Bees grooming, shaking and biting mite

Already in 2002 Sven-Olof Ohlsson in Munsala Finland filmed bees grooming, shaking and biting mites. I have published two of his video clips on YouTube for him. You can see one here where the the mite had attached fast between thorax and the abdomen. The poor bee seemed to never stop shaking to get the other bees to help her. Ohlsson stopped filming after 20 minutes, but the bee didn’t.

Here you see a successful bee removing and biting the mite. Another bee gave it a bite as well. It moved too much.

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.

Breakthrough?

Last year I saw more wingless bees than I had expected and I used more thymol than I had expected. I realized that I could partially thank the bad weather fort thias. The bees had got too little of pollen. Their immune system was not at its peak.
It was not easy to find suitable breeder queens, ie, who showed great varroa resistance. I found a colony that had not needed varroa treatment for a few years and it had not had any wingless bees. VSH test could not be done as I found only one mite in more than 100 pupae. And this mite had no offspring. So if you would allow it to determine the VSH-level, this would be 100% VSH. However, the so-called statistical significance was non-existent because of the low number of mites (just one single one). Well, the low number of mites were decisive. S241 was last year’s most important breeder colony.
This summer, I have not seen much of mites and almost no wingless bees so far. Some odd mites in 4 colonies, of more than 140 hives. Well, those who got the most thymol last year, got Thymol in May this year and then got its Queen replaced. So that’s one explanation, about 15 colonies. A colony that was a split from one of those 15, which raised a queen of their own was the first. Due to it’s history it got Thymol as soon as I saw the wingless bee. The queen will be shifted.

A problem hive had got a daughter of S241 last year. A Beeshaker test though showed 0% varroa level. Viruses still a problem in spite of no mites? 

The other day I saw a wingless bee on the hard board in front of the entrance of a colony that had got a lot of Thymol last year. It did not get Thymol in May as it was shifting its queen in May, I found a dead virgin on the hard board and drew that conclusion. I decided to make a test with the Bee shaker due to the wingless bee. I did it yesterday, July 20, 19 mites out of minimum 300 bees , 6.3% varroa level. The hive got Thymol.

1DWV 19 mites, 6.3% Varroa level – Thymol.

Today I came to an apiary with a daughter of the 241 (introduced in 2015) which have had no need for Varroa treatment in a couple of years, neither 2014 nor 2015. This colony was now a strong colony that given a good crop. With still some time to go for eventual more honey to come.

241d No need for treatment for a couple of years (2014 and 2015) plus probably this year. Actually lower Varroa level now compared with spring ( at least not bigger).

In May, I tested interesting candidates for being breeders with the Bee shaker. This 241-daughter was among those of course. The Varroa level was 2%. I didn’t give it Thymol as this was not more than 3%. I had several colonies, including several 241-daughters, that got only a few grams of thymol in spring 2015, which showed no mites at all (zero) out of more than 300 bees. The two best with different heritage (one was a 241-daughter) I used as breeders this year.

1% 4 mites, 1,3% Varroa level now.

2% -colony I tested today July 21 regarding the Varroa level, 4 mites out of a little more than 300 bees. 1.3% infestation level. At least not higher Varroa level after 2.5 months. A strong hive that has given a good crop. The Varroa level would have been much higher if the bees could not get rid of mites themselves. This colony has thus been able to get rid of mites by themselves. What a great feeling!
Now this does probably not only depend on the queen. It was introduced to a colony that had not needed any treatment for at least a year. The worker bees might have learned the new queen’s bees some tricks how to deal with mites. It would not surprise me if there is a combination of reasons for the mite fighting ability of this colony. http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=880 http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=890

Wingless bees and varroa level

Before varroan came there could be seen occasional bees with undeveloped/deformed wings in spring. Maybe it was the influence of DWV, Deformed Wing Virus. But it may also have been chilled brood. During the final phase of the pupa development to finished bee the wings are formed. Cold nights and too much of brood could maybe have caused undeveloped wings.

Today, one can probably assume that when you see a wingless bee, it’s DWV responsible. Varroa mites are paving the way for many viruses into pupae and adult bees that had not previously bothered bees. Moreover, these viruses multiply in mites. So today mites spread viruses more efficiently than when the mite had just arrived in Europe. Why that is so is another interesting discussion that probably involves the use of miticides.

 

The Bee Shaker

The Bee Shaker is a great way to keep track of the level of mites in the bee colony, especially in spring and late summer, so the amount of virus can be kept reasonably low by allowing people to fight the mite if it exceeds a certain degree of infestation. (If that is the strategy chosen.) A good benchmark that many use today is 3%, three mites on one hundred bees (9 mites in 300 bees/1 deciliter of bees).

It also means that to develop a bee stock towards better varroa resistance, you don’t treat against the mite, especially below a mite level of 3%, whenever in the season it is measured.

But if there are wingless bees in the bee colony? It’s usually a sign of DWV and thus too many mites. Here is the Bee Shaker again a good tool, to find out if there really is a high degree of infestation of mites when you see a wingless bee. If you decide to treat against mites if the level is high you might do it to prevent the spread of mites to other colonies nearby.

 

A colony with a wingless bee

Last year’s breeder queens seem to have produced many queens that have given colonies that control the mites quite well. One of these daughter queens was introduced to a colony that had problems with mites. Perhaps the biggest problem was virus.

This colony was quite weak in this spring and developed slowly, compared to the other colonies in the apiary. I concluded that I would have to check the brood nest to find out the cause. Maybe the colony was shifting their queen?

On a later visit to the apiary about June 20, I saw one, only one, wingless live bee on the hard board in front of the entrance. I then looked in the brood nest, but saw no more wingless bees on the brood frames. But the brood frames had a so called shot gun pattern with a lot of “holes” where you would have expected capped brood as the other cells on the comb contained capped brood. Many pupae seemed to have been removed by the bees. Most likely not due to inbreeding as the queen had mated in the apiary and the number Elgon colonies in the neighborhood was quite high. No trace of any brood disease could be seen so I concluded that a likely cause could be cleaning out of varroa-infested brood. Or could the bees detect virus in the pupae and remove it, without there being a mite in the cell, and remove the pupae?

Could that be the reason why the colony developed so slowly – that the bees were throwing out mites? How had they managed? The wingless bee could indicate that they had not done so well and that the amount of mites was big. Now it was time for a Bee Shaker test to find out the level of Varroa infestation. (Here you can read more about The Bee Shaker, its uses and possibilities: http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=809)

Here you can see a video clip when doing this test (sorry I’m talking my mother tounge Swedish):

The sample showed zero (0) mites! Then it’s no use to treat, There were far too few mites in the colony. Why had there been a wingless bee recently before the test?

VarroaVirus The brood frames looked less spotty and the colony stronger.

July 8 I was visiting the apiary again. Once again I saw a wingless bee on the hardboard. But now I knew the Varroa level was low. Still no use treating. I looked in the brood nest. The colony was a little stronger still and the brood frames had fewer “holes”. The bees look healthy. They were recovering.

Virus apparently remain in the colony for a while after mites are eradicated – by the beekeeper or the bees.

Learning and teaching

 

Hans-Otto Johnsen was very skilled already in his youth keeping old American cars and trucks going. That skill can be very handy for a commercial beekeeper.

For many years he worked as an expert on explosives, but he got poisoned by nitroglycerine and had to change his job for making a living, so he turned to beekeeping.

At the university

For a number of years he worked as a technician under Prof. Stig Omholt in Norway and at the same time developing his commercial operation. His experience from these years has helped him in developing his Varroa resistant bee stock.

HAns-Otto brood A good brood comb in one of his Norwegian type of combs before he switched to medium Langstroth size.

Quite soon he got to know me and wanted Elgon stock to work with. He imported quite a number of splits from me. He kept track of the Varroa levels in the colonies and stopped using any type of chemical to fight anything in the hives. He wanted his bees to develop their ability to survive, which they did.

Hans-Otto & Ed Ed Lusby and Hans-Otto discussing small cell beekeeping at a fuel filling stop on our way to one of the apiaries of Lusbys’ in the Sonoran desert.

In America

We travelled together several times to America and studied small cell beekeepers and wax foundation producers. Hans-Otto bought equipment and started producing wax foundation, small cell and large cell as well as different sizes of drone foundation. His mechanical and engineer abilities showed themselves to be very useful as he changed and improved the equipment, for example the cooling of the drum for producing rolls of uniform sheet for feeding the plain and foundation rollers. Also the setup of plain and foundation rollers needed according to his opinion more controls of individual speeds for different parts of the production process, which he included in the setup.

Hans-Otto and GAry Dadnt Hans-Otto and Gary Dadant discussing wax foundation production during a visit with Dadant’s in Hamilton.

Research

He started to plan and set up different tests for looking at the effects of different cell sizes in brood combs and to produce virus free drones to mate with virgin queens. He saw that bees easier recognized (and removed) when drone brood was infested with mites when these cells were smaller, which they naturally are with smaller worker brood cells. He also saw that mites more readily infested the biggest drone cells.

He was involved in small cell tests, of his own and together with others. One can be found here: http://beesource.com/point-of-view/hans-otto-johnsen/survival-of-a-commercial-beekeeper-in-norway/

Today Hans-Otto has research money from the Department of Agriculture in Norway.

Resistant stock

He developed his bees in quite isolated areas, but not totally isolated, so sometimes the bees were mated to carniolans, buckfasts and the native brown bee (Mellifera mellifera). He also worked together with Terje Reinertsen, another Norwegian beekeeper, very similar to him when it comes to beekeeping. They exchanged breeding material. Both of them have discovered that their bees teach other bees how to get rid of mites. It seems this ability to teach new bees is very important knowledge when developing a Varroa resistant stock.

Today Hans-Otto hasn’t treated his bees now for at least 12 years. The levels of mites are normally very low in his and Terje’s colonies and he never sees any wingless bees. In 2014 the bees of Terje were tested for Varroa levels by the Norwegian Beekeeping Association in preparation for planned research. (Birøkteren, vol 131, 2015(1), pages 13 and 24. The Bee Journal of the Norwegian Beekeepers Association.) The levels were so low it was difficult to calculate the reproduction rate.

When Hans-Otto moves his bees to the heather in late summer, for producing heather honey, his bees quickly pick up quite some mites. The natural downfall of mites will then be higher until about a month before the frost will make the bees form winter cluster. Then the downfall is almost zero again.

Book contribution

In 2010 Georgia Pellegrini (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_Pellegrini) published her first book on natural food: Food Heroes (http://www.amazon.com/Food-Heroes-Culinary-Preserving-Tradition/dp/1584798548) She included a chapter about Hans-Otto and his focus on natural production of honey. For example he concludes that small cell bees are more biologically optimized than large cell bees. Thus research done with small cell bees are more reliable concerning what bees are and how they react naturally. In short, research results with small bees are more reliable.

In this context it’s interesting to notify that Norwegian wax is almost pesticide free.

HansOttoJohnsen An important part in his quality control is producing wax foundation as he thinks will be the best help for the bees.

Learning and teaching

Today we understand that adaptation of bees to fighting Varroa isn’t only selection breeding, natural or beekeepers’, for changing the DNA composition, but also epigenteic adaptation, the change of expression of the DNA as a result of changed environmental pressure on the bees. This turns the focus to the importance of locally adapted bee stock. Now research is going on with a third adaptation step, how bees learn how to deal with challenges and how they pass on this knowledge to other bees, worker bees to worker bees.

Hans-Otto caught a carniolan swarm of not resistant large bees that choose one of his swarm traps for their new home. After establishing this swarm in one of his apiaries he shifted its place with one of his resistant colonies. So this nonresistant colony received the field bees of a resistant colony. Afterwards they both behaved like resistant colonies.

One year he bough buckfast virgin queens not selected for Varroa resistance. He put them in splits made from his bees. The virgins mated in his apiaries. These splits were spread out in different apiaries of his. For two years they kept their colonies working fine and resistant to mites as good as his other colonies.

Now these two experiments absolutely are food for thought.

More than15 minutes of fame

Definitely Hans-Otto Johnsen is worthy of more than the 15 minutes of fame, one commentator thought was enough.

Feedback on Elgon queens

GM 243-daughter Karin is a new beekeeper. She got thrilled when I took the feral swarm from the wall in one of her houses, so she wanted to keep bees. And got a daughter queen from the feral swarm. She is very happy with that. GM in Germany got one daughter too to this swarm. It’s the one with him that has no mites in the natural downfall.

I make queens for my own beekeeping operation in first place. I make some more to share with other beekeepers, selling them in Sweden and other European countries. I appreciate feedback from those I sell to. I hope it can help me in my work developing the Elgon bee.

One of the beekeepers I get feedback from is GM in Germany (of some different reasons he just now doesn’t want to use his name). He got some queens in 2014 and some in 2015.

He doesn’t like to treat bees with chemicals and looked for alternative ways of treatment free beekeeping. He wanted to start with queens that probably had better resistance traits than average against the Varroa mite.

He has one apiary at his home. Also he has a couple of new places relatively isolated from other bees. There are some colonies of Carnica bees not far from his home apiary. And quite some Buckfast colonies about 1 km away. So his home yard is not isolated.

One of the Elgon queens he got in 2014 was very promising with lowest natural mite downfall per day and good vitality compared to all his other hives. He succeeded in getting a few daughters from this queen. The original good queen was lost in a pesticide incident in May 2015.

In 2015 GM got some more Elgon queens. He also catched some carnica swarms. He wintered 15 colonies in 2015. In his home apiary he placed many new smaller colonies. He placed his new Elgon queens and daughters of the best one from 2014 in splits in his home apiary. All colonies in his home apiary are established on small cells, 4.9 mm. None of the colonies here was treated with chemicals, organic or not, against the Varroa in 2014 or in 2015. In autumn in 2014 he made a capped brood removal (both worker and drone), but not in 2015.

GM says it’s essential in treatment free beekeeping to have an understanding of the resistance status of the colonies to be able to act at the right time in a right way. Therefore during the second half of the season of 2015 he counted the daily natural downfall of mites in his home apiary. Each month he counted the downfall several times. Of the resulting daily downfalls, he calculated an average for each month.

GM finds mite count of natural downfall to be a tool for judging the resistance quality. Other tools he finds valuable are looking at hygienic behavior concerning mites in worker and drone brood, eventual presence of wingless bees (DWV), ability to produce drone brood late in season and ability to draw small cell foundation (4.9mm) correct.

GM Bald brood  This is sometimes called bald brood, a type of hygienic behaviour. The bees are identifying capped brood with mites and uncap such cells, sometimes recap them and uncap again, sometimes keep them this way, sometimes clean out the infested cells. As can be seen there are pupae in the uncapped cells, one almost mature. Bald brood can be seen together with colonies showing high VSH%, also with colonies with lower VSH. VSH can maybe be seen as a special case of this kind of hygienic behavior, uncapping and cleaning capped brood cells in which a mite has offspring. This is a daughter colony of a colony with high VSH.

GM Utrensad puppa Observing cleaned out pupae is most probably a sign of the colony showing some kind of hygienic behavior towards Varroa mites in the colony.

GM focus on identifying the best colonies concerning resistance traits (for breeders next year), the loosers which will be requeened as soon as possible and the medium performers that maybe have a chance to learn how to fight the mite properly. Keep a special eye on those one he says, if they adapt well.

Average E1 (S241) E2 (S241) E3 (C243) E4 (F1 of 242) E5 (F1 of 242) C1 X1
Aug-15 1 6 0 2 3 10 1
Sep-15 1 24 0 4 2 11 2
Oct-15 1 3 requeened 0 15 1 16 4
Nov-15 1 13 0 8 1-2 14 2
Dec-15 1 1 0 2 1 5 1
Jan-16 0 0 0 1 0 6 0

The table is showing the average monthly natural downfall of mites, August-2015 – January-2016. E3 has a sister queen to the one in Karin’s hive.

About 25% of the mites from C1 (only from C1) at the end of December and January were lighter colored young mites pointing to brood in the colony. The table shows the monthly average daily downfall of mites from the colonies in the home apiary. (E2 was moved to another apiary and combined in late October.) GM used the overwintered Carnica colony, C1, to make many splits during 2015. This colony showed some DWV-bees (crippled wing bees) in early spring. They disappeared later, probably with the help of making many nucs and the appearance of drone brood. This colony also showed some hygienic behavior, uncapping brood with mites.

X1 is a swarm (looked like a mix of Carnica and Buckfast) he catched 2015 and hived on drawn small cell 4.9 comb. E4 and E5 have daughter queens of his Elgon queen from 2014. E1 and E2 had sister queens from 2015. E3 is a daughter (2015) from a feral colony in Sweden highly influenced of Elgon heritage.

You can speculate if the figures of E2 are a result of mites coming with the split from the C1-colony, from mites from the neighbor’s bees or less good genetics, or a combination. In any case the colony shifted its queen in late in autumn, and succeeded in getting mated in early October (maybe with Buckfast drones, as Buckfast colonies more often have drones later than Carnica)! The colony E2 was now small and was united with a small colony in another apiary. E2 had initially a few DWV-bees.

E1, E3 and E5 especially, seem to be interesting to watch the development of in 2016, test for VSH and maybe breed from.

The bee shaker and varroa resistance

Skak botten 2lc One mite from 300 bees.

I understand that sometimes it’s a good idea to get an idea of the infestation level of varroa mites in bee colonies. You can take samples from a couple of colonies in an apiary to get an idea when to treat. But my first concern is breeding varroa resistant bees.

I have never monitored the varroa infestation level in my colonies. I haven’t had time and I haven’t found any reason for it because I thought I had found a good compromise – treating with Thymol when I saw wingless bees on the hardboard in front of the hive entrance, checking every 10 days or so.

 

Good results up till now

I give a colony one or two pieces of dish wash cloth containing 5 grams of Thymol each when I see wingless bees crawling on the hard board in front of the hive. But this means I don’t treat every colony at the same time (hopefully some not at all in a season). This results in some colonies with higher mite loads not showing wingless bees yet. So these colony (-ies) will through reinvasion increase mite levels again quite quickly in those colonies recently treated.

But this way I’ve been able to develop more and more resistant bees and still produce a good crop. There have been a number of bees not producing any honey. Winter losses have been reduced from 30 % to 10-15 % (except the first year with varroa trouble when I lost 50 %).

The bees have been better chasing mites and remove infested brood. I’ve got good reports from for example Poland and Germany of low populations of varroa in colonies headed by Elgon queens, compared to other bees. And the VSH trait is becoming better and better. Daughters of my colony with the highest VSH % (80) gave colonies that in Poland dropped 2-5 mites after effective treatment while other colonies dropped more than 1000.

 

Thymol is useful but hinders total adaptation

I now have been aware that by having this regime I have a constant quite high varroa population in the apiaries as a whole, and thus probably a climbing virus pressure. In a way this is good as selection is done also on virus resistance.

How do I know that? Now when I’ve used the bee shaker somewhat this year I’ve seen that colonies may show wingless bees (DWV-virus) at low mite infestation. Such low infestation you didn’t expect them to do so, sometimes even as low as 2 % infestation (a daughter from a colony with high VSH trait [80%]! This experience and others similar, raise the question if very high VSH comes with higher susceptibility to viruses.). Wingless bees at 2 % infestation is totally different from a report I’ve got from a test further down in Europe. (There they normally treat effectively every year.) In that test where they didn’t treat at all, my bees didn’t show any wingless bees at 35% infestation while other bees had a lot.

 

How to explain the high infestation level in the test

Now I have to try to explain why my good bees could arrive at 35 % mite infestation. This is interesting and brings up another topic as well. The importance of memories of the worker bees (their knowledge how to chase mites), not only their genetics (and epigenetic history). My queens in this test down in Europe were introduced to bees that had not been selected the same way as mine, and those bees had been treated effectively every year. The bees could probably not chase mites as well as mine.

But of course the genetics from my queens would more and more influence the workers to build up a better behavior when it comes to chasing mites. When the bees have arrived at a good mite chasing mood they learn new bees born in the colony what they have achieved, more than what just come directly with the genetics. In Norway with Terje Reinertsen and Hans-Otto Johnsen experiences are achieved pointing strongly to this.

In an apiary where many colonies are non-resistant as in this European test, you get a mixture of all bees in the apiary through drifting and robbing. This is taking place more and more when the mite populations in the colonies rise. As it did in this test as the colonies were not treated at all.

In a situation when colonies are receiving a lot of mites from neighboring colonies, even the very best kind of mite chasing behavior is maybe not enough to keep mite levels low.

In the test apiary previous to this test, effective treating every year had kept the mite and virus levels low, so the mite population could grow much in the test without showing wingless bees – like in the beginning when the mite first arrives to an area. Then the virus levels are usually very low and there could be 10 000 mites and more in a colony without any signs of viruses (documented case in Sweden in 1987 when the mites were first detected on the island Gotland in the Baltic).

The bees in this test were on 5.5 mm cell size, while my bees are kept on 4.9 mm.

 

Also Thymol hinders total adaptation

I have talked to some beekeepers whose bees are totally treatment free since many years (Hans-Otto Johnsen in Norway, Richard Reid in Virginia and Myron Kropf in Arkansas). Their bees have now small populations of mites and are showing no wingless bees.

I have come to realize that also Thymol is a chemical that hinders the bees to fully adapt to handling the mites successfully on their own. It is in first place the epigenetic adaptation I have come to think of that is disturbed when alien chemicals (like miticides of all kinds) are present. Epigenetic changes take place when a chemical change occur due to environmental changes, like for example the presence of the mite. (But it should be said also that if you use Thymol regularly spring and late summer in a system not selecting better bees like I do, winter losses can be kept low. I know because beekeeper friends do like this.) Also Thymol like other miticides is lowering the immune system of the bees.

How do I then integrate these insights to go further in becoming totally treatment free?

 

A new strategy to try

I’m planning a new strategy, at least to start with in one quite isolated apiary. I have to stop using Thymol. First though I think I have to knock down the mites effectively to reduce the virus level. And then get a better control of the number of mites and take action without any chemicals if varroa populations are rising too much in colonies.

 

The role of the bee shaker

Here the bee shaker will play a role. And I have looked more into how Randy Oliver uses it. It’s much easier to shake a frame of bees into a bowl or pan and then with a measuring cup scope somewhat more than a deciliter (3.5 oz) of bees and pour them into one half of the bee shaker, half filled with alcohol (for example methylated spirit or rubbing[isopropyl] alcohol). Then screw it together and shake for a minute before reading the result. Compared to holding the bee shaker close to a frame side with bees and pour bees into it moving it slowly upwards, the alternative of Randy Oliver is quicker (at least for me). The next step is to test the VSH trait in the best colonies.

Skak yngelrum Start checking from one side in the uppermost box with brood. The queen hopefully will run to the brood if she is outside the brood area (probably not). The comb closest to brood you check so the queen is not there. 

Skak deciliter Shake the bees into a pan or bowl. Scope up somewhat more than a deciliter of bees (3.5 oz)

Skakburk sprit Pour the bees into one of the halfs of the bee shaker, which is half filled with alcohol. Screw the other half tight on top. Shake it for a minute.

Skak botten1lc Turn the shaker upside down and continue shaking until all the alcohol has poured down. Lift it up against the sky and count the mites. This colony had 14 mites on 300 mites and it got two pieces with 5 gram Thymol each. It showed no wingless bees.

What I hated to do

So what I’ve done so far is something I hated to do. In one quite isolated apiary I used an effective chemical miticide (only this time I promised myself) in August 2015. I wanted to use something else than Thymol to give the bees a break from that chemical. And I wanted to knock down the mite population effectively to lower the virus pressure in the apiary. I collected the knocked down mites. (In the rest of the apiaries I plan at the moment to continue as before.) The colonies that had needed most Thymol earlier in the season had the highest downfall of mites. They got probably continuously reinfested from other colonies that happened to not show wingless bees while they anyway had quite high mite loads. The defense system of these quickly reinfested colonies was probably lowered by Thymol, which made this relatively quick reinfestation possible.

One colony that hadn’t needed any Thymol at all (and very little the year before) and still had given me 80 kg (175 lb) of honey with 20 kg (45 lb) left for winter dropped less than 200 mites. And this happened in this very bad season of 2015. This colony is of course a breeder for the coming season.

 

The new strategy

Next year I will in this new strategy apiary make splits from the best colonies and place them in the same apiary (or if the number is enough there, place in other apiaries). In the least good colonies in this apiary (those with highest infestation level) I will kill the queen and give them a ripe queen cell bred from a good colony in this apiary. I check the number of varroa (infestation level) with the bee shaker twice a season in all colonies in this apiary. Each time it will take about 5 minutes per colony. And I look for eventual wingless bees on the hard board in front of the entrances. Before the number of mites rise too high (whatever that is), or when I see wingless bees, I plan to remove all capped brood (worker and drone brood) once or twice with a week in between. I haven’t decided what to do with those brood frames yet. Any suggestion?

 

 

Aiming for a new season

In the beginning of March the bees had their main cleansing flight after winter. In the beginning of April most of them had more combs and boxes given. At the end of April another round checking food, need for thymol, collecting some dead outs and putting on supers took place.

Previous years winter losses were about 15 % with another 30 % were saved through thymol and queens shifted (no or little crop), This is the investment price for developing a more varroa resistant stock. I give some thymol when I see wingless bees.

Last year winterlosses were about 10 %. This winter losses are also about 10 %. A good development is that only another 10 % are saved with thymol and will have their queens shifted later. Also breeders have been treatmentfree longer and VSH value for the breeders are better. And bees are putting more honey closer to the broodnest for winter storage, thus there is more honey for winter food. The bees are shutting down brood already in August and waiting till January or February before starting again. Thus they use less food in winter and save it for brood when starting the new season, which is started even somewhat before the main cleansing flight. The bees know what’s coming.

Most colonies got a super above queen excluder in late April and those splits wintering on two boxes their third brood box. And those 10 % fighting varroa and virus and/or something else maybe a few drawn empty frames, some food frames and maybe a piece of dish cloth with thymol (4-5 gram).

Bästa samhället 2015-04w

The best colony so far

The best colony in April was the best producer last year, didn’t need any thymol last year, didn’t swarm and has a very good temper. It was wintered with 20 kg (44 pound) honey and 10 kg (22 pound) of sucrose sugar.

In beginning of April it had about 10 kg of food left and was full of bees. For safety reasons so the queen shouldn’t stop laying, it got a frame of food in the super from the storage.

In late April this box above the excluder was half full with willow honey and full of bees. So the colony got another super. I plan to check the infestation rate with the bee shaker (http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=660) soon and also the VSH value (http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=146). Of course I have to breed from it.

 

Comment to evaluation

I want to clarify somewhat the comment in the text about the contradiction concerning the reason for lowering the threshold for giving Thymol to get a better selection. At the same time saying that if you have non-selected bees against Varroa resistance it might be good to have a low threshold to avoid loosing many colonies.

But first I think it’s good to mention that the “selection average” concerning the crop for all apiaries is not a real average. The economical average, the total crop harvested, divided by all colonies wintered in the autumn, has been for a number of years between 25 and 35 kg (55-77 lb). That is including all colonies lost during winter and all colonies for different reasons not producing or producing very little.

When Varroa started to create problems (2008 – and arrived a couple of years before) I lost quite many colonies the first two years. That’s not uncommon. Common is also to continue to lose many colonies in intervals with some years in between, in spite of heavy treatment.

During those problem years I made quite some walk away splits of the best survivor colonies in spring. They made their own queens to ensure to save survival heritage from those surviving colonies. But some of them of course survived due to treatment, and those still had low resistance.

After a couple of years, the winter losses have been about 15 % with another 30 % not producing or producing just a small crop. When I got the first colony that had been without Thymol for at least one season as a big colony (H157) I grafted a lot from it. But I hadn’t time to shift queens in all colonies, which had got most of Thymol. Such colonies that didn’t get their queens shifted unfortunately still contributed with drones coming season. But they contributed though to high genetic variation. The compromise was relevant to be able to produce enough much honey to put food on the table and keep me going.

Now the amount of resistance is better in my bee stock and next year I will have time to shift all queens needed. Maybe one third is the right number to avoid loss of genetic variation. If so the development might turn backwards. With a lower threshold now, the progress for the whole stock will accelerate, as the very best breeders will be easier to discern. And the Varroa population will be kept at a lower level and thus I will hopefully get a higher total crop.

But with unselected stock you may need the low threshold to avoid loosing many colonies. Probably some other help to discern breeders is necessary. When some progress is achieved it might be relevant to have a higher threshold than just one wingless bee. But be prepared for eventual more losses. Maybe the right time is when you can observe bees cleaning out infested brood and throwing out sick bees from the hive (mostly wingless bees), treating them as trash (they can even fly away with them to get them away from the hive). This is apparently a way for the bees to lower the virus pressure in the colony.

Evaluation of season

Around Christmas I get time to do work on an Excel application on the computer, feeding it with new figures about the honeybee colonies from the season. It helps me identify the least good colonies (which will get their queens shifted coming season) and the best ones, which to breed from.

I focus on Varroa resistance, good honey crop, easy management, low defensiveness, low swarming tendency and keeping track of the motherline, so I can trace the heritage somewhat. Earlier, when I got the virgins mated on isolated mating places with drones from sisterqueen, I had nice pedigrees. Now when there are only Elgon bees (or almost) where the virgins mate I just make a note of the apiary where they got mated.

 

Focus on traits

A.  The evaluation of Varroa resistance is kind of a two-step stair:

  1. The Varroa population is allowed to grow until (or not) the colony shows one or more wingless bees, which I interpret as a sign of presence of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). This virus is the most common in connection with Varroa. If so the colony gets one or two pieces of dishcloth with 4 grams of Thymol each. One piece usually if the colony is weaker, for example in spring (or a strong colony late in season that probably didn’t need it – just in case). If still DWV-bees 7-10 days later another piece(s), etc. This is done regardless if there are honey supers on the colony. But if harvest time is a week later I wait until then. Most Thymol is though given either before (in spring) or after nectar flow (late summer). Thymol goes mostly into wax and wooden parts and gets ventilated away again. Honey has never got any taste of thymol with me.
  2. When the breeder candidates have been identified – those that have been without thymol the longest and still have a honeycrop higher than average – I test those for VSH the coming season, if they have wintered and develop well. In 2014 I tested the breeders after I had used them due to lack of time. I want to do this in May before I choose which to graft from.

B.  The honey crop is compared between all relevant bee colonies. This is done with the help of a ranking list with estimated honey crops instead of the actual figures. That shouldn’t be correct due to different conditions in different apiaries/locations. This way it’s more correct even if it never will be exactly correct.

Consideration is taken to colony strength in spring (just after the main cleansing flight, late March/early April), crop size (including roughly how much honey is left with the bees), and if bees have been taken from the colony for making new colonies or mating nuces. Consideration is also taken to autumn strength after the season (in November after the old field bees have died). An average of the resulting theoretical honeycrops is calculated for each apiary for relevant colonies. Too weak colonies in spring or hives that have swarmed too much or is weakened too much of disease (virus from varroa mostly) are not included in the average. Then all averages for all apiaries are used to make an “selection average” for apiaries (for 2014 it was 91 kg – 200 lb). Then each apiary average is compared to this overall “selection average” and an adjustment is made, up or down for each apiary. Then a final calculated honey crop and a following grade is made for each colony and finally the ranking list.

Why I ended up with a 9-point scale (1–1.5–2–2.5–3–3.5–4–4.5–5) I don’t know. To be considered as a breeder I mostly want a colony to have at least 3.5 points, that is above average in honey production.

C.  I almost never use a queen that has swarmed. There must be a very good reason for doing so, for example trying the queen of the wall – http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=505http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=515 . If a daughter queen is not shifted by me in the leftover colony, she has to show herself worthy coming seasons, just like every other colony.

D.  I don’t want to use a defensive colony and very seldom do. I tried one in 2013. Actually one of her daughters is a breeder candidate for 2015, with good temper, but the average among her sisters is not good. But bad temper is actually one of the easiest traits to make better through selection.

 

Ranking list 2014

Let’s look at the ranking list for 2014. Most important is how many years the bees of a colony (and their relatives and ancestors in the same colony) have not got any Thymol. Sometimes in the history of the colony, a split may have been done early in the season before the mother colony got Thymol. This could have happened more than once. The best colonies come at the top of the ranking.

Thymol used in the previous season (2014) is zero grams for a colony considered as a breeder (2015). And this colony should not be a new colony of that year (2014), but a big colony that has wintered at least once with the present queen (maybe a new colony the year before, 2013) and produced a crop. 2014 is the first year I have colonies that havn’t tasted thymol for two years as big colonies (2013 and 2014).

Namnlista tymol14 etc.xls Click on the list to make it bigger and readable, then click on the back arrow in the upper left corner to get back to the text.

Among the top 11 on the ranking list, one is too defensive and 3 have queens born 2014. Two were breeders already in 2014. They may be good enough also for 2015 – H112 and H105.

Number 6 on the list is not considered for 2015, as the colony swarmed, but I keep an eye on it as it still produced a good crop. Maybe it can be considered for 2016. Number 7 has not a good temper and it’s queen is mated at the edge of the Elgon area with possible influence of non-Elgon heritage, but so what, if the traits are good, but temper is not in this case. But if I hadn’t had any other colonies… Number 9 is a split from H112 that made a queen of their own this year. Maybe a breeder 2016? Number 11 shifted its queen early in the season. Maybe a breeder 2016?

Number one on the list is the queen of the wall (see above). I have put the last year with thymol to 2008 for her, just to put a figure in the column. Probably those bees, well their ancestors, have never tasted any miticide at all. Now that colony may not be as resistant as the best of my other ones as they havn’t, living on their own, had any reinfestation, and they have got a brood cycle break every year (swarm) and have a smaller amount of brood due to a smaller nest than a big hive, so I will make just a few daughters. But they have to be hardy. Number 3 is considered as the bees (their ancestor bees and colony) tasted thymol as far back as 2011, though the crop grade is just average.

In 2014 the breeder colonies had been without thymol for one year (2013) as big colonies (and not two or more for the best considered for 2015). The best of such ones for 2015 are number 28, 29 and 30.

Now this season of 2014 I gave thymol when seeing just one single wingless bee outside a colony on the hardboard. Earlier seasons I waited till I saw at least two. And still earlier at least three. The threshold for giving thymol is getting lower to get a still better selection and a quicker improvement of the stock. It’s because of the improvement this lower threshold is possible. If you don’t have bees selected for Varroa resistance I guess just one single wingless bee is a tough enough threshold as such bees probably are not as quick in throwing out a bee with a lot of virus, as selected bees are. (Isn’t this kind of an contradiction in reasoning, eh?)

Had it been an earlier year, those that 2014 got 4 grams of thymol hadn’t probably got any thymol at all. If we look at the list with this in mind, number 50 and 51 would also be breeder candidates. No 50 was used in 2014 as a breeder, with as it seems good result.

 

Shift these queens

Almost all of those colonies that received 16 grams or more of Thymol ,will have their queens shifted in 2015. They are less than a third of all the colonies. These are the most important to identify. Some of them have though been very high producing. A colony that has not been selected for Varroa resistance is usually thought to need at least 50 grams of thymol a year. That corresponds to two trays of Apiguard. Those colonies that got new queens born in 2014 will of course not get their queens shifted in 2015.

Namnlista tymol14 etc.xls The bottom part of the ranking.

Spring will show how good the colonies have come through the winter and if they develop well without any need for thymol. Coming May (2015) I will most probably test more colonies concerning their VSH value than in 2014.