Cooperation in the Elgon area

Some years ago, varroa resistance had risen noticeably on my Elgon bees. Then I started to give away some breeder queens to the neighboring beekeepers. And they promised to graft from them to make new queens. In particular, Stig-Åke Gerdvall (board member of our association) and Peter Tesell (chairman). Radim Gavlovsky, who I began to cooperate with in queen breeding , took as many queen pupae and laying queens as he needed. This had of course also to fit into queen production for my own part and for the customers. The neighboring beekeepers in the local association already had Elgon bees, but now they were able to take part of the breeding successes faster and thus help to spread better drones in a more massive way in the area.  (Click on the pictures to make them bigger, then click on the back arrow in the browser to get back to the text again.)

Share it – it will contribute back

I had tried a similar strategy earlier and it worked. Then, queens were tried in varroa infested areas, before the Varroa arrived in my area. And I could bring back valuable breeding material in the form of pieces of combs with young larvae to graft from.

Less reinvasion – reduced varroa pressure

Obviously, good bee colonies in the Elgon are many enough and have now helped each other to keep down the Varroa pressure in the surroundings. Individual colonies with maybe too many mites have not been able to start strong domino effects by contributing too much of reinvasion of mites. Reinvasion brought about by more resistant colonies who silently rob those being richer in Varroa mites.

 (Photo: R Oliver)

Bee shaker test (alcohol test)

A couple of years ago, we also began to be more careful making bee shaker test and treat as soon as varroa levels were higher than 9 mites from 1 dl of bees, at least (about) 300 bees. Checked at least spring and summer.

The Elgon area

This has resulted in a very nice result. An area (about 15 x 10 km) in the center of the entire elgon area (about 50 x 10 km) which contains about 350 elgon colonies (in the center area) of good quality, and no other types of bees. Here, most of our queens are mated. Only about 50 of these colonies needed to be treated against varroa this year. There are probably more than 900 elgon colonies in the entire elgon area. Most of them has Thomas Dahl with 300. Johan Ingjald is increasing his numbers. There are several engaged new beekeepers going up in numbers.

Courses and support

Stig-Åke Gerdvall and Johan Ingjald (TBH-expert) hold beginners courses and queen breeding courses in our local association. They help the participants to get new good colonies, and to help them find good places to mate their new virgin queens. We have also organized a mating site for mini nucs which Peter Tesell manage.

Good figures

The annual losses are about 10% in the area. The harvests are good, and of course, vary with the availability of nectar in the various parts of the area. To the east, it is a problem to produce low crops due to the rich soils.

 

Regular meetings

We usually meet in Nov-Dec every year and talk about the season and planning the next. This year we are so many so we gather in a bigger locality in Hallsberg. Anyone interested is welcome. Four lecturers. Lessons from feral bees – R Gavlovsky, Knowledge from TBH and Warré – J Ingjald, Possibilities of the Beescanning app – B Lagerman, Tips for breeding resistant stock – E Österlund.  Cooperation works well!

 

Darwinian beekeeping, cell size and fitness

I respect and appreciate Tom Seeley and consider him a friend. He coined the expression Darwinian beekeeping. He has given us deeper understanding of the natural bee colony. But I don’t understand an expression of his in one of his lectures in London Honey Show in 2011:

I don’t understand why beekeepers are so interested in small cells.

There are scientists that have expressed suspicion, yes even an opposition towards small cells (4.7mm – 5.0mm, large cells 5.2-5.5, extra large 5.6-5.8, average 5.1). Tests have been done with small cells. Focus has been on reproduction of the varroa mite. None of them has come with the result that small cells are bad for bees. The majority of them are expressing a result that is not statistically significant concerning a good influence on varroa resistance. But there are tests that show a positive impact on the varroa level, for example this: http://www.elgon.es/norwegian_celltest.html. Concerning the design of tests please read this analysis: http://www.elgon.es/testdesign.html

 The classic picture by Dennis Murrell of a top bar with diffferent cell sizes. Those to the left are close to the entrance. An advantage with naturally built combs is that the midrib of the comb is very thin compared to a wax foundation. Therefore it’s easier for the bees to tear down combs and rebuild them as their needs changes. When a swarm starts to build combs they often start to build cells 5.3 mm big as their first need is to store the honey they are carrying in their honey stomach. Often they build quite some drone comb too. If it’s a first swarm and the queen is old they may well replace and then they need drones. Later when the nest is growing they replace some combs with new and build more honey storage away from the entrance (information from Johan Ingjald in Sweden who has studied this in his colonies).

Natural cellsizes

When bees choose themselves, what cellsize do they make? They make a range of cell sizes. When we look at naturally built combs in colonies where wax foundation is not used, the brown (or black) wax, that’s wax in which there have been brood, the range of sizes is smaller than in areas where you find wax in which there have been no brood. In such areas bees store honey. See the picture of the top bar comb taken by Dennis Murrell.

What did bees build before wax foundation was used? Wax foundation started to be used more widely after the introduction of the waxroller mill in 1876 by A. I. Root in America (cell size 5.1mm, which was said to be the average of cellsizes in a colony). See the article about cell size history: http://www.elgon.es/naturalcellsize.html

The conclusion is that nature favors small cells in the brood area and larger in the honey storage area. After a thorough investigation the Harvard professor Jeffries Wyman published the result 1866 to be 4.7 mm – 5.3 mm for the cell sizes. The British scientist Thomas W Cowan replicated his test 1890 and got the result 4.7 – 5.4 mm.

Natural selection and fitness

Natural selection (adaptation) is what nature uses to adapt creatures to their environment. It’s one of the forces in the Darwinian theory (the theory of evolution). Sometimes this is called survival of the fittest. This includes not only survival, but those individuals that survive, are healthy, strong and not the least reproduce most efficiently.

The answer why bees want mostly (but not only actually) small cells in the brood area is obvious, isn’t it? The bee colony then is then better fit, survive better, is healthier, stronger and reproduce better. The question is not in first place about varroa resistance, it’s about fitness!

The result would be lower annual losses of bee colonies, whatever the reasons for the losses may be: pathogenes, bad managemant, chemicals, etc, wouldn’t it? The varroa mites don’t kill the bee colony by themselves, but through ”cooperation” with viruses.

There is a project presented in the Swedish beekeeping magazine – Bitidningen 2018, no 3 – called ”Varroaprojekt LEKA” (perfomed during autumn 2014 to fall 2017). It supports the conclusion that small cells in the brood area gives better fitness. A report of it may show up here on this blog.

Initially when varroa mites arrive to an area the mite population can become very big, regardless of the cell size in the brood area. If the bee colony does not die of viruses (it must be interesting to find out why that can happen!) it will adapt and lower the mite level with the help of different traits strengthened through adaptation processes (epigenetic and genetic), with the help of natural selection. See: http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=1121

In the light of the above:

I don’t understand why scientists are not more interested in small cells.

There are more reasons for losses than large cells in the brood area. But why not minimize one obvious cause for bad fitness that we can do something about?

In Sweden the standard cell size now in practise is 5.1 mm. The use of 4.9 mm is increasing, 5.3 is diminishing. In Norway the situation is somewhat similar.

The robber screen prevents reinvasion of Varroa mites

Sibylle Kempf from Germany gives her thoughts about the use of robber screens when helping the bees to develop Varroa resistance. The apiary above where the hives are very close to each other is not one of hers. (If you don’t see the picture click on the headline so you arrive at the page with only this post.) The picture  shows a common way to place hives in Germany. It’s better if you can place them much further apart:

 

In nature, the bees would never live close to each other. To live as close as is often the case in our apiaries promotes disease and mite transmission and there will be big difficulties to find out which one are the better for making splits or queen breeding.

  My hives are spaced quite far apart compared to how many do it in Germany

 

Since none of us where I live have big areas for ourselves available, we have to think what would be helpful to avoid the drawbacks this create. I think a setup with a few meters distance and the entrances in different directions helps a lot.

 

The bees have killed a hornet that have dared to enter the hive. They have no problem getting rid and clean the hive of the dead hornet.

 

In addition, you can use devices to hinder robbery, obvious strong robbery, and so called silent robbery that you have hard times to discover, but can cause a lot of so called reinvasion of mites. Small entrances and a robber screen all year round have had no disadvantages to the air conditioning and traffic of my colonies even with so called closed boards (not screened bottom boards). Also I have seen that the bees have had no problems to pull out the dead, as you can see in the hornet picture.

 

 

I have put a box with brood frames (without the queen) above the queen excluder to make a finisher for the grafted queen cells. An extra entrance above the queen excluder help drones to leave the box. It also hinders silent robbing.

 

When making a queen cell finisher after grafting, you can use the robber screen on an extra entrance above the queen excluder for the drones which will follow the brood frames moved up there.

So you can easily put on the box on the excluder for a finisher without shaking off the bees. The bees can protect the honey easier from robbers with the robber screen on.

 

The robbery within an apiary is prevented with a robber screen on all the hives, even when making small nucs and splits and placing them in the apiary when there’s no flow.

 

I calculate that drifting is prevented by about 40% with this robber screen in place. I estimated this when comparing the lighter colored elgon bees with my grey carniolans. Not much mixing at all between the colonies, not even the drones drifted.

The robbery within the apiary is completely prevented, so it is also possible to place weak colonies, e.g. nucs and splits, very well protected.

If all beekeepers would use robber screens, it would also hinder my bees to rob hives of other beekeepers and thus hinder the spread of mites through reinvasion.

The only downside I have found is that bees could be easier taken by hornets and dragonflies. Sometimes they did not fly out, but stayed behind the screen when a hornet was hunting. But if the hornet went in, then the bees surrounded it and killed it.

I think I will put the screens with the openings sideways this coming season, to make it easier for the bees to leave return.

Resistance traits – VSH, VSHD, Grooming and more

Sometimes, the term VSH is used as meaning the same thing as varroa resistance. I think it’s helpful to clarify what VSH is. It is one of several resistance characteristics that affect the bees’ resistance to the Varroa mite.

VSH is not the same as uncapping capped brood cells with varroa inside and remove the pupae. It is one of a few different varieties of cleaning varroa invaded brood cells.

– VSH is opening (+ possible recapping, and / or + possible removing the pupae) of capped workerbee brood cells (not dronebrood cells) in which one or more varroa mites have entered AND the presence of offspring (children) to this (these) varroa mite(s) in these cells.

 VSH

As we see from the description here there could be different varieties of this trait. It isn’t needed that the bees remove the pupa for this behavior to de called VSH. It is enough that they uncap pupae with invaded mites with offspring. The bees may well recap it again. Uncapping is enough to disturb the reproduction of the mite. Is this difference in behaviour (recapping the cell and not removing the pupa) due to genetic difference?

– Uncapping and cleaning of capped workersbrood cells with varroa which have no descendants is not VSH.

– Uncapping and cleaning of dronebrood with varroa is not VSH. (But this is though also a valuable feature.)

– Other properties like grooming (removal and biting of mites from the body of other bees or themselves is an important feature, especially if the colony is reinvaded by mites.

– Resistance to viruses, for example in the form of good production of suitable peptides (short amino acid strings) which “eat” viruses is important.

– Reduced inclination for robbery is not VSH, but is a good feature, as it means less risk for reinvading/reinvasion of mites from bee colonies with increased varroa level and as a consequence thereof a reduced defense against robbery.

– Good defense at the entrance not letting foreign bees enter the hive prevents bees with mites on them from other colonies to raise the varroa level..

– Bees that return to their own hive and not to the neighbor’s (drifting) is an important feature to prevent the spread of mites within the apiary.

– Forcing virus infected bees to leave the hive is one way for the hive to get rid of viruses, it’s not VSH, still very good. The house cleaning bees treat virus infects bees like trash, bees with damaged wings (DWV) or worker bees hatched too early (grey bees crawling around, APV-types).

– There are I’m sure more traits that are important for resistance.

 

VSH is a good feature!

VSH can sometimes be confused with less good development for a bee colony. This depends most often on a queen not laying eggs very well. But if a VSH colony is getting a lot of mites through reinvasion from colonies with high varroa levels in the neighborhood (within a distance of 2 km/1.5 miles) the result may be a lot of shotgun pattern brood combs due to a lot of uncapped and cleaned brood cells to get rid of mites. The consequence will be a slower development of the colony. But as mentioned above a true VSH trait give room for the variety that the pupae are not removed but they are recapped after uncapping. And this can happen more than once. In such a case the consequence needn’t be slow development of the colony even if the varroa level temporarily is a bit high.

This is a good example of VSHD. You see clearly that pupae in drone brood are removed as brown cocoon residues are left. This is the first round with brood. Also we see uncapped drone pupae with purple eyes, and some cells with uncapping having started with holes in the capping. Click on the pictures to make it bigger

 

 More acronyms

Perhaps it’s good if more short names, such as acronyms as VSH, become common, names for different characteristics of resistance.

– With regard to the concept of Grooming, This term is well established. Bees have mites on their body and these are removed by other bees or themselves. We need no other term here.

– As far as VSH on drone is concerned, it is quite newly discovered and no special acronym is used as far as I know. VSHD = Varroa Sensitive Hygiene Drones.

That’s an important feature, maybe more important than VSH. The acronym VSHD could work well.

The mites are more attracted to dronebrood than to workerbrood. If a colony has 5-10% dronebrood in the brood area, as is often found in feral colonies (at least) and bees have a strong VSHD, the bee colony will not lose so many worker pupea (future valuable worker bees). Many mites will invade drone brood and will be cleaned out from this drone brood.

The Norwegian Hans-Otto Johnsen has shown (he is conducting such surveys and there is some notes about this in Norwegian bee magazine Birøkteren and on this blog) that bees more easily identifie mites in smaller dronebrood cells (6.2 mm) than in larger (7.2 mm), and clean out them from mites and pupae. Bees make smaller dronebrood cells naturally, the smaller the cell size is for workerbee cells. This is probably an important characteristic that small cell size provide. The drone cellsize is naturally 6.2-6.4 mm when the bees live on 4.9 mm worker bee cells.

These acronyms may work

ED  for entrance defense.

LR  for low robbery.

LD  low drifting.

VP  for virus peptides.

VB  for trashing virus infected bees

– If you have suggestions or comments don’t hesitate to share them, for example concerning more resistant traits. Maybe you have ideas how to measure resistance traits? Maybe the best selective tool is just measuring the varroa level a few times a year?

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.

Struggles for the survival of honey bees

S SB

SB is a relatively new and dedicated beekeeper in southern Germany. She is interested in different kinds of bees and their place in the ecological system. I asked her to tell her story and her struggles helping her bees to survive and thrive on their own as much as possible without chemicals. She writes:

After watching wild bees for some years I wanted to have honeybees and took lessons given by an organic beekeeper. In the year 2014 I bought my first colony from him. It was a Carnica cross on natural comb, built by the bees without the help of wax foundation. They had been treated with oxalic and formic acid against the varroa. But they were sick anyway!

S Natural comb My first colony was a Carnica (Carniolan) colony on natural comb.

I tried to find a way out of this chemical strategy that seemingly didn’t help. I got some information on internet and started watching how bees defend themselves against illnesses. I don’t want to have them close to other bees. I tried to help them with sugar powder dusting to rid them of the mites sitting on bees. After treatment with formic acid in summer, they had a natural downfall of 30 mites per day. After sugaring the whole hive ten times with 2 days in between the natural downfall of mites were 5 per day. This involved a lot of work and still didn’t do the job. The bees had chalk brood too!

I measured cell size on their natural comb. It was 5.0 mm in the brood area, 5.4 in food area and drone cells began at 5.6. All honey was taken when harvested, so they lived on sugar syrup for a long time of the year. They died in february 2015, not having enough bees to warm the hive!

S AMM queen The AMM queen

I had found some contacts through internet and was able to get 4 hives in 2015 which weren`t treated with chemicals for some years. One was of the dark bee Apis mellifera mellifera (AMM) , three were Carnica (Carniolans). I made some splits and wintered 3 of the AMM origin and 5 of the Carnica origin.

The former owner had a crisis being the victim of a migratory beekeeper whose hives most probably caused reinfestation bringing a lot of mites into his hives. He overcame this crisis combining the weakest of his hives, so they became strong enough to defend themselves. Some survived. In some of these he introduced a AMM variety of queens that had a reputation of being more resistant.

My aim was to follow Dee Lusby`s in Arizona way of beekeeping as much as possible (http://beesource.com/point-of-view/dee-lusby). Using small cell foundation, leaving with the bees enough honey for food, using so called housel position of the combs, what she calls unlimited broodnest and using no treatment (if possible).

S Carnicas Now I have 11 colonies and high hopes.

All 8 hives survived winter, but in spring 2016 I had to eliminate one of them because its bees were too susceptible to virus (another than DWV). I have made some splits and have now in May 11 hives and high hopes. The bees are my teachers. I want them to survive.

S hygienic The AMM I have are showing hygienic behaviour against mites in the brood. Now I have seen it also in my Carniolan crossings (the picture).

I don’t do drone brood cutting as I want the mite to continue being a drone parasite in first place and not a worker bee parasite. I’m happy to see more and more of hygienic behavior against the mite, also in drone brood. Now also in the Carniolan crossings.

At last I want to quote Kirk Webster (http://kirkwebster.com):

“Beekeeping now has the dubious honor of becoming the first part of our system of industrial agriculture to actually fall apart. Let’s stop pretending that something else is going on. We no longer have enough bees to pollinate our crops. Each time the bees go through a downturn, we respond by making things more stressful for them, rather than less – we move them around more often, expose them to still more toxic substances, or fill the equipment up again with more untested and poorly adapted stock. We blame the weather, the mites, the markets, new diseases, consumers, the Chinese, the Germans, the (fill in your favorite scapegoat), other beekeepers, the packers, the scientific community, the price of gas, global warming – anything rather than face up to what’s really happening. We are losing the ability to take care of living things.”

We are at big risk losing the ability to take care of living things. Thank you everyone who is helping me to improve myself as a beekeeper.

The first bees in spring

VårVatten Water soaked up in old pieces of branches is tasting yum yum.

Yesterday March 20 in the middle of the day when the sun warmed the ground and the air, 8°C (47°F) in the shade. The first day of the year when bees collected water – in the yellow little wheelbarrow of my grandkids – and pollen in the spring flowers in the gardens, mine and my neighbors.

VårKrokus Pollen is best. Good for you too.

Lovely spring – life awakens for real when the bees are flying freely and prepare for summer!

A passionate treatment free beekeeper 

Cory Stevens lives in southeast Missouri. There are some hives of hobbyists some miles from him. A larger beekeeper is 7-8 miles from him, but he uses Cory Stevens’ queen cells.

Cory family The whole Stevens family works together

Started with resistance traits

Cory Stevens ceased treatments for Varroa mites in most of his then 20 colonies 8 years ago.  6 years ago the number had grown to around 45 colonies. Then a few got some formic acid. Then no more treatment. When he stopped treating he had acquired queens of different origins with resistance traits, VSH from Tom Glenn and Pol line Hygienic Italians crossed with local ferals.

Cory Hive&comb Healthy colonies are the base for a thriving bee operation.

Low winter losses initially

Initially he had very low annual losses. He has brought in new stock every year besides breeding from his best lines. This hasn’t been good for the development of his stock so he has stopped that and will focus on selecting from his own best colonies. He will evaluate the need for bringing in new stock again later.

Cory odlingslist He will now focus on breeding from his own selected lines.

 

Increased winterlosses

Winter losses has always been lower than average nation wide. But the last years it has reached 30%.The winter of 2014-15 he lost 60% of 95 wintered. 45 of those (47%) were too small 5-frame nucs. The winter was severe and all of those nucs died. He says it was his fault, not the bees’. The winter losses 2015-16 will be much lower, it looks like cose to 20 %.

Initially some viruses

In the beginning when he saw more than a few bees with crippled wings (DWV) and K-wings (KWV) two different viruses, followers of Varroa and Tracheal mites respectively, he requeened those hives. Today he never sees any crippled wings. A few K-wings can be seen.

Removal of infested drone brood developed

Initially he didn’t see removal of varroa infested drone brood by the bees, only Varroa infested worker brood (in which the mites have offspring – VSH). But after breeding from the best survivors without any treatment he has seen this trait developing. He thinks that’s good as Varroa prefer drone brood and should continue doing it leaving as much worker brood as possible alone.

Cory drönarpuppor He has developed his stock to remove Varroa infested drone brood. It has simply turned up when breeding from the best survivors.

Some characteristics

He doesn’t use small cell combs, but standard rite cell foundation. He does use screened bottom board on several hives, but he doesn’t think they contribute that very much to Varroa control.

Planned focus

This season he will check natural downfall to look for the percentage of mutilated mites. He will also be utilizing liquid nitrogen to test for hygienic behavior for breeding candidates. Some of his virgins will be inseminated with semen from ankle biters (mite ankels) from Purdue University to test if this will contribute to his stock. He will also put out more swarm traps to hopefully catch feral swarms.

The goal

Cory wintered 120 colonies last autumn. The goal now is adding 25-30 per year until he reaches 5-600. Then he will “retire”.

More Varroa resistant bees

Darrel Jones lives in a rural area in northern Alabama. He is an enthusiastic grower of heirloom tomatoes, http://www.selectedplants.com/ Being a beekeeper as well is a natural fit with his gardening activities. Keeping bees treatment free was his goal from the time he first saw varroa mites in 1993.

Darrel Brandypeace Brandypeace, an heirloom tomato of Darrel Jones.

In 2004 he found a single feral swarm that showed significant varroa tolerance. He saw a lot of hygienic behavior and uncapped pupae with mites combined with very low overall mite numbers. It showed some unwanted characteristics as well with a high stinging tendency and yearly swarming. He concluded that the swarm was a combination of typical Apis mellifera mellifera with Italian bees. The bees flew at low temperatures and overwintered on very small amount of honey reserves.

Digital StillCamera A feral swarm

Combination partner

He purchased 10 queens of mite tolerant stock from Dann Purvis and used them as drone source colonies next year when he raised queens from his feral tolerant swarm. A couple of years he deliberately encouraged his new colonies to swarm planning they would stay in the vicinity and establish a good buffer of resistant drones for his virgins to mate with. He pushed more than 60 swarms into the woods.

Darrel Purvis

Darrel says there are many feral bees living in the forest around where he lives. And he catches some feral swarms in swarm traps every year. He could easily catch more if he wanted to.

Darrel natur Forest area in Alabama.

Breeding better beekeepers’ bees

There are about 100 managed colonies some miles east of him, but they are far enough away that there is no risk of interfering with the matings of his virgin queens. His conclusion is that they don’t interfere with the matings of his virgins. At least to any degree it matters.

Today he has 14 colonies in four apiaries. One apiary is far away (200 km) from any other bees including his own. This apiary gives him possibility to mate virgins somewhat differently or with an experimental drone source.

 

Bringing in external mite resistant stock

In 2011 he bought 3 queens from Mike Carpenter. Mike has been selecting for bees that groom and injure mites (Allogrooming, bees grooming each other from mites). Darrel wants to combine different varroa resistant traits in his stock and also reduce stinging tendency and swarming behavior.

He bought 3 queens from Bweaver in 2015. These bees are advertised as treatment free and from evaluation, are very hygienic. He found the resulting colonies to have good temper but they produced many swarms out of the normal swarming season.

The traits he is selecting for in his breeding are decent honey production with at least 60 pounds per year, very high mite tolerance, good quality honey, and overwintering with small clusters that build up very fast in spring. He selects against high tendency to swarm and aggressive behavior. He is not satisfied here yet, but working on it.

 

Africanized bees

Africanized bees are not currently present in North Alabama. Cold winter temperatures will prevent highly Africanized stock from surviving in his climate. They probably will be able to survive if crossed with bees that form clusters and winter well.

Bweaver is situated in Texas, declared as heavily Africanized. Their bees show significant introgression of traits but without the increased stinging impulse typical of Africanized bees. Darrel has decided to replace the 3 queens he bought from there, with his own stock, which winters better. He says Africanized bees have some good traits that could be exploited in combination breeding

 

Spreading the stock

His goal is to spread treatment free stock in the surrounding area. For this reason, he has sold a total of 25 colonies to 3 local beekeepers. They too are also keeping their bees treatment free. Darrel has an agreement with these three beekeepers to share stock when it comes to raising queens from the best breeders. In 2016, he plans to make another 10 colonies to start other beekeepers with mite tolerant bees.

 

Cell size

He uses standard Langstroth equipment with 11 frames (instead of 10) and 31 mm end bars (instead of 35 mm). He also uses small cell 4.9 mm wax foundation. He has a few colonies on 5.3 mm cell size and sees no difference in varroa tolerance or honey production. But the large cell colonies build up slower in spring. This is a bad factor for him and he doesn’t produce any more colonies on 5.3 mm.

Darrel Cellmätning How to measure cell size. You can do three ways on a comb, or foundation. Two ways diagonal as well as straight.

 

Infestation level

Darrel does not do any mite level checks. They are not necessary as he never has seen any big die offs or any bees with virus or wingless bees with DWV. He did check one random colony in 2014 to see how many mites were dropping naturally. Some other beekeepers had asked because they thought his bees were full of mites. This colony dropped 15 mites in 48 days proving them wrong. This makes a downfall of 0.3 mites per day.

 

Conditions and characteristics for Darrel Jones’ resistant stock

  • His area is relatively isolated from nonresistant bees.
  • A large population of feral resistant bees are established in the vicinity. This is quite a different situation compared especially to many European areas with bees.
  • He began with bee stocks that have excellent resistant traits.
  • He is not bringing in non-resistant bees in the form of queens, nucs, or colonies.
  • He is at most trying a few new queens from outside per year.
  • Small cell size is positive for colony build up but not necessary for resistance.
  • No treatments of any kind have been used for the last 11 years. Natural mite resistance in his bees is enough that they are thriving.
  • Yearly sales of honey pay all expenses to sustain his beekeeping activities.

 

 

A locally adapted Varroa resistant bee stock

Reid Hives

http://www.happyhollowhoney.com/

Richard Reid in a Virgina rural area in the US began with bees 1973. Beekeeping was simple, almost only it consisted of putting on and removing supers.

By 1995 all of his bees died due to the Varroa mite. He didn’t like drugs and didn’t use any in his colonies. A package bee colony he bought also died, after only two months. He couldn’t take more, dropped the bees, and devoted himself entirely to his construction business.

 

Survivors

After a number of years, he discovered that a few swarms had settled in a few stacks of supers. He went and looked at these wild bees sometimes and saw that they lived on. They lived and swarmed for 12 years unattended. After a few years he was encouraged and decided in 2008 to give beekeeping a chance again.

Reid feral12 One of the feral swarms settled in his stacks of supers.

There are no big farms nearby (thus not so much of agriculture chemicals) and some smaller beekeepers were at least 3 km (2 miles) away from his bees. So the conditions for healthy beekeeping was good.

 

Come back

He took care of the two feral swarms and began to expand the number of colonies using these, VSH, and Russian lines. He decided again not to use any kind of chemicals against Varroa. He didn’t buy any package bees or colonies from other areas (well, none at all). He multiplied his own colonies.

Reid SwarmtrapBox He also catches some swarms.
He bought however queens from different places which he believed to have resistance characteristics, VSH Carnica, Russian bees, and survivor bees from different places. He never monitored mite levels in his colonies.
Annual losses since 2008 have been between 10-15%, except after the winter of 2012-13 when 40% died. Each year, he had seen some wingless bees in some colonies. After the winter with the big losses he hasn’t seen any wingless bees. He has since bought fewer queens from outside and bred most from his own.
Every year he breeds from several “lines”, now about 18 of them. Queens are mated in his home yard. He makes many splits every year. Some of these get pupae of those he breeds. Some splits rear queens themselves.

Reid queen One of his queens.

 

Increasing

2015 he wintered 75 production colonies and 105 nucs. 30 of the colonies are kept in the vicinity of his home yard. There he keeps 17 of them. The nucs are also kept close in the home yard.

Reid Hives&Nucs Some of his nucs and production colonies in his home yard.

He has altogether nine apiaries. He wants to have at least 10 colonies in each apiary, but he hasn’t reached that goal yet for most of them. He is now aiming to increase his number of production colonies to 100 and the nucs to 150, as well as an additional 2 apiaries.
Regarding cell size, the great majority of brood frames in his colonies are Mann Lakes standard plastic frame with plastic foundation. (http://www.mannlakeltd.com/beekeeping-supplies/category/page19.html) The cell size on those are 4.95 mm. The rest of the frames in the honey boxes have a larger cell size. Some frames are started without a foundation. The intention is that the bees will build some drone comb there. He wants to flood the area with desired drones. But bees are also building fine worker brood in some of these frames, especially in the nucs.

 

Selling nucs, queens and honey

He split the nucs in the spring and sells one part with the queen, saves the rest to build up a new nuc. It’s usually used for a mating nuc or nuc production depending on the season.

Reid Brood One of the worker brood frames built by the bees without the help of a foundation.

He usually has a very good spring flow that will carry the colonies through the rest of the year, but there’s usually a dearth in the summer, which means the nucs may need to be fed sugar syrup to prepare for winter. 2015 he had so much spring honey production, he only had to feed about 20% of the nucs for winter.

He says that now he has enough resources so he can share honey between production hives and nucs. Thus he feeds less. He usually only feeds a handful of production hives (mostly new ones) to prepare for winter. The production colonies go through winter on large supplies of honey. Quite often he has extracted honey in April. You can say he uses his colonies as a honey storage.

 

Richard Reid’s locally adapted Varroa-resistant bee stock

• There are at least 3 km to apiaries with other bee colonies than of his stock.
• The area where he lives is not a highly developed agricultural area, so there is not so much agricultural chemicals there as can be the case in many other areas.
• He started with bees which had a degree of varroa resistance.
• In most brood combs, he uses small cell size.
• He doesn’t bring in colonies (such as packages) from outside the area with his bees.
• He splits nucs (with new queens from his breeder queens) to make more nucs, which later become production colonies or bees for sale. He also splits a few of the smaller, less productive, production colonies to create new nucs.

• He doesn’t requeen on a regular schedule. He has some colonies with queens finishing their 3rd and 4th season.
• The bad colonies die or have their queens replaced.
• He breeds after queens from many different lines each year.
• He tries each year just a few queens from other breeders.

 

Encouragement to all beekeepers

Richard Reid is one of several beekeepers who has managed to breed a varroa resistant locally adapted bee stock. Let us be encouraged by that and despite what some other beekeepers of all kinds say, that this is not possible. How can one be so ignorant to what others achieve? Make use of what you can of the experiences of Richard Reid.
When he started, he hadn’t many bee colonies, so even if you have few colonies you can do something.

Perhaps your circumstances are such that it is good to monitor mite levels in your colonies. There are various methods, for example the Bee Shaker (http://www.elgon.es/diary/?cat=85).

Don’t take it as a failure if you choose to use pesticides at times. Each of us decides what is appropriate for ourselves and our bees, in consultation with the laws of your country. A treatment that doesn’t involve any chemicals at all is to remove all capped brood (worker and drone brood) twice, a week apart. It is effective, weakens the bee population as well though, but not the health of the bees. The bad colonies get new queens as soon as possible.

Next season will always be better!