This year I had the privilege of attending our state beekeepers association conference which was held at the Oregon Garden in picturesque Silverton, OR. It was a weekend of presentations, exhibitors, resource tables, spending time with beekeepers from around the region, and beautiful weather.
As a hobbyist beekeeper I wasn’t sure where I would fit in. On the first evening of the conference I overheard a lot of commercial beekeepers chatting about almond pollination and nuc sales. I was worried that the conference was designed for our commercial beekeeping friends… Oh, how I was wrong!
I found that all of the information provided had the same goal: helping our struggling bee population.
One of the most exciting presentations came from Dr. Jennifer Han from Washington State University. Her research is currently focused on using the Metarhizium Brunneum fungus as a method for Varroa control. Also out of WSU was a presentation from Dr. Brandon Hopkins who is testing the use of a forced brood break to improve the effectiveness of mite treatments. It all sounds very promising!
I absolutely enjoyed hearing the latest in honey bee research and what some of our regional beekeepers are doing to help the bee (non-native and native) population. And yes, there were BEES! The weather was absolutely perfect, so I took advantage of it and explored the gardens. It was easy to tell what plants to find the bees on because their enthusiastic humming could be heard from several feet away!
If you have been thinking of attending the annual conference, please go! It is a content rich experience and a unique opportunity to connect with beekeepers from around the region.
For our November meeting we had a “movie night.” If you missed out, or would like to re-watch it, the video is embedded below.
This video presentation by Joe Lewis was chosen because it summarizes what I’ve been promoting within the club for the past couple of years: the use of nucleus hives as a resource.
The video gets a little preachy at the end about treating for mites. I want to be clear that I and Portland Urban Beekeepers don’t want to shame people into treating. That is a personal decision. Yes, we shouldn’t ignore Varroa mites. They are a problem, no doubt. And whether you choose to treat or practice treatment-free beekeeping is entirely up to you.
But regardless of how you keep bees or even what kind of hive you use, nucleus colonies can be one of the most important tools we have at our disposal. I encourage all beekeepers to make it a regular part of their practice.
Some video creators behind the YouTube channel Super Deluxe recently visited our honey extraction party and created a very soothing video of the processes involved in harvesting honey. Featuring the hives, bees, and people of Portland Urban Beekeepers. Enjoy!
Summary: A review paper draws on scientific studies to recommend ways to reduce honey bee disease impacts, such as limiting the mixing of bees between colonies and supporting natural bee behaviors that provide disease resistance.
Some commercial beekeeping practices may harm honey bees more than help them, scientists warn in a paper published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
“Western honey bees — the most important pollinators for U.S. food crops — are facing unprecedented declines, and diseases are a key driver,” says Berry Brosi, an evolutionary biologist at Emory University and a lead author of the review paper. “The way commercial operations are managing honey bees might actually generate more damaging parasites and pathogens by creating selection pressure for higher virulence.”
The paper draws on scientific studies to recommend ways to reduce disease impacts, such as limiting the mixing of bees between colonies and supporting natural bee behaviors that provide disease resistance. The paper also highlights honey bee management practices in need of more research.
During the past 15 years, ecological and evolutionary approaches have changed how scientists tackle problems of infectious diseases among humans, wildlife and livestock. “This change in thinking hasn’t sunk in with the beekeeping field yet,” says Emory evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode, co-lead author of the paper. “We wanted to outline scientific approaches to help understand some of the current problems facing beekeepers, along with potential control measures.”
Co-authors of the paper include Keith Delaplane, an entomologist at the University of Georgia, and Michael Boots, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Managed honey bees are important to the production of 39 of the 57 leading crops used for human consumption, including fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. In recent years, however, managed honey bee colonies have declined at the rate of more than one million per year, representing annual losses between 30 and 40 percent.
While pesticides and land-use changes are factors involved in these losses, parasites are a primary driver — especially the aptly named Varroa destructor. The parasitic Varroa mite and the numerous viruses it carries are considered the primary causes of honey bee colony losses worldwide.
Varroa mites are native to Asia, where the Eastern honey bee species co-evolved with them before humans began managing bee colonies on commercial scales. As a result of this co-evolution, the Eastern honey bee developed behaviors — such as intensive mutual grooming — that reduce the mites’ negative impacts.
The Western honey bee species of the United States and Europe, however, has remained relatively defenseless against the mites, which spread to the United States during the late 1970s and 1980s. The mites suck the blood of the bees and reduce their immunity. Even more potentially destructive, however, are the multiple viruses the mites transmit through their saliva. Deformed-wing virus, for instance, can cripple a honey bee’s flying ability and is associated with high bee larval mortality.
Following are some of the potential solutions, in need of further study, outlined in the Nature Ecology & Evolution paper.
Reduce mixing of colonies: A common practice at beekeeping apiaries is to move combs containing brood — eggs and developing worker bees — between colonies. While the practice is meant to equalize colony strength, it can also spread parasites and pathogens.
Colonies are also mixed at regional and national scales. For instance, more than half of all honey bees in the country are involved in almond pollination in California. “For a lot of beekeeping operations, trucking their bees to California for almond pollination is how they make ends meet,” Brosi says. “It’s like the Christmas season for retailers.”
Pollination brokers set up contracts for individual beekeepers on particular almond farms. “If the brokers separated individual beekeeping operations beyond the distance that the average honey bee forages, that could potentially help reduce the mixing of bees and the rate of pathogen transmission between the operations,” Brosi says.
Improve parasite clearance: Most means of dealing with Varroa mites focus on reducing their numbers in a colony rather than wiping them out, as the mites are developing increased resistance to some of the chemicals used to kill them. Such incomplete treatments increase natural selection for stronger, more virulent parasites. Further compounding the problem is that large commercial beekeeping operations may have tens of thousands of colonies, kept in close quarters.
“In a natural setting of an isolated bee colony living in a tree, a parasite that kills off the colony has nowhere to go,” de Roode explains. “But in an apiary with many other colonies nearby, the cost of parasite virulence goes way down.”
Allow sickened colonies to die out: Keeping bees infected with parasites and viruses alive through multiple interventions dilutes natural selection for disease resistance among the bees. In contrast, letting infections take their course in a colony and using the surviving bees for stock could lead to more resistant bees with fewer disease problems.
Support behavioral resistance: Beekeepers tend to select for bees that are more convenient to manage, but may have behavioral deficiencies that make them less fit. Some honey bees mix their saliva and beeswax with tree resin to form what is known as propolis, or bee glue, to seal holes and cracks in their hives. Studies have also shown that propolis helps keep diseases and parasites from entering the hive and inhibits the growth of fungi, bacteria, and mites.
“Propolis is sticky. That annoys beekeepers trying to open hives and separate the components so they try to breed out this behavior,” de Roode says.
The paper concedes that commercial beekeeping operations face major challenges to shift to health management practices rooted in fundamental principles of evolution and ecology.
“Beekeeping is a tough way to make a living, because it operates on really thin margins,” Brosi says. “Even if there are no simple solutions, it’s important to make beekeepers aware of how their practices may affect bees in the long term. And we want researchers to contribute scientific understanding that translates into profitable and sustainable practices for beekeeping.”
Berry J. Brosi, Keith S. Delaplane, Michael Boots, Jacobus C. de Roode. Ecological and evolutionary approaches to managing honeybee disease. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2017; 1 (9): 1250 DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0246-z
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 9 TO SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2017
Mite-A-Thon is a national effort to collect mite infestation data and to visualize varroa infestations in honey bee colonies across North America within a one week window. All beekeepers will be asked to participate, creating a rich distribution of sampling sites in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Their varroa monitoring data will be uploaded to www.mitecheck.com.
Andony Melathopoulos joined us again for our August meeting and gave us a great presentation on Living with Varroa.
Andony is an Assistant Professor of Pollinator Health Extension in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University. His work at OSU comes out of a mandate from the Oregon Legislature to create a state-wide pollinator safety and outreach program. Prior to coming to OSU he was a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Biology at the University of Calgary working with Shelley Hoover and Ralph Cartar on canola pollination. He holds an Interdisciplinary PhD from Dalhousie University (2015) and a Master of Pest Management from Simon Fraser University (1999). Formerly he worked as the chief technician in Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Apiculture Research program (2000-2012).
Rebekah Golden discovered herself as an unexpected bee-lover working as an undergraduate research assistant in a bumblebee pollination behavior lab at the University of Arizona. She found that through bees, she was more in touch with the environment and world around her, and it wasn’t long before she became completely mesmerized by the simplicity of the individual and how that translated into the complexity of the honeybee superorganism. Using charismatic honeybees as a gateway to the ecosystem concept, Rebekah and 2 friends started Bee & Bloom LLC in Portland OR. Together they run an educational apiary with 16 hives & an online resource shining a light on pollinators, sustainability, and natural wellness.
It’s no secret that honey bees are wholly unique from our 4,000 North American bee species. The main difference is the size, scope, and intricacy of their social system. The superorganism life history strategy bestows certain benefits to Apis mellifera, who use their vast colony numbers and communication systems to maximize collection and use of the pollen and nectar resources of their environment. Just as blooms have seasonal cycles, so do honey bees, and these 2 cycles are indelibly linked as shown in the diagrams from Ruhl Bee Supply below.
While solitary and small social-colony bee species have some form or caste that hibernates through the winter, honey bee colonies actively survive through the cold months by clustering inside the hive and generating heat by vibrating their flight muscles. This is fueled by the spoil-proof and sugar-rich substance we know as honey. To ensure survival and reproduction of the colony as a whole, the spring months are spent building up their populations enough to swarm, and summer months are spent preparing for winter. At each stage in the warm season they must adjust their behaviors to maximize their workload to either collect as much pollen as they can to build their population, or to collect as much nectar as they can to turn into honey.
Where we fit in
As the responsible honey bee stewards we are, every time we open our hives, it is important to consider exactly what the colony should be doing at that point in the season. Summer is stressful for the bees. This is when nectar is scarce, they must defend their hive from robbing bees and yellow jackets, Varroa populations spike, and they must keep their hive cool. Additionally, colony populations are at their densest, and hive inspections can disrupt their primary goals in favor of cleaning up the mess the beekeeper left behind. It is important to go into each inspection with a goal in mind; once you’ve satisfied your goal, close up the hive and move on.
Summer and the nectar dearth
Unfortunately, the nectar dearth is here. We were hoping that this year we’d see blackberry in bloom through July, however it is becoming apparent that will not be the case. It is now that we can begin to predict whether a hive will survive the season or the winter with a higher degree of accuracy. Weak hives can be diagnosed by having low honey stores, signs of robbing, and high mite populations. Depending on your personal management philosophy, each of these hallmarks can be responded to in order to increase their chances of survival.
Low honey stores can be responded to by feeding. It is important to remember Boardman entrance feeders can draw robbing bees from other colonies or yellowjackets to the hive. So, break out an internal-hive feeder of your choice if your bees need a hand building up their honey stores. Additionally, move from your 1:1 sugar:water syrup ratio to 2:1. This will help them dehydrate their stores more quickly and with less effort, and will prevent too much moisture in the hive during the winter.
Robbing can be diagnosed a few ways. The first warning sign would be remnants of warfare- large numbers of dead bees at the entrance of your hive. If you’re lucky, you may see robbing bees before this point with large numbers of bees landing on, buzzing around, and sniffing out cracks and other areas of the hive body. Foreign bees are not familiar with your hive’s entrance, but it is only a matter of time before they find it. Robbing must be responded to immediately! As soon as there are any signs, equip your hives with entrance reducers or robber screens to give your guard bees a much needed edge. These tools are also useful for preventing yellowjacket predation, which is also picking up at this time–if you haven’t broken out your yellow jacket traps yet, do it now!
Now, onto the lengthy topic, and bane of the modern beekeeper’s existence…Varroa mites. Regardless of your treatment philosophy, mites must be monitored and dealt with in an urban setting, where there are many managed hives in a small area. July is when we begin our more diligent mite sampling efforts. There are many ways to sample your hive for mites, though the ones I use most frequently are the sticky board method with screened bottom boards, ether rolls, or alcohol washes (if you don’t have a mite sampling kit, or don’t want to make your own, pick one up at the next PUB meeting).
Jar methods of sampling like ether rolls and alcohol washes tend to be more accurate than sticky boards. To perform these methods, collect nurse bees from the heart of your brood nest (with extra care not to collect the queen!), in a quart jar. I recommend a 300 bee sample, which is about ¾” in the bottom of the quart jar. For an ether roll, use a solid lid and spray automotive starter fluid (ether) for about 2 seconds. Then swish your bees around the inner walls of the jar, and the mites will stick. From there you can count the mites, and you can determine the ratio of infection. For an alcohol wash, drown your bees in isopropyl alcohol, and equip your jar with a mesh lid. Strain the liquid out of the jar over a coffee filter, and count the mites left behind to determine your ratio.
It is generally agreed upon that a colony with 3,000 mites cannot survive (Source). If you find 9 or more mites from your 300 bee sample, it is time to react. If you subscribe to use of chemical treatments, this would be the time to use them. If you do not use chemical treatments, my go-to response is to induce a 3-5 day brood break by caging the queen. Other options would be to re-queen if you suspect the issue is weak genetics (take context into account here- is it the genetics or external environmental factors causing the mite-spike?), add a frame of capped brood from another hive to spike the colony population, decrease hive cavity space (Source), or sift powdered sugar onto your bees to encourage them to groom (only do this if you have a screened bottom board). If the mites persist, this is the time you would choose to experiment with a treatment of your choice, or to do the hard task of killing your colony with soapy water before they spread the mites and diseases they vector to other local colonies.
Even strong colonies can be affected by high mite populations at this time; strong bees pick Varroa mites up from the weak bees during robbing, and bring them back to their hives (Source). It is of utmost importance at this point in the season to monitor and respond to mites regardless of your personal treatment philosophy. Keep in mind, it is often the viruses that mites transmit rather than the mites themselves that are directly responsible for a colony’s demise (Source). During inspections, keep your eyes open for Deformed Wing Virus, K-wing virus, and Sac Brood.
It’s not you, it’s them
It should be noted that even the most diligent and responsible beekeepers can end up with dead colonies. My best advice would be to pay attention to your bees. Allow them to take care of the problems they can handle, and when they can’t, take mindful action. Each beekeeper must craft their own management philosophy, which often entails combining elements of many separate doctrines. So long as you are responding from a place of knowledge, experience, and good intentions, you’ll be doing a service to yourself, your bees, and the greater good.