Which bees are the best?

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.

Living with bees

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.

 One of his colonies is living i a small skep of straw insulated with cow dung.

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.

 It was a lot of beees in the skep in 2016, but they didn’t swarm.

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.

 At the end of June the bees in the skep decided the season was over. And it really was. No more real flow that year.

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).

 The bees were cool the rest of the season and waited for next season. Checking what’s up now end then. Here in January 2017.

 The “feral” colonies on medium boxes behaved like the bees in the skep. Here’s one of them somewhat on its own in the forest.

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.

 Through the inspection door at the back of the colony he can see the combs in the first box. Here the bees can bee seen sitting close to the entrance in the second box.

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.

Reinvasion is worst

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.

Leif Hjalmarsson

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.

Bee shaker1 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%.

Bee shaker2 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.

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.


He started to plan and set up different tests for looking at the effects of different cell sizes in brood combs and to produce virus free drones to mate with virgin queens. He saw that bees easier recognized (and removed) when drone brood was infested with mites when these cells were smaller, which they naturally are with smaller worker brood cells. He also saw that mites more readily infested the biggest drone cells.

He was involved in small cell tests, of his own and together with others. One can be found here: http://beesource.com/point-of-view/hans-otto-johnsen/survival-of-a-commercial-beekeeper-in-norway/

Today Hans-Otto has research money from the Department of Agriculture in Norway.

Resistant stock

He developed his bees in quite isolated areas, but not totally isolated, so sometimes the bees were mated to carniolans, buckfasts and the native brown bee (Mellifera mellifera). He also worked together with Terje Reinertsen, another Norwegian beekeeper, very similar to him when it comes to beekeeping. They exchanged breeding material. Both of them have discovered that their bees teach other bees how to get rid of mites. It seems this ability to teach new bees is very important knowledge when developing a Varroa resistant stock.

Today Hans-Otto hasn’t treated his bees for 15 years. The levels of mites are normally very low in his and Terje’s colonies and he never sees any wingless bees. In 2014 the bees of Terje were tested for Varroa levels by the Norwegian Beekeeping Association in preparation for planned research. (Birøkteren, vol 131, 2015(1), pages 13 and 24. The Bee Journal of the Norwegian Beekeepers Association.) The levels were so low it was difficult to calculate the reproduction rate.

When Hans-Otto moves his bees to the heather in late summer, for producing heather honey, his bees quickly pick up quite some mites. The natural downfall of mites will then be higher until about a month before the frost will make the bees form winter cluster. Then the downfall is almost zero again.

Book contribution

In 2010 Georgia Pellegrini (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_Pellegrini) published her first book on natural food: Food Heroes (http://www.amazon.com/Food-Heroes-Culinary-Preserving-Tradition/dp/1584798548) She included a chapter about Hans-Otto and his focus on natural production of honey. For example he concludes that small cell bees are more biologically optimized than large cell bees. Thus research done with small cell bees are more reliable concerning what bees are and how they react naturally. In short, research results with small bees are more reliable.

In this context it’s interesting to notify that Norwegian wax is almost pesticide free.

HansOttoJohnsen An important part in his quality control is producing wax foundation as he thinks will be the best help for the bees.

Learning and teaching

Today we understand that adaptation of bees to fighting Varroa isn’t only selection breeding, natural or beekeepers’, for changing the DNA composition, but also epigenteic adaptation, the change of expression of the DNA as a result of changed environmental pressure on the bees. This turns the focus to the importance of locally adapted bee stock. Now research is going on with a third adaptation step, how bees learn how to deal with challenges and how they pass on this knowledge to other bees, worker bees to worker bees.

Hans-Otto caught a carniolan swarm of not resistant large bees that choose one of his swarm traps for their new home. After establishing this swarm in one of his apiaries he shifted its place with one of his resistant colonies. So this nonresistant colony received the field bees of a resistant colony. Afterwards they both behaved like resistant colonies.

One year he bough buckfast virgin queens not selected for Varroa resistance. He put them in splits made from his bees. The virgins mated in his apiaries. These splits were spread out in different apiaries of his. For two years they kept their colonies working fine and resistant to mites as good as his other colonies.

Now these two experiments absolutely are food for thought.

More than15 minutes of fame

Definitely Hans-Otto Johnsen is worthy of more than the 15 minutes of fame, one commentator thought was enough.

Daughter of the feral queen

Karin is a new beekeeper. She got a split from me with a daughter of the swarm that came from the wall of one of her houses, an unheated older, kind of summerhouse. http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=515

At the end of last summer, the new colony had grown strongly to three square shallow boxes. Then came the heather flow (Calluna vulgaris) and the bees filled a super above the queen excluder (the forth square shallow) with almost 20 kg of this thixotropic strong honey. And it collected about the same amount in the winter room (the three boxes). This honey is said to be difficult for bees to use as winter food.

It appeared a few wingless bees after harvest and this colony was the only of Karin had so as precaution it got 2 pieces thymol of dishcloth with thymol (2 x 5g) with about 12 kg of sugar in solution.

Karin&Hive Karin and her promising hive 13 March. 

The colony has been sitting still during winter, and heavy of feed. Some bees made a cleansing flight first week of March. It is visible on the hive top. Today, March 13th, we checked the colony together. With a long stick we scraped out a handful of dead bees. Not a bee came out and asked what we were doing. They sat still again. Temperature 36°F (2 °C) outside.

As we watched the bee cluster through a plastic sheet cover the bees sat quite tight but it was on the middle of the cluster. The bees have brood. We felt the weight. Lifted on one end of the hive and then the other. The colony was still heavy, but noticeably lighter than the last time we checked the weight. It has apparently made some brood during late winter/early spring. And it smells heather honey from the entrance of the hive. The colony is strong and looks very promising.

Karin Hive Daughter of the feral queen has wintered successfully on difficult thixotropic heather honey, preparing for a good season.

A passionate treatment free beekeeper 

Cory Stevens lives in southeast Missouri. There are some hives of hobbyists some miles from him. A larger beekeeper is 7-8 miles from him, but he uses Cory Stevens’ queen cells.

Cory family The whole Stevens family works together

Started with resistance traits

Cory Stevens ceased treatments for Varroa mites in most of his then 20 colonies 8 years ago.  6 years ago the number had grown to around 45 colonies. Then a few got some formic acid. Then no more treatment. When he stopped treating he had acquired queens of different origins with resistance traits, VSH from Tom Glenn and Pol line Hygienic Italians crossed with local ferals.

Cory Hive&comb Healthy colonies are the base for a thriving bee operation.

Low winter losses initially

Initially he had very low annual losses. He has brought in new stock every year besides breeding from his best lines. This hasn’t been good for the development of his stock so he has stopped that and will focus on selecting from his own best colonies. He will evaluate the need for bringing in new stock again later.

Cory odlingslist He will now focus on breeding from his own selected lines.


Increased winterlosses

Winter losses has always been lower than average nation wide. But the last years it has reached 30%.The winter of 2014-15 he lost 60% of 95 wintered. 45 of those (47%) were too small 5-frame nucs. The winter was severe and all of those nucs died. He says it was his fault, not the bees’. The winter losses 2015-16 will be much lower, it looks like cose to 20 %.

Initially some viruses

In the beginning when he saw more than a few bees with crippled wings (DWV) and K-wings (KWV) two different viruses, followers of Varroa and Tracheal mites respectively, he requeened those hives. Today he never sees any crippled wings. A few K-wings can be seen.

Removal of infested drone brood developed

Initially he didn’t see removal of varroa infested drone brood by the bees, only Varroa infested worker brood (in which the mites have offspring – VSH). But after breeding from the best survivors without any treatment he has seen this trait developing. He thinks that’s good as Varroa prefer drone brood and should continue doing it leaving as much worker brood as possible alone.

Cory drönarpuppor He has developed his stock to remove Varroa infested drone brood. It has simply turned up when breeding from the best survivors.

Some characteristics

He doesn’t use small cell combs, but standard rite cell foundation. He does use screened bottom board on several hives, but he doesn’t think they contribute that very much to Varroa control.

Planned focus

This season he will check natural downfall to look for the percentage of mutilated mites. He will also be utilizing liquid nitrogen to test for hygienic behavior for breeding candidates. Some of his virgins will be inseminated with semen from ankle biters (mite ankels) from Purdue University to test if this will contribute to his stock. He will also put out more swarm traps to hopefully catch feral swarms.

The goal

Cory wintered 120 colonies last autumn. The goal now is adding 25-30 per year until he reaches 5-600. Then he will “retire”.

A locally adapted Varroa resistant bee stock

Reid Hives


Richard Reid in a Virgina rural area in the US began with bees 1973. Beekeeping was simple, almost only it consisted of putting on and removing supers.

By 1995 all of his bees died due to the Varroa mite. He didn’t like drugs and didn’t use any in his colonies. A package bee colony he bought also died, after only two months. He couldn’t take more, dropped the bees, and devoted himself entirely to his construction business.



After a number of years, he discovered that a few swarms had settled in a few stacks of supers. He went and looked at these wild bees sometimes and saw that they lived on. They lived and swarmed for 12 years unattended. After a few years he was encouraged and decided in 2008 to give beekeeping a chance again.

Reid feral12 One of the feral swarms settled in his stacks of supers.

There are no big farms nearby (thus not so much of agriculture chemicals) and some smaller beekeepers were at least 3 km (2 miles) away from his bees. So the conditions for healthy beekeeping was good.


Come back

He took care of the two feral swarms and began to expand the number of colonies using these, VSH, and Russian lines. He decided again not to use any kind of chemicals against Varroa. He didn’t buy any package bees or colonies from other areas (well, none at all). He multiplied his own colonies.

Reid SwarmtrapBox He also catches some swarms.
He bought however queens from different places which he believed to have resistance characteristics, VSH Carnica, Russian bees, and survivor bees from different places. He never monitored mite levels in his colonies.
Annual losses since 2008 have been between 10-15%, except after the winter of 2012-13 when 40% died. Each year, he had seen some wingless bees in some colonies. After the winter with the big losses he hasn’t seen any wingless bees. He has since bought fewer queens from outside and bred most from his own.
Every year he breeds from several “lines”, now about 18 of them. Queens are mated in his home yard. He makes many splits every year. Some of these get pupae of those he breeds. Some splits rear queens themselves.

Reid queen One of his queens.



2015 he wintered 75 production colonies and 105 nucs. 30 of the colonies are kept in the vicinity of his home yard. There he keeps 17 of them. The nucs are also kept close in the home yard.

Reid Hives&Nucs Some of his nucs and production colonies in his home yard.

He has altogether nine apiaries. He wants to have at least 10 colonies in each apiary, but he hasn’t reached that goal yet for most of them. He is now aiming to increase his number of production colonies to 100 and the nucs to 150, as well as an additional 2 apiaries.
Regarding cell size, the great majority of brood frames in his colonies are Mann Lakes standard plastic frame with plastic foundation. (http://www.mannlakeltd.com/beekeeping-supplies/category/page19.html) The cell size on those are 4.95 mm. The rest of the frames in the honey boxes have a larger cell size. Some frames are started without a foundation. The intention is that the bees will build some drone comb there. He wants to flood the area with desired drones. But bees are also building fine worker brood in some of these frames, especially in the nucs.


Selling nucs, queens and honey

He split the nucs in the spring and sells one part with the queen, saves the rest to build up a new nuc. It’s usually used for a mating nuc or nuc production depending on the season.

Reid Brood One of the worker brood frames built by the bees without the help of a foundation.

He usually has a very good spring flow that will carry the colonies through the rest of the year, but there’s usually a dearth in the summer, which means the nucs may need to be fed sugar syrup to prepare for winter. 2015 he had so much spring honey production, he only had to feed about 20% of the nucs for winter.

He says that now he has enough resources so he can share honey between production hives and nucs. Thus he feeds less. He usually only feeds a handful of production hives (mostly new ones) to prepare for winter. The production colonies go through winter on large supplies of honey. Quite often he has extracted honey in April. You can say he uses his colonies as a honey storage.


Richard Reid’s locally adapted Varroa-resistant bee stock

• There are at least 3 km to apiaries with other bee colonies than of his stock.
• The area where he lives is not a highly developed agricultural area, so there is not so much agricultural chemicals there as can be the case in many other areas.
• He started with bees which had a degree of varroa resistance.
• In most brood combs, he uses small cell size.
• He doesn’t bring in colonies (such as packages) from outside the area with his bees.
• He splits nucs (with new queens from his breeder queens) to make more nucs, which later become production colonies or bees for sale. He also splits a few of the smaller, less productive, production colonies to create new nucs.

• He doesn’t requeen on a regular schedule. He has some colonies with queens finishing their 3rd and 4th season.
• The bad colonies die or have their queens replaced.
• He breeds after queens from many different lines each year.
• He tries each year just a few queens from other breeders.


Encouragement to all beekeepers

Richard Reid is one of several beekeepers who has managed to breed a varroa resistant locally adapted bee stock. Let us be encouraged by that and despite what some other beekeepers of all kinds say, that this is not possible. How can one be so ignorant to what others achieve? Make use of what you can of the experiences of Richard Reid.
When he started, he hadn’t many bee colonies, so even if you have few colonies you can do something.

Perhaps your circumstances are such that it is good to monitor mite levels in your colonies. There are various methods, for example the Bee Shaker (http://www.elgon.es/diary/?cat=85).

Don’t take it as a failure if you choose to use pesticides at times. Each of us decides what is appropriate for ourselves and our bees, in consultation with the laws of your country. A treatment that doesn’t involve any chemicals at all is to remove all capped brood (worker and drone brood) twice, a week apart. It is effective, weakens the bee population as well though, but not the health of the bees. The bad colonies get new queens as soon as possible.

Next season will always be better!

Treatment free feral bees

Up till now anyway, this colony of bees (and their ancestors forming this colony’s ancestor colonies) that has lived in a wall since several colony generations, has never been treated with any kind of chemicals ever, against Varroa mites or anything else.

June 29 last year I caught a swarm that came from this wall in a non-heated old house. (http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=515) Towards the outside of the wall from the bees they had no insulation whatsoever. Just a thin board of wood. At the inside though a thick log wall.

For a couple of years there’s been an Elgon apiary 3 km away (2 miles). But the bee colony has been longer than that in the wall. Further back in time the closest apiary was 6 km (4 miles) away. At that time the Varroa mite had not arrived to these bees. For many years this colony has swarmed every year.

The swarm I caught was not big, but it had an egglaying queen and built up strength well enough to winter safely. To help it make a lot of brood I provided it with a shallow super above an excluder. I shouldn’t have done that I think as it was too easy for me to just take away this honey super when it was time to prepare the colony for winter. That is stressful time.

Now the bees hadn’t much honey left so I gave them 20 kg (44 pounds) of sugar in sucrose solution. If I hadn’t taken the small amount of honey it would have had about 10 kg (22 pounds) of honey for winter storage. Seeing how the colony behaved I think it would have made it well through winter with that amount. My first colony ever in 1974 had about that amount its first winter.

I saw no wingless bees during the season last year, so they got no Thymol against mites. I didn’t then have any quick way to measure the mite population (but here is at least one: http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=354) And as I mentioned it was stressful times for me.

The queen stopped laying entirely in late summer. In November I saw through the plastic sheet used as kind of inner cover that the bees was sitting tight together like vacuum-packed peanuts.


About 10 March this year when the bees had their main cleansing flight after winter the cluster had spread out and filled more room than in November. It was very few dead bees on the bottom board. And not one defecate spot at the entrance.

These bees seems at least to be more winter hardy and be more Varroa resistant than common beekeepers’ bees, which have not been selected for Varroa resistance.


A possible scenario

A swarm of Elgon bees flying from the Elgon beekeeper 6 km away finds the cavity in the wall. Varroa mites havn’t arrived yet to the area. No beekeeper robs the honey or exchanges it for sugar. The cavity is not bigger than maximum two big boxes a beekeeper uses. The amount of brood can’t be as big as in a beekeepers hive. And the restricted area makes the volume finally too small for the bees (no beekeeper puts on boxes) and they swarm, every year mostly. Insulation is almost none. No beekeeper renews the wax and the bees build what they want when it comes to for example cell sizes. The Elgon beekeeper used small cell size to begin with. Here the cell sizes may become still smaller due to cocoon residues.

The bees adapt to the new environment now when they are on their own, like they were before there were any beekeepers around. In this adaption process the epigenetic process is most important, at least at first. The different environment created by a different “hive”, different food (more natural) and different cell sizes (also still smaller) gives a different chemical environment of many aspects. For example the different cell sizes give somewhat different food for the larvae, amount and probably composition also. This results in switching off some genes and turning on others in the DNA. Disturbing chemicals like pesticides and treatments in the hive can hinder this epigenetic process. But not for this swarm. It lived in a non-farming area and no beekeeper put chemicals in their hive.

There were no neighbor bees. Thus no bad influences from non-resistant bees drifting into their hive and no reinvasion of mites.

When the Varroa mites arrived the drones that became “fathers” were those that the mites didn’t parasitize. Maybe they avoided those drone larvae. And also those drones that were parasitized but were not as affected as others, became “fathers”. Thus also an adaption for resistance took place with a change of the DNA. Natural selection thus took place.

As the colony swarms every year there is a break in the brood production. This hinders the reproduction of mites. Also there is both an epigenetic and a genetic adaption with the new generation.

The smaller cells give less attractive food for the mites. They get less fertile on larvae in smaller cells. http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=596

Drone cells get smaller in colonies on smaller worker brood cells. With smaller worker brood cells you get worker bees that get more hygienic. http://medycynawet.edu.pl/index.php/component/content/article/336-summary-201412/5234-summary-med-weter-70-12-774-776-2014 or http://alturl.com/a8scb Small cell beekeepers, including me, reports a widespread occurrence of uncapping and chewing out of capped brood in both worker and drone brood parasitized by mites. http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=544 But VSH is said sometimes to not occur on drone brood. But those bees are kept on large cells. At least it doesn’t occur as much in drone brood. But it is observed quite a lot sometimes in small cell colonies as mites are observed to be much more common there in drone brood than in worker brood. http://resistantbees.com/blog/?page_id=2471


What happen with feral bees in a beekeeper’s hive?

If a swarm from feral bees end up in a beekeeper’s hive with large cell size, the environment changes and a “reverted” epigenetic process takes place. If there are more bee colonies in the apiary or close by all bees will be drifting (as is common) in all colonies and be mixed more or less. If these other bees have no or very little resistance against Varroa they will have a negative impact on the more resistant feral bees. These were enough resistant in the wall. Are they enough resistant now in this beekeeper’s hive? Maybe not.

If the feral swarm ends up in a beekeeper’s hive with small cell size, and there are neighboring bees that have substantial resistance against the mite, it may be that this swarm will do very well fighting the mites. Especially if there are no or very few bees around that can’t make life miserable for Varroa mites.

What will happen with my feral bees? Will they continue to be treatment free?

Bedding down


I live on 59 degrees north and 15 degrees east in Sweden. It can be quite cold in winter and bees can’t usually leave the hive a single time from about November until about middle of March, sometimes late in April.

I use single walled wooden boxes for the hives (no insulation) with no wrapping for winter, so the colonies need to be strong to winter well and be able to get a crop from the winter rape in May. No top ventilation. But bottom ventilation, through the entrance and through netting in the back corners of the bottom board.

I use square shallow boxes for 12-13 frames (depending on center to center distance) (frames 448×137 mm) throughout the hive, no other frame size. It works surprisingly well one may think. One square shallow box has the same volume as one medium, 10 frame (Illinois–3/4-Langstroth, 448×159 mm frames). Two square shallows correspond to a 12-frame modified dadant or jumbo box (448×286 mm frames). I normally use three square shallow boxes for winter (and as brood nest in summer with excluder) with the top third box full of or with a lot of honey, complementing with sucrose solution in August/September adding up to about 30 kg of food (65 pounds[lb]).

Smaller colonies get dummy insulation as outer frames, after combs filled with food are removed in late autumn. They may get the entrance somewhat reduced. These colonies are mostly wintered on two square shallows (with somewhat less honey and total food). The smaller colonies the more insulation they get to winter well.

After feeding sugar in September, temperature is low enough in October or November to keep the bees inside all day and clustered together tightly. Now the old bees have died off and left the winter bees for taking the colony through winter. The cluster is reduced as a result of this and also as a result of temperature compressing the bees together to keep them from loosing heat. Egglaying has normally stopped a couple of months earlier with my bees.

This situation didn’t occur this year due to relatively mild weather, as last year, until late November, with then steady temperature just above freezing. I then checked all colonies concerning strength and removed some outer frames replacing them with insulation dummy frames of compact polystyrene. Some smaller colonies had already been reduced this way in August in both upper and lower boxes. At this point only the upper box get outer frames removed. I have a plastic sheet covering the top and lift up and folded somewhat at one side at a time to help the colony keep warmth when working. The bees are usually calm and don’t move much if I work fast.


In August all three boxes are full of bees on all combs. When sitting in winter cluster in November in average this year they are sitting tight filling up about 7 frame gaps in about two boxes, in the middle box and somewhat in the lower and upper ones. Or lower down or higher up.  A colony with 8 filled gaps will not get any comb removed. 7 gaps 1-2 removed, 6 gaps 2-3 removed, 5 gaps 3-5 removed.

The smallest cluster now have 4 gaps with tightly clustered bees (with three insulation frames on each side of six combs in the upper box) and the strongest are filling 10 gaps. Watch out in early spring! Such colonies will hopefully need a super very early in spring!

Light colored bees don’t normally behave like this, they brood longer in autumn, wait longer clustering tightly, and start earlier brooding considerably in late winter.

My bees don’t use all this food for winter, they use maybe 5-8 kg (11-18 pounds). But with a good amount of honey they start heavily brooding in early March before even having made the cleansing flight after winter. Then they need the food! If they don’t have enough food you have to feed them. If feeding them sugar solution, which is common, the bees might react in easier develop swarming preparation.

The removed food combs are stored mouse tight and used for those colonies developing fast in spring and need more food. Some colonies have used too much food during winter and spring. They are not stronger than those that wait until March brooding, they might actually develop backwards due to nosema problems. Such colonies are requeened later. In second half of May I start making splits and nucs. These stored food combs are a gift.

With a good amount of food in late winter/early spring the bees “dare” to make a lot of brood. When May comes they already are filling (almost) a couple of supers above the excluder with bees and are ready to fill them with honey!


MT-colony conclusion

I have shared the performance of this colony which had almost a box of plastic small cell frames and natural positioning of these frames (as the uppermost broodbox). Which also had a tough experience with mice living in the bottom box during winter.

It gave top crop the first crop of winter rape, dandelions and some raspberry. It showed no wingless bees this year early on as it did last year. But it had an old queen. So the colony decided to shift it’s queen and did. Now they showed a few wingless bees. I concluded that was due to the declining amount of open brood to enter for the mites, son inte last brood of the old queen there was enough concentration of mites to develop some wingless bees. But to be consistent with my way of working I gave the colony 9 grams (two pieces) of thymol dish pieces. Next time no wingless bees.

My impression is that the colony is not performing less good with plastic small cell and natural positioning. Thus the conclusion is that plastic small cell frames are not negative for the bees, neither what I call natural positioning. If any of these configurations are positive is difficult to say. An overall smaller mite pressure in the apiary and the area could be the explanation. Due to epigenetic changes that have improved the bees, or/and conventional selection has done its job with the genepool in the apiary/area. Also plastic small cell frames and natural positioning may have contributed. At least plastic small cell may have good influence as there are more cells for each comb, thus faster buildup.