Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined First Lady Michelle Obama and a group of 5th graders on the South Lawn of the White House to talk about healthy eating, the availability of locally grown fruits and vegetables, and bees.

"Growing your own fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to have healthy food," Vilsack said. "Working in a garden is a great way to stay physically active and maintain a healthy body. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is helping schools make sure that every student in America has a healthy and nutritious lunch to eat at school."

This July, USDA will be providing two types of parasite-resistant honey bees developed by USDA scientists to pollinate the plants in the new White House garden this summer. Both of these bees are rapidly gaining in popularity with beekeepers.

Honey bees enhance any garden because they increase the yields of plants that require pollination, they produce honey, and they are one of Nature's most fascinating creatures to observe. Unfortunately, parasitic mites cause serious health problems for most varieties of honey bees, and many beekeepers must use pesticides to combat the mites in the hives. But the USDA-developed bees are mite-resistant, offering a more natural, organic alternative for the White House garden.

Honey bees are crucial to American agriculture, adding some $15 billion in value in the nation's crops, particularly specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, berries, fruits, and vegetables. In California, the almond crop alone uses 1.3 million colonies of bees, approximately one half of all honey bees in the United States, and this need is projected to grow to 1.5 million colonies by 2010.

Scientists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency, developed the two types of mite-resistant honey bees. One type is highly resistant to the parasitic mite Varroa destructor, commonly known as the varroa mite. The bees have a trait called "varroa-sensitive hygiene" which prompts the worker bees to detect and remove infested bees from the nest, eliminating the need for chemical help to control the mites.

The second type of mite-resistant honey bees is based on a strain of honey bees from Russia which are naturally resistant not only to varroa mites, but also to tracheal mites, which infest the breathing tubes of the bees. These bees are also highly tolerant of cold weather and require less artificial feeding than typical honey bees.

The Russian bees were brought to the United States by Thomas Rinderer, research leader at ARS' Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Unit at Baton Rouge, La., where studies have been under way on the bees since the mid-1990s. Rinderer and other ARS scientists will collaborate with White House staff on installation of the USDA bees in the White House garden.

For the past eight years, breeder queens of the Russian-derived and varroa-sensitive hygienic bees have been released to the beekeeping industry. In 2008, a breeders' group called the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association, Inc., was formed to supply the Russian-derived queens throughout the U.S. beekeeping industry, and demand is outstripping supply.

Both types of mite-resistant USDA bees are good pollinators and easy to keep alive because of their hardiness, thus helping ensure the success of the new White House garden.