Varroa resistant worker bees

Magnus was a beekeeper in his youth in western Sweden. He quit in 1996 but started again in 2013 with his wife Ulrika. Then they bought from an older beekeepers a pavilion with seven bee colonies, most of which were splits, new colonies.

Varberg1 It was a big pavilion on wheels that they bought.

It was not crowded with bees where this beekeeper lived from whom they bought the bees. Maybe a couple of miles (3 km) to other bees than his. He treated with oxalic acid against Varroa once a year. Nothing more was used for keeping the Varroa population down. And he bought a Buckfast queen now and then to help the genetic variation.

Varberg2 The hives in the pavilion are long hives with 30 combs 12″x12″ (30 x 30 cm).

The pavilion was moved to Magnus and Ulrika in September. They saw wingless bees from three colonies. Two of these were splits from the third. Of the other four were at least two splits from one of the rest, No. 9. The fourth, No. 10, appeared to be related to No. 9, because of the behavior and appearance. Maybe No. 9 was a split from No. 10 in 2012. The argument for this is that in 2014 the queen just fell of the combs in No 10 and died. Perhaps the queen was the oldest of the two.

Magnus and Ulrika has their bees quite isolated too (about 3 km) in relation to other bees. In October 2013 they treated all seven colonies with oxalic acid. From the three with wingless bees fell very many mites due to the treatment. From the other four just about 10 mites from each. These four were also the only one to survive the winter.

 

Low level start in 2014

In August 2014 they treated all colonies with thymol. Now they were ten. Magnus and Ulrika wanted to bring all colonies into a low level situation concerning mites as a start for the coming years. The next year they planned to check the infestation level of mites with the bee shaker bootle and treat only those with an infestation level of at least 3% in August.

They probably did too many splits, as some were a bit weak in autumn. No. 10 was still there, but with a new Buckfast queen from a queen breeder. No split had a daughter of No. 9 or No. 10 as its queen. Only No. 9 had its original queen.

No colony had been purchased and brought into their area from “outside”. All new colonies were splits from the first four who survived the first winter with Magnus and Ulrika.

The mites that fell after thymol treatment were about as many as the previous year after the oxalic acid treatment, that is very few.

Seven survived the winter. Three splits were obviously too small and did not make it.

 

Bee shaker 2015

In autumn 2015, they wintered 13 colonies. They controlled the infestation rate in August with the help of the bee shaker (http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=794), ie alcohol sample of 300 bees. Only the “old” colonies were tested. Magnus and Ulrika did not want to weaken the splits made in 2015. Two of these were a bit weak in the autumn due to queen problems. If an “old” colony had more than 3% infestation rate (9 mites from 300 bees) also the splits made from it would be treated was the strategy.

Those which had higher infestation rate than 3% in August were treated with thymol. There were three colonies that had just over 3%. Only those three which no splits had been taken from. Some of the other “old” colonies had only one mite from 300 bees, i.e. 0.3% infestation level. All the others except the three were not treated.

Ten colonies survived to 2016. Two of the three dead were the weak due queen problems in the autumn. The third died of local starvation. There were some empty frames between food combs and the bee cluster.

No colony during the last two winters have died because of large levels of Varroa. Varroa is evidently not a problem. Varroa levels have always been low in these colonies that originated from bees from the No. 9 and No. 10, also in 2013.

 

The colonies from the No. 9 and No. 10th

What naturally would come to mind is that we have found a tiny varroa resistant local bee stock genetically, if the queens are all descended from the No. 9 and No. 10. But that is not the case! Several of the daughter colonies had received queen pupae from a queen breeder. Some had been laying queens from the same breeder. He doesn’t select for varroa resistance and use effective miticides. Still, even colonies with these queens have very small levels of varroa. But the worker bees that these queens were introduced into came directly or “indirectly” from No. 9 or No. 10. Some splits from No. 9 were made in 2015. The other “mother colonies” were splits made in 2014 from No. 9, though with queens from a Buckfast queen breeder. These colonies are not ffsprings genetically, “only” “social offsprings” through the worker bees. The colony No. 10, is the social offspring of the original No. 10. Eight colonies are social offsprings of No. 9. No. 9 have the original queen. Only No. 9 have a “true” varroa resistant genetic set up.

 

Naturrum 2016

The first weekend in April 2016, I had a lecture at the Visitor Centre at Getteron at the west coast of Sweden close to the little town Varberg. I talked about breeding bees resistant to varroa. In the afternoon there were some workshops. One on how to check the infestation level of Varroa with the Bee shaker. The other how to make dish cloth pieces with thymol to treat against Varroa.

Varberg3 Magnus and Ulrika pouring alcohol in the Bee shaker. Somewhat more.

Magnus had brought a colony that hadn’t been treated against varroa the previous year. The queen was an introduced egg-laying Buckfast queen from a queen breeder. A queen which was not selected for varroa resistance. We hoped it would be a substantial amount of varroa in the colony so there would be some to count at the bottom of the Bee shaker.

Varberg4 The fourth comb from the rear with a lot of bees on it but no brood, to minimize the risk of including the queen.

Varberg5 The bees were shaken into a corner. With a measuring cup a little more than 1 dl bees were talken and poured into one half of the Bee shaker.

Varberg6 After the bees had been poured into one half of the Bee shaker the lids were screwed on top. Then the alcohol was poured on the bees from the other half. This half was then screwed to the rest. Now the Bee shaker was shaken for one minute. Turned around, still shaken until all the alcohol had went down in the lower part.

 

Too few mites

In August 2015 it was one mite in 300 bees in that test colony at the workshop. Now April 2 the colony was a strong and healthy colony of bees filling the box that had been the winter room. The bees were very calm and sampling went well. I lifted the fourth comb from the rear, with no brood, but close to the brood. To our “disappointment” it showed only one mite in 300 bees. One can truly say that we were surprised.

Varberg7 When all the alcohol had went down, the Bee shaker was lifted above the head and the mites were counted on the bottom of the Bee shaker.

How could this colony be varroa resistant? And No. 9? And the colonies that were made with bees from No. 9 but with no daughter queen from No. 9. All Magnus’ and Ulrika’s current colonies and their social offsprings have demonstrated surprisingly low amounts of mites all of the years with them. Although their queens are not genetically related to the original resistant colonies. They are though social offspring, as described above what that means.

 

The explanation

I had in my lecture talked about the experience of Hans-Otto Johnsen and Terje Reinertsen in Norway that can hardly be explained otherwise than that worker bees in resistant colonies teach other bees how to control mites.

Sampling with the Bee shaker on Getteron confirmed what I had lectured in a most interesting way.

 

Look for resistant bees

Now is the time for beekeepers that have had varroa in their colonies for a few years and have not yet checked the downfall of mites after treating. Check the differences of downfalls between different colonies. Especially you can discover good colonies in apiaries located somewhat isolated and in which there are not so many bee colonies. This lessen the risk for reinvasion of mites in the colonies. It’s good if the apiary have somewhat developed a stock of its own, ie no colonies or packages have been brought into the apiary in recent years and mostly queens have been bred from colonies in the apiary.

I’m sure there are many resistant colonies to be found today, but you must look for them.

You should make splits from the best ones.

The poorest colonies should not be used to make splits from, in any case you should avoid it.

You can buy Bee shakers here: http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=809

 

Resistant genes are important but resistant worker bees are more important

Of course, it requires a certain amount of resistant genes for a colony of bees to be able to develop resistance and be able to teach other worker bees how to control mites. When there are colonies which have developed good resistance it seems less genetic resistance quality is required to be able to be taught ability to control mites than to initially develop and learn this property.

 

If you find resistant colonies

If you find resistant colonies, even if they are somewhat bad tempered, swarmy, and only give small crops of honey, take care of them like golden nuggets. Move them if you can to an apiary of their own somewhat isolated, a couple of miles (3 km) to the other bees. Make splits from them and give those splits pupae bred from good tempered bees, reluctant to swarm and high producing.. Then continue to do splits following year from the best varroa resistant colonies and let them make their own queens. Doing so also from the original resistant colonies and let them make their own queens. Now there are good drones in respect to other good qualities from the previous year’s new colonies. Continue the following years to replace the poorest queens with those bred from the best in the apiary.

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.