Varroa resistant bees in Norway

It is positive that the research community is becoming increasingly focused on varro-resistant honeybees. The latest report comes from a doctoral student, Melissa Oddie. She has started an investigation why a Norwegian beekeeper’s population of bee colonies can be called resistant because, according to his information, he hasn’t treated his bees against varroa in at least 19 years. Their article is a pre-presentation before it is peer reviewed. It could be read and downloaded here when I was writing this: https://peerj.com/preprints/2976.pdf

The result showed that the varroa population of the test bees had a growth rate of 0.87, ie a decrease over time. While the non-resistant control colonies had a growth rate of 1.24, i.e. an increase of the mite population over time.

 

Positive details in the study

  1. One of the beekeeper’s own apiaries was used and its colonies were used in the test.. Thus, no queen was introduced to other types of bees in another place. The resistant bees and their queens were tested in their normal environment.
  2. The distance between the test and the control colonies were big, 60 km.

 

Details missing

  1. The name of the beekeeper. He had earned a place among the authors.
  2. The beekeeper has exchanged breeding material with another commercial beekeeper since 2004. This beekeeper has also not been treating his bees for many years.
  3. The number of bee colonies forming the resistant colony population is not mentioned.
  4. The cell size used by the beekeeper is 4.9 mm, ie small cellsize, for almost as many years as he did not treat against varroa.
  5. The cell size of the control colonies is also not mentioned. Is it also 4.9 mm or larger?
  6. It is not mentioned if there are other bees close to the test and control colonies. The test beekeeper has several apiaries. If any of them are near the test apiary, it would probably not affect the test. How many other type of bees could be found near the test and control apiaries (if any) is not mentioned and, if so, the distance to these bees. It is important for the reinvasion risk.
  7. Nothing is mentioned of annual losses for the years backwards for the test and control colonies. It may be of secondary significance and these figures may also not have been secured. However, some kind of data about of the losses at the beginning of the adaptation of the test bees could have been interesting to take part of. But the article is inspiring anyhow.
  8. There are also no tips for beekeepers inspired by their article to start developing their bees to become resistant. Of course, it is not a task of the test I understand, but some kind of comment about this has been positive since many beekeepers will certainly appreciate the article and be inspired by it. However, such advice I look forward to find in follow-up articles in bee magazines.

Bashing temper of a daughter of a breeder

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

1500 Varroa Treatment Free

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

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

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

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

Blacklisted

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bigger picture

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

California in February

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

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

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

Texas in March

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

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

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

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

Securing cellbuilding

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

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

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

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

Summer in South Dakota

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

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

Winter in Texas

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

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

Annual losses

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

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

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

Hive configuration

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

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

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

The bees

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

Old combs

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

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

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

Nucs

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

Broodnest

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

Cellsize

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

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

Living life

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

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

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

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.

Struggles for the survival of honey bees

S SB

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

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

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

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

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

S AMM queen The AMM queen

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

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

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

S Carnicas Now I have 11 colonies and high hopes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 for 15 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.

A passionate treatment free beekeeper 

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

Cory family The whole Stevens family works together

Started with resistance traits

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

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

Low winter losses initially

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

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

 

Increased winterlosses

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

Initially some viruses

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

Removal of infested drone brood developed

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

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

Some characteristics

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

Planned focus

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

The goal

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

More Varroa resistant bees

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

Darrel Brandypeace Brandypeace, an heirloom tomato of Darrel Jones.

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

Digital StillCamera A feral swarm

Combination partner

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

Darrel Purvis

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

Darrel natur Forest area in Alabama.

Breeding better beekeepers’ bees

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

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

 

Bringing in external mite resistant stock

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

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

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

 

Africanized bees

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

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

 

Spreading the stock

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

 

Cell size

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

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

 

Infestation level

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

 

Conditions and characteristics for Darrel Jones’ resistant stock

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

 

 

A locally adapted Varroa resistant bee stock

Reid Hives

http://www.happyhollowhoney.com/

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

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

 

Survivors

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

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

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

 

Come back

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

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

Reid queen One of his queens.

 

Increasing

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

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

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

 

Selling nucs, queens and honey

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

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

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

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

 

Richard Reid’s locally adapted Varroa-resistant bee stock

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

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

 

Encouragement to all beekeepers

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

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

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

Next season will always be better!