Protecting Honeybees Against Yellowjackets

WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY EXTENSION FACT SHEET • FS017E


 Varroa destructor feeds primarily on honey bee fat body tissue and not hemolymph

Samuel D. Ramsey, Ronald Ochoa, Gary Bauchan, Connor Gulbronson, Joseph D. Mowery, Allen Cohen, David Lim, Judith Joklik, Joseph M. Cicero, James D. Ellis, David Hawthorne, and Dennis vanEngelsdorp

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) January 29, 2019 116 (5) 1792-1801; first published January 29, 2019
Edited by Gene E. Robinson, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Urbana, IL, and approved December 6, 2018 (received for review October 26, 2018)

Abstract: The parasitic mite Varroa destructor is the greatest single driver of the global honey bee health decline. Better understanding of the association of this parasite and its host is critical to developing sustainable management practices. Our work shows that this parasite is not consuming hemolymph, as has been the accepted view, but damages host bees by consuming fat body, a tissue roughly analogous to the mammalian liver. Both hemolymph and fat body in honey bees were marked with fluorescent biostains. The fluorescence profile in the guts of mites allowed to feed on these bees was very different from that of the hemolymph of the host bee but consistently matched the fluorescence profile unique to the fat body. Via transmission electron microscopy, we observed externally digested fat body tissue in the wounds of parasitized bees. Mites in their reproductive phase were then fed a diet composed of one or both tissues. Mites fed hemolymph showed fitness metrics no different from the starved control. Mites fed fat body survived longer and produced more eggs than those fed hemolymph, suggesting that fat body is integral to their diet when feeding on brood as well. Collectively, these findings strongly suggest that Varroa are exploiting the fat body as their primary source of sustenance: a tissue integral to proper immune function, pesticide detoxification, overwinter survival, and several other essential processes in healthy bees. These findings underscore a need to revisit our understanding of this parasite and its impacts, both direct and indirect, on honey bee health.