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University of Hawaiʻi graduate student Scott Nikaido and researcher Ethel Villalobos examine honeybees in a hive.

Ethel Villalobos, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa researcher and director of the UH Honeybee Project, is an internationally recognized authority on bees and their pests and diseases. She was recently asked by the journal Science to write an accompanying piece to an article they were publishing that explored the geographical origin and evolutionary history of the bee pest the Varroa mite and the deformed wing virus that it vectors.

Villalobos’s article, titled “The mite that jumped, the bee that traveled and the disease that followed,” was published in the same issue and provides context to the study by examining, in lay terms, the historical movement of managed European honeybee colonies out of their native range.

An electron microscope image of a Varroa mite. (Photo courtesy Jonathan Wright)

It examines how the human transport of managed hives had unforeseen repercussions for bee health: the European bee was exposed to new environments and was placed in contact with the Asian honeybee and its parasites. One parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, “jumped” host species to the European bee and became a vector of previously mild viral diseases, in particular deformed wing virus, which is amplified in virulence when transmitted by mites.

The subsequent movement of managed colonies helped spread the combination of mite and disease to most parts of the world, with the exception of a few of the Hawaiian Islands and Australia. Villalobos indicates that these geographical “refugia” hold valuable information about the deformed wing virus. Recent studies suggest that the high viral levels found in bees can spill over to the pollinator community as whole. Thus, the data gathered about honeybee viruses is crucial for honeybee health and pollinator conservation worldwide.

More about the UH Honeybee Project

The UH Honeybee Project conducts research, outreach, and education. The program has a strong focus on sustainable beekeeping and farming practices to promote pollinator-friendly habitats.

The group’s ongoing studies in viral diseases include honeybees and other pollinators.

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