The discovery of the honeybee-specific ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor in South Africa in October 1997 raised the spectre of massive honeybee colony losses as has occurred in most parts of the world where the varroa mite has been found. This was particularly concerning in Africa because of the importance of honeybees in the pollination of indigenous and commercial crops, and because of the numbers of small-scale beekeepers in Africa. The mite has now spread throughout South Africa and is found in almost all honeybee populations, both commercial and wild, and is also now present in most neighbouring countries. Varroa has not left a trail of destruction in South Africa as had been expected and no large scale collapse of the honeybee population occurred, despite the majority of beekeepers deciding not to protect their hives with chemical varroacides. Some colony losses did occur at the front of the varroa spread, and all colonies were found to be deleteriously affected by the mite which developed populations of 50 000 and more in some colonies. Infected colonies were also not as efficient as pollinators as uninfected colonies. Colonies exhibited all the same varroa effects witnessed in other parts of the world, with the exception that the majority of colonies did not die as a result of the infestation. The relative tolerance of African bees to the varroa mite has been confirmed by the long-term monitoring of both wild honeybee populations and commercial stock, and by population dynamic studies of the mites. In both wild and managed honeybee populations varroa appears to have been reduced to the status of an incidental pest. The development of mite tolerance took 3-5 years in the Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) and 6-7 years in the Savanna honeybee (Apis mellifera scutellata). The rapid development of mite tolerance in the Cape bee is thought to be due to the well developed removal of varroa-infested brood and the short post-capping period of worker brood. Together these resulted in a very rapid increase in infertile mites in the colony, the collapse of the mite population, and varroa tolerance. Tolerance does not develop as rapidly in Savanna honeybees as the post-capping period in these bees is similar to that of European bees and does not result in as many infertile mites. Nonetheless, varroa tolerance in Savanna bees develops more rapidly than would be the case in European bees because of more effective hygienic removal of varroa-infested brood. In both Cape and Savanna bees, the absence of varroacide applications and a “live-and-let-die” approach to the wild and commercial honeybee populations was crucial to the developed of population-wide varroa tolerance, in contrast to the selective breeding and pesticide treadmill practised in most parts of the world in an effort to get rid of the varroa mite. Varroa destructor is concluded not to be a serious threat to honeybees and beekeeping in Africa, and efforts should be made to prevent the use of pesticides and techniques that could hinder the development of natural mite tolerance in Africa.
Dissertation (MSc (Entomology))--University of Pretoria, 2007.