off. In a lab setting, she discovered that the varroa mite population dropped off by 70% after three weeks. While these results were produced in a lab setting, Raina knew it would be important to validate her results in a real-world testing. So, in order to help test her invention, she enlisted volunteer beekeepers in California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Rhode Island.
Issues along the way
Developing the entryway was no easy task. Raina had to do a lot of research on honey bees, beehives, varroa mites, pesticides and more. The more she studied, the more obstacles she encountered. But one by one she has been overcoming them. She discovered that because of a bee’s flight-speed, and ability to quickly change direction, the thymol was falling off of the honey bee’s body. She was able to figure out how much was falling off by creating a test using a drone and some samples of thymol. In the end, she discovered that because the foraging honey bees were going in and out of the hive up to 40 times a day, the amount of thymol on their bodies would remain constant at just below 0.5 micrograms. That amount is enough to kill off the mites but not harm the bees. She also ran experiments to show that the gaseous release of thymol into the hive was not harmful to the larvae, bees, honey or the beeswax. She was able to prove this by creating a hive in her lab and measuring the amount of gas produced by the thymol. Then, by testing samples of honey and wax within the hive, she determined that there wasn’t any significant absorption. As it turns out, honey and beeswax are so viscous and have such tight molecular bonds that they don’t absorb any of the thymol. These were just some of the issues she overcame during her project. Her dedication and persistence helped her surmount all the concerns she has encountered so far and will no doubt help her in the future.
Raina’s hard work is paying off as this project led her to become a top 40 finalist in this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search, a competition owned and produced by the Society for Science & the Public, where she took home a prize of $25,000. On top of that, Raina has patented her work and hopes to bring it to market after some more testing. In fact, large scale beekeepers have already taken notice. In California, an entomologist named Randy Oliver, who cares for more than 30,000 hives, plans to test her invention. She was also recently featured in Bee Culture, a niche magazine for America’s beekeepers. The only thing holding Raina back right now is the fact that her lab has temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I can tell that won’t slow her down for long. If everything goes well, I will certainly be writing about her again in the future.
To find out more information visit Raina’s website.