Mites, piggybacking on `killer' bees, concern New York scientists

Upstate New Yorkers can put aside concern that the so-called ``killer'' bees from Brazil have found their way to flower gardens there. Some stowaway bees reportedly flew off a freighter from Brazil as it was docked last summer in Oswego, N.Y., on Lake Ontario.

But ``you are as likely to find elephants [there] as you are of finding Africanized bees,'' says Max Heppner, a spokesman for the federal Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Entomologists are more concerned about a tiny mite that may have come with the few Africanized honeybees that reportedly escaped last year. The Varroa jacobsoni, an Asian mite that is known to travel with some Africanized bee colonies, can be devastating to the European honeybee.

So far, testing by entomologists and graduate students from Cornell University have not turned up any Africanized bees or mites. But they will continue to monitor hives in the vicinity until the first frost, says Roger A. Morse, an entomologist from Cornell and an expert on the Africanized bee.

Dr. Morse says he is not ``the least bit concerned'' that the stowaway bees were able to establish a colony or mate with any local queen bees. He says that the nearest hive to the Oswego port was about a third of a mile away and that chances are remote that the worker bees found their way to a foreign hive.

If they did, however, it is the Varroa mite that would present the greater problem, Morse says.

The mite has wiped out entire colonies of both European and Argentine bees in South America. Mr. Heppner of APHIS says that the Varroa mite is the most serious parasite that is a threat to honeybees in the United States.

``It is inevitable that the Varroa mite will migrate north with the Africanized bee,'' says Morse.

Entomologists in South America are studying this problem. Morse hopes that by the time the Africanized bee migrates to the US in three to five years, entomologists will have found a way to deal with the Varroa mite. Chemicals are available to exterminate it, he says, but they are not considered environmentally safe.

``The problem is that you are dealing with two very sensitive organisms,'' says Heppner, pointing out that insecticides that are used to get at the mite could well harm the European honeybee.

Increased air and ship transportation means an increased chance of ``importing'' pests such as the Varroa mite, Morse says. Last year, the federal government reported more than 200,000 instances of plant pests at US ports of entry.

``Much caution is needed,'' Morse says.

The United States Agriculture Department is monitoring bee populations around 40 ports where ships from South and Central America dock because of the Oswego case. The inspections are expected to be completed by October.

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