Breeding varroa resistence: Germany versus USA

The other day I received Imkerfreund 12-2013 in my postbox. In this issue of the German bee magazine I found an interview with the scientist leading a varroa breeding project involving beekeepers. It’s a project that has made some progress.

A German strategy

Germany has had varroa for about 40 years. And they mostly try to breed pure Carniolan bees (carnica) and pure Buckfast with the help of isolated mating stations (and insemination). The main varroa treatment concept is the following in the south of Germany.

  • April-June    Cut dronebrood and make splits
  • July              After harvest in July treatment with Formic acid
  • August          Four weeks later the second treatment with Formic
  • September   The third treatment with Formic if mite downfall after treatment no 2 is too high
  • December    Treatment with Oxalic acid, trickling of sugarsolution with oxalic


Their breeding program has two resistance parameters: pinkilling a square decimeter of brood (similar to freeze killed brood) and measuring the development of the varroa population during the season. Besides traits like low swarming, good temper and a honey crop. Their progress: being able to skip one of the summer treatments with Formic acid (as far as I understood the German article).

An American strategy

USA has had varroa for about 25 years. Few try to breed pure race bees like the Germans. Ineminated and naturally mated queens are used. The main varroa treatment concept for smaller operations are aimed at organic treatment (involving formic acid, thymol, drone cutting, hops) and treatment free (involving small cell size, topbar hives). Bigger operations most often trust different syntetic miticides, formic, thymol and hops.) Americans are more focused on treshold counts of mites for the time to treat.

The Russian bees from the very east of Russia, the Primorski area, is one quite succesful undertaking started and developed by the USDA. A number of beekeepers have formed an association to take care of the 18 lines of these bees. They are treated much less than ordinary bees against varroa. With these bees you have to watch out for swarming.

The VSH-bees are influencing most of the other efforts of breeding resistant bees to varroa mites. These bees are a mixture of all kind of bees. Here you find most of the traditional beekeepers that don’t use any treatment against varroa mites, for example John Harbo, , and Adam Finkelstein,

HarboBeeCo Carol and John Harbo

Beekeepers in different states are forming breeding organisations funded by the governement, like this one:

There are those in Europe forming good projects and those already not treating against varroa either, but with this article I want to get attention to how little progress is made with the strategy mentioned above in Germany and how great achievement is made with the VSH-breeding, focused at the start on one trait: VSH. Then on the other. Something has to be learnt here.

Actually resistant bees were achieved already after very few years, by Harbo and Harris in 1995-98 in USA. They started with survivor colonies of any type of bee they were given. The only one parameter they focused on first was VSH: Varroa Sensitive Hygiene. See other articles here in the VSH category. This development of resistant bees have to be done in all kind of regions differing in climatic and other local characteristics, mites and pathogens for example.

It’s time for Europe to learn the lesson and form breeding projects together with beekeepers where ’central’ areas are formed fairly isolated from other bees. All bee colonies in these ’small starter’ areas are part of the program. An effective way of using funding money from European Union would be to support such projects.

Buckfast breeding 1

Adam shirbW

This is a too long story to be told in one post here. But I have to start somewhere. I first visited Brother Adam and Buckfast Abbey in 1983. I was allowed to look into his pedigrees for his bees and his world of beekeeping started to unfold. I returned several times. I learned his way of breeding, brought breeding material back to Sweden. In the picture he is sitting in his mating station at Shirburton up on Dartmoor, with his six drone producing colonies and all the mating nucs with virgins or newly mated queens.

Everyone, including me, never thought any different thought than what Brother Adam was doing, was what he thought and we should think, that the way he did it, was the way we should do it. No one asked him what he thought about what would be best for us. What he did evidently was what he thought was the best way for him. Beekeepers started to copy his way of breeding with material they got from him and mating virgins at isolated mating stations with sister queens producing drones. Looking at the mother colony of the drone producer queens as the father in the pedigree. And the mother colony as the mother colony


And those that didn’t copy his way of for example mate the virgins and still call their bees Buckfast were looked upon with suspicion. They weren’t true Buckfasts. And no one asked Brother Adam what he thought about it. But he supplied all those that wanted breeding material, including Weavers in Texas, who didn’t used isolated mating stations the way Adam did. Now Adam is dead so we can’t ask him.

But I ran into a hobby beekeeper  who visited Brother Adam in 1981. Hans Samland, now a retired firefighter, was humble enough to ask him what he thought was the best way for him as hobby beekeeper with 15 colonies  to do his breeding work. Adam knew of the Swedish Buckfast breeding program with isolated mating stations with material from Buckfast. Adam didn’t even suggest Hans to start with imported bees from him. He didn’t say anything about that. He just answered Hans’ question.

– Every year you decide which half of your bees is the least good one. In those colonies you shift queens. You get the queens to put into those colonies by making a daughter queen from each and everyone of the colonies in the best half of your colonies. Let the new queens mate in your apiary.

It’s simple and it was the best way for Hans, according to Adam. Was Adam right? Probably!