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.


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.

Free bees

This year is a year of swarms in Sweden. The weather is chilly and damp. Bees are sitting a lot inside having little to do but making queen cells. Maybe like many others in such a situation, thinking of reproduction.:)

In my home yard I have up till now have hade one swarming attempt, which I stopped with rain from my garden hose.

During this week I’ve had two swarms flying into my home yard from my neighbor beekeeper less than half a mile away (half a km). He has Elgon bees as well, but a smaller frame size than me, which I think contribute to increase swarming.

The first one flew to the pile of boxes with crap combs, but couldn’t get in. http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=722  I opened up after discussing with them. They behave well, even when I pass very close to them getting things in the container. The pile sits in the opening of the container and the door is always open. After a couple of weeks I will move those boxes where the bees reside to another yard.

Svärm pallstapel1 The bees liked the box better than the pallets.

A couple of days ago another swarm flew into my garden and landed on a pile of pallets. Another bad place. With the help of may hand I scooped most of the bees into a swarm box and put it on top of the pallet pile and hope the bees would like the box better than the pallet pile.

Svärm pallstapel2 I hived the swarm from above, easy and quick.

And they did. In the evening all of the bees were sitting still in the box. I hived the bees in two square shallow boxes. Corresponds to two 10-frame mediums. Now they are doing fine.

HDRtist Pro Rendering - http://www.ohanaware.com/hdrtistpro/ Church bees.

Yesterday I got a call from a church in the north part of my little town. A big swarm had landed the day before. They wanted me to remove it. It must be Abbey bees I concluded, Buckfasts. And they behaved well. A biig swarm. Probably from my friend Karlsson about 1 mile away over the fields. Elgons too.

I climbed the ladder, held the box in my left hand and scooped again most of the bees with my right hand into the box, and hanged it on the gutter, hoping that the rest of the bees would gather into the box through the excluder.

HDRtist Pro Rendering - http://www.ohanaware.com/hdrtistpro/ In the evening the bees were inside the box ready for transport to their new home.

The bees had in one day drawn 5 small combs with cellsizes 5.0-5.4 mm. 5.4 at the top and 5.0 at the bottom. Some nectar in the top of the biggest and two eggs. Laying queen:

In the evening all bees were inside the box with a few sitting outside on it. I transported them to on of my yards and hived them.

Three nice colonies in less than a week!

Svärm pallstapel3

Let us in – we will clean your combs

Today I got a telephone call from my neighbor when I was out in the car. He told me a swarm was swirling in the air in his garden, then moving over my container for storing bee equipment.

When I got home I went to the container. The door is almost always open to avoid overheating and too much moisture in it. Close to the opening I hade piled up some boxes with combs to be sorted out. Most of them would go to the solar wax melter, moldy pollen, bee feces, badly drawn, etc.

The swarm had smelled the nice odor from the pile and sat on the outside trying to get it, without success. I stood looking at them shaking my head and told them in the world they had went to a closed pile of garbage combs and not to the nice swarm trap hive on the top of the container. I hadn’t gone looking at the swarm trap yet.

As I stood talking to them about their bad choice, I got a feeling they asked me to open up the pile so they could walk in and they would clean my garbage combs for me. Well, I thought and remembered my friend who told me about the swarm that entered a failing colony hive in which the forest ants were building an anthill in one corner. The swarm just threw out everything in that hive and cleaned and secured it from the enemies.

Svärmsstapeln Inside the container looking out. The swarm have went in through the top entrance I gave them. A couple of weeks I will talk to them every time pass them. At that time I will open it to see if they have laying queen and decide how many boxes I will move to another yard to set up the new colony with old crap combs. Poor bees, but they choose them themselves.

So I opened the top lid of the pile just enough for the bees to enter. And they all went in happily. They thus got a top entrance. It will be interesting to see if they will keep what they promised.

Svärmfluster The top entrance of the pile of crap combs.

Then I went to the swarm trap. Well, well, well. Bees were going in and out there. I thought it was bees from the swarm that were looking for a new home when they couldn’t get in the pile. I almost thought it was a mistake now opening up for the pile bees. Maybe they had went to the swarm trap if I hadn’t. But how should I have known?

Svärmkupa Scout bees looking at a house top flat. evidently I stopped them from moving in.

I went to the solar melter to change combs. I had another pile with already sorted combs to melt. Then I saw A second swarm coming out of a hive. Maybe a second swarm from the same hive. No other though in my yard had swarmed. Many times swarms from other yards seek their new home close to a foreign yard. Good for the mixture of genes maybe.

I had the garden hose handy close by and watered the swarming hive. The swarm went back. And the bees from the swarm trap disappeared. They were evidently scout bees from this swarming hive. Well, well, well. Did I do wrong again, or did I do right again. We’ll see tomorrow if this hive will swarm tomorrow again.

Wax in the nest

Rüdiger Dietrich made this comment to my recycling post earlier:

I have one question for the wax recycling, but didn’t found a way to post the question in previous contribution. Could you please so kind and arrange this contribution accordingly?
My question is: The goal for the own wax cycle is to have control about the ingredients of the wax, that would be otherwise (if you buy) equivocal as acids or pesticides could be inside the wax or may even come from african feral bee swarms, where these bees have to die just for the wax….
However, if you melt for instance honey combs that had rape honey or even rape pollen insight, then pesticides used from the farmer will be found in your wax as well, woun’t it? How do you control this problem?

Wax in the nest

Your question raises the need for dealing somewhat with this issue. Wax in the nest have a lot of functions for the bees. One of them is to take care of chemicals and even pathogens not so good for the bees and hide them in the wax. With feral bees sooner or later the colony dies for a number of reasons. The Wax moth will deal with the old wax and it will not be recycled as we do, or the bees will finally tear it down and build new wax combs. This is good as when the wax will be too filled with bad stuff it will leak back into honey and brood cells with larvae food and larvae.

We have seen reports of investigations of old wax combs in USA which are holding a lot of residues from agricultural chemicals as well as miticide residues. WIth small amounts in the wax this is not something to be very concerned about, even if we don’t like it. Let me take an example.

Maybe ten years ago foundation wax from organic beekeepes in USA that was recycling their own wax making their own foundation was tested for residues. About 2 mg/kg fluvalinate was found. How could that happen? Not miticieds were used in the operation. Actually the operation was treatment free and still is. But some years before this test a big pack of foundation was bought from a big wax dealer in USA. Of course the most probable explanation is that the Fluvalinate residues came into the operation from the foundation bought.

In spite of these residues the operation has been thriving as a treatment free operation and a big lot of honey that was exported was tested for foreign chemicals and none was found.

What I’m saying is that a small amount of residues is tolerable for the bees and honey. Even if you don’t want it and should do everything you can to avoid it. But you don’t want that wax for making hand cream and lip balm. And probably you don’t want propolis harvested from such colonies. But honey seems to be okey.

Wax for foundation and hand creame

Cappings wax is what you should use for making foundation and hand creame. Cappings wax is a mixture of cappings and the outer part of the cell walls. The bottom part of the cell walls are made with the help of wax from the foundation. The rest is made from newly produced wax by the bees. And the wax is usually clean, if the bees havn’t been contaminated with chemicals from farmland.

Also wax form foundationless frames and Warréhives and TBH is clean  if not contaminated from sprayed farmland.

Old comb’s wax

Wax from recycled old combs you use for foundation if you know it’s clean from pesticide residues. If it’s minor residues you can well use it for foundation as well. If it’s a lot of residues in the old combs you use the wax for making candles. when the wax burns the pesticides in the wax breaks down.

If you’re not sure about the residue content and you really want to know you can have it analyzed. Otherwise you can use it for wax candles.

Recycle your own wax

The first step in recycling your own wax is to get it out from your misshaped too old and your badly drawn combs. Next step is to make your own foundation from this wax, if you use foundation.

You can render your wax in more than one way, electrical way, firewooden way and solar way. I use the last two. When the bees don’t fly I use the old stoves that were used in old days to warm water to wash your clothes. I warm the water to get steam that melt the wax out of the frames. The wax and the water boil together until I have melted wax out of 7-10 boxes. Then I pour it out of the tap through a strainer into buckets. I stir it to get water together with the wax in all buckets. The first bucket will hold mostly only water, which I throw, if possible on a compost. To begin with it’s 4 buckets of water. I get two or three buckets that will settle until next day.

When a box of frames are empty of everything (well not entirely) I bang them a little at the side of the box and put them in the other big pot with water to clean the frames. I use no additive in the water, just plain water. That’s enough and no further rinsing is necessary. Bees don’t like the additives and they are difficult to get rid of from the frames. A heavy weight holds down the frames under water. And you need good insulated waterproof gloves.

The next day I take care of the wax in the buckets. The debris and water at the bottom goes to the compost. If the wax is as small pebbles at the bottom or mixed with some debris, that goes into a bucket, where also the debris that is piled off from the bottom with the help of a little axe. That “waxdebris” is later melted again with the help of a little steam cooker for making juice from berries. But once you used it for wax I bet no one wants to use it for juice.