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.

Treatment select for increased reproduction rate

Varroa mites multiply in bee larvae. After they come out of the cell when the bee is fully formed, they sit on the adult bees and suck hemolymph.

It was observed many years ago that during the brood period of the bees, 2/3 of the mites was found in the capped bee brood cells while 1/3 was on the bees.

VarroaBin2 Varroa mites on bees. Many years ago 1/3 of the mites were sitting on bees while 2/3 was found in the capped brood. Today this has changed to 15% and 85%. (Photo: Anders Berg)

If the mites had been sitting longer time on the bees than they did, before they returned into a brood cell, a greater proportion than 1/3 had been found on the bees. If they had been sitting less time there would have been a smaller proportion found on adult bees. The shorter the time the varroa mites are sitting on adult bees, the faster they return into a new brood cell to reproduce. This would increase the speed of varroa reproduction in the bee colony.

It is thus from the beekeeper’s and the bee colony’s point of view desirable that the mites are sitting as long as possible on the bees, resulting in a slower development of the varroa population. So, if the proportion of mites had been ½ on the bees and ½ in capped brood, this would have been better than that found for a number of years ago when varroa mites had arrived.

In early December 2015, two professional beekeepers from the Spanish mainland came to the small island of La Palma, one of the Canary Islands, and lectured on the varroa problem (http://archiv.resistantbees.com/phoretische-varroen). One of them was Manuel Izquierdo Garcia, a biologist at the University of Seville. (Thanks Rüdiger Dietrich who drew my attention to this.)

30 years ago when varroa mites came to Spain, the proportion of mites on the bees was 1/3 and 2/3 in capped brood. During the past 30 years, the mites’ behavior have changed. You could say that during the 30 years of conventional treatment of bees to kill mites, the mites have responded by spending less time on the bees to accelerate their reproduction rate. They have also changed the place on the bees they usually sit, from the abdomen to the middle part of the bee.

The result of this change has resulted in 15% are found on the bees (previously 33%) and 85% in the capped brood (previously 66%).

VarroaYngel2 Mites are sitting shorter time on the adult bees. Thus you find at a given time 15% of the mites on the bees today and 85 % in the brood. This have increased the reproduction rate of the varroa population.

Increased treatment

This change has consequences for beekeeping. It explains why we in Europe have had to increase treatment to kill mites. There are examples of recommendations in several countries where the fight starts in spring and continues throughout the season. And anyway, or should one say, maybe sometimes also because of this, the bees have difficulties to survive.

Powdered sugar

Some types of treatment will also be less effective due to this change. Treating with powdered sugar, only kills the mites sitting on the bees. One must fight very often if powdered sugar should have any effect of relevance.

Oxalic acid

If there are still small areas of capped brood when one uses oxalic acid against the mites, the oxalic woun’t have the effect one wants. This becomes more relevant when climate change means warmer winters, as it will be more common with brood in winter times, the time when oxalic usually are used. It becomes even more important keeping bees that really have brood-free periods during winter, also for treatment free beekeepers.

Treatment is a dead end

It is becoming increasingly clear that it is a dead end using all kinds of chemicals against varroa mites. And it is with the increased reproduction rate of the mites more difficult to select resistant bees and get areas with treatment free bees – which is the solution.

Focus on varroa resistance

All this show how important it is to focus on producing as varroa resistant bees as possible and develop management methods without chemicals. It is important that all beekeepers understand the problem and are involved at least somewhat.

Every beekeeper can at least try to identify which of his or her bee colonies are the least good in resisting varroa mites and replace the queen(s) in those. The simplest way is to just remove the queen in such a colony and let the bees rear a new of their own. It is not the best method, but a start. Then you can make more steps in improving your bees, depending on interest and opportunities.

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?

 

 

Jante and The Involuntary Adviser

“It is better to listen to a string, which burst,
than never to span an arc.”
Verner von Heidenstam (Swedish poet), 1902, Invocation and Pledge

 

Jante verbalize the unwritten law that says that you can not stand up and think that you are better than others in some way. It’s a fictional law of a fictional Danish town in a novel by Aksel Sandemose in the book En flykting korsar sitt spår (A refugee crosses his tracks) (1933). The closest phenomenon in the English-speaking world is what is called The tall poppy syndrome.

 Jante
1  You shall not think you are something.
2  You shall not think you’re as good as we are.
3  You shall not think that you are wiser than we are.
4  You shall not fool yourself into thinking you’re better than us.
5  You shall not think that you know more than we do.
6  You shall not think that you are more important than we are.
7  You shall not think that you are good at anything.
8  You shall not laugh at us.
9  You shall not think that someone cares about you.
10 You shall not think that you can learn us anything.
Jante Criminal Code
11 Don’t you think we know something about you?

 

Commitment
Commitment can be dangerous as it can lead to knowledge that leads to the development leading to change. If those in charge do not control the course of events. They need control of change not to risk losing control of the situation – losing control over others, over money, over development. If you have influence and power you may want to keep it. That’s when you oppose those who get involved – rather than encourage, assist and perhaps cooperate.

 

Do nothing
If you don’t do anything you don’t risk standing out and you don’t risk falling into disfavor with those who want to have control. But you can never do anything good, increase knowledge and contribute to development.

 

Do something
If you do something you risk making mistakes. A mistake, may learn you important things. And you can get ideas about how to do instead. If you do something good and it’s new, you learn something new, and also others do that, perhaps leading development forward.

 

 

2008, varroa and viruses

In spring of 2008, I had been told not to give advice to beekeepers how to combat the varroa mite. This is because I allegedly gave dangerous advice that caused beekeepers to lose their bees. The one who told me this, I had been told treated against Varroa mites only once a year trickling with oxalic acid solution in November and calculated to have 30% winter losses.

Shortly afterwards a desperate beekeeper called me in late April. He actually sought someone else he could not get through to. He asked for advice on how he would do to save his eight colonies from dying as they all showed wingless bees in different amounts. It is considered by some that a bee colony showing wingless bees is doomed to die and can not be saved. So what should I do? I was told not to give advice. But should I tell the person seeking help to let the bees die, or should I give the best advice I could? Deny a needy help, I could not.

– The mildest treatment against the already by viruses weakened bees, are probably in this case Apistan, I said, but you may not want to use that. (The mites had just arrived there and built a population and Apistan had never been used before.)

– No, said the beekeeper from east central Sweden.

– To treat these highly viruses weakened bees with acid is to lead them into death, I said. Oxalic acid could possibly have been used in November, but only really if one earlier in July/August had checked the colonies concerning the amount of mites and treated with something then if needed, so they are not weakened when Oxalic treatment comes in November/December.

– Do you know what Apiguard is? I asked.

– No, he replied, and did not know what Thymol was either.

– The best advice I can give you is to get in touch with Joel Svensson’s Bee Equipements and ask them to help you get Apiguard. Read the packaging how to use it, and apply it as soon as you can. Thymol, I think is mildest for the bees in this case.

In September the same year the beekeeper called med and thanked me for I had helped him. All his bee colonies had survived, even the most affected and vulnerable. He had also made a few splits and wintered 13 colonies.

I asked him how long time Apiguard was in the hives.

– All summer, he replied.

– Huh, I cried, but did you harvest any honey then?

– Oh yeah, was the answer.

– But didn’t the honey taste thymol, I asked.

– No, he replied.

Hmm, could it be possible? Maybe yes, maybe no. Well, you should not and need not to use Apiguard as this beekeeper did. But the most positive thing with this beekeeper was that the colonies recovered and lived. And the honey was safe to eat whether it tasted thymol or not. It was probably mostly this beekeeper and his family who ate the honey that year I believe. He certainly hadn’t a bumper crop.

The bees pollinated and did what they should. And the beekeeper was happy.

Oxalic side effects

Oxalic acid has been used for many years in Europe to kill Varroa mites in bee colonies. Recently it has been approved for use in USA.

Oxalic Trickling Photo: Anders Berg

When choosing between strategies against this mite it’s good to know all the pros and cons. Not much has been said about the negative aspects of this acid. In 2012 a study was published that hasn’t got much attention among researchers. I understand it’s why Dr Heike Ruff at Würzburgs university in Germany wrote a note about this study in the German bee magazine ADIZ no 2-2015, page 16.

The website Resistantbees.com made a reference to this and also made a summary of the study. http://resistantbees.com/blog/?page_id=2302#dt

If you succeed in using Oxalic acid correct it can help bees survive while they otherwise had died. But experiences from Sweden is that it’s difficult to have a number of years in a row with low winterlosses using Oxalic acid. If it’s only because of not successful tracking of the mite population and treating in summer when needed, not to get to high mite population when it’s time for Oxalic, I don’t know. Or treating when there’s still brood in the colony, quite useless. Or maybe damage has been adding up some years whch results in high losses with intervalls. Obviously there’s more to find out. This study cited below shows that. More beekeepers in Sweden are finding Thymol a better alternative, especially when used in spring (instead of Oxalic in winter) and after the main crop in late summer (instead of pesticide strips).

Best of all though is to work for resistant bees the best we can.

 

Sublethal effects of oxalic acid on Apis mellifera: changes in behavior and life expectancy. Oxalic acid treatment side effects
To combat the Varroa mite beekeepers can use different veterinary drugs, including organic acids such as formic acid or oxalic acid (OS). So far only the efficacy against the mite and how well the bees could tolerate the acid was evaluated for the approval of the OS. The criterion for how well the bees can withstand and tolerate the Oxalic acid is determined if the bees die (the mortality of the bees). Therefore the recommendation for treatment for Central Europe is to treat once in the broodfree time in late autumn with 3.5% sodium dihydrate OS. Higher concentrations or multiple treatments lead to high loss of bees. A study now shows that the OS-treatment, despite correct application can have harmful effects on bees. The acid affects both the performance and behavior. Treated workers neglected the brood and were inactive. Learning and memory performance for fragrances were reduced. Even the life of the bees were shortened. In addition, the acid can damage the digestive tract of the bee. Also, the bees clean frequently. Whether it is the desire of the bee, to get rid of adhering acid crystals on the body, or is a symptom of poisoning is unclear. Obviously, however, such weakened bees cannot contribute to the health of the colony. The exact effects of the OS are not known to the researchers. Further studies will show whether the effects of acid are caused by nerve damage (neurotoxicity).

 

The results of the study showed

  • That the treatment with OA led to a reduced lifespan.
  • That treated bees showed an increased self-grooming, a superior tendency to inactivity and decreased nursing behaviour….The increased self-grooming of the treated workers could be caused by the detected residues of OA on bee surface.
  • Treatment with a 3.5% solution of oxalic acid dehydrate (OA), corresponding to the dosage of 175 μg/bee, causes sublethal effects on A. mellifera. The decreased activity and nursing as well as the reduced lifespan of treated bees are aspects for a permanent damage due to the treatment with OA.
  • A decreased activity was also noticed in other studies where bees were numb for several hours (24–48 h) post application of 50 mL 4.2% oxalic acid per colony (Bacandritsos et al. 2007). Similar effects are known from bees treated with formic acid. Due to the fact that the animals did not recover from their immobility, permanent neurotoxic damage was assumed (Bolli et al. 1993). Concerning OA treatment comparable damage may have caused the decreased tasks performance in the colony, including nursing.
  • OA treatment affects the general condition of bee colonies: the workers’ performance is restrained due to the changes in behaviour, the decreased nursing of brood can lead to a lack of healthy and vital workers and the decreased lifespan could modify demographic alterations in colony age structure. Under the suggestion, that the treatment will cause damage of the digestive organs, such bees would be weaker and less vital. This could influence the general state of health of whole colonies.

 

References:

  1. Schneider, S., Eisenhardt, D., RADEMACHER, E., Sublethal effects of oxalic acid on Apis mellifera (Hymenoptera: Apidae): changes in behaviour and longevity, Apidologie, Springer Verlag (Germany), 2012, 43 (2), sid.218-225. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01003525/document
  2. Ruff, Heike, Oxalsäurebehandlung mit Nebenwirkungen, ADIZ 2015; 70 (2), p.16.