Resistant bees in Wales

In north Wales, there is a group of beekeepers that do not treat honey bee colonies against the Varroa mite. They havn’t done it in years. Winter losses are lower among their bees than with those who treat. Here is a video made about them: https://vimeo.com/157019200

Dave was probably the one who was the first to stop treating. Then Pete stopped. He is a bee inspector. He had a lot of losses initially. He knew there were feral (wild) bee colonies. He observed that they stopped giving swarms when the Varroa came, but all feral colonies didn’t die. Some lived on, and after 3-4 years, they began to give swarms again.

Clive stopped to treat because Apistan stopped working in 2004.

Pete now focused on capturing swarms from feral bees. Then his bees survived better. Others split the colonies that survived Varroa best and had small Varroa populations. They provided new beekeepers with such new colonies. And the number of treatment free beekeepers grew.

Many of them don’t feed sugar but let them live entirely on honey. They keep the number of colonies in apiaries low. Pete has maximum 5 in each apiary. With his 60 colonies he harvests his 2 tons of honey to serve hos customers.

In 2010, they began to wonder how big the differences in losses were between those who treated and the treatment free beekeepers, so they asked around. The first line of numbers in the table is from the winter of 2010-2011. The last line is a summary of five winters.

Conclusions from the video:

  • The treatment free beekeepers group dominant their area with their bees
  • They cooperate with the feral bee population in the area
  • If you make splits, make it from the best colonies and let the bees make new queens.
  • Take swarms.
  • The colonies that are not fit enough die (or are requeened, if not by the beekeeper, by the colony itself).
  • No mating station with sister groups producing drones is used. All survivors are producing drones for mating with virgin queens.

Treatment free focus in Germany

 Besides detecting mites in brood and clean them from there, grooming mites from each other and bite them is also an important trait for bees fighting mites. Here a mite that has got some legs bitten. It will soon die after such treatment.

Treatment free focus in beekeeping is a growing movement in Germany, like in many other countries. This can be done in harmony with the legislation in almost all countries, if not all. Most legislations require treatment against the varroa mite, so people have come to think that they must treat every year to follow the law.

Now many have discovered that prophylactic treatment (before it’s actually needed) is almost never required, if anywhere. This means that to be able to be treatment free and keeping the law, you need to monitor the varroa level. If it’s below the threshold level, the mites create no problem for your or your neighbor’s bees, and no treatment is needed (yet?). The threshold level recommended by authorities is today in a climate similar to ours (Canada) 2% (two mites on 100 bees) in May and 3% in August. http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/food/inspection/bees/varroa-sampling.htm An IPM PP-presentation from the university of Delaware: http://alturl.com/ed92e is focused also on developing resistant bees and management methods. You can find threshold values of 5% for the middle of the summer from universities in America, but that is probably to high for bees with weak resistance traits.

If the varroa population is above the threshold, the conclusion is that you have to take action to help the bees lowering the mite level. This can in many cases be done without treatment chemicals (drugs, essential oils or organic acids), but instead with other means. Monitoring can be done through checking natural downfall, looking for DWV bees (virus damaged bees) in front of the entrance or on brood combs, doing alcohol washes or sugar dusting. An effective treatment without chemicals – oils, acids or drugs – is removing capped brood, worker or/and drone. This of course effects the growth of the colony, but you can get a much worse effect by doing nothing at all. Also making artificial swarms is a way of preventing mite growths.

An important reason why you want to avoid the use treatment chemicals is that these interfere with the bees’ epigenetic adaption to rid themselves of mites.

This should be followed by replacing the queen in colonies with the worst problems with a queens bred from a more resistant colony. Also it’s important to let resistant colonies produce splits as well as a good amount of drones for the virgins to mate with.

Two beekeepers in Germany who work together according to these principles are Stefan Hutterer and Sibylle Kempf. They are active in a beekeeper group and on forums. Sibylle also makes many good comments on my blog. Here they give us reports from their season of 2017.

The story of Stefan

I´ve been keeping bees for 10 years now and decided in 2012 to regress one hive to small cell (SC) comb with the help of plastic comb (Mannlakes standard plastic comb https://www.mannlakeltd.com/shop-all-categories/hive-components/frames/plastic-frames/standard-plastic-frames ). That worked well, but the pure bred carniolans which I had could not follow the imprint of the cells on small cell wax foundation. Plus, which I think is important, they used no propolis. They were very susceptible to pests and diseases too.

The carniolan bees couldn’t follow the small cell pattern on the wax foundation and made a messy construction.

I wanted to be treatment free but I realized that in the end the only way to reach this would be to use a bee that had traits that had showed more success in this area.

2013 I ordered my first elgon queen from Josef Koller without expecting too much. I was curious how they would perform. This first Elgon colony survived winter very well and built nice 4.9 mm cellsize (SC).

A perfectly drawn SC wax foundation by an elgon colony

I think it’s important that bees do produce propolis to help them stay healthy. Here’s some applied on the top bars fo a mix of wooden and plastic frames in an elgon colony.

Mating apiary with Stefan. Apideas placed 4 and 4. Drone producing colonies in the traditional type of bee house.

I bred some daughters, thus making F1-colonies as they mated with carniolan drones and introduced them in Carniolan nucs. The more new bees that hatched in these nucs, the more they became lighter in color and less grey. I was impressed by the gentleness of the bees, and at the same time different in comparison to the carniolans as they were very defensive towards wasps and foreign bees and watched the entrances ferociously. Still, working with them was nice.

They started making brood later in spring than the carniolans, but I never had an elgon colony isolated from stores in winter or starving. They know how to househould with their food resources.

An elgon comb where the bees have uncapped cells with worker pupae as a way of fighting varroa.

2015 I got two pure bred elgons from Erik Osterlund in Sweden through a couple of friends, members of the ResistantBees Forum of Stephan Braun, La Palma. Now, 2017, I have only treatment free small cell bees except two large cell (LC) Carniolan hives.

I´m living in an area flooded with carniolans and I´m not isolated. This will not change. I also keep survivor colonies of unknown origin in my beeyards, but I know that I must propagate the best genetics to stay being treatment free.

So I breed every year from one or two pure bred elgon queens and shift all unsuccessful queens to better ones. I therefore this season bought two elgon queens directly from Sweden with the intent to use them the coming season.

Stefan Hutterer

Struggles for survival

My friend Stefan Hutterer and I started to work together and use the elgon bees because we realized they are less susceptible to diseases and are fighting more ferociously against the mites. They are more gentle than the imported Apis mellifera mellifera (AMM) we tried, and bring in more honey. These traits will hopefully convince other beekeepers to try treatment free beekeeping too.

A nice brood comb in an elgon colony.

A pure elgon queen mated with local drones giving a F1-colony.

To get elgon genetics in our beeyards, we purchase pure bred elgon queens, now directly from Sweden and breed virgins which are allowed to mate with drones of our local adapted bees, which are the carniolan crosses mostly but some buckfast combinations, and a growing number of elgons. So far the elgon crosses keep their good traits but we plan to introduce pure bred queens with not too long intervals. Stefan has kept elgons now for 3 years.

We want to flood our areas with our drones and give nucs to people working with us through our forum www.vivabiene.de

A workshop with our treatment free beekeepers group. We are producing small cell wax foundation with the help of mold parts bought from here: https://resistantbees.com/shop/index.php?id_category=7&controller=category&id_lang=5

We are trying to use foundationless naturally drawn comb to have locally produced clean wax. The elgons promptly built small cell natural comb in the brood area. The carniolans were not able to do that very well, probably because they are being bred on an unnatural cell size of 5.4 mm in the brood area for a long time.

Some members in our group will use well built small cell comb to regress the local hybridized colonies down in cellsize and try natural comb later.

I had big losses in winter 2016/2017. I went from 14 hives to 4. Four of the losses were the result of mite infestations. The others were due to bad matings and isolation of the cluster from food stores.

I went on and made splits from the survivors. Now in the autumn of 2017 I have wintered 12 hives. I got one colony from Stefan. Another one is a swarm with large cell (LC) bees I caught, which I now regress treatment free to small cells (SC) in my garden. My SC colonies are placed in apiaries with only my SC bees. Besides the LC swarm 4 are of the AMM mother line, 5 Elgons and 2 carnica crosses of survivor type.

Stefan has never had a crash. His losses are average, compared to both treatment free and treating beekeepers in his area. When he himself had both kind of bees in the past, small cell (SC) treatment free and LC treated with acids, he had about the same amount of winter losses in the two groups. Now he has changed to only SC treatment free. He is a very skilled beekeeper and has avoided some problems I have had as the inexperienced beekeeper I am, but I’m learning quickly.:)

I realized, that making strong splits with a lot of capped brood and a laying queen are “mite breeders“ in our environment, so I have tried other methods to make new colonies. This year I made small splits when doing them with laying queens and gave those only a few brood combs and some with food. Splits without an egglaying queen but with a virgin queens or a ripe queen cell were made strong. All splits got robber screens in front of the entrance to prevent robbing. When splits are placed in the same apiary as the one the bees were taken from all field bees flew back to the mother colony and left them defenseless against robbery. But the robber screens are good help against robbing.

Robber screens prevent robber bees from other colonies to interfere when introducing a new queen in a nuc or split.

May 16, I made a small split with my F1 elgon queen (pure elgon queen mated with local drones) I got in 2016. In the “middle” of the broodnest with 3 brood combs (no drone brood on those) I put a foundationless frame with just a starter strip of foundation. I was happy to see that in the middle of the comb they built naturally almost perfect small cells.

The small elgon split made small cells in the middle of a foundationless frame, which area the bees used for brood.

I have also had too much space during winter for the bees. I will change that. The bad matings were a result of the unfavorable weather situation in 2016, so I have to watch more carefully the time for breeding new queens and having them mated. There must be enough high temperature and enough amount of mature drones.

Beekeeping situations always change. To have success you must adapt to the needs of the bees and what nature tells you and develop a sensibility for this. This is hard work for me but when I see the beautiful elgon bees and the dark feral looking ones I have, the descendants of the AMM and still some carniolan crosses survivors I have, I enjoy every day learning from them.

After the colonies had been allowed to keep honey for winter stores Sibylle was able to secure a small crop for herself.

Sibylle Kempf in one of her apiaries.

The small harvest of honey I took after leaving the bees enough of their own honey for stores is a most wonderful compensation. Thank you, bees.

Sibylle Kempf, 4th season treatment free beekeeper

A good report on Elgon bees

I have just returned home from the annual meeting of our local bee association. Susanna Kivling spoke about the Beescanning project, beescanning.com  We were also discussing to establish an Elgon mating place for queens of the members. The best report I got after the meeting from Arne Andersson who got two queens from me last year of the line H131. He treats all his colonies every year for varroa. So he treated these two Elgon colonies with sublimating oxalic acid (“heat-steaming”) some time ago. He decided to treat them again with trickling oxalic sugar solution as he got so few mites from the treatment. These two treatments gave together two mites each from the two Elgon colonies. Another type of colony close to them dropped altogether 1000 mites. Cellsize? 5.1. I hope the Elgon colonies survives the two tough treatments so I can consider grafting from them next year.:)

Bashing temper of a daughter of a breeder

 The feeders I use. The gate has the angled plastic cover inserted when feeding to protect the bees from entering the whole area of the sugar solution

 

A few days ago I removed the last feeder after giving the colonies complementary sugar solution for winter feed before too low temperature arrives. Colonies surprised me being so calm I could speed up the work by bashing the feeder onto the hive in such a way that the bees sitting in the gate (by which they used to reach the sugar solution) fell into the open hive.

 The feeder was bashed on the hive in such a way the bees fell into the hive. This is not a normal way to rid the bees from the feeder. But these bees didn’t react, which made me happy.

 

A normal hive you shouldn’t treat like that for the risk arousing their temperament in a very bad way. They could start chasing yourself and all that are around you as well as neighbors.

I soon realized the bees didn’t care and I was both surprised and glad of course. This colony on the pictures is a split from one of my breeders this year. It reared their own queen, grew quickly in strength, gave some honey and ended up on three 12 frame square shallow boxes for winter packed with bees. The breeder colony is on its third season without any treatment of any kind and had a varroa level of 0% in May. The temper was good, but the temper of the split is even better, not a bee flying up at this bashing treatment. And no sign of any virus problems. In spring I will monitor the varroa level in this one and several others.

 A selfie with me and the colony after bashing it with the feeder. It was not easy and I managed to cover some of the picture with my finger, but you can se my mouth anyway.:)

 

I tried to take a selfie together with the colony just after the bashing, but it wasn’t that easy to get a good shot with one hand. But you see a little anyway.

Which bees are the best?

Bees can develop rapidly in spring, or slowly, or in between. Carnica bees (Carniolans) are usually known to develop rapidly in spring, while black bees (A. m. mellifera, AMM) usually develops slowly. If the bees are developing quickly, they eat more food as they make more brood. It is brood that requires a lot of food, both for feeding the young and for keeping brood temperature in the hive.
Carnica bees usually start brooding early and strong. Mostly they react quickly to availability of fresh pollen, especially later in summer when chilly weather keep them inside the hive and brooding thus is greatly reduced. The AMM bees are often adapted to a late honey flow and weak early flows. The late heather flow in the Nordic countries has been involved in forming this bee. The yellow Italian bees come from a warmer climate where it may be smaller weaker honey flows during a long time of the season. They often tend to breed most of the time the whole year long. Therefore, there have been management methods of beekeepers in Sweden to handle this. For example, to hinder the bees brooding in winter by wintering them in one box only with ten frames of Swedish standard frames (366 x 222 mm). Then they let the bees fill the box with as much sugar solution that they can, thus leaving very little space left for brood. Such a small box full of Italian bees should not be well insulated. But if the colony is not very strong, a good insulation is necessary in our climate.
A cold spring like this in 2017 is a hard test for the bees and the beekeeper. It may not have been such a cold spring since temperatures began to be measured in Sweden, probably since the mid 18 hundreds.

Which bees are then the best?

For survival of the bees, they obviously should develop slowly in spring, and have no or very very little brood in winter. Thus they are more able to economize with the food so that it lasts until they can collect more fresh nectar from flowers in nature. They must also be resistant to diseases that can create difficulties when spring is cold and long, especially nosema.
But a beekeeper who wants a little better honeycrop than just 10-15 kg in average, and is trying to make a living from his bees must have a little different goal for his bees. This beekeeper needs a bee that can be wintered stronger than just on one box of smaller frames. It shouldn’t breed in winter. But it should develop strong in spring, if there is food enough.

I prefer the Langstroth length of the frame, to get strong colonies. The frame height can be anyone of the available options. The goal is as strong a colony as possible going into winter, with plenty of food. Preferably at least a box on top full of feed.
Large amounts of food are not needed for wintering, but for making brood coming spring. Where I live, with my bees, brooding begins in smaller amounts in late winter and increases at the beginning of March. Later in March the queen lays a lot, especially after the main cleansing flight that normally takes place later in March.
A year like this, the amount of brood will vary in line with the ability for the bees to fly out of the hive and get water for the brood. Bee types differ in ability of flying at lower temperatures. The beekeeper must ensure that there are always at least 2 frames with capped food so that the bees can make brood without risking running out of food. (Italian bees, unfortunately, often breed strongly with almost no food left, which is very risky for the bees, with starvation as the result.)

 A few days ago temperature was 8-10 °C. Many colonies was more or less packed in the first super above the queen excluder. They got two more supers if they were more packed, one more supers if they were less packed. Today 18 May it is summer. The picture shows colonies in an apiary before they were supered a few days ago.

In order to be able to get a crop from early honey flows, the bees must be strong enough to fill at least one super above the queen excluder (one box more than expected room for the broodnest of the queen) and a second for the development of the strength of the bees, when the first early flow begins, which usually is from winter rape.
A long cold spring like this means you have to check the bees frequently to ensure they have food enough. The best is to give the bees capped food combs. I get them from my stock of capped food combs which I established in November removing some outer food combs from heavy hives in which the bee strength was smaller. Those combs were replaced with insulation dummy combs. Food combs can also come from colonies that have died during winter. Combs that have been heavily defecated on and can not be cleaned are not used. A few spots of defecation a strong colony can handle. Another option when food combs are not available is sugar fondant. The last option is sugar solution. It will can cause the colonies to make too much brood.
Especially a spring like this you see a difference in the bee colonies. There are those who have bred too much and used up too much food. And there are those that responded too much to the cold periods and stopped brooding almost altogether. And then there are the perfect ones that did not need extra food but still developed continously and developed enough good strength, albeit not the very strongest. Then there are those which developed very well but needed some extra food combs. The two last types of bees are those that should be favored when selecting for breeders. First priority is though of course Varroa resistance.

Varroa project 2014 –>

This test is accomplished and funded by LP:s biodling bee equipement supplier, Arne Andersson sideline beekeeper and Erik Österlund sideline beekeeper.

 

GOAL FOR THE PROJECT

The goal for this test is to see if it is possible:

  • to improve mite resistance in apiaries with 5-10 colonies,
  • to understand the impact of ”isolation” of 3-5 km (3-4 miles) to other beekeepers
  • to understand the role of small cell size in the broodnest
  • to see the role of differentiated treatment of varroa mites, that is treatment of only those colonies that exceed a defined varroa level

 

PLANNED MANAGEMENT

Avoid silent robbery

The colonies should be managed as similar as possible to a beekeeper that want to increase the number of colonies with an extensive management method. It should interfere as little as possible with the bees activities and avoid disturbing parameters, which could happen when you open the colonies often, like for example starting robbing in nectar droughts. It could be enough with silent robbery, a robbery activity that you don’t notice. That could be enough to destroy a test, in that the varroa populations are evened out

3% strategy

Therefore we decided to maximize the number of hives for the two main groups in this test to 10 hives (5+5). We also decided to make two or three alcohol washes with 1 dl of bees to monitor the varroa level during the season. When the Varroa level was higher than 3% we planned to treat with thymol. If it appeared wingless bees in or in front of a hive treatment was also to be performed.

Use of thymol

We decided to use dish cloth pads drenched with fluid thymol mixed with a minimal amount of rubbing alcohol (to lower the melting point of the thymol crystals) as treatment against mites when decision was made to treat. You can see how they are done and used in this article: http://elgon.es/resistancebreeding.html

Crop and feeding

If possible a harvest should be taken and sugar solution (or honey) fed at the end of season after harvest to ensure enough food for winter. The goal should be to leave a fair amount of honey for winter, if possible as much as you think your bees have got genetics to make it through the length of your winters.

Nucs and splits

Increase are made by making so called walk away splits that remain in the same apiary as the mother colony. These are allowed make there own queens, or supplied with mature queen cells made from a good colony in the apiary. This should also be the swarm prevention method.

Elgon and Carnica/Carniolan

We choose to use two different types of bees in the project. One type that has been selected for varroa resistance during many years, Elgon, that has been bred with this purpose since 1989. Another type that hasn’t been selected less, but in other traits are good, pure bred Carnica/Carniolan bees.

 

FITNESS

Increase of the number of colonies

The number of colonies wintered each autumn would be a way to measure the difference in success between the two parts (large and small cell size) of each main group, Elgons and Carniolans. To be counted in the increase would be the colonies that are brought out from the apiaries and the project, a kind of crop. What we measure will thus be the production of new colonies and survival of colonies to the next season, the difference of fitness. If colonies survive to the next season is not only dependent on the varroa and virus levels in the colonies, but also on other circumstances that influence the survival and how a colony thrive, for example other pathogens like nosema and quality of food like pollen throughout the season.

Start and number of years

Instead of starting the project with 5+5 colonies with each type of bees, we have choosen to start from a fewer number of hives and increase the numbers. And we plan to continue the project for at least 3-4 years. We have choosen areas for the test that are low in nectar and pollen sources. That’s also a reason why the number of hives are restricted to five in each part, which makes a total maximum for each type of bees 5+5 colonies, 5 small cell and 5 large cell.

 

CARNICA

Four Carniolan colonies, all of them being sister queens from a pure bred Carnica/Carniolan stock, were divided in two groups with 30 m between the groups. These groups were placed in a deeply forested area far enough from the Elgon bees. Here it was no farm in the neighborhood, like it is where the Elgon bees are placed. One group was established on Mann Lake’s standard plastic frame, 4.95 mm cell size. The other on Anel plastic frames with 5.5 mm cell size. Frame size medium (448 x 159 m). Hive type well insulated styren plastic boxes.

The Carnica bees 2014-2015

The Carniolan queens we received in 2013 were introduced into Elgon small cell (SC) colonies on 4.9 mm cell size shallow sized frames (448 x 137 mm). The Elgons are adapted to SC during many years and if nurse bees fed and born in SC should be of importance that criterium should then be met for this test. The Carniolans in their homeland could not draw and thus live well on ”SC”. Here they were adapted immediately through this process, but they could not draw wax foundation 4.9 well even though they lived well on 4.9. Probably because they were not genetically adapted to small cells. Mann Lakes 4.9 they could draw well. Probably because of the high plastic cell wall starters which they couldn’t remodel

In 2014 half of the Carniolans got only Mann Lake’s 4.9 (SC), half got Anels 5.5 (large cell, LC). During 2014 they were this way transferred to these two types of frames. Increasing cell size in the LC-group up to 5.5 was no problem either as they were adapted to 5.5 in their genetics before they came here.

All the Carnica/Carniolan colonies were treated with thymol in 2013, but not much, and in September 2014 after they were moved to their test destination. No DWV-bees were observed in 2014.

The LC part of the Carnica bees 2015

In 2015 in June the LC-group (both colonies) showed 6% varroa level and crippled winged bees, one colony quite badly. They both got one treatment with two homemade thymol pads with about 5 gr thymol each. The LC-bees gave no crop. The Varroa level had not increased again very much and was only about 1 %.

The SC part of the Carnica bees 2015

The SC colonies had 0.3% and 1% varroa level respectively. In beginning of June a so called walk away split was made from one of the SC-colonies. The new queen then of course mated to very closely related drones.

The strongest SC-colony gave a small crop.

In September the SC-colonies still had only around 1% Varroa level. None of the colonies got any treatment in the autumn due to the low varroa levels. The SC-colonies thus got no treatment at all in 2015.

The Carnica bees 2016

The LC part of the Carnica bees 2016

The weakest of thee LC colonies didn’t make it through winter. The second one looked fine in May.

The weather was then rainy and chilly for several weeks, and when the beekeeper returned in late May to monitor varroa levels, in the remaining LC-colony he only found some dead brood and a few dead bees on the bottom.

The SC part of the Carnica bees 2016

In spring 2016 the now three SC-colonies were doing fine, two of them though small in size.

In the three SC-colonies the varroa levels were 3-4% in late May and some crippled winged bees appeared. Thymol pads were applied in June. A walk away split was made from the strongest SC-colony. The weather was unfavorable and the other three robbed the split. It thus died.

In September the three SC-colonies looked fine and got no treatment. The bees superceded the three year old queen.

The Carnica bees 2016-2017

The three SC-colonies were moved to an apiary with better resources for nectar and pollen. Some more pure bred Carnica queens were received in 2016. They will be used to biuld up the test apiaries again. Daughters will be bred from these and mated in the apiary with drones from the survivor colonies of the SC bees.

The whole season of 2016 was bad in producing nectar and pollen. The colonies had a hard time growing in size. It was late in the season when complementary feeding in preparation for winter was done that they grew somewhat in strength. That was the reason these bees were moved to a better place for food.

All three colonies actually were weaker than wanted going into winter. Two colonies made it through winter. The third and weakest died. This colony had probably survived if it had been fed honey (or fondant) and pollen during the worst nectar- and pollen drought periods.

 

ELGON

Six Elgon colonies of two different mother lines divided in two groups with 3 colonies each were set up. These groups were placed in a deeply forested area with a small farm in the neighbourhood. The two groups were placed about 700 meters from each other. One group got Mann Lake’s standard plastic frame with small cells (SC), 4.95 mm cell size. The other got Anel plastic frames with Large cells (LC), 5.5 mm.

Two sister groups were used. One sister group consisted of 4 queens, 2 SC and 2 LC. The other sister group had two queens, 1 SC and 1 LC. Frame size is medium, (448 x 159 mm). Hive type with well insulated styren plastic boxes.

The Elgon bees 2014-2015

The Elgon groups were established with new queens in 2014 and transfered successfully to Mann Lake’s 4.9 and with big difficulties to Anels 5.5.

The queens in the LC colonies were very hesitant to lay in their large cells. One queen totally refused.The broodnest of that queen consisted of only two shallow SC-frames. The resulting colony was of course small going into winter in 2014, but it wintered together with the other two LC colonies in their test apiary.

Most of the colonies, SC and LC, were treated in 2014 with thymol but mostly only in May. So this Elgon test groups of 3+3 were not managed in regard to the Varroa mites, similar to the Carnica groups. In the Carnica colonies the varroa populations were evened out between them, by treating them with home made thymol pads in September 2014.

The Elgon test colonies were taken from different apiaries and the varroa level in the colonies were not known when they were brought to the test site in late August. Earlier in 2014 the colonies who had wingless bees were treated with thymol, in May that was.

The LC part of the Elgon bees 2014-2015

In spring 2015 the Elgon LC group continued to create problems as the bees protested against using LC combs for brood by supersedure their queens, probably in an adaption process.

In April before grafting time and any drones were flying one LC-colony was queenless. The new virgin queen had of course failed to mate and was gone. I combined the queenless colony with the mini colony (the one with the queen that had refused to lay but in the two shallows). This queen still refused to lay in any other comb than the two shallows, so I tried to fool them by giving them a couple of 5.3 mm cell sized plastic frames on each side of the SC combs. That worked. When the 5.3 were filled on each side of the 4.9 they started on the 5.5 next to the 5.3.

It seems it is the workers that prepare the cells for laying, not the queens that are deciding in which cells to lay. (This experience is also in line with what is written in old books from beginning of 1900, that when broodnest have 5.1 you could use 5.6 in honey supers without excluder as the queen didn’t lay in the 5.6.)

In late April 2015 the third (now the second as the other two were combined) LC-colony had a virgin. They were also trying to supersedure their queen. No drones available yet. So she failed. The colony got a queen cell in second half of May. That queen got laying. This colony had 5% varroa level in August and got thymol.

The first colony (former first and second combined) got a small piece of thymol (actually both parts that were combined got half a piece each) early in spring to help against eventual patoghen problems as they had different kind of problems (weak but queenright and queenless). This colony showed only 0.3% Varroa level in August and got no treatment.

The SC part of the Elgon bees 2014-2015

In 2015 the three Elgon SC colonies developed well. Splits were made from two of them. One failed, but finally got a laying queen very late in season. It ended up weak. It was lost during coming winter, the only loss of the Elgons. The smallest of the overwintered colonies had a queen that was laying badly. It was killed and replaced by a ripe queencell.

Four of the now five colonies showed crippled winged bees in July and had Varroa levels between 2-7%. Even the 2% colony showed a few DWV-bees telling me the virus levels in the colonies were quite high. One 3% had no DWV, the weak one mentioned above and it was the only one that didn’t get treatment.

Because the varroa populations in the colonies weren’t allowed to grow strongly (still there were enough viruses in 2015 after years of somewhat higher varroa and virus pressure in the Elgon apiaries of Erik Österlund), the virus amounts in the colonies decreased and also there was no silent robbery. And the varroa populations were evened out at a low level. Thus the situation now was much more comparable with the varroalevels in the Carnica colonies in autumn 2014

The Elgon bees had better nectar flows than the Carnica in 2015 and the Elgon colonies gave a good crop from the Heather in 2015. The average crop was about the same for both SC and LC colonies. In August none of the SC Elgons had above 3% varroa level. They had 0%-3%, and got no more thymol. No colony swarmed in any of the test apiaries.

The Elgon bees 2016

In spring 2016 one of the Elgons, the very weak one in the SC-group died (as mentioned above). Both LC colonies survived.

The LC part of the Elgon bees 2016

In the LC-group splits were made from both colonies. Weather was bad and one failed to produce a laying queen. It got a new ripe queen cell. The parts with the ”old” queens (from the year before) both superseded their queens, in line with experiences in 2015. This year they waited until beginning of summer when there were drones around. Maybe the bees had adapted somewhat to LC now.

The season of 2016 was very bad so no crop was secured from the LC-group. In spring the varroa levels were 0.3% in all four colonies (they became four after splitting in late May). In early September it was 0% – 8.6% – 0.9% – 4%. The two with highest levels were treated with thymol. The other two not. We can see that two colonies had very low levels of Varroa mites. This indicates a good genetic set up for Varroa resistance, also to be able to work with large cells apparently. The queens in the colonies with low Varroa level are sisters, mated in the test apiary. They are daughters to one of the colonies in the apiary, one in a split. The other as a result of supersedure in the mother colony producing this split.

The SC part of the Elgon bees 2016

The four remaining colonies in the SC-group gave a split each. Season was bad and two of the splits failed. A small crop was secured from the strongest of the colonies.

The two colonies with two year old queens supersedured these later in season. The 6 colonies all had 0.3% varroa levels in spring. In August the varroa levels were between 0-1.7%. As we had decided not to keep more than five colonies in each of the four parts of the test, colony no 6 of the SC-ones (the one with 1.7%) was removed from the test area. It wastreated with a small amount of formic acid to get an idea of the mite load and also test the shaker method. It fell 10 mites in a couple of days. The other 5 colonies remaining at the test site didn’t get any treatment.

The Elgon bees in the beginning of 2017

All four colonies in the LC group wintered well, in spite of that two of them were almost too weak, those that had had the highest Varroa levels and been treated.

One of the five SC colonies defecated a lot on the outside of the hive, though not much inside. They did not have a large amount of honey left for winter the previous autumn. And it was of good wintering quality. The winter before all colonies had had a large amount of difficult winter honey, from heather. The colony that died was the strongest and smallest Varroa level. It measured 0% on 400 bees. The was a good amount of food left in the hive after it had died. The colony had an old queen, and just a few meters there had been quite some traffic during late winter from a tree harvester. The other colonies looked fine, with almost no defecation.

Harvest and Varroa level 2015 and 2016 in SC and LC parts of the Carnica bees. The sites for Carnica and Elgon bees are not comparable as the Carnica site was didn’t have the same amount of food sources. Click on the picture to get it bigger and of better quality.

 

Harvest and Varroa level 2015 and 2016 in the SC and LC parts of the Elgon bees.

RESULTS

Losses

The losses in the Elgon groups have been quite normal, on the lower side. It has in percentage been higher in the Carnica groups, especially among the LC bees. The higher amount of losses can be explained by the low availability of pollen and nectar, especially during 2016. That’s why the test site for the Carnica bees has been moved. One conclusion is that during times with small amounts of available pollen and nectar a solution could be to feed the colonies fondant/honey and pollen to develop healthier and stronger colonies better adapted to survive winter.

The strategy of 3 %

The strategy to measure the Varroa level a couple of times during the season and use Varroa treatment (dish cloth pads, about 50 x 58 x 1.5 mm [2”x2”x1/16”], drenched in thymol) when/if the Varroa level is higher than 3 % (only treatmnent in these colonies, not in those below 3 %) has minimized reinfestation, maybe altogether. You thus get a true picture of the Varroa level in the colonies and thus a better selection of the most resistant colonies and the most susceptible ones. You could for example have expected that the different cell size groups had affected each other so that eventual difference in the varroa levels had evened out, especially among the Carnica bees as the two groups there were only 30 m apart.

Little need for Varroa treatment

Relatively little of Varroa treatment has been used, probably partly explained by the absence of reinfestation, no silent robbing. Most treatment has been used in the LC colonies of both the Elgon (2016 when reinfestation had been removed) and Carnica (2015, in 2016 there was no LC left) colonies.

The strategy of 3 % seems to have eliminated the need of Varroa treatment in the SC part of the Elgon bees due to elimination of reinfestation and enough good development of the varroa resistance with the Elgon bees.

This strategy has also lessened the need for varroa treatment to every second year with the SC part of the Carnica colonies and the need for treatment then has been small. Thymol in this context has been effective.

Cell size and fitness

In the LC part of the Carnica bees the need for treatment has been bigger probably because of a quicker development of the Varroa population. It seems fitness has been lower here probably partly due to the bad pollen and nectar availability. But fitness may also be lower because of other reasons. The Carnica LC colony that died in May did not die due to high varroa level. Lack of protein and/or other pathogens (like nosema) can be the cause. The Carnica test site is moved to a place with better food sources.

One can object to this conclusion of lower fitness for LC bees because the number of colonies are low.

On the other hand were all original queens in the Carnica group sisters and all colonies in SC and LC groups (Elgon and Carnica) are behaving consistent in this respect. And any difference in fitness between the two cell size groups among the Carnica bees should have been to the advantage of the LC colonies because the SC colonies had become inbred. Usually follows a lower immune system with inbreeding. Possible impact of this small distance would have been small(-er) difference in the varroa levels between the two groups due to evening out of the varroa populations. The 3% strategy, measuring varroa levels and treatment when it was above 3%, lowered the varroa populations enough to eliminate (totally or enough) the silent robbery.

In 2016 the only colonies that needed treatment were in the LC colonies of the Elgon bees. It should though be noted that with a stock of bees that have been selected for Varroa resistance it is possible to find colonies that are resistant also on large cells. Two colonies (with sisters queens) had very low levels of Varroa mites.

The honey crops, the bee strength of the colonies indicates, and the resulting number of colonies in the SC and LC parts of the stocks of bees indicates that it is no disadvantage to use small cells in the broodnest, rather the contrary.

 Summary of production of new bee colonies, increase in the number of wintered bee colonies. These figures could be seen as a measure of the vitality of the different cell size groups. There is a difference to the benefit of SC bees both in the E group (Elgon bees) and the C group (Carnica bees). Click on the pictures to get them bigger and of better quality.

 

Suggestion on a breeding program for increasing Varroa resistance in a bee population. The background for these suggestion is the results of this project, so far.

 

1500 Varroa Treatment Free

  South Dakota is Buffalo and Indian land in the northern part of the Midwest.

I talked to Chris Baldwin some time ago. He is a commercial beekeeper running about 1500 bee colonies. In summer his bees are closer to his home in South Dakota. In February they pollinate Almonds in California. After that they are going to east Texas for queen breeding and splitting. Focus in handling the mites is not eliminating the mites, says Chris. It’s eliminating susceptible bees.

 Beginning of November the bees go to Texas for winter. February 1 to California for Almond pollination. March to Texas for splitting and supering. May to South Dakota for honey. (Basic map illusttration: http-//d-maps.com_carte.php?num_car=5184&lang=en)

Chris hasn’t been treating his bees against mites for more than ten years. Last Coumaphos 2003, Only Oxalic 2004 and 2005. Nothing in 2006 and finally Thymol in 2007. After that nothing. He’s loosing bees yes, but not because of mites really. He’s keeping bees like bees were kept before the arrival of the Varroa mite. When he talked to another commercial beekeeper recently, his comment about Chris’ bees was that they probably could handle all farmers chemicals better as they didn’t had to deal with miticides as well in their hives.

Blacklisted

When he shares his experiences with others he is many times surprised of the response, or lack of response. Maybe some think he’s earning money on selling queens from his “pretended varroa resistant bee stock”. Maybe because almost all(?) scientists say you must treat against mites to get your bees to survive. But Chris don’t do that. He lives on his bees producing honey and pollinating crops.

There are so many examples now of treatment free operations for many years that we can write down a working plan to produce resistant stocks. It’s not telling the whole truth leaving out the growing number of treatment free beekeepers and their working plans for their success.

When he talks to scientists, many well known, about his bees, they look kind of strange in silence for a while and then walk away. They don’t show up at his yards wanting to investigate his bees and methods to find out more, as you would expect.

Chris has good references, the bee inspectors in his areas in South Dakota and Texas.

Once he had a columnist from a bee journal showing up asking and looking at his operation. I’m sure the readers would have loved to know more about how Chris is managing his bees. But he’s doing many things the opposite way to what many times is preached from the front.

No wonder he said to me he feels like he’s blacklisted. By whom and why, if that’s the case?

A bigger picture

After some additional communication with Chris about his operation the picture gets more clear and gives more food for thought. It’s really interesting and valuable to put his experiences and management system beside others’ to get a better understanding of our fascinating honey bee and what it means to us as an economic resource and understanding its role in nature.

California in February

Chris may well be the only big commercial beekeeper focused on pollination services that is treatment free when it comes too the Varroa mite. His bees are exposed to agricultural chemicals, drifting of other beekeepers’ bees into his colonies (which may well bring mites and pathogens of different kinds) and his bees visiting weakened hives to rob from (and pick up mites and pathogens).

It’s not difficult to understand that his bees might well have problems due to this. Pathogens like nosema, plus chemical residues from spraying of the almonds for example and extra mites and viruses picked up will make life hard for the bees when they go back east Texas in March after almond pollination in California.

  After pollination in California the bees go to Texas, here ready for supering.

Texas in March

The colonies return to Texas in late March. There they are supered for growth and maybe honey production. April flows in Texas are unpredictable.

Not all colonies went to California from Texas February 1 for pollination of the almonds. The remainder are scattered to out yards for buildup and also prepared for cellbuilding, which begins in early March in Texas. Nucs are made in March and April.

Africanization is not a problem in east Texas and his number of hives is big. So his drones dominate the air well. Also there are few fives from other beekeepers in his area.

 Preparing cellbuilders in early March with colonies that stayed in Texas when the main part went to California.

Securing cellbuilding

In a commercial operation every part in the system have to work good enough to make the system work and bring food on the table. One part that is maybe more critical than others is cellbuilding in the queen breeding part.

European Foulbrood has grown to a persistent problem in America. It may well bee due to increasing amounts of chemical residues in for example wax combs putting higher pressure on the immune system of the bees.

Chris will not have the chemical residues from miticides, which may well help his bees keep a better standard on their immune system than bees in other commercial outfits. Still he can during springtime at just the time of cellbuilding experience some problems from European Foulbrood. To be sure he will be able to produce the number of queen cells he needs, he gives the colonies involved some tetracycline in spring. That takes care of this problem efficiently. This is the only drug he uses.

 Colonies prepared for going from Texas to South Dakota for honey production during summer.

Summer in South Dakota

Colonies that have collected enough of honey for a food reserve are shipped to South Dakota for the clover flow, starting early May. Or they may stay in Texas longer for the Chinese Tallow tree bloom. It is often a difficult decision which will give the best flow.

 After harvest in October iSouth Dakota. Honey supers are removed.

Winter in Texas

Harvesting of honey may begin in July and go through October in South Dakota. The bees are fed if necessary, then shipped to Texas early November, hopefully before the first blizzard in South Dakota.

 544 colonies loaded for transport from South Dakota to Texas in November. Another 544 colonies are waiting to be loaded.

Annual losses

During summer about 20% of the colonies are lost due to queen problems. At least partly these queen problems may come from the rough circumstances in the pollination services environment. Pathogens and chemicals picked up there. In January the die offs are taken care off, as well as the bees alive. If necessary colonies are fed. Winterlosses and losses experienced after the almonds in California can together be 10-20%.

This makes a total annual loss of about 40%, which these days is the average in America, wheather you treat against mites or not. Quite some years ago now Chris had a “CCD-year” with 70% losses. But weather was favorable and he could recover colony numbers from remaining colonies in one season.

40% losses is a little too high, but up to 30% are okey for Chris in his management system. Actually some amount of losses are more or less needed to weed out the worst colonies and multiply the best to improve the stock continuously and keep the numbers stable. Also to minimize the swarming through making nucs. He is not into selling colonies or queens. He gets his income from pollination services and honey production.

Hive configuration

Beekeepers love to discuss different details in their management system. One is the hive configuration. And you can have quite animated discussions going on concerning how good or bad this or that part is, for example 8 or 10 frame boxes and medium or Langstroth boxes. What you many times forget is that each part of a management system, including the hive configurtaion’s different parts, is a result of this whole management system in which each part fits well enough for the beekeeper. If you change one part, you may have to change also other parts to make the system work well for you. And special circumstances for you may play a role why you have chosen the solutions you use.

Chris Baldwin uses a 10-frame system with a shallow box (5 & 11/16”; frame 448 x 137 mm) on the bottom. It is always there. It’s kind of an expansion space which the bees use as they want, more or less without control from the beekeeper. The bees remodel, tear down and build back, the combs in the frames there. Sometimes they are bad in shape, sometimes a lot of drone comb, sometimes good looking well used by the bees.

The next box is a Langstroth deep with 9 combs (frame 448 x 232 mm) and a plastic division feeder. It’s tight, but that keeps out burr comb. When moving combs the feeder is first taken out to make space for easier handling. This is the broodnest all the time. Then comes the queen excluder. The supers are normally 8 combs in 10 frame deep boxes and medium boxes (the latter frame 448 x 159 mm) with metal spacers. Almost no plastic combs are used, but wired wax foundation in wooden frames, since many years.

The bees

Colonies can grow very big on this set up. His bees uses the combs for brood efficiently. They are much more conservative, frugal with food reserves, than common Italians in America. He has always liked the darker kind of bees, Caucasian and Carniolan types. Today he has all colors. He started selecting among his bees creating his own stock many years ago. When the Russians came on the scene he started buying breeder queens of those and they changed the game concerning Varroa resistance. He refers to his friend Kirk Webster having the same experience using Russians.

Old combs

He uses no system for wax renewal. Well, he does in a way. After the queen breeding and nuc season is over, when a colony dwindle, for example looses its queen or having a failing queen, he doesn’t have any queen cells to save such colonies.

Broodnest boxes, deeps and shallows from these failing colonies go on top on other colonies as honey supers. After harvesting these boxes are extracted separately. The uncapper has adjustable cutting depths. When extracting brood combs he sets the uncapper on the deepest cut settings. It really cleans up the oldest nastiest comb.

Many of his brood nest boxes stay out in the field for years, but a certain number do get extracted and thus cleaned up quite a bit. He only cull combs that look horrible or have broken frames. Most of his combs are more than forty years old.

Nucs

He in first place uses the extracted brood combs when making nucs. He starts the nucs with three good deep brood frames and fills up the box with extracted deep combs and maybe a food comb. This box is put on a shallow extracted box. The nuc gets a ripe queen cell and maybe a good feed.

Broodnest

This hive setup, which has a smaller brood nest than many others use (many use two deeps), works fine in his management system. As annual losses are somewhat high (which is the “normal” average in America) many nucs are made. Still the colonies have time to grow to be strong enough for both pollination and honey production. And this is done just perfect with this 1 and ½ box broodnest setup. When he moves hives, he can take a bigger number, 4 stories with 4 hives on a pallet, 544 on a truckload.

Cellsize

Chris doesn’t really care about cellsize. If he did he maybe would have to change management system when it comes to wax renewal. He hasn’t found any reason for using more labor in this part of his beekeeping.

So what is the cellsize in his combs? Today when he buys wooden frames with plasic foundation (these are cheapest and quickest to get at work into the system), most common is 5.4 mm, to begin with. Forty years ago who knows, maybe 5.2 mm was what was bought, (sizes 5.1-5.6 was available). But during the years cell volume has shrinked of course due cocoon residues. When old combs have been cut down, the cell bottoms have been left untouched. The parts of the combs closest to the midribs are “smaller cell” still, by the added cocoon residues. But the compactness of a real small cell comb is not there (more cells per area unit).

Living life

Beekeeping makes you nature focused and Chris often observes wildlife while working the bees. Deer, antelope, hawks, eagles, owls, praire dogs, coyotes, pheasants, grouse, badgers and so on. He once saw six bull elk out on the praire. At another time a golden eagle carried off a coyote. The land in South Dakota isn’t as flat as it appears many times, but it’s so treeless that you often can see horizon to horizon.

What about next season then? Weather comes up differing with cold and heat, drought and rain. And we need rain too besides sun. Next season will always be better!

Chris Baldwin is doing his share in putting food on the table in US through his bees’ pollination services, and yes, somewhat also on many other tables around the world that import almonds.

Reworked website with new info

Hello dear beekeepers!

I’ve been reworking my old website. not my blogs. The English part became ready enough to be published and I launched it on http://elgon.es

elgon-website

There are quite some new material there. In the article “Resistance breeding” some of the experiences from 2016, very positive and quite important experiences. On that topic there will be more info later on.

This website is so called responsive, which most are these days. It means that it automatically adapt to different screen sizes, down to that of a cell phone. It’s made with and easy working and free app called Rocket Cake.

Lasting learning?

In one of the recent blogposts I wrote about non-resistant bee colonies against varoa mite, learning from resistant worker bees how to deal with the mites and being resistant. It seems now that these colonies that has learned resistance have to have worker bees from genetically resistant colonies drifting into them continuously to stay resistant.

This resistance went on for at least a couple of years. I referred to experiences of Hans-Otto Johnsen and Terje Reinertsen (http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=880)in Norway and Magnus Kranshammar (http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=890)in Sweden.

A.) In the Norwegian cases colonies with queens from non-resistant stock originally were kept in apiaries together with resistant bee colonies. Bees are kept on small cells.

B.) In Magnus’ case it was somewhat similar as the colony of the original queen, which was the result of genetically selected resistance, and splits from it with queens of originally non-resistant stock, were kept in the same apiary. The total number of colonies was not big here. These bees were kept on large cells.

A.) A couple of years ago Hans-Otto started a variety of the first tests he made mentioned in the blogpost above. He introduced virgin queens of non-resistant stock into splits from his Elgon-stock. In this test he didn’t place these new colonies in apiaries together with his resistant stock. Instead he placed them in an apiary of their own in the forest, a lot more than 2 miles (3 km) from other bees. For two years these colonies functioned without problems concerning Varroa.

This autumn they all showed crippled winged bees. He made a test with the Bee Shaker (http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=794). About 35 mites from 300 bees. 11-12% Varroa level. Probably there was resistance in the colonies at least the first year as long as the old worker bees were alive.

In an apiary all colonies will share more or less worker bees with each other. The whole apiary works more or less together. This depends of course also on how much worker bees from different colonies drift. In an apiary with resistant colonies, bees from resistant colonies will help keeping non-resistant colonies resistant. (And if the non-resistant colonies are many compared to for example a single resistant, this may create problems for the resistant one.)

B.) Two splits from a colony with a queen of non-resistant stock, which anyway were resistant, were moved to an apiary of their own in a forest about 2 miles (3 km) from other bees.

The mother colony of the splits was kept in the same apiary as the colony with a resistant queen (which was still alive this year). It was this resistant queen’s colony that gave bees to this mother colony of the described splits. So you could expect some drifting had occurred with resistant worker bees now living in the colony with the non-resistant queen. Thus some good resistant worker bees were living in the splits as well to begin with, until they died their natural death.

Drones from the non-resistant queen of the mother colony of the splits were of course present in these. But of course there were also drones in some colonies 2 miles (3 km) away. Those colonies were of Elgon heritage, but not of the very best variety of resistant stock. The splits got virgin queens from an Elgon colony of good resistant quality. The Varroa level was initially very low in the splits, about 0.3% (without treatment this year or the previous year).

The splits developed very well after the queens were mated and laying. In the beginning of September the Varroa level was 2% and 3.3% respectively. It had increased more than expected, but was not alarmingly high. The cell size in those splits was initially 5.4 mm, that is large cell size. (Resistant thus in spite of the large cells.) The story of those bees are told here: http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=890. But the virgins came from established small cell size colonies since many years. The plastic combs used for increase were small cell. The 3.3% part had relatively somewhat more left of large cell combs.

131mk1 One of the splits in case B. The original large cell combs are of an old Swedish (as well as an American) size, 12”x12” (30 x 30 cm). With the help of adapters these combs are placed in boxes which hold Jumbo sized frames (448 x 286 mm) plus a deeper bottom board. The combs used for increase are small cell plastic Langstroth from Mann Lake (http://www.mannlakeltd.com/beekeeping-supplies/category/page19.html).

C.) In a project that has been going for a couple of years now, one apiary was placed a lot more than 2 miles (3 km) from other bees. The queens were of non-Elgon, non-resistant, large cell bees. They were introduced into Elgon colonies on small cells in 2013. In autumn 2014 they were moved to their test apiary and treated with a small amount of Thymol to ensure an in the test initially small and quite even population of Varroa mites. They had during 2014 been standing in apiaries with Elgon colonies. Thus probably containing some drifted Elgon worker bees. The test apiary was poor from a nectar point of view. In 2015 the Varroa level in autumn was low, around 1%. A split was made during 2015 and queens shifted to daughters made in the split in two of the units. The virgins were mated in this apiary. One of the originally queens, all had been sisters initially, were still left in its colony. The new queens were of course very inbred as the available drones were very closely related to the virgins.

In the middle of the summer 2016 the Varroa level was 3-4%. A couple of weeks later all three colonies showed crippled winged bees. They were treated with two pads with 5gr Thymol each (once) after which they recovered.

Conclusions

The experiences given here makes it probable that there are more than one component necessary for a queen of a non-resistant stock to have a resistant colony. First the colony with a non-resistant queen must become resistant. It can become resistant quickly in two ways. (One may ask whether it is desirable to deliberately do this.)

1.) Worker bees from a resistant colony can be united with a non-resistant colony through shifting the places of a resistant and a non-resistant colony. Most of the other colones in the apiary are resistant. It is uncertain how many of the colonies that should be genetically resistant.

2.) Splitting a resistant colony and giving the split(s) virgin or laying queens of non-resistant stock.

To maintain this resistance achieved, still with a queen of non-resistant stock in the colony, when the first resistant worker bees that came along with the splits are worn out and dead, new resistant worker bees have to come into the colony in some way. (Resistant worker bees are bees in colonies that show resistant behavior to such an extent that their colony can rid themselves of mites through different kind of hygienic traits.) It seems the number of resistant worker bees needed to come from other colonyies “per time unit”, are not very many. By just keeping the colony in an apiary with resistant colonies this seems to be achieved, probably through drifting of worker bees between the colonies in the apiary.

In all cases above, A, B and C there were no new resistant worker bees drifting into the colonies. In case B though virgin queens from a resistant queen were introduced, but no new bees from the original resistant stock were re-introduced. Instead new workers with probably better genetic set-up for resistance were born. But there were now probably no, or very few, resistant worker bees left that could teach newborn bees. At least this is a conclusion that is close at hand, to explain the increase of the Varroa level. It will be interesting to see what will happen further on in these two colonies. Hopefully the virgins were mated to other drones than those that came along in the splits from the genetically non-resistant queen.

No shortcut

It is thus no shortcut to get resistant bees, to split genetically resistant colonies and introduce whatever kind of queens into those splits (of non-resistant heritage)! What these experiences tell us is how important it is to increase your number of colonies and replacing the dead outs by splitting the best resistant colonies. The very best might many times be to let those splits raise their own queens. And in addition to this breed queens from good resistant colonies of good heritage in being resistant.

Reinvasion is worst

Last year 2015 was a bad year for the bees in more than one respect. Long cold spring and bad summer. But late summer was good as was the autumn. The bees could recover and prepare for next year.

Fresh pollen was low in spring 2015 . The immune system wasn’t at its best. And the bees couldn’t fly as much as they needed. Where nosema was present it could infect new bees instead of disappear with sick bees as those couldn’t make it back to the hive.

I treated more hives and used more Thymol last year than I had done earlier years. Early in the season I saw what was coming and decided to try some new strategies to get forward on the path to better Varroa resistance and finally get rid of chemicals.

Leif Hjalmarsson

Very often I have reminded myself of the experiences from an apiary of Leif Hjalmarsson in the southern part of Sweden. He got 5 Elgon queens from me already in 1997 and established an apiary at least 2 miles from other bees. The bees to which he introduced the queens had been treated with Apistan for about 5 years and were very low in number of mites. The bees had probably been adapted somewhat to the presence of the mite. Leif used large cell size, 5.4 mm. He never had to use any miticide on those bees until he died early this year. I do miss him! He was dear friend and a good beekeeper.

Already when we started to combine the Monticola bee with our Swedish bees there could be seen resistance traits. Therefore I had hoped that Varroa mites would be no problems when they arrived in my apiaries. This would not be the case. Even though I had as well regressed my bees to small cell size, 4.9 mm.

I have been wondering since 2008 when the mite started to create problems, why they were a problem for my bees with me, but not for “my” bees with Leif? Last year I decided I had to let the fact that Leif Hjalmarsson established this apiary of his more than 2 miles from other bees affect how I designed my bee management. I want of course to get better resistance with my bees in my apiaries.

A lot of focus had to be put on avoiding reinvasion, bees picking up mites from colonies with high infestation level of mites, within my own apiaries and others within about 1.5 miles.

Better selection 2015

But the difficult circumstances for the bees last year also meant that selection pressure was stronger and it was easier to choose a good breeder, if there was any. And there were good breeders, especially colony S241 which I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, but also C243. I introduced many new queens in my colonies last year, especially from S241. I had only found one mite in S241 in the brood when I tried to found out the VSH degree. And that mite had no offspring.

1. Project 1, 3 miles from other bees in a forested area started in autumn 2014. I had not treated the colonies in this project in that autumn when the project apiary was established. During 2015 I treated a couple of colonies when they showed crippled winged bees. The varroa level was not alarmingly high, so virus effects came early in infestation. Evidently reinvasion from the colonies with DWV didn’t occur very much to the other colonies in the project apiary, as in autumn 2015 varroa level was low in all colonies. Varroa level was also very low this spring 2016, and so it is now late in summer 2016.

Bee shaker1 The Bee Shaker is a valuable tool in getting a quick and easy figure of the Varroa level in the bee colonies in an apiary. Type in the search box: Bee Shaker – at the top of this blog, and you will find more info about it.

2. Project 2 started late summer 2015 as I treated all colonies in an apiary 1.5 miles from other bees of mine with an effective pesticide/miticide in August that year (I hated to do use it), to mimic somewhat how the apiary of Hjalmarsson was established. The varroa level now in August 2016 was surprisingly low, almost not detectable. It was in this apiary I had planned to reduce Varroa level by removing all capped brood frames twice with a week in between, in those colonies showing higher Varroa level than 3%. The highest level now in August was 0.3%.

Bee shaker2 The Bee Shaker will help you to decide if any colonies has to be removed (or any other action taken) from your apiary in which you are developing the Varroa resistance in your bees. It’s a simple and quick method, but you kill 300 bees. That is though nothing compared to numerous bees dying if you do nothing. Viruses and mites killing thousands of bees besides the normal die offs from worn out bees in their daily work, where tens of thousands of bees are dying.

3. Those colonies I decided last year I would shift queens in this year, I treated with thymol in April/May this spring even if they showed no signs of Varroa or virus symptoms. With this I think I secured that those colonies wouldn’t produce mites that could reinvade the other colonies in the apiary. These kind of apiaries are the most numerous of mine. I have not checked the varroa level in all colonies spring and late summer in these apiaries.

Up til now in late August 2016 I have found this odd colony in just a few apiaries, showing one wingless bee. I have tested those colonies with the bee shaker for the Varroa level and only found a few colonies with a Varroa level higher than 3 %.

In one apiary I had this colony with a decreasing varroa level during the season. Three weeks after the early August measurement with just above 1 % Varroa level, I made a new measurement. Now it showed 5 %! Too many mites for the colony to have produced it during these three weeks. Less than a mile away there is another beekeeper, with Elgon bees, but not selected for Varroa resistance for some years. No wingless bees. The colony had probably picked up the many mites from one of his colonies. I didn’t treat, but gave it a sticky board on the bottom to check the natural downfall. And a new Varroa level check will be done in a month. Hopefully this colony will be able to reduce the Varroa level. We’ll see.

An apiary at the edge

Let’s look at one apiary at the edge of “my” Elgon area. With that I mean that drones from other beekeepers’ bees can influence the matings of virgin queens. Also the risk of reinvasion is of course higher. Last year was of course not only difficult for my bees but also for the bees of other beekeepers. In this apiary I treated two colonies quite a lot last year, and also this spring and shifted their queens. The other colonies in this apiary has not been treated this year. But they were all treated last year with Thymol. Now in August I saw a bee that looked like it had the beginning of wings being crippled in one of those colonies. So I tested the Varroa level, 4 mites in 350 bees = 1.1 % Varroa level. It got no treatment of course. Very pleasing result.

A couple of small apiaries

I have a couple of small apiaries in which I checked all colonies with the Bee shaker in spring this year, 0 or a couple of mites in 300 bees. No colonies treated this spring as I didn’t plan to shift any queens this year. I had shifted some last year. I checked these apiaries now in August.

In one of the small apiaries with two colonies and a split I found 4 mites in one of the big colonies and 32 (!) in 300 bees in the other. This was too many in the later colony for it to be able to produce them by itself. No crippled winged bees. Also a sign of that those mites were picked up from somewhere else. This colony had a history of needing Thymol every year, so I chose to treat with Thymol and am planning to finally shift the queen next year. 500 meter away is double the amount of hives of another beekeeper (with Elgon bees which were not from my selection in recent years). He had had problems with one of his colonies.

The situation in the other small apiary will be described later in a blogg post of its own.

Avoid reinvasion when bees adapt

The conclusion is that it’s very important to avoid reinvasion of mites when your bees are developing their ability to control the Varroa mites. They need mites to do that, but no or few extra mites from other colnies that makes it more difficult for them to survive.

On the other hand can the explanation for the better varroa resistance with my bees, as it seems, partly be explained by the fact that I shifted quite some queens last year to S241-daughters. Bess from their colonies will drift somewhat into other colonies, as bees from all colonies do. In this case these drifted bees may well help controlling the Varroa level and possibly also teaching the original bees of the colony to fight mites better.

Genetics is of course important when bees adapt, changes in the composition of the DNA. Selection by culling the worst and multiplying the best. But bees adapt too quickly for the genetic changes to explain in all. Epigentic changes is of uttermost importance here, changes how the existing DNA is expressed, how it’s used. It’s impossible to explain the resistance developing in S. America and S. Africa in about 5 years in any other way. As epigenetic changes occur when environmental changes act upon the chemical environment closest to the bees. The precense of the Varroa causes chemical changes in the bees, in the brood cells, etc. These epigenetical changes are inherited to next generations until new environmental changes cause other epigenetical changes. We understand that chemical help against Varroa will hinder the bees’ own control mechanisms to develop fully. There will be a balance act of avoiding all kinds of miticides as much as possible without letting the bee colonies die. Avoiding reinvasion will be very important then helping the bees developing their control mechanisms fully.

As was pointed out in a previous blog post, my bees are held on small cells, which may contribute to the very low overall mite level. The mite level in Leif Hjalmarsson’s apiary he didn’t treat for many years was at least in the beginning when we measured substantially higher. He used large cells.

I’m convinced that when the bees have learnt how to control mites effectively they can handle reinavsion of mites as well, maybe also in larger numbers. I would call that VISH (Varroa Intruder Sensitive Hygiene.:)) I suspect this can take some years. Then they probably sometimes need some reinvasion to keep their skill at a high level.