Darwinian beekeeping, cell size and fitness

I respect and appreciate Tom Seeley and consider him a friend. He coined the expression Darwinian beekeeping. He has given us deeper understanding of the natural bee colony. But I don’t understand an expression of his in one of his lectures in London Honey Show in 2011:

I don’t understand why beekeepers are so interested in small cells.

There are scientists that have expressed suspicion, yes even an opposition towards small cells (4.7mm – 5.0mm, large cells 5.2-5.5, extra large 5.6-5.8, average 5.1). Tests have been done with small cells. Focus has been on reproduction of the varroa mite. None of them has come with the result that small cells are bad for bees. The majority of them are expressing a result that is not statistically significant concerning a good influence on varroa resistance. But there are tests that show a positive impact on the varroa level, for example this: http://www.elgon.es/norwegian_celltest.html. Concerning the design of tests please read this analysis: http://www.elgon.es/testdesign.html

 The classic picture by Dennis Murrell of a top bar with diffferent cell sizes. Those to the left are close to the entrance. An advantage with naturally built combs is that the midrib of the comb is very thin compared to a wax foundation. Therefore it’s easier for the bees to tear down combs and rebuild them as their needs changes. When a swarm starts to build combs they often start to build cells 5.3 mm big as their first need is to store the honey they are carrying in their honey stomach. Often they build quite some drone comb too. If it’s a first swarm and the queen is old they may well replace and then they need drones. Later when the nest is growing they replace some combs with new and build more honey storage away from the entrance (information from Johan Ingjald in Sweden who has studied this in his colonies).

Natural cellsizes

When bees choose themselves, what cellsize do they make? They make a range of cell sizes. When we look at naturally built combs in colonies where wax foundation is not used, the brown (or black) wax, that’s wax in which there have been brood, the range of sizes is smaller than in areas where you find wax in which there have been no brood. In such areas bees store honey. See the picture of the top bar comb taken by Dennis Murrell.

What did bees build before wax foundation was used? Wax foundation started to be used more widely after the introduction of the waxroller mill in 1876 by A. I. Root in America (cell size 5.1mm, which was said to be the average of cellsizes in a colony). See the article about cell size history: http://www.elgon.es/naturalcellsize.html

The conclusion is that nature favors small cells in the brood area and larger in the honey storage area. After a thorough investigation the Harvard professor Jeffries Wyman published the result 1866 to be 4.7 mm – 5.3 mm for the cell sizes. The British scientist Thomas W Cowan replicated his test 1890 and got the result 4.7 – 5.4 mm.

Natural selection and fitness

Natural selection (adaptation) is what nature uses to adapt creatures to their environment. It’s one of the forces in the Darwinian theory (the theory of evolution). Sometimes this is called survival of the fittest. This includes not only survival, but those individuals that survive, are healthy, strong and not the least reproduce most efficiently.

The answer why bees want mostly (but not only actually) small cells in the brood area is obvious, isn’t it? The bee colony then is then better fit, survive better, is healthier, stronger and reproduce better. The question is not in first place about varroa resistance, it’s about fitness!

The result would be lower annual losses of bee colonies, whatever the reasons for the losses may be: pathogenes, bad managemant, chemicals, etc, wouldn’t it? The varroa mites don’t kill the bee colony by themselves, but through ”cooperation” with viruses.

There is a project presented in the Swedish beekeeping magazine – Bitidningen 2018, no 3 – called ”Varroaprojekt LEKA” (perfomed during autumn 2014 to fall 2017). It supports the conclusion that small cells in the brood area gives better fitness. A report of it may show up here on this blog.

Initially when varroa mites arrive to an area the mite population can become very big, regardless of the cell size in the brood area. If the bee colony does not die of viruses (it must be interesting to find out why that can happen!) it will adapt and lower the mite level with the help of different traits strengthened through adaptation processes (epigenetic and genetic), with the help of natural selection. See: http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=1121

In the light of the above:

I don’t understand why scientists are not more interested in small cells.

There are more reasons for losses than large cells in the brood area. But why not minimize one obvious cause for bad fitness that we can do something about?

In Sweden the standard cell size now in practise is 5.1 mm. The use of 4.9 mm is increasing, 5.3 is diminishing. In Norway the situation is somewhat similar.

Varroa resistant bees

– African bees are resistant to Varroa mites, or become resistant in about 5 years after the mite has come to their hives, in Africa and Americas

– Italian bees on an isolated island close to the cost of Brazil have showed resistance in the same way as Africanized bees in Brazil. But the varroa level has decreased slower.

– The original host of the Varroa mite, Apis Cerana, is resistant to the mite and is very similar to Apis mellifera (African and European honeybees).

– My Elgon stock is selected for varroa resistance since more than 20 years.

• When reinvasion sources are few or none.

• When varroa levels are tested regularely.

• When bee colonies are treated when the varroa level is above 3%.

• When queens in such colonies are replaced –

• Then Elgon bees in my area seems to become resistant.

 

AHB1, Africanized Honey Bees

Africanized honey bee . Photo: Jeffrey W. Lotz, Florida/Wikipedia 

 

Remy Vandame describes in this doctorate thesis in 1996 that he found the varroa level on worker bees to be 5%. And more than 3000 mites in total.

That figure is about the same as in another study in which Vandame also was involved in Mexico some years later.

The AHB colonies were not alone in the test apiary. European queens (EHB) crossed with AHB drones in a number of colonies were in the same area. Those had better performance concerning varroa infestation and virus problems compared to EHB in USA or Europe, but not as good as the AHB. Drifting and silent robbery during nectar droughts are strongly suspected to have happened, thus evening out the results somewhat.

In December 1991 in Brazil, AHB bees were reported to have a varroa level of 4% (ABJ Oct 1997)

 

EHB on Fernando de Norhona, outside the coast of Brazil

European honey bee (probably not on small cell). Photo: Wikipedia/Luc Viatour/https://Lucnix.be 

 

Italian bees on a small island at the coast of Brazil (latitude south 22°) has the same small amount of DWV as in honey bee colonies before the arrival of the Varroa mite. This virus seems to be the most dangerous virus connected with the Varroa mite. (DOI: 10.1038/srep45953)

In 1984 africanized colonies without queens were brought to the island. They were made into 20 colonies in which queens reared from 5 selected Italian colonies from California were inseminated with drones from a colony from Georgia, USA.

The number of managed colonies was at the most about 50, today maybe 30. Besides numerous feral colonies that together with the managed colonies form the bee population on Fernando de Norhona.

  • In November 1991 11 colonies were examined for varroa varroa level. In three of these about every second bee had a mite (50%). Average was 26%. Lowest about 9%.
  • In April 1993 more colonies were examined. Highest varroa level 39%, average 19%, lowest about 9%.
  • In May 1996 of those examined the highest was 25%, average 14%, lowest about 9%. No damaged colonies, no virus effects. Good producers, very nice bees. (ABJ Oct 1997)
  • In November 2012 the varroa level was found to be about the same as in May 1996, about 14%. (DOI: 10.1007/s13592-016-0439-5)
  • In May 2016 the varroa level was 1-2%. Mites in brood also lower compared to November 2012. (DOI: 10.1038/srep45953) Has the time of the year significance concerning the Varroa level on the island, as it has in other areas of the world. It is lowest in “autumn” whenever that is. Here it seems to be in April-May, with lowest Varroa level then. Highest Varroa level in Nov-Dec. Maybe the lowest and highest months are somewhat different. No one seems to have measured to find out yet. Then it’s most logical to compare the figures from Nov 1991 with Nov 2012 and April 1993 with May 1996 and May 2016.

One thing is evident, the bee and mite populations are isolated from reinvasion from outside.

No chemicals to fight mites and big agricultural crops are used, that can contaminate the colonies or lower the immune and defense systems of the bees.

Cell size (about 4.9 mm) from the beginning anyway was that of the Africanized colonies brought there.

The Africanized microfauna came with them as well. The first brood was nursed by healthy non-contaminated small bees that helped the new queens to epigenetically adapt to the new environment.

 

AHB2, African Honey Bees

African bee in South Africa. Photo: JMK/Wikipedia

 

When mites arrived in South Africa you could find colonies with huge amounts of Varroa, up to 50,000. No reports of big losses due to the mite were given, if any. In about 5 years both the Cape bee (mellifera capensis) a little quicker than 5 years and the Savannah bee (mellifera scutellata) a little slower were found resistant to the Varroa mite (Mike Allsop doctorate thesis 2006).

Today (2014) the varroa levels are low, and no miticides are used to control the mite. In May, which is autumn the average varroa level was about 2%. In spring, September, it was about 1.5%.

Total varroapopulation in average was in May just below 1000 and in September just below 200 mites. No DWV (Deformed Wing Virus) was found. DOI 10.1007/s10493-014-9842-7

No miticide chemicals are used or were used (more than a ittle in the beginning of the arrival).

No bees full of viruses are spreading DWV.

Cellsize is 4.7-4.8 mm.

 

EHB in my Elgon apiaries

Click on the picture to get it larger. My testapiary for small cell Elgon bees Dec 1, 2017.

 

In autumn 2014 three colonies were brought from an environment with higher mite populations in some colonies within 2 km to an isolated test apiary, at least 3 km (2 miles) to other bees. None were treated in 2014 and no DWV-bees were observed.

One colony was weak in spring 2015 and got one thymol pad (5 gr thymol). Two splits were made in 2015. In late June three colonies showed crippled winged bees (DWV). They hade varroa levels of 2, 3 and 7% and were treated with thymol pads. One colony with 3% varroa level showed no DWV and wasn’t treated. In August 2015 the Varroa levels were 0, 0,3, 0,3 0,3 and 3%. One weak colony that got a laying queen introduced late in the season died during the winter.

Two spits were made in 2016, one were made in 2017. 2017 was the third unusually bad year in a row and the apiary is placed in a forested area with low nectar resources.

Varroa levels in average during 2016 was 0-1,5%, during 2017 0-1%.

No treatment were used 2016 and 2017.

Cellsize 4.9 mm – http://www.elgon.es/resistancebreeding.html – Strategy A. Isolated apiary, treat above 3 % varroa level.

 

Resistance breeding in an environment with high virus pressure

In most western countries we have a high varroa and virus pressure. Probably the result of heavy use of treating the colonies against mites for many years. In the light of what varroa levels finally stops at naturally, according to the above experiences, 1-4%, and the experiences I have had the latest years with treating colonies with varroa levels above 3% and replacing the least good queens – I find this strategy a good solution to get varroa resistant bees in even difficult environments.

It may probably take a little longer if the new queens will mate with more than a few drones from susceptible colonies. But that doesn’t matter to much as a queen mates with in average 20 drones. The bad genetics will be weeded out quite quickly if you are keen in replacing the least good queens every year. 

Reed more on this link: http://www.elgon.es/resistancebreeding.html

Updated Elgon website

I have had this blog for some years now. And I had originally a website in both English and Swedish for many years, which were also not updated for many years. 1.5 years ago or so I updated the English variety. A month ago or so I updated the Swedish one, elgon.se

Now I have updated the English one again. I found an even better application with which I could make an even better so called responsive website without knowing one letter of coding for being able to make it myself. Responsive means it automatically changes when you use a device with a different width on the screen, for example a mobile phone or an iPad. I found this tremendous app on Appstore, named Wolf, for a very low cost.

The web address is almost the same as fro the Swedish one, the domain switches the letters to es: elgon.es

Maybe one article will be of certain interest for many. It’s the one named “Resistance breeding“. There I give the latest experiences concerning the new or modified strategies I have tried for some years now. I may well come back to them.

 

Varroa resistant bees in Norway

It is positive that the research community is becoming increasingly focused on varro-resistant honeybees. The latest report comes from a doctoral student, Melissa Oddie. She has started an investigation why a Norwegian beekeeper’s population of bee colonies can be called resistant because, according to his information, he hasn’t treated his bees against varroa in at least 19 years. Their article is a pre-presentation before it is peer reviewed. It could be read and downloaded here when I was writing this: https://peerj.com/preprints/2976.pdf

The result showed that the varroa population of the test bees had a growth rate of 0.87, ie a decrease over time. While the non-resistant control colonies had a growth rate of 1.24, i.e. an increase of the mite population over time.

 

Positive details in the study

  1. One of the beekeeper’s own apiaries was used and its colonies were used in the test.. Thus, no queen was introduced to other types of bees in another place. The resistant bees and their queens were tested in their normal environment.
  2. The distance between the test and the control colonies were big, 60 km.

 

Details missing

  1. The name of the beekeeper. He had earned a place among the authors.
  2. The beekeeper has exchanged breeding material with another commercial beekeeper since 2004. This beekeeper has also not been treating his bees for many years.
  3. The number of bee colonies forming the resistant colony population is not mentioned.
  4. The cell size used by the beekeeper is 4.9 mm, ie small cellsize, for almost as many years as he did not treat against varroa.
  5. The cell size of the control colonies is also not mentioned. Is it also 4.9 mm or larger?
  6. It is not mentioned if there are other bees close to the test and control colonies. The test beekeeper has several apiaries. If any of them are near the test apiary, it would probably not affect the test. How many other type of bees could be found near the test and control apiaries (if any) is not mentioned and, if so, the distance to these bees. It is important for the reinvasion risk.
  7. Nothing is mentioned of annual losses for the years backwards for the test and control colonies. It may be of secondary significance and these figures may also not have been secured. However, some kind of data about of the losses at the beginning of the adaptation of the test bees could have been interesting to take part of. But the article is inspiring anyhow.
  8. There are also no tips for beekeepers inspired by their article to start developing their bees to become resistant. Of course, it is not a task of the test I understand, but some kind of comment about this has been positive since many beekeepers will certainly appreciate the article and be inspired by it. However, such advice I look forward to find in follow-up articles in bee magazines.

Small cell size important in breeding Varroa resistance

After reading the blogpost ”Breakthrough?” an European PhD-Scientist wrote me an email with the following comment:

After reading your post I realized that you do have small cell size, but you’re not mentioning it in the actual post. To make sure that the reader’s get the full picture, the main components of your management system, this should be explained for them.

For instance, for me it’s a fact, that the cellsize used in a selection program is a factor incorporated in the population just like springfeeding appears to create a dependency of that feed to make bees start an explosive spring behavior.

As our bees are still wild animals, you can select whatever you like (or forget to see as selection-factor) to specialize your bees. Feel very good that your selection works.

But looking at the picture I have, some more ’vitality’ comes with better Varroa control. More or less ’Race’-independent. Question for me: ’slight inbreeding effect’?”

A valuable comment which gives food for thought. Thanks!

Small cell size (SC) is so natural for me, that it’s the normal thing. I forget it sometimes. Those small quick bees flying directly into the entrance are what I expect when looking at a bee colony.

It’s interesting Eric Erickson in Tucson when he started his breeding project for Varroa resistance found that many survivors that he used in his program were on 5.1 mm cell size. This was quite smaller than the most common 5.4 mm. http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=457

Eric_EricksonF Eric Erickson when I and Hans-Otto Johnsen visited him and Lenard Hines about ten years ago talking Varroa resistance.

Erickson is said to have been forced to retire earlier than he should have. He died earlier this year (2016) well above his 70th year. There were nice obituaries, but I couldn’t find a word about his Varroa resistance program. Strange.

Every spring since I started to take my bees down to small cell size, when I took care of the dead outs after winter I saw that many combs were poorly drawn. The bees had many times failed to follow the 4.9-pattern and drawn patches of sometimes bigger worker cells and sometimes a lot of drone cells. Also when managing struggling colonies during the season the same observation was many times made. This year very little of this was seen. But I still have some colonies that can’t follow the 4.9 pattern when drawing their own combs (but they do well on already drawn small cell combs, especially colonies with heritage from queens from other beekeepers I have found interesting to try.

At the same time I’m aware that there are beekeepers that havn’t treated against Varroa for many years that still use large cell sizes. I draw he conclusion that it is possible to keep bees on large cell size and still be treatment free. But I see very little reason for not going down in cell size. The most important reason is that the bees themselves go smaller when given the chance. It must have something to do with their fitness and survival, not actually in first place in relation to Varroa.

Concerning the earlier blog post “Breakthrough?” and that I have used very little Thymol this year. Last year at the end of July I had used Thymol on about 70% of the colonies. This year at the same time of the year I have used Thymol on 2 colonies out of about 150 (I had about 150 last year too). I find it hard to believe that the only reason would be a successful breeder queen. I think better pollen availability this year has given a better immune system. And reinvasion I think is less problematic. With the latter in mind, I can imagine that adaptation to better control the mites is developing in the bees. And the absence of chemicals, in this case thymol, do not disturb this adaptation.

Another change in management is that I don’t move bees between apiaries. When making splits they stay in the same apiary. If there’s only one colony in a yard I split that colony and build up the apiary again this way (from now on). Some minor movements of bees have been done though.

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.

More Varroa resistant bees

Darrel Jones lives in a rural area in northern Alabama. He is an enthusiastic grower of heirloom tomatoes, http://www.selectedplants.com/ Being a beekeeper as well is a natural fit with his gardening activities. Keeping bees treatment free was his goal from the time he first saw varroa mites in 1993.

Darrel Brandypeace Brandypeace, an heirloom tomato of Darrel Jones.

In 2004 he found a single feral swarm that showed significant varroa tolerance. He saw a lot of hygienic behavior and uncapped pupae with mites combined with very low overall mite numbers. It showed some unwanted characteristics as well with a high stinging tendency and yearly swarming. He concluded that the swarm was a combination of typical Apis mellifera mellifera with Italian bees. The bees flew at low temperatures and overwintered on very small amount of honey reserves.

Digital StillCamera A feral swarm

Combination partner

He purchased 10 queens of mite tolerant stock from Dann Purvis and used them as drone source colonies next year when he raised queens from his feral tolerant swarm. A couple of years he deliberately encouraged his new colonies to swarm planning they would stay in the vicinity and establish a good buffer of resistant drones for his virgins to mate with. He pushed more than 60 swarms into the woods.

Darrel Purvis

Darrel says there are many feral bees living in the forest around where he lives. And he catches some feral swarms in swarm traps every year. He could easily catch more if he wanted to.

Darrel natur Forest area in Alabama.

Breeding better beekeepers’ bees

There are about 100 managed colonies some miles east of him, but they are far enough away that there is no risk of interfering with the matings of his virgin queens. His conclusion is that they don’t interfere with the matings of his virgins. At least to any degree it matters.

Today he has 14 colonies in four apiaries. One apiary is far away (200 km) from any other bees including his own. This apiary gives him possibility to mate virgins somewhat differently or with an experimental drone source.

 

Bringing in external mite resistant stock

In 2011 he bought 3 queens from Mike Carpenter. Mike has been selecting for bees that groom and injure mites (Allogrooming, bees grooming each other from mites). Darrel wants to combine different varroa resistant traits in his stock and also reduce stinging tendency and swarming behavior.

He bought 3 queens from Bweaver in 2015. These bees are advertised as treatment free and from evaluation, are very hygienic. He found the resulting colonies to have good temper but they produced many swarms out of the normal swarming season.

The traits he is selecting for in his breeding are decent honey production with at least 60 pounds per year, very high mite tolerance, good quality honey, and overwintering with small clusters that build up very fast in spring. He selects against high tendency to swarm and aggressive behavior. He is not satisfied here yet, but working on it.

 

Africanized bees

Africanized bees are not currently present in North Alabama. Cold winter temperatures will prevent highly Africanized stock from surviving in his climate. They probably will be able to survive if crossed with bees that form clusters and winter well.

Bweaver is situated in Texas, declared as heavily Africanized. Their bees show significant introgression of traits but without the increased stinging impulse typical of Africanized bees. Darrel has decided to replace the 3 queens he bought from there, with his own stock, which winters better. He says Africanized bees have some good traits that could be exploited in combination breeding

 

Spreading the stock

His goal is to spread treatment free stock in the surrounding area. For this reason, he has sold a total of 25 colonies to 3 local beekeepers. They too are also keeping their bees treatment free. Darrel has an agreement with these three beekeepers to share stock when it comes to raising queens from the best breeders. In 2016, he plans to make another 10 colonies to start other beekeepers with mite tolerant bees.

 

Cell size

He uses standard Langstroth equipment with 11 frames (instead of 10) and 31 mm end bars (instead of 35 mm). He also uses small cell 4.9 mm wax foundation. He has a few colonies on 5.3 mm cell size and sees no difference in varroa tolerance or honey production. But the large cell colonies build up slower in spring. This is a bad factor for him and he doesn’t produce any more colonies on 5.3 mm.

Darrel Cellmätning How to measure cell size. You can do three ways on a comb, or foundation. Two ways diagonal as well as straight.

 

Infestation level

Darrel does not do any mite level checks. They are not necessary as he never has seen any big die offs or any bees with virus or wingless bees with DWV. He did check one random colony in 2014 to see how many mites were dropping naturally. Some other beekeepers had asked because they thought his bees were full of mites. This colony dropped 15 mites in 48 days proving them wrong. This makes a downfall of 0.3 mites per day.

 

Conditions and characteristics for Darrel Jones’ resistant stock

  • His area is relatively isolated from nonresistant bees.
  • A large population of feral resistant bees are established in the vicinity. This is quite a different situation compared especially to many European areas with bees.
  • He began with bee stocks that have excellent resistant traits.
  • He is not bringing in non-resistant bees in the form of queens, nucs, or colonies.
  • He is at most trying a few new queens from outside per year.
  • Small cell size is positive for colony build up but not necessary for resistance.
  • No treatments of any kind have been used for the last 11 years. Natural mite resistance in his bees is enough that they are thriving.
  • Yearly sales of honey pay all expenses to sustain his beekeeping activities.

 

 

A locally adapted Varroa resistant bee stock

Reid Hives

http://www.happyhollowhoney.com/

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.

 

Survivors

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.

 

Increasing

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!

Cell size affects water content

I started taking down my bees to small cell size 15 years ago. 10 years ago I had combs with 4.9 mm, 5.1 mm and 5.4 mm cell size in the supers. At one time I did some measurements of moisture content in honey from the capped cells in supers.

The supers were square sized for 12-frame Shallows. Single walled wood, not very thick to keep the weight down. Almost all my supers are like that. I measured moisture content in honey from cells close to the top of the frame, in the middle. When comparing the different cell sizes in the same box it was done from two frames, comb sides next to each other.

What I found then was that the moisture content in the center of the box was 1% lower than from the outer combs. This was the case when all combs in the super had the same cell size. I speculated that this was due, at least partly, to the fact that the uninsulated walls of the super made the temperature vary more in the super during day and night, especially close to the walls. During nights water drops could well be formed on the outer frames. And the honey could thus take up more moisture.

The moisture content was then 1% lower in cell size 5.1 than in 5.4. And it was 1% lower in 4.9 compared to 5.1.

The moisture content was so low in the smaller cell sizes that I became braver to harvest combs that were not fully capped. I started harvesting whole boxes even if the outer combs was not fully covered or even 2/3 covered. Sometimes outer combs were and also are today only capped at the top. Shallow frames are low, 137 mm, so it will not be as large area of ​​non-capped honey compared to a higher frame where only uppermost part of the honey is covered.

Water content in my honey is usually around 16-17%, rarely above 18%, sometimes below 16%. Before I used small cell size, moisture content was often around 18%, even though I tried to harvest only capped honey.

Project with plastic frames and insulated boxes

This year (preparations began last year) we (I and two others) started a project to test a number of different things (will probably come back with a report). The project uses insulated plastic foam supers for 10-frame Medium frames (159 mm high). All frames are supposed to be plastic with plastic foundation. Two different cell sizes are used, 4.95 mm and 5.5 mm. Thus a group of colonies have only 4.95 and another group 5.5. Not all combs are completely that way in all colonies. Next year it will.
Vettenhalt Yellow plastic frames with 4.95 mm cellsize and black with 5.5 mm.

Low moisture Heather honey

This year cell sizes were somewhat mixed for different reasons, especially in supers. So when I harvested a number of supers with well capped Heather honey combs with different cell sizes in the same super I took the opportunity to measure the moisture content again in a similar way as 10 years ago.

This time, I could compare 4.95 with 5.5. And 5.3 with 5.5 (I had some plastic frames with cell size 5.3 also for a certain reason I will come back to in the report to come).
The notes I had from the test 10 years ago I have not found. But I found those I made this year. They are seen in the table.

Super

4.95 mm 5.3 mm 5.5 mm capped honey

uncapped honey

1

16.0% 17.0% X
2 16.5% 17.5% X
3 16.0% 16.2% X
4 17.0% 17.3% X
5 15.9% 16.0% X

 

Similarities and differences

The tendency that smaller cell sizes means less moisture in the honey holds. But the differences between cell sizes are smaller this time. Another difference is that the difference between the middle frames and the outer ones in supers with the same cell size was not found now with well insulated supers.

The difference between the cell sizes are greatest when 5.3 and 4.95 are compared. The difference between 5.3 and 5.5 was not as big (not per 0.1 mm cell size either).
The moisture content was for me surprisingly low considering that it was almost pure heather honey in the combs checked. Usually Heather honey has higher moisture content, probably due to it’s gathered late in season when temperature difference between day and night is bigger. But it was unusually warm in August this year when the Heather was in bloom and remperature was not very low in nights.

When trying to understand the results I think it helps being aware that when bee colonies build their own combs without the help of foundation many have observed they build (when they are adapted after a period of perhaps several years) mostly between about 4.7 and 5.1 mm cell size in the brood nest and 5.2-5.5 (approximately) in honey area.

When the bees have collected a lot of honey for the winter period, most of the empty cells are small. When spring comes the first brood is reared in small cells. Low moisture honey is closest to brood then. Is that of any importance for the bees? Later in season some brood is reared in slightly larger cells as well. Towards the end of the season the queen lays almost only in small cells again.

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.

FeralWIntered

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?