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.

Struggles for the survival of honey bees


SB is a relatively new and dedicated beekeeper in southern Germany. She is interested in different kinds of bees and their place in the ecological system. I asked her to tell her story and her struggles helping her bees to survive and thrive on their own as much as possible without chemicals. She writes:

After watching wild bees for some years I wanted to have honeybees and took lessons given by an organic beekeeper. In the year 2014 I bought my first colony from him. It was a Carnica cross on natural comb, built by the bees without the help of wax foundation. They had been treated with oxalic and formic acid against the varroa. But they were sick anyway!

S Natural comb My first colony was a Carnica (Carniolan) colony on natural comb.

I tried to find a way out of this chemical strategy that seemingly didn’t help. I got some information on internet and started watching how bees defend themselves against illnesses. I don’t want to have them close to other bees. I tried to help them with sugar powder dusting to rid them of the mites sitting on bees. After treatment with formic acid in summer, they had a natural downfall of 30 mites per day. After sugaring the whole hive ten times with 2 days in between the natural downfall of mites were 5 per day. This involved a lot of work and still didn’t do the job. The bees had chalk brood too!

I measured cell size on their natural comb. It was 5.0 mm in the brood area, 5.4 in food area and drone cells began at 5.6. All honey was taken when harvested, so they lived on sugar syrup for a long time of the year. They died in february 2015, not having enough bees to warm the hive!

S AMM queen The AMM queen

I had found some contacts through internet and was able to get 4 hives in 2015 which weren`t treated with chemicals for some years. One was of the dark bee Apis mellifera mellifera (AMM) , three were Carnica (Carniolans). I made some splits and wintered 3 of the AMM origin and 5 of the Carnica origin.

The former owner had a crisis being the victim of a migratory beekeeper whose hives most probably caused reinfestation bringing a lot of mites into his hives. He overcame this crisis combining the weakest of his hives, so they became strong enough to defend themselves. Some survived. In some of these he introduced a AMM variety of queens that had a reputation of being more resistant.

My aim was to follow Dee Lusby`s in Arizona way of beekeeping as much as possible ( Using small cell foundation, leaving with the bees enough honey for food, using so called housel position of the combs, what she calls unlimited broodnest and using no treatment (if possible).

S Carnicas Now I have 11 colonies and high hopes.

All 8 hives survived winter, but in spring 2016 I had to eliminate one of them because its bees were too susceptible to virus (another than DWV). I have made some splits and have now in May 11 hives and high hopes. The bees are my teachers. I want them to survive.

S hygienic The AMM I have are showing hygienic behaviour against mites in the brood. Now I have seen it also in my Carniolan crossings (the picture).

I don’t do drone brood cutting as I want the mite to continue being a drone parasite in first place and not a worker bee parasite. I’m happy to see more and more of hygienic behavior against the mite, also in drone brood. Now also in the Carniolan crossings.

At last I want to quote Kirk Webster (

“Beekeeping now has the dubious honor of becoming the first part of our system of industrial agriculture to actually fall apart. Let’s stop pretending that something else is going on. We no longer have enough bees to pollinate our crops. Each time the bees go through a downturn, we respond by making things more stressful for them, rather than less – we move them around more often, expose them to still more toxic substances, or fill the equipment up again with more untested and poorly adapted stock. We blame the weather, the mites, the markets, new diseases, consumers, the Chinese, the Germans, the (fill in your favorite scapegoat), other beekeepers, the packers, the scientific community, the price of gas, global warming – anything rather than face up to what’s really happening. We are losing the ability to take care of living things.”

We are at big risk losing the ability to take care of living things. Thank you everyone who is helping me to improve myself as a beekeeper.

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. ( 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 (

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!

Neonics and success

Bees visit corn for pollen, period. Bees visit canola for pollen. Bees visit potatoes for pollen (Danish tests). Bees visit a lot of flowers for pollen. Bees get what the pollen is enriched with. Neonics are not good for bees.

But honeybees have a very sofisticated way of living and can handle a lot of difficulties – if they’re not too many. One reason for that is the many individuals, in both adult and brood stages. They can sacrifice some brood for example when fighting varroa. If field bees die during duty due to plant protection spray, if it’s not too much, there are usually enough many new field bees replacing them. Solitary bees though may have a more difficult situation…

Why did this feral colony survive on neonic corn?

  • No or very little reinvasion of varroa mites – it was the only colony in the apiary and far to other bees.
  • No one robbed its honey and gave low value kind of sugar.
  • There was a variety of food sources which the bees could reach easily, at the end of fields giving pollen without neonics.
  • The bees built there own cellsizes and a good portion for brood was enough small in their situation, some of it smaller than 5.1 mm.
  • No one moved the bees around to different places.
  • No one put miticides or antibiotics in the bee colony weakening the bees’ own defense system.
  • The bees probably swarmed every or every second year, once or more, giving a break in rearing brood in the brood season, when they cleaned their nest from pests and parasites.

In this situation bees adapted epigentically and genitically and learned how to fight the varroa mite. They survived during this process because there was no reinvasion of mites. The mite population established on a durable level where viruses levels were not high. Thus there was no big help for nosema to thrive. And as the virus levels were low neonics didn’t increase the effects of the viruses that very much.

This colony then under these circumstances were Varroa resistant and could pollinate plants around it that needed pollination. The solitary bees in the area that didn’t live entirely on neonic treated plants survivied too and could pollinate plants, for the benefit of farmers and biological diversity.

So, the message to everyone involved, also chemical companies:

Focus on:

  1. Develope Varroa resistant bees and a plan to spread them among beekeepers.
  2. Make sure there will be enough neonic free pollen sources and nest places for solitary bees close to farm fields, ”wild plant areas”. This will ensure and increase success, crop and money for everyone.


Swarm draws foundationless combs

Larry, the excentric beekeeper in Indiana, shares with me many of his experiences. Here’s one I share with you readers:

Friday afternoon, 23 May, I just happened to be present at the beginning of a prime swarm cast from my Warré Box Hive Project.

Larry Gren

( ) The existing hive has double deep frames with small cell comb with cells ranging from 4.7 mm to 5.0 mm. I placed the swarm in a second Warré sized hive with eight of my double deep foundationless frames. It will be interesting to measure the comb drawn by the swarm in the new hive once it is firm enough to handle.

Larry kupa

The swarm was hived at the peak of a strong black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, nectar flow. When I checked the colony on Tuesday, 27 May, the bees had drawn comb in all eight frames down to the skewer/spale located eight inches from the top.

Larry kaka

I checked the colony in the morning 31 May. There was one frame of comb on the outside of the box that had a partial collapse. I think it was due to the rapid drawing of new comb, the weight of the abundant stored nectar and the 30° C afternoons. I observed the queen. She is in good condition and laying eggs.

The colony is not drawing comb as fast now as it did during the first four days which could be due to the queens laying and the added labor of pollen collection and brood rearing. However, I am still very pleased with the colony’s progress.

Nine days following the prime swarm the original colony has twice attempted an afterswarm. The first clustered on a tree branch forty feet up for about thirty minutes before returning to the hive. The next day the second filled the air and clustered on the front of the hive before reentering.

Here is a link to a video of the second attempt highlights.

I returned home from my out yard 5 June with 50 pounds of capped tulip poplar/black locust honey just in time to attend a third afterswarm. This time they were more organized than the previous attempts. I was able to place them in a hive.

I was able to cut several nice sections of comb honey from the tulip popla/ black locust honey. The rest I am crushing and straining.

Regards, Larry

Europe versus USA: breeding varroa resistence

Rüdiger Dietrich’s comment is so good I made it into a post of its own as well. Thanks Rüdiger!

As a German I have of course to answer to Eriks contribution “Breeding for Varroa resistance: Germany versus USA”…:-).

When commenting about activities in the varroa resistance breeding area I guess it’s better to compare Europe versus US. Otherwise it would be too bad for Germany…

I think the main drawback for Europe compared to US is that a funded continuous breeding program is missing. The US seems to have at least 3 – Minnesota Hygienic Stock (MNHYG), Russian Honey Bee program (RHB) and VSH program, which all seem to have shown valuable outcomes. Moreover, the organic beekeeping community in the US, e.g. Ed and Dee Lusby, Michael Bush, Dennis Murrel and others have been innovative and could establish treatment free beekeeping since many years. And this could be achieved with local bee races or no complicated bee breeding scheme!!! Their impact with small cells, comb distance, not contaminated bee wax etc. is not only logic and inspiring, it works as stated above.

Europe did of course some funded scientific investigation of Varroa and could contribute to the understanding of infestation mechanism in the 90-ies, e.g. grooming behaviour (Bienefeld, Aumeier, Thakur etc.) or VSH (Rosenkranz, Vandame). However, efforts seem to be sporadic and as already mentioned not continuous, to yield in resistant queens that are distributed via the beekeeping community.

Besides, beekeeping organizations here I can only comment on Germany with the AgT (Arbeitsgemeinsschaft für Toleranzforschung), try to connect and coordinate different breeders in order to achieve bees that combine favourable and varroa resistant traits. However, improvement ratios seem to be small up to now.

But in my eyes Europe could contribute significantly by activities of bee breeders. The idea to use already varroa resistant bees for breeding was first established by Erik Österlund (1989) and John Keyfuss (1993), who cross African bees into A.mellifera mellifera/Buckfast. John uses a Tunisian bee (Apis mellifera intermissa) and Erik Apis mellifera monticola from Kenya. The resulting Elgon bee is since a bee that needs less or even no varroa treatment. The same is true for Kefuss bees and he gain merits by bringing this topic into broad public interest with his “World varroa challenge”.

This approach was copied by Rinderer (RHB), who used Russian bees that lived since 200-250 years with varroa mites and hence, should have developed resistance traits. The same idea was practically followed by P. Jungels (Buckfast – Primorski mixes) and J. Koller (pure Primorski) (Primorski synonyme for Russian bees) in Europe, who contributed significantly by providing varroatolerant queens to the European beekeepers.

A guy that use local (carneolian) bees for his breeding program is Alois Wallner from Austria, who has bred since 1990 for bees that groom and kill varroa mites by removing their legs. The result is now a bee that kill nearly every mite (varroa killer factor 100). Additionally his bees express VSH behaviour and hence, bees need only few or no treatment with formic acid.

In my opinion one brave European guy need to be mentioned as well which is Juhani Lunden in Finland He managed in a brute force approach to breed varroaresistant bees, which are not treated since 2009. He used a strong selective pressure to achieve his goal and hence, other traits as gentleness or honey crop might be compromised.

So taken together, these efforts need to put on a strong base in Europe as well and both, the spread of “resistant genes” by suitable queens and by suitable programs need to be pushed and furthermore the usage of organic beekeeping principles that result in treatment free bees should be distributed. That includes the courage of not using treatments to outselect non optimal strains. Here the community in Europe is already on the way see (Germany and Spain), but Europe should definitely speed up and learn the positives from the US. This is especially true for the scientific sector and funded EC programs.

The art of beekeeping

EccentricHive HIve of


Of course it’s more natural for bees to build their own combs. But is it the best for bees and beekeepers? There’s been a lot of discussion about natural beekeeping. First let us be clear. Natural beekeeping is an unnatural expression. Any kind of beekeeping by a beekeeper is not natural, for bees anyway. When that is said we have to say there are different grades of naturalness in beekeeping.


Natural enough

I want, and the eccentric beekeeper wants enough naturalness to be able to call our beekeeping natural, or rather natural enough for the bees and thus also for me as a beekeeper.

Even if a bee colony in a hollow tree never will be beneficial for the commercial beekeeper to make him make a living of beekeeping, it certainly will help us understand how close to its natural way of living we can design our way of keeping bees. I’m convinced such an approach will help the small scale as well as the large scale beekeeper – and the bees.

But where do we meet in design, the bees and me? Well, we have to begin living together and we have to find out by learning to listen to the bees and find out what I really need to make a living, small scale and large scale.

Foundationless frames where the bees draw their own combs may well be a good choice. Before wax foundation was invented all beekeepers used it, one way or the other. Langstroth for example.



Today I don’t do it. For a couple of reasons. First, my first goal is to achive bees that can  handle the varroa mite on their own. Until they do, I have decided I want to help them with the cellsize they naturally draw in the core of their broodnest, around 4.9 mm. At my latitude maybe somewhat bigger. I may be wrong, I may be right: whichever It seems my bees may today be developing true resistance, not only tolerance.

The eccentric beekeeper in Indiana, America has decided to arrive at foundationless frames, after taking down his bees to small cellsize. Check out his website:


Mann Lakes 4.9 plastic foundation(frame) cut to fit into small Warré frames.



The bees have usually no problems drawing the foundation correct and use it readily, whichever bees you use.


He uses the standard plastic frame from Mann Lake Ltd to take whichever bees to small cellsize. Then he lets them loose. Some of them even draw 4.7.


Foundationless frames given to the bees, below the other combs, after they have made use of the plastic frames.



Cellsize on the long foundationless frames – 4.7 mm. Pictures supplied by the eccentric beekeeper.