I have just returned home from the annual meeting of our local bee association. Susanna Kivling spoke about the Beescanning project, beescanning.com We were also discussing to establish an Elgon mating place for queens of the members. The best report I got after the meeting from Arne Andersson who got two queens from me last year of the line H131. He treats all his colonies every year for varroa. So he treated these two Elgon colonies with sublimating oxalic acid (“heat-steaming”) some time ago. He decided to treat them again with trickling oxalic sugar solution as he got so few mites from the treatment. These two treatments gave together two mites each from the two Elgon colonies. Another type of colony close to them dropped altogether 1000 mites. Cellsize? 5.1. I hope the Elgon colonies survives the two tough treatments so I can consider grafting from them next year.:)
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
- 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.
- The distance between the test and the control colonies were big, 60 km.
- The name of the beekeeper. He had earned a place among the authors.
- The beekeeper has exchanged breeding material with another commercial beekeeper since 2004. This beekeeper has also not been treating his bees for many years.
- The number of bee colonies forming the resistant colony population is not mentioned.
- 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.
- The cell size of the control colonies is also not mentioned. Is it also 4.9 mm or larger?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
The summer has been filled with work despite bad weather. However, the queen breeding has worked well. But despite the cooperation with Radim, it has taken a lot of time. Demand for queens has increased. It has meant more work. I hope queen buyers are aware of how much time it takes to produce queens.
The blogs have been suffering. I havn’t had time to share experiences as I had wanted, but now the bees are soon ready for winter, which should mean more time at the computer.
The value of measuring the Varroa level
Patrick Sellman called me yesterday September 3 and shared experiences from a course he had had for beginners that day. He has held several courses this summer on managing top bar hives (TBH). There measuring the Varroa level with alcohol wash with the Bee Shaker is an important part. Treating with Thymol against varroa when needed is also what he teaches.
This course was held in an apiary with 5 TBH. Most of these had been made with bees from frame hives treated against Varroa the previous year. One was a split from a TBH, which was also treated the previous year. The apiary is located almost 3km from other bees
Not a single mite appeared in the shaking jar from any of the colonies! The Bee Shaker has always shown mites in different amounts during all other courses Patrick has held. He took at least 300 bees from each colony from the outer lists. To test the test he took a test of almost 400 bees from one of the inner lists from one of the colonies. Zero mites again. He even tested the alcohol and replaced the alcohol with another type for one of the samples of 300 bees. – no mites. A total of about 2000 bees without any mites.
The value of enough distance to other bees
We discussed for the reasons for the lack of mites. Only one elgon bees, from Thomas Dahl, ie bees selected for Varroersistens a little more than the others. We concluded:
- Sufficiently far from other bees to prevent reinvasion from others’ bees through mainly quiet robbing by your bees during nectar droughts.
- The colonies were small in the beginning with less brood than larger colonies. Less with brood gives less amount of brood hormones that trigger mites to return to new brood cells for reproduction. This means the mites will spend longer time on bees before entering a new brood cell. This results in a slower growth rate for the mites.
- The bees built their combs without wax foundation. They made different cell sizes depending on the place of and distance to the entrance. They arranged their homes without much disturbance from the beekeeper.
- The entrance is usually significantly smaller than in frame hives, easier to defend against bees from other colonies, when they try to sneak in and steal honey.
Due to the alcohol tests, none of these 5 colonies were exposed to unnecessary strains of miticides this year. Next year’s Bee Shaker tests will show when or if Varroa treatment will be needed.
The latest version of the Bee Shaker is Easycheck, which you can read more about here: http://www.veto-pharma.com/varroa-easycheck-contest/
Patrick Sellman have commented om my Swedish blog that actually three colonies had elgon bees from Thomas Dahl. The other two were Buckfasts. This means is a majority of the bees were at least somewhat selected for varroa resistance. Which also means that they contributed at least somewhat in resistance for the Buckfasts as well as bees do drift in an apiary.
Bees can develop rapidly in spring, or slowly, or in between. Carnica bees (Carniolans) are usually known to develop rapidly in spring, while black bees (A. m. mellifera, AMM) usually develops slowly. If the bees are developing quickly, they eat more food as they make more brood. It is brood that requires a lot of food, both for feeding the young and for keeping brood temperature in the hive.
Carnica bees usually start brooding early and strong. Mostly they react quickly to availability of fresh pollen, especially later in summer when chilly weather keep them inside the hive and brooding thus is greatly reduced. The AMM bees are often adapted to a late honey flow and weak early flows. The late heather flow in the Nordic countries has been involved in forming this bee. The yellow Italian bees come from a warmer climate where it may be smaller weaker honey flows during a long time of the season. They often tend to breed most of the time the whole year long. Therefore, there have been management methods of beekeepers in Sweden to handle this. For example, to hinder the bees brooding in winter by wintering them in one box only with ten frames of Swedish standard frames (366 x 222 mm). Then they let the bees fill the box with as much sugar solution that they can, thus leaving very little space left for brood. Such a small box full of Italian bees should not be well insulated. But if the colony is not very strong, a good insulation is necessary in our climate.
A cold spring like this in 2017 is a hard test for the bees and the beekeeper. It may not have been such a cold spring since temperatures began to be measured in Sweden, probably since the mid 18 hundreds.
Which bees are then the best?
For survival of the bees, they obviously should develop slowly in spring, and have no or very very little brood in winter. Thus they are more able to economize with the food so that it lasts until they can collect more fresh nectar from flowers in nature. They must also be resistant to diseases that can create difficulties when spring is cold and long, especially nosema.
But a beekeeper who wants a little better honeycrop than just 10-15 kg in average, and is trying to make a living from his bees must have a little different goal for his bees. This beekeeper needs a bee that can be wintered stronger than just on one box of smaller frames. It shouldn’t breed in winter. But it should develop strong in spring, if there is food enough.
I prefer the Langstroth length of the frame, to get strong colonies. The frame height can be anyone of the available options. The goal is as strong a colony as possible going into winter, with plenty of food. Preferably at least a box on top full of feed.
Large amounts of food are not needed for wintering, but for making brood coming spring. Where I live, with my bees, brooding begins in smaller amounts in late winter and increases at the beginning of March. Later in March the queen lays a lot, especially after the main cleansing flight that normally takes place later in March.
A year like this, the amount of brood will vary in line with the ability for the bees to fly out of the hive and get water for the brood. Bee types differ in ability of flying at lower temperatures. The beekeeper must ensure that there are always at least 2 frames with capped food so that the bees can make brood without risking running out of food. (Italian bees, unfortunately, often breed strongly with almost no food left, which is very risky for the bees, with starvation as the result.)
A few days ago temperature was 8-10 °C. Many colonies was more or less packed in the first super above the queen excluder. They got two more supers if they were more packed, one more supers if they were less packed. Today 18 May it is summer. The picture shows colonies in an apiary before they were supered a few days ago.
In order to be able to get a crop from early honey flows, the bees must be strong enough to fill at least one super above the queen excluder (one box more than expected room for the broodnest of the queen) and a second for the development of the strength of the bees, when the first early flow begins, which usually is from winter rape.
A long cold spring like this means you have to check the bees frequently to ensure they have food enough. The best is to give the bees capped food combs. I get them from my stock of capped food combs which I established in November removing some outer food combs from heavy hives in which the bee strength was smaller. Those combs were replaced with insulation dummy combs. Food combs can also come from colonies that have died during winter. Combs that have been heavily defecated on and can not be cleaned are not used. A few spots of defecation a strong colony can handle. Another option when food combs are not available is sugar fondant. The last option is sugar solution. It will can cause the colonies to make too much brood.
Especially a spring like this you see a difference in the bee colonies. There are those who have bred too much and used up too much food. And there are those that responded too much to the cold periods and stopped brooding almost altogether. And then there are the perfect ones that did not need extra food but still developed continously and developed enough good strength, albeit not the very strongest. Then there are those which developed very well but needed some extra food combs. The two last types of bees are those that should be favored when selecting for breeders. First priority is though of course Varroa resistance.
Click on the pictures to get better quality and readability
This test is accomplished and funded by LP:s biodling bee equipement supplier, Arne Andersson sideline beekeeper and Erik Österlund sideline beekeeper.
GOAL FOR THE PROJECT
The goal for this test is to see if it is possible:
- to improve mite resistance in apiaries with 5-10 colonies,
- to understand the impact of ”isolation” of 3-5 km (3-4 miles) to other beekeepers
- to understand the role of small cell size in the broodnest
- to see the role of differentiated treatment of varroa mites, that is treatment of only those colonies that exceed a defined varroa level
Avoid silent robbery
The colonies should be managed as similar as possible to a beekeeper that want to increase the number of colonies with an extensive management method. It should interfere as little as possible with the bees activities and avoid disturbing parameters, which could happen when you open the colonies often, like for example starting robbing in nectar droughts. It could be enough with silent robbery, a robbery activity that you don’t notice. That could be enough to destroy a test, in that the varroa populations are evened out
Therefore we decided to maximize the number of hives for the two main groups in this test to 10 hives (5+5). We also decided to make two or three alcohol washes with 1 dl of bees to monitor the varroa level during the season. When the Varroa level was higher than 3% we planned to treat with thymol. If it appeared wingless bees in or in front of a hive treatment was also to be performed.
Use of thymol
We decided to use dish cloth pads drenched with fluid thymol mixed with a minimal amount of rubbing alcohol (to lower the melting point of the thymol crystals) as treatment against mites when decision was made to treat. You can see how they are done and used in this article: http://elgon.es/resistancebreeding.html
Crop and feeding
If possible a harvest should be taken and sugar solution (or honey) fed at the end of season after harvest to ensure enough food for winter. The goal should be to leave a fair amount of honey for winter, if possible as much as you think your bees have got genetics to make it through the length of your winters.
Nucs and splits
Increase are made by making so called walk away splits that remain in the same apiary as the mother colony. These are allowed make there own queens, or supplied with mature queen cells made from a good colony in the apiary. This should also be the swarm prevention method.
Elgon and Carnica/Carniolan
We choose to use two different types of bees in the project. One type that has been selected for varroa resistance during many years, Elgon, that has been bred with this purpose since 1989. Another type that hasn’t been selected less, but in other traits are good, pure bred Carnica/Carniolan bees.
Increase of the number of colonies
The number of colonies wintered each autumn would be a way to measure the difference in success between the two parts (large and small cell size) of each main group, Elgons and Carniolans. To be counted in the increase would be the colonies that are brought out from the apiaries and the project, a kind of crop. What we measure will thus be the production of new colonies and survival of colonies to the next season, the difference of fitness. If colonies survive to the next season is not only dependent on the varroa and virus levels in the colonies, but also on other circumstances that influence the survival and how a colony thrive, for example other pathogens like nosema and quality of food like pollen throughout the season.
Start and number of years
Instead of starting the project with 5+5 colonies with each type of bees, we have choosen to start from a fewer number of hives and increase the numbers. And we plan to continue the project for at least 3-4 years. We have choosen areas for the test that are low in nectar and pollen sources. That’s also a reason why the number of hives are restricted to five in each part, which makes a total maximum for each type of bees 5+5 colonies, 5 small cell and 5 large cell.
Four Carniolan colonies, all of them being sister queens from a pure bred Carnica/Carniolan stock, were divided in two groups with 30 m between the groups. These groups were placed in a deeply forested area far enough from the Elgon bees. Here it was no farm in the neighborhood, like it is where the Elgon bees are placed. One group was established on Mann Lake’s standard plastic frame, 4.95 mm cell size. The other on Anel plastic frames with 5.5 mm cell size. Frame size medium (448 x 159 m). Hive type well insulated styren plastic boxes.
The Carnica bees 2014-2015
The Carniolan queens we received in 2013 were introduced into Elgon small cell (SC) colonies on 4.9 mm cell size shallow sized frames (448 x 137 mm). The Elgons are adapted to SC during many years and if nurse bees fed and born in SC should be of importance that criterium should then be met for this test. The Carniolans in their homeland could not draw and thus live well on ”SC”. Here they were adapted immediately through this process, but they could not draw wax foundation 4.9 well even though they lived well on 4.9. Probably because they were not genetically adapted to small cells. Mann Lakes 4.9 they could draw well. Probably because of the high plastic cell wall starters which they couldn’t remodel
In 2014 half of the Carniolans got only Mann Lake’s 4.9 (SC), half got Anels 5.5 (large cell, LC). During 2014 they were this way transferred to these two types of frames. Increasing cell size in the LC-group up to 5.5 was no problem either as they were adapted to 5.5 in their genetics before they came here.
All the Carnica/Carniolan colonies were treated with thymol in 2013, but not much, and in September 2014 after they were moved to their test destination. No DWV-bees were observed in 2014.
The LC part of the Carnica bees 2015
In 2015 in June the LC-group (both colonies) showed 6% varroa level and crippled winged bees, one colony quite badly. They both got one treatment with two homemade thymol pads with about 5 gr thymol each. The LC-bees gave no crop. The Varroa level had not increased again very much and was only about 1 %.
The SC part of the Carnica bees 2015
The SC colonies had 0.3% and 1% varroa level respectively. In beginning of June a so called walk away split was made from one of the SC-colonies. The new queen then of course mated to very closely related drones.
The strongest SC-colony gave a small crop.
In September the SC-colonies still had only around 1% Varroa level. None of the colonies got any treatment in the autumn due to the low varroa levels. The SC-colonies thus got no treatment at all in 2015.
The Carnica bees 2016
The LC part of the Carnica bees 2016
The weakest of thee LC colonies didn’t make it through winter. The second one looked fine in May.
The weather was then rainy and chilly for several weeks, and when the beekeeper returned in late May to monitor varroa levels, in the remaining LC-colony he only found some dead brood and a few dead bees on the bottom.
The SC part of the Carnica bees 2016
In spring 2016 the now three SC-colonies were doing fine, two of them though small in size.
In the three SC-colonies the varroa levels were 3-4% in late May and some crippled winged bees appeared. Thymol pads were applied in June. A walk away split was made from the strongest SC-colony. The weather was unfavorable and the other three robbed the split. It thus died.
In September the three SC-colonies looked fine and got no treatment. The bees superceded the three year old queen.
The Carnica bees 2016-2017
The three SC-colonies were moved to an apiary with better resources for nectar and pollen. Some more pure bred Carnica queens were received in 2016. They will be used to biuld up the test apiaries again. Daughters will be bred from these and mated in the apiary with drones from the survivor colonies of the SC bees.
The whole season of 2016 was bad in producing nectar and pollen. The colonies had a hard time growing in size. It was late in the season when complementary feeding in preparation for winter was done that they grew somewhat in strength. That was the reason these bees were moved to a better place for food.
All three colonies actually were weaker than wanted going into winter. Two colonies made it through winter. The third and weakest died. This colony had probably survived if it had been fed honey (or fondant) and pollen during the worst nectar- and pollen drought periods.
Six Elgon colonies of two different mother lines divided in two groups with 3 colonies each were set up. These groups were placed in a deeply forested area with a small farm in the neighbourhood. The two groups were placed about 700 meters from each other. One group got Mann Lake’s standard plastic frame with small cells (SC), 4.95 mm cell size. The other got Anel plastic frames with Large cells (LC), 5.5 mm.
Two sister groups were used. One sister group consisted of 4 queens, 2 SC and 2 LC. The other sister group had two queens, 1 SC and 1 LC. Frame size is medium, (448 x 159 mm). Hive type with well insulated styren plastic boxes.
The Elgon bees 2014-2015
The Elgon groups were established with new queens in 2014 and transfered successfully to Mann Lake’s 4.9 and with big difficulties to Anels 5.5.
The queens in the LC colonies were very hesitant to lay in their large cells. One queen totally refused.The broodnest of that queen consisted of only two shallow SC-frames. The resulting colony was of course small going into winter in 2014, but it wintered together with the other two LC colonies in their test apiary.
Most of the colonies, SC and LC, were treated in 2014 with thymol but mostly only in May. So this Elgon test groups of 3+3 were not managed in regard to the Varroa mites, similar to the Carnica groups. In the Carnica colonies the varroa populations were evened out between them, by treating them with home made thymol pads in September 2014.
The Elgon test colonies were taken from different apiaries and the varroa level in the colonies were not known when they were brought to the test site in late August. Earlier in 2014 the colonies who had wingless bees were treated with thymol, in May that was.
The LC part of the Elgon bees 2014-2015
In spring 2015 the Elgon LC group continued to create problems as the bees protested against using LC combs for brood by supersedure their queens, probably in an adaption process.
In April before grafting time and any drones were flying one LC-colony was queenless. The new virgin queen had of course failed to mate and was gone. I combined the queenless colony with the mini colony (the one with the queen that had refused to lay but in the two shallows). This queen still refused to lay in any other comb than the two shallows, so I tried to fool them by giving them a couple of 5.3 mm cell sized plastic frames on each side of the SC combs. That worked. When the 5.3 were filled on each side of the 4.9 they started on the 5.5 next to the 5.3.
It seems it is the workers that prepare the cells for laying, not the queens that are deciding in which cells to lay. (This experience is also in line with what is written in old books from beginning of 1900, that when broodnest have 5.1 you could use 5.6 in honey supers without excluder as the queen didn’t lay in the 5.6.)
In late April 2015 the third (now the second as the other two were combined) LC-colony had a virgin. They were also trying to supersedure their queen. No drones available yet. So she failed. The colony got a queen cell in second half of May. That queen got laying. This colony had 5% varroa level in August and got thymol.
The first colony (former first and second combined) got a small piece of thymol (actually both parts that were combined got half a piece each) early in spring to help against eventual patoghen problems as they had different kind of problems (weak but queenright and queenless). This colony showed only 0.3% Varroa level in August and got no treatment.
The SC part of the Elgon bees 2014-2015
In 2015 the three Elgon SC colonies developed well. Splits were made from two of them. One failed, but finally got a laying queen very late in season. It ended up weak. It was lost during coming winter, the only loss of the Elgons. The smallest of the overwintered colonies had a queen that was laying badly. It was killed and replaced by a ripe queencell.
Four of the now five colonies showed crippled winged bees in July and had Varroa levels between 2-7%. Even the 2% colony showed a few DWV-bees telling me the virus levels in the colonies were quite high. One 3% had no DWV, the weak one mentioned above and it was the only one that didn’t get treatment.
Because the varroa populations in the colonies weren’t allowed to grow strongly (still there were enough viruses in 2015 after years of somewhat higher varroa and virus pressure in the Elgon apiaries of Erik Österlund), the virus amounts in the colonies decreased and also there was no silent robbery. And the varroa populations were evened out at a low level. Thus the situation now was much more comparable with the varroalevels in the Carnica colonies in autumn 2014
The Elgon bees had better nectar flows than the Carnica in 2015 and the Elgon colonies gave a good crop from the Heather in 2015. The average crop was about the same for both SC and LC colonies. In August none of the SC Elgons had above 3% varroa level. They had 0%-3%, and got no more thymol. No colony swarmed in any of the test apiaries.
The Elgon bees 2016
In spring 2016 one of the Elgons, the very weak one in the SC-group died (as mentioned above). Both LC colonies survived.
The LC part of the Elgon bees 2016
In the LC-group splits were made from both colonies. Weather was bad and one failed to produce a laying queen. It got a new ripe queen cell. The parts with the ”old” queens (from the year before) both superseded their queens, in line with experiences in 2015. This year they waited until beginning of summer when there were drones around. Maybe the bees had adapted somewhat to LC now.
The season of 2016 was very bad so no crop was secured from the LC-group. In spring the varroa levels were 0.3% in all four colonies (they became four after splitting in late May). In early September it was 0% – 8.6% – 0.9% – 4%. The two with highest levels were treated with thymol. The other two not. We can see that two colonies had very low levels of Varroa mites. This indicates a good genetic set up for Varroa resistance, also to be able to work with large cells apparently. The queens in the colonies with low Varroa level are sisters, mated in the test apiary. They are daughters to one of the colonies in the apiary, one in a split. The other as a result of supersedure in the mother colony producing this split.
The SC part of the Elgon bees 2016
The four remaining colonies in the SC-group gave a split each. Season was bad and two of the splits failed. A small crop was secured from the strongest of the colonies.
The two colonies with two year old queens supersedured these later in season. The 6 colonies all had 0.3% varroa levels in spring. In August the varroa levels were between 0-1.7%. As we had decided not to keep more than five colonies in each of the four parts of the test, colony no 6 of the SC-ones (the one with 1.7%) was removed from the test area. It wastreated with a small amount of formic acid to get an idea of the mite load and also test the shaker method. It fell 10 mites in a couple of days. The other 5 colonies remaining at the test site didn’t get any treatment.
The Elgon bees in the beginning of 2017
All four colonies in the LC group wintered well, in spite of that two of them were almost too weak, those that had had the highest Varroa levels and been treated.
One of the five SC colonies defecated a lot on the outside of the hive, though not much inside. They did not have a large amount of honey left for winter the previous autumn. And it was of good wintering quality. The winter before all colonies had had a large amount of difficult winter honey, from heather. The colony that died was the strongest and smallest Varroa level. It measured 0% on 400 bees. The was a good amount of food left in the hive after it had died. The colony had an old queen, and just a few meters there had been quite some traffic during late winter from a tree harvester. The other colonies looked fine, with almost no defecation.
Harvest and Varroa level 2015 and 2016 in SC and LC parts of the Carnica bees. The sites for Carnica and Elgon bees are not comparable as the Carnica site was didn’t have the same amount of food sources. Click on the picture to get it bigger and of better quality.
The losses in the Elgon groups have been quite normal, on the lower side. It has in percentage been higher in the Carnica groups, especially among the LC bees. The higher amount of losses can be explained by the low availability of pollen and nectar, especially during 2016. That’s why the test site for the Carnica bees has been moved. One conclusion is that during times with small amounts of available pollen and nectar a solution could be to feed the colonies fondant/honey and pollen to develop healthier and stronger colonies better adapted to survive winter.
The strategy of 3 %
The strategy to measure the Varroa level a couple of times during the season and use Varroa treatment (dish cloth pads, about 50 x 58 x 1.5 mm [2”x2”x1/16”], drenched in thymol) when/if the Varroa level is higher than 3 % (only treatmnent in these colonies, not in those below 3 %) has minimized reinfestation, maybe altogether. You thus get a true picture of the Varroa level in the colonies and thus a better selection of the most resistant colonies and the most susceptible ones. You could for example have expected that the different cell size groups had affected each other so that eventual difference in the varroa levels had evened out, especially among the Carnica bees as the two groups there were only 30 m apart.
Little need for Varroa treatment
Relatively little of Varroa treatment has been used, probably partly explained by the absence of reinfestation, no silent robbing. Most treatment has been used in the LC colonies of both the Elgon (2016 when reinfestation had been removed) and Carnica (2015, in 2016 there was no LC left) colonies.
The strategy of 3 % seems to have eliminated the need of Varroa treatment in the SC part of the Elgon bees due to elimination of reinfestation and enough good development of the varroa resistance with the Elgon bees.
This strategy has also lessened the need for varroa treatment to every second year with the SC part of the Carnica colonies and the need for treatment then has been small. Thymol in this context has been effective.
Cell size and fitness
In the LC part of the Carnica bees the need for treatment has been bigger probably because of a quicker development of the Varroa population. It seems fitness has been lower here probably partly due to the bad pollen and nectar availability. But fitness may also be lower because of other reasons. The Carnica LC colony that died in May did not die due to high varroa level. Lack of protein and/or other pathogens (like nosema) can be the cause. The Carnica test site is moved to a place with better food sources.
One can object to this conclusion of lower fitness for LC bees because the number of colonies are low.
On the other hand were all original queens in the Carnica group sisters and all colonies in SC and LC groups (Elgon and Carnica) are behaving consistent in this respect. And any difference in fitness between the two cell size groups among the Carnica bees should have been to the advantage of the LC colonies because the SC colonies had become inbred. Usually follows a lower immune system with inbreeding. Possible impact of this small distance would have been small(-er) difference in the varroa levels between the two groups due to evening out of the varroa populations. The 3% strategy, measuring varroa levels and treatment when it was above 3%, lowered the varroa populations enough to eliminate (totally or enough) the silent robbery.
In 2016 the only colonies that needed treatment were in the LC colonies of the Elgon bees. It should though be noted that with a stock of bees that have been selected for Varroa resistance it is possible to find colonies that are resistant also on large cells. Two colonies (with sisters queens) had very low levels of Varroa mites.
The honey crops, the bee strength of the colonies indicates, and the resulting number of colonies in the SC and LC parts of the stocks of bees indicates that it is no disadvantage to use small cells in the broodnest, rather the contrary.
Summary of production of new bee colonies, increase in the number of wintered bee colonies. These figures could be seen as a measure of the vitality of the different cell size groups. There is a difference to the benefit of SC bees both in the E group (Elgon bees) and the C group (Carnica bees). Click on the pictures to get them bigger and of better quality.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
My friend Radim has been a beekeeper for 5 years. He’s living in a forested area where his bees are quite for themselves. He started with Elgon bees, but not the very best varieties. He has though been fortunate as there probably are some feral bees a mile away or so which are contributing with good drones for mating. A swarm I took from a feral colony about that distance from him had features showing Elgon influence. This has made him, me and our bees happy.:)
One thing about Radim that has fascinated me is his curiousity of how bees function on their own. He wants to learn their way of living to better help them and also just for the satisfaction of knowing.
He has put some colonies on four boxes medium (langstroth width and about 2/3 of Langstroth full depth – 448 x 159 mm) somewhat away in the forest. They have been allowed to build their own combs without the help of wax foundation. He takes no honey and gives as little sugar solution as possible. Last year he had to complement their food reserves for winter as the season was very bad. He also has a small skep insulated with cow dung. He hasn’t treated those hives against mites. He observes what they are doing and not doing.
He told me he caught a swarm in 2015 in another area than his. Obviously this swarm were of another kind of stock as the color of the bees was light in color, yellow. He brought it home to use it for producing splits and mating nucs as he had heard this type of bee didn’t produce as good a crop, but a lot of bees. And this colony really did produce bees. Already in February, 2016 when it still was winter, it had started brooding a lot. Soon he had to feed it so it shouldn’t run out of food.
He decided he didn’t want this type of trait in drones flying in his home area as he was going to let his virgin queens mate there. He moved the colony, actually to a better area concerning nectar sources. The weather was not good for a honey crop in 2016 and he went for a holiday in June. Normally this month bees have no problem finding nectar so he thought there would be no problems for this colony. But when he came back from the holiday a couple of weeks later the yellow colony on two boxes had 7 full combs of capped brood. It had given splits and bees to mating nucs. Besides the 7 capped combs it had not a single drop of food and not one bee alive. The colony was dead.
The other bees Radim has behaves very differently, especially his ”wild” ”feral” bees. The colony in the little skep has wintered three winters and is thriving. The first year Radim fed it some sugar solution so it got enough food for winter. The volume is small and it can’t hold a lot of food – brood or bees either. In 2015 it swarmed three times and Radim got in this way three new colonies.
In 2016 in June the bee population was big and bees were sometimes covering the outside of the skep and he expected a swarm, that though didn’t come. In late June the bees almost stopped flying and did nothing. They had apparently decided the season was over and were waiting for winter and next season. And the season was really over.
No more good honeyflow that year. The skep was heavy of honey. The bees the rest of the season were just sitting by the entrance (and inside of course) watching (and maybe meditating).
One of the four box ”feral” hives was behaving in an identical way. This hive has the entrance on the middle of the wall of the second box. The bees anyway clean the bottom well from debris. The combs in the first box consists of almost only drone comb. In winter 2016 the bees are sitting close to the entrance in the second box and also in the third. The fourth box is full of honey and some additional sugar for winter feed. When you look from above you can’t see the bees, but you can hear them, a soft buzz.
Even when the sun is shining ritght onto the bees close to the entrance (the sun is low above the horizon in winter in Sweden) they don’t move and come out. Once in a while when he looked into the entrance he could see a bee move around a little and make its way into the cluster.
In January on a sunny day he could see one bee coming out from that hive, fly up against the sun, higher and higher, and never return. It was a bee that had warmed the cluster with its muscle movements until it had come close to being worn out having done what had been it’s task in life, keeping its mates alive creating warmth. Now its engine had come to its end and the bee went up to the heaven for bees.
Hello dear beekeepers!
I’ve been reworking my old website. not my blogs. The English part became ready enough to be published and I launched it on http://elgon.es
There are quite some new material there. In the article “Resistance breeding” some of the experiences from 2016, very positive and quite important experiences. On that topic there will be more info later on.
This website is so called responsive, which most are these days. It means that it automatically adapt to different screen sizes, down to that of a cell phone. It’s made with and easy working and free app called Rocket Cake.
Already in 2002 Sven-Olof Ohlsson in Munsala Finland filmed bees grooming, shaking and biting mites. I have published two of his video clips on YouTube for him. You can see one here where the the mite had attached fast between thorax and the abdomen. The poor bee seemed to never stop shaking to get the other bees to help her. Ohlsson stopped filming after 20 minutes, but the bee didn’t.
Here you see a successful bee removing and biting the mite. Another bee gave it a bite as well. It moved too much.