Ron Hoskins is at the forefront in the fight against a parasite that’s causing a worldwide decline in bees. Sue Bradley meets him.

A TINY parasite blamed for the deaths of billions of honeybees across the world has found its match in an 84-year-old great grandfather from Swindon.

Retired heating engineer and veteran beekeeper Ron Hoskins has devoted the last 20 years to working out why his hives are seldom lost to infestations of varroa mites, even though he doesn’t use chemicals to keep them at bay.

First recorded in the UK in 1992, varroa is blamed for the significant declines in honeybee colonies across the world, yet Ron’s painstaking observations of his hives have revealed that the two have learned to co-exist, and that nature is fighting back against the diseases spread by the mites through the emergence of a ‘super bee’.

It’s long been known that Ron’s ‘Swindon F1 bee’ has the ability to ‘groom’ its fellow hive members to dislodge mites, and to remove pupal cells compromised by the parasite. He also found that these abilities were ‘genetic’ after substituting queens between colonies to see if this affected the behaviour of their offspring.

Now scientists who have been examining Ron’s bees since 2012 have revealed how the Swindon bee actually carries a mild virus that protects it from another more serious disease – Deformed Wing Virus (DWV)- in the same way that immunisations protect humans from illnesses such as small pox.

The discovery of this “Super Infection Exclusion Virus”, information on which was published in a recent edition of the journal Nature, adds further weight to Ron’s belief that the Swindon F1 bee represents a sustainable and effective alternative to treating hives with chemicals, which he believes do more harm than good.

“Varroa by itself is not a killer of bees,” explains Ron. “It is the viruses which they vector that are the cause of losses; the most damaging one being DWV.

“In a nutshell my bees are immune to DWV. I don’t know how that came about, though it does appear to be unique to my bees.

“My concern over chemical usage is that continued use may only attack the weaker mites causing others to become stronger and immune to any chemical. Will we produce a superbug?”

Over the years Ron has sought to give nature a helping hand by speeding up the spread of his varroa-resistant bees through a programme of selective breeding of queens based on careful studies of live and dead mites and other evidence collected in special trays fitted to his hives.

He and fellow members of the Swindon Honeybee Conservation Group want to create a nucleus of these super bees in Swindon in the hope that they will go on to multiply and gradually spread throughout the UK.

But he knows that to take this work to the next level he needs to engage the services of a virologist to carry out careful tests to guarantee that his bees carry the immunity, and that this will cost thousands of pounds.

“First I must establish how this new virus can be bred into bees and not just leave it to chance,” says Ron.

“I need to find a scientist, virologist or university able to provide me with technical assistance, and an experienced fundraiser who can advise on the intricacies of filling out grant applications.”

Sitting in his small laboratory surrounded by microscopes, incubators and other scientific equipment, along with endless samples of varroa mites that have all been painstakingly examined for evidence of damage by bees, Ron is clearly a man on a mission.

Bee keeping has been part of the Tottenham-born great grandfather’s life since he was evacuated to Oxfordshire at the age of 12 and he’s determined that the practice will not die out on his watch.

In fact, he’s so dedicated to his work that he devotes most of his days to it, retiring to bed at 2am and getting up again by 8am ready to return to his three apiaries dotted around Swindon. He’s also invested much of his life savings in the specialist equipment he needs to move forward.

“My wife is very understanding,” he laughs. “She doesn’t get involved herself other than taking calls from people. She knows how concerned I am over the major losses of bees we have seen since the early 1990s and the reducing numbers of bee keepers.”

While he jokes that he needs to live to 150 to achieve everything he wants to, Ron is determined that his five children, nine grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren should not face a future without honeybees.

“I am at the point of making a difference and that’s all I want to do,” he explains.

“At the moment I can say that my bees are varroa-tolerant honey bees but I cannot say they’re immune to DWV because I just don’t know; that’s why I need a virologist to carry out this specialist research.

“So many bees are being lost at the moment and some people are going out of business because of it: in America it’s well known that the almond fields are not getting enough bees to aid pollination.

“With this bee we could and should be able to make a big difference.”

• If you can help Ron send an email to: Panel – what is Varroa Mite?

The varroa mite, scientifically known as Varroa destructor is a blood-sucking parasite of the honeybee. It breeds within the honeycomb cell living off the blood of the baby bee. During its feeding it transmits a killer virus which can cause the collapse of honeybee colony. It cannot be eradicated so most beekeepers have resorted to the use of chemicals to keep their numbers under control. The mite was first found in Devon