PhD student improving honeybee breeding

Gertje Petersen has embarked on a PhD programme at the University of Otago – in collaboration with AbacusBio, Apitech (a Blenheim-based bee business), and Betta Bees Research Limited (a Dunedin-based bee-breeding company).

Gertje is investigating genetic diversity in honeybee colonies and examining the application of molecular breeding tools in bees.

“One of the issues we are experiencing currently in the bee industry is that there is only a small number of queen breeders, so genetic diversity may be at a low level,” Gertje explains.

Genetic diversity needs to be managed in commercial hives or it can impact negatively on their productivity – even reducing the viability of bee populations.

Furthermore, the mite Varroa destructor – a parasite of honeybees – is further decreasing the diversity pool by reducing bee populations in managed hives, as well as feral colonies.

Varroa is a parasitic mite that infests honeybee colonies and can transfer fatal viral pathogens.

“A reduced bee population is a concern, especially for horticultural and agricultural industries in New Zealand, because we rely on bees for crop pollination,” says Professor Peter Dearden, the Director of Genetics Otago, who is Gertje’s university supervisor.

Gertje’s research aims to identify favourable traits in honeybees, and develop breeding tools to achieve genetic improvement with simultaneous maintenance or even an increase in genetic diversity – so the agricultural industry’s need for pollination can be met without compromising the highvalue honey production that New Zealand is famed for.

After graduating from veterinary school in Berlin, Germany, Gertje came to AbacusBio in 2013 as a research assistant for a variety of projects.

Her interest in both the bee industry and livestock genetics has since spurred her on to pursue PhD study, Gertje says.

Gertje has a PhD scholarship from Callaghan Innovation Ltd and AbacusBio consultants, Peter Fennessy and Peter Amer, are part of her supervisory team.