Last year 2015 was a bad year for the bees in more than one respect. Long cold spring and bad summer. But late summer was good as was the autumn. The bees could recover and prepare for next year.
Fresh pollen was low in spring 2015 . The immune system wasn’t at its best. And the bees couldn’t fly as much as they needed. Where nosema was present it could infect new bees instead of disappear with sick bees as those couldn’t make it back to the hive.
I treated more hives and used more Thymol last year than I had done earlier years. Early in the season I saw what was coming and decided to try some new strategies to get forward on the path to better Varroa resistance and finally get rid of chemicals.
Very often I have reminded myself of the experiences from an apiary of Leif Hjalmarsson in the southern part of Sweden. He got 5 Elgon queens from me already in 1997 and established an apiary at least 2 miles from other bees. The bees to which he introduced the queens had been treated with Apistan for about 5 years and were very low in number of mites. The bees had probably been adapted somewhat to the presence of the mite. Leif used large cell size, 5.4 mm. He never had to use any miticide on those bees until he died early this year. I do miss him! He was dear friend and a good beekeeper.
Already when we started to combine the Monticola bee with our Swedish bees there could be seen resistance traits. Therefore I had hoped that Varroa mites would be no problems when they arrived in my apiaries. This would not be the case. Even though I had as well regressed my bees to small cell size, 4.9 mm.
I have been wondering since 2008 when the mite started to create problems, why they were a problem for my bees with me, but not for “my” bees with Leif? Last year I decided I had to let the fact that Leif Hjalmarsson established this apiary of his more than 2 miles from other bees affect how I designed my bee management. I want of course to get better resistance with my bees in my apiaries.
A lot of focus had to be put on avoiding reinvasion, bees picking up mites from colonies with high infestation level of mites, within my own apiaries and others within about 1.5 miles.
Better selection 2015
But the difficult circumstances for the bees last year also meant that selection pressure was stronger and it was easier to choose a good breeder, if there was any. And there were good breeders, especially colony S241 which I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, but also C243. I introduced many new queens in my colonies last year, especially from S241. I had only found one mite in S241 in the brood when I tried to found out the VSH degree. And that mite had no offspring.
1. Project 1, 3 miles from other bees in a forested area started in autumn 2014. I had not treated the colonies in this project in that autumn when the project apiary was established. During 2015 I treated a couple of colonies when they showed crippled winged bees. The varroa level was not alarmingly high, so virus effects came early in infestation. Evidently reinvasion from the colonies with DWV didn’t occur very much to the other colonies in the project apiary, as in autumn 2015 varroa level was low in all colonies. Varroa level was also very low this spring 2016, and so it is now late in summer 2016.
The Bee Shaker is a valuable tool in getting a quick and easy figure of the Varroa level in the bee colonies in an apiary. Type in the search box: Bee Shaker – at the top of this blog, and you will find more info about it.
2. Project 2 started late summer 2015 as I treated all colonies in an apiary 1.5 miles from other bees of mine with an effective pesticide/miticide in August that year (I hated to do use it), to mimic somewhat how the apiary of Hjalmarsson was established. The varroa level now in August 2016 was surprisingly low, almost not detectable. It was in this apiary I had planned to reduce Varroa level by removing all capped brood frames twice with a week in between, in those colonies showing higher Varroa level than 3%. The highest level now in August was 0.3%.
The Bee Shaker will help you to decide if any colonies has to be removed (or any other action taken) from your apiary in which you are developing the Varroa resistance in your bees. It’s a simple and quick method, but you kill 300 bees. That is though nothing compared to numerous bees dying if you do nothing. Viruses and mites killing thousands of bees besides the normal die offs from worn out bees in their daily work, where tens of thousands of bees are dying.
3. Those colonies I decided last year I would shift queens in this year, I treated with thymol in April/May this spring even if they showed no signs of Varroa or virus symptoms. With this I think I secured that those colonies wouldn’t produce mites that could reinvade the other colonies in the apiary. These kind of apiaries are the most numerous of mine. I have not checked the varroa level in all colonies spring and late summer in these apiaries.
Up til now in late August 2016 I have found this odd colony in just a few apiaries, showing one wingless bee. I have tested those colonies with the bee shaker for the Varroa level and only found a few colonies with a Varroa level higher than 3 %.
In one apiary I had this colony with a decreasing varroa level during the season. Three weeks after the early August measurement with just above 1 % Varroa level, I made a new measurement. Now it showed 5 %! Too many mites for the colony to have produced it during these three weeks. Less than a mile away there is another beekeeper, with Elgon bees, but not selected for Varroa resistance for some years. No wingless bees. The colony had probably picked up the many mites from one of his colonies. I didn’t treat, but gave it a sticky board on the bottom to check the natural downfall. And a new Varroa level check will be done in a month. Hopefully this colony will be able to reduce the Varroa level. We’ll see.
An apiary at the edge
Let’s look at one apiary at the edge of “my” Elgon area. With that I mean that drones from other beekeepers’ bees can influence the matings of virgin queens. Also the risk of reinvasion is of course higher. Last year was of course not only difficult for my bees but also for the bees of other beekeepers. In this apiary I treated two colonies quite a lot last year, and also this spring and shifted their queens. The other colonies in this apiary has not been treated this year. But they were all treated last year with Thymol. Now in August I saw a bee that looked like it had the beginning of wings being crippled in one of those colonies. So I tested the Varroa level, 4 mites in 350 bees = 1.1 % Varroa level. It got no treatment of course. Very pleasing result.
A couple of small apiaries
I have a couple of small apiaries in which I checked all colonies with the Bee shaker in spring this year, 0 or a couple of mites in 300 bees. No colonies treated this spring as I didn’t plan to shift any queens this year. I had shifted some last year. I checked these apiaries now in August.
In one of the small apiaries with two colonies and a split I found 4 mites in one of the big colonies and 32 (!) in 300 bees in the other. This was too many in the later colony for it to be able to produce them by itself. No crippled winged bees. Also a sign of that those mites were picked up from somewhere else. This colony had a history of needing Thymol every year, so I chose to treat with Thymol and am planning to finally shift the queen next year. 500 meter away is double the amount of hives of another beekeeper (with Elgon bees which were not from my selection in recent years). He had had problems with one of his colonies.
The situation in the other small apiary will be described later in a blogg post of its own.
Avoid reinvasion when bees adapt
The conclusion is that it’s very important to avoid reinvasion of mites when your bees are developing their ability to control the Varroa mites. They need mites to do that, but no or few extra mites from other colnies that makes it more difficult for them to survive.
On the other hand can the explanation for the better varroa resistance with my bees, as it seems, partly be explained by the fact that I shifted quite some queens last year to S241-daughters. Bess from their colonies will drift somewhat into other colonies, as bees from all colonies do. In this case these drifted bees may well help controlling the Varroa level and possibly also teaching the original bees of the colony to fight mites better.
Genetics is of course important when bees adapt, changes in the composition of the DNA. Selection by culling the worst and multiplying the best. But bees adapt too quickly for the genetic changes to explain in all. Epigentic changes is of uttermost importance here, changes how the existing DNA is expressed, how it’s used. It’s impossible to explain the resistance developing in S. America and S. Africa in about 5 years in any other way. As epigenetic changes occur when environmental changes act upon the chemical environment closest to the bees. The precense of the Varroa causes chemical changes in the bees, in the brood cells, etc. These epigenetical changes are inherited to next generations until new environmental changes cause other epigenetical changes. We understand that chemical help against Varroa will hinder the bees’ own control mechanisms to develop fully. There will be a balance act of avoiding all kinds of miticides as much as possible without letting the bee colonies die. Avoiding reinvasion will be very important then helping the bees developing their control mechanisms fully.
As was pointed out in a previous blog post, my bees are held on small cells, which may contribute to the very low overall mite level. The mite level in Leif Hjalmarsson’s apiary he didn’t treat for many years was at least in the beginning when we measured substantially higher. He used large cells.
I’m convinced that when the bees have learnt how to control mites effectively they can handle reinavsion of mites as well, maybe also in larger numbers. I would call that VISH (Varroa Intruder Sensitive Hygiene.:)) I suspect this can take some years. Then they probably sometimes need some reinvasion to keep their skill at a high level.