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 now for at least 12 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.

Comment to evaluation

I want to clarify somewhat the comment in the text about the contradiction concerning the reason for lowering the threshold for giving Thymol to get a better selection. At the same time saying that if you have non-selected bees against Varroa resistance it might be good to have a low threshold to avoid loosing many colonies.

But first I think it’s good to mention that the “selection average” concerning the crop for all apiaries is not a real average. The economical average, the total crop harvested, divided by all colonies wintered in the autumn, has been for a number of years between 25 and 35 kg (55-77 lb). That is including all colonies lost during winter and all colonies for different reasons not producing or producing very little.

When Varroa started to create problems (2008 – and arrived a couple of years before) I lost quite many colonies the first two years. That’s not uncommon. Common is also to continue to lose many colonies in intervals with some years in between, in spite of heavy treatment.

During those problem years I made quite some walk away splits of the best survivor colonies in spring. They made their own queens to ensure to save survival heritage from those surviving colonies. But some of them of course survived due to treatment, and those still had low resistance.

After a couple of years, the winter losses have been about 15 % with another 30 % not producing or producing just a small crop. When I got the first colony that had been without Thymol for at least one season as a big colony (H157) I grafted a lot from it. But I hadn’t time to shift queens in all colonies, which had got most of Thymol. Such colonies that didn’t get their queens shifted unfortunately still contributed with drones coming season. But they contributed though to high genetic variation. The compromise was relevant to be able to produce enough much honey to put food on the table and keep me going.

Now the amount of resistance is better in my bee stock and next year I will have time to shift all queens needed. Maybe one third is the right number to avoid loss of genetic variation. If so the development might turn backwards. With a lower threshold now, the progress for the whole stock will accelerate, as the very best breeders will be easier to discern. And the Varroa population will be kept at a lower level and thus I will hopefully get a higher total crop.

But with unselected stock you may need the low threshold to avoid loosing many colonies. Probably some other help to discern breeders is necessary. When some progress is achieved it might be relevant to have a higher threshold than just one wingless bee. But be prepared for eventual more losses. Maybe the right time is when you can observe bees cleaning out infested brood and throwing out sick bees from the hive (mostly wingless bees), treating them as trash (they can even fly away with them to get them away from the hive). This is apparently a way for the bees to lower the virus pressure in the colony.

My selection parameters

I have prepared for and selected for varroaresistance for quite some years. Last year I learned how to test a colony for VSH, a simplified method described by John Harbo, easy for everyone to use.

 DWV-bees on the hardboard

Before that I just allowed a mite pressure in the colonies until they showed virus problems. That meant in practice appearance of wingless bees, DWV-bees, either on the comb, but still easier, on a hardboard in front of the entrance. (Bees with very little resistance are though not quick in throwing out of the hive DWV-bees, or other virus-troubled bees.) You have to visit the apiary every 10 days or so, but a quick look will tell you, plus a look in the hive after opening the inner cover to check how the colony develops. No need to check down in broodnest unless you register something seems to be wrong.

Breeder candidates

Those colonies that keep going and develop normally without any symptoms, during which time no treatment has been done, they are of course then candidates for being breeders, especially coming spring.

 First breeder

In autumn 2011 I had three colonies that had been big colonies (not newly started splits during that year) without treatment for the whole season with no signs of varroa or virus. The winter and coming spring would tell which one, if any, or all, would be able to be used as breeder in 2012. That happened to be only one, H157.

Good to remember is that varroa first began to be a problem in 2008 with first bad winter in 2008-09 and 50% losses. Next winters no such losses.

Next years 5 breeders with VSH as most important

In autumn 2012 I had 11 breeder candidates. In spring 2013 I had at least 5 I judged I could breed from, but that year focused most on VSH. I had just learned to know I could.

I learned about VSH testing that spring in 2013 and did VSH-testing on three colonies.

 S120

One was a swarm that looked promising and nice. The mother colony was a feral colony in the wall of the dogtraining center, well within the area of my type of bees. The swarm showed 50 % VSH, half of the pupae with mites had mites without offspring. So even if this colony hadn’t been going for a whole season plus another winter without treatment I used it as a breeder in 2013.  I named it S120.

 K25

The second I VSH-tested colony had been a very small the year before and not really a production colony then. But it was in an environment with big colonies which needed thymol so I decided to test it and it showed 40 % VSH (4 pupae with mites had no mite offspring of the 10 pupae with mites found).  K25 it was named. But it was quite aggressive. I decided though that varroa resistance in this stage was more valuable.

 R137

The third VSH-tested colony was a walk away-split from a colony that hadn’t been treated for two years. It wintered with such a tiny cluster and still developed so promising and had such a good pedigree background I choose to VSH test it. Well, it wasn’t possible to get any VSH value as it hadn’t any mites in the brood. I was so amazed I decided to breed from it. And I named it R137, as I decided it was resistant, instead of H137.  It must have had a good resistance behavior, but resistance is complicated…

H109

The mother of R137, H109, of course also was used as a breeder due to its history, but she was old and layed 50 % drones in worker cells. Couldn’t really make any VSH test I decided. I grafted one time and killed her.

 M176

The fifth I used showed itself to be very old as well and fell off the comb and died just after taking her home in a small split. No VSH-test. That colony I had thought had a new queen that had past the test. But this colony with this the old queen, though good, had been treated every second year with 10 grams of thymol (very little actually relatively) during four years. M176.

Some observations

Why do I tell you all these details? To come to the point for my situation, soon, be patient.

Late in season 2013, S120 showed a couple of wingless bees and got 10 grams of thymol. K25 which really hadn’t had a real production season before it was choosen swarmed thee times in July in 2013! I have never experienced that before, ever. R137 has some peculiar traits. It supercedes its queen every year it seems. And some daughters do too. This year a few wingless bees were seen and it got 10 grams of thymol.

I never do regular swarm controls in my colonies. Usually about 5 % of my colonies swarm. This year many daughters from two breeders from last year 2013 swarmed, from S120 and K25. And almost all daughters from these breeders needed thymol. Some of the daughters of K25 were very aggressive. Remember all queens are mated naturally in the apiaries. The apiaries together form an area with only my type of bees.

Breeder candidates for 2015

BUT maybe it was worth it using the breeders that disappointed me. I must have genetic diversity in my stock. I can’t make queens from just one line (H157).

I have one daughter of S120 and one of K25 that are really outstanding in resistance, honeycrop (more than 150 kg (300 pounds)), very good temper and no swarming tendency. H109 has more than one good daughter. M176 as well. And then there are walk away splits with heritage from the first breeder chosen for resistance H157, which are breeder candidates for 2015. Maybe I will use as well the three breeder used this year, or two of them.

Breeders used 2014

The autumn of 2013 I had 36 breeder candidates. I could have bred from more, but I choose to breed from three this year 2014, of which two are sisters, daughters of H157. These are H112 and H105. H157 had quite some daughters worthy of breeding from.  The third breeder this year was L242. After using these three, in the middle of July I made the VSH test on them. In all three the infestation rate in the brood was about 5 %. H112 had a VSH value of 80 %. H105 – 67 % and L242 had 33 %. No treatment was needed for this year either for H112 and H105. L242 got 10 gram thymol late in season. L242 came from a quite isolated apiary with small reinvasion and was moved to my home apiary and probably got more reinvasion here. But all three are wintered very strong.

Maybe I will use H112 and H105 in 2015 as well, we’ll see.

Selection parameters

Now to my point. It seems under my conditions it’s better to focus in first hand on one whole season as big colonies during which no treatment should have been needed (including winter and coming spring), to select breeders. BUT then use VSH testing to tell you which one probably are the best among them, and get confirmation of their status. Of course the breeders must be good in other respects, good honeycrop, good temper and low swarming tendency.

VSH is a good tool for selecting for Varroa resistance, especially when there are difficulties  using anything else, but also as a complement when other methods are used.  I’m glad I can make VSH tests, in addition to the DWV-test I use.

Producing varroa resistant bees from a local population

Eric Eric and Hines Erickson and Hines in test apiary 2003

Dr Eric Erickson did a great job in the 1990’s in Arizona together with A.H. Atmowidjojo and Lenard Hines (commercial beekeeper with 700 colonies), first showing it’s relatively easy to identify more resistant bees and to maintain and develop a more resistant stock of bees without regular use of miticides.

In American Bee Journal, vol 138, no 11, 1998, they published their first article on this subject Can We Produce Varroa-Tolerant Honey Bees in the United States? The second article in ABJ, vol 139, no 12, 1999, Varroa-Tolerant Honey Bees Are a Reality. The third in ABJ, vol 140, no 8, 2000, with a headline like the one for this post.

In 2003 I visited Erickson and Hines together with Norwegian beekeeper Hans-Otto Johnsen. Erickson had retired. Hines were still working his bees but were significantly older than Erickson. At the Tucson lab they were focusing on an IPM-strategy against Varroa trying to identify natural compounds to be used as miticides.

Since then I have never heard anything about the work mentioned here. Why?

Though monitoring mite levels with alcohol wash identifying when to treat or removing a colony from an apiary which is used developing Varroa resistance is a method used frequently is such works, but not done the same way as Erickson, as far as I can understand. Yes, there are a growing number of beekeepers developing mite resistant bees. And there are other scientists, more than at the Louisiana lab? (thanks for those), that have been engaged, and are, in developing resistant bees (VSH and Russians). But have everyone forgotten about Erickson or why is his work ignored, or is it? Because there are Africanized bees in Arizona? Why would that be a reason for ignoring his work? Give a reason!

Now, his work included 733 samples, representing 118,512 bees washed and counted to determine Varroa infestation levels. Number of colonies in the three isolated test apiaries ranged in total between 36 and 71, lowest in early winter and highest in late spring following replacement of winter losses. Varroa levels were ranging between 0 and 50 per hundred bees, samples taken every second month. In average 7. The mite genotype was the ’Russian’ type said to be more virulant than the ’Japanese’ type.

All colonies were established in November 1995 and no colonies had been treated for at least 12 months at that time. When infestation rate was above 15 per 100 bees the colony was removed from the study and replaced by a colony with a daughter from one of the best colonies. Those were mated in the center apiary. Hines shifted queens in all his colonies to ’program’ queens. They maintained the program population from Nov 1994 to at least July 1999. First sampling for Varroa levels in 1995. 1998 was a good year and the three test apiaries averaged 90 pounds (40 kg) of honey per colony, which is a good crop in Arizona.

Eric Queen Queen and her bees of Hines

Hines said that after requeening with program queens in his entire operation he saw much less problems created by mites and in 1999 very little to zero indication of Varroa damage.

Concerning Africanization of the bees in Arizona the lab during two years studied nearly pure Africanized colonies in isolation and it found them to not be any less susceptible than the colonies in the selective breeding program. The earliest sources for the breeding program of more Varroa resistant bees were identified before the arrival of Africanized honey bees (AHB) to Arizona. They even found that a considerable number of AHB succumbed with Varroa damage appearing to be a major cause.

In 1999 the program stock of bees consisted of colonies of both European and African descent and their hybrids. Lenard Hines continued to eliminate from the breeding program any queen whose progeny tended to be overly defensive, without regard for their ancestry.

Eric brood Lenard Hines showing a very nice brood comb

When we visited Erickson and Hines in 2003 the colonies were worked with normal amount of smoke and no gloves. No cloud of bees was around us and it was no problem having a chat after checking the colonies, without hat and veil.

Eric Visitor A visitor

Erickson wrote that the lab was then in 1999 working to complete a three-step program to help beekeepers implement the results from this selection work into their own operation. The three-step program consisted of 1) this selection method they used, 2) using brood combs with smaller cell diameters as a management strategy to further reduce Varroa infestations, and 3) the use of natural products as miticides in an IPM-strategy to faciliate transitions from pesticide-based mite control to Varroa resistant populations. Such transitions are encouraged  to be made in an area with a plan to expand the area.

You can today maybe see parts of this three step program here and there, but nowhere have I seen it described after the articles of Erickson in ABJ, why not? Has no one tried to get beekeepers to cooperate for this purpose? Is someone willing to fund such an effort, for example helping with federal/state/EU-money to breed queens and count mites and forming a coach group for beekeepers that want to decrease the use of chemicals and increase health and survival of their bees?

Epigenetics, genetics and breeding locally adapted bees

Randy Oliver Randy Oliver in Sweden 8 Dec 2013

7-8 December, Randy Oliver California USA, Steve Pernal Canada and Mark Goodwin New Zealand had a workshop on parasites and pathogens, mainly Varroa and American Foulbrood. Mark Goodwin with the help of video Skype. I only could participate on Dec 8. I overheard good teaching, mostly on handling AFB and breeding for Varroa resistance. I want to share somewhat of what Randy Oliver gave us, as I understood his teaching.

Locally adapted bees

Randy stressed the importance of locally adapted bees. Even if you happen to breed resistant bees, the queens people buy from you might not be resistant at their place. They may contribute in developing their bee stock, but probably adaption to the circumstances that form the new situation may take some generations.

Epigenetic finetuning

Epigenetics

Epigenetics is the first adaption process that takes place in respons to a changed situation – bees and queens moved to a different location with different nectar flows and climate – newly arrived pathogens and parasites – or new varieties of pests and parasites. The genetics at hand in the bees respond to the differently chemical environment that these changes create and causes their DNA to be read and be used differently by them to express a better use of resources and a better defense against enemies. These changes will be inherited to next generations and may well have to be settled during some generations for best effect. This is an adaption process.

HDRtist Pro Rendering - http://www.ohanaware.com/hdrtistpro/

Genetics

During this process selection also is taking place, mainly through culling of the least fit, those that can’t handle the new situation die – or you shift the queens in those colonies. And a changed variety of bees will be created with a different setup of gene varieties, alleles. This changed genepool of the population of colonies at this place will be adapted to the new situation. Another adaption process going on, hand in hand with the first one.

Colony diversity

Genetic diversity in the bee colony

It’s not only one enemy or difficult situation the bees have to handle. And here is the genetically different sistergroups in e bee colony very useful. Not all bees have to be able to detect Varroa mites in broodcells and remove those pupae with fertile mites. It’s enough with maybe a couple sistergroups of workerbees. The other ones maybe needed for taking care of other things in first place.

Genetic diversity between bee colonies in the population

A sudden changes in climate can cause most colonies to die, un unusually hard winter or a long dry season. Those few surviving will be able to rebuild most of the genepool again – if the queens are mated to several drones, from many of the colonies in the locality where a group of colonies are forming a subpopulation of bee colonies. This is one of the reasons why queens rarely should be mated at a mating station where a few closely related colonies produce the drones for the virgin queens. For a sustainable stock of bees.

In a breeding program, to give the bees the best resources for both the immediate and the longterm adaption – genetic variation inside the bee colony is important, but also between the bee colonies. This gives the bee stock ability to keep a high variation in the colonies over the years.

Strategy

  • Select for the best; but it may be even more important to cull the worst.
  • Be sure to maintain genetic diversity if you are controlling the drone pool – breed from a large number of queens each year.
  • Breeding from only a few queens can rapidly lead to inbreeding. If you only breed from a single queen one season, all the drones the next season would all share the same grandmother.
  • If you only have a few hives, swap queens with other beekeepers in order to maintain genetic diversity.

The best queen cell starter?

There are different ways of producing queen cells. It’s always good to have a number at hand, especially during the beginning of the season, but also in the middle of it. Most of the queen cells are needed for early splits, nucs and failing queens. It’s the easiest way of ‘repairing’ a broken colony and to produce a new colony with desired traits and keeping the genetic variation both in the bee stock and in the individual colony. If you let these virgins mate in the apiary and your stock is good enough and the drones from your bees have a lot influence on the matings of the virgins. The very easiest way of making new colonies is of course making so called walk away splits. Take a box of bees and brood and move to  a new stand in the same or another apiary. Sometimes they fail to produce a laying queen. Then you save them by giving them a frame of brood and a ripe queen cell of desired heritage. For example from a colony with high VSH index (see an earlier post about that).

I have tried different ways of producing queen cells. For many years I used a modified  way of using the Australian or New Zealand method, with an excluder with an entrance and a board that can make the boxes above it queenless. It worked satisfactory. But especially early in the season such starters too often have failed to produce as many as I wanted of the larvae I gave the starter.

Pasaga Ramic is a skilled beekeeper from Bosnia that moved to Sweden many years ago. He has modified a swarm prevention board called Snelgrove board. He uses it in different ways, mostly not for swarm prevention. One way he has invented and tested for some years before writing about it is to produce queen cells. The only thing I had against this method was that it involved some lifting of the broodnest box(-es). But he said it worked so well I had to try it.

I normally use three 12 frame (square) shallow (Langstroth 137 mm high frames) boxes for brood nest. But I reduced it here to two boxes for easier lifting. I choose a not so strong colony just after middle of May (it was on two brood boxes then). And it was time (almost) to give them a third box, so I gave it as a super with a queen excluder.

The way Pasaga uses his Snelgrove board (starter board) you can say this board is just a bottom board with a central netting and a small entrance.

Drottningbräda

  1. You place the super on the bottom (normally actually without any brood frames!). Then the starter board with entrance facing backwards in relation to the entrance. Finally the brood box(-es). Later on when the colony needs more supers they come on top (as you see on the picture I have such a super waiting on the left).
  2. Wait one day, then put the list with the queen cell cups with the larvae in the middle (or about so when you put in two lists).
  3. Wait another day. Then you take away the starter board and put the brood box(-es) on the bottom, queen excluder, super with queen cell list (plus later on more supers above).

Drottningodlingsbräda

The first time I used the starter board it was ridiculously small amount of bees in the super so I put two brood frames in the middle of it, with a space between them for the list with the larvae. The colony was not that very strong and I doubted it would make many queen cells.

I didn’t look until the cells should be capped and opened to move the few I expected to the incubator. I had put in 15 cellcups with larvae. I got 15 well fed and well built queen cells!

Later on I grafted 30 cell cups for every go and got 26-30 queen cells. Try it!