Can a microscopic, half-forgotten poisonous insect called the pseudoscorpion help save the bees from dying off in record numbers?
Can Torben Schiffer, a ‘mere’ high school teacher from Hamburg prove that the pseudoscorpion’s venomous kiss can save the bees from their arch-enemy, the blood-sucking varroa mite? Or are Torben’s scoffing critics in the ‘established’ beekeeping community correct in mocking his quest as a fool’s errand?
05/18/2014 Our story begins when Liz and Tina, our bee-keeping Berlin neighbors, told us about ‘the guy’ from Hamburg who is causing a stir in the ‘bee world’ by trying to control varroa mites with pseudoscorpions rather than chemicals. After chatting on the phone with ‘the guy’ – Torben – we were intrigued by his strong, determined personality, the hot scientific debate he has unleashed, and the drastic consequences that the bees’ decline has been having on the world’s ecology. We set out for Hamburg to meet Torben, to find out more for nano/3sat.
You can also still watch our segment on Torben here on the broadcaster’s webpage. The pseudoscorpion also goes by the name of ‘book scorpion,’ because in former times it was often found in books, where it ate smaller insects that fed on paper.
Bees and pseudoscorpions have cohabited in hives for thousands of years. But toxic chemicals used in beekeeping have nearly eradicated the ‘little insect with the tooth of poison.’ Torben’s mission is to restore the natural symbiosis between the two species in order to control the new unwelcome member of the triangle, the varroa mite. (Here is the webpage of the assoziation Torben founded.)
Wiktor Tobolski, one of Torben’s research fellows.
In search of a ‘natural’ rather than chemical solution, Torben began researching potential varroa predators while still a student at Hamburg University. Dusting off a 19th century text, he happened upon a description of the ‘book scorpion, charmingl described as the ‘friend of the bees,’ (Torben’s page on his research.)
But, today pseudoscorpions are so rare that they are on the list of animals considered the next candidates for extinction – only one category removed from the dreaded ‘red list.’ If Torben is to succeed, he is going to have to bring pseudoscorpions back from the brink, and also reintroduce them into hives in sufficient numbers to safeguard billions of bees. Finding a way to succeed has become his life’s passion.
Varroa mite in the fur of a bee and in the combs.
Torben’s early critics were quick to point out that the pseudoscorpion is not a natural predator of the varroa mites which originate in Asia and did not migrate to Europe and North America until the 1970’s. Indeed, lacking any natural predator, varroa quickly propagated in vast numbers, and are what is known as an ‘invasive species.’ In a significant breakthrough, Torben proved his doubters wrong, demonstrating that pseudoscorpions, when reintroduced into hives, in fact feed off of the invaders from the east. (Here is a long version of Torben’s pseudoscorpion videos.)
Torben’s ‘research fellows’ are none other than his ‘teen and tween’ students from the Otto Hahn School in Hamburg, where he teaches Biology and English. The kids learn beekeeping in Torben’s after-school classes. One of the hives is situated in a glass box inside a classroom, so the pupils can observe nature in action. Torben presents this hive proudly because it has been varroa-free for two straight seasons!
Enter into the fray Otto Boecking, Germany’s leading varroa researcher. He has all of the grand credentials that Torben lacks, operating at the prestigious German Bee Institute in Celle, where he has been studying varroa mite for 20 years. He represents the ‘establishment.’ Boecking offers only stinging criticism (bad pun intended; forgive us, we couldn’t resist). He told us that even if Torben were successful in breeding book scorpions, there never would be enough to protect the bees from varroa.
Torben is quick to counter. Pseudoscorpions are most-efficient predators, and he has taken startling video of pseudoscorpions latching on to multiple varroa at once! Torben’s limited data from the high school and anecdotal data from beekeepers has shown that a surprisingly small number of pseudoscorpions are needed per hive to keep it varroa-free. He is confident that a full ‘peer-reviewed’ study will prove him right and that Otto Boecking and the ‘establishment’ can’t stand the thought of an upstart being proven right.
Will Torben prove successful in the end? We really don’t know, but are excited by his iconoclastic approach, audacious vision and fearlessness in challenging established orthodoxies. We would love to accompany him on his journey over the years with a long film.