Beekeeper’s Corner March 2018

Reset! Rewind!
The cold weather for most of the last month put the brakes on our bee colony development in some ways but maybe not in others.

Large colonies in nice warm microclimates with plenty of forage probably advanced, and maybe even produced some surplus honey. Colonies in colder microclimates probably foraged enough to keep up with their consumption of nectar and pollen, and hopefully built population.

When the weather gets warmer, they may get crowded quickly.

The advice from the February newsletter on servicing equipment, swarm management, and free bees all still apply, so, recall or reread… 

Two bits of advice always need to mentioned, especially for the new beekeepers among us:
* Set out a water source for your bees now, and don’t let it run dry until this time next year!
* Set out a bait-hive (swarm-trap) close to your apiary to attract swarms from your apiary.
Phil’s PowerPoint slides have the information you need to configure one for success.
You may catch nothing… you may catch one or more swarms from your own yard… you may collect bees from somewhere else in the neighborhood.
Both of these actions on our part cut back the possible negative impact of our bees on our neighborhood.

Continuing Education or Refresher!
The third important issue is to get better at diagnosing pathogens and disease in our hives.
The biggie is American Foul Brood! It’s contagious and devastating. The spores are everywhere, but fortunately at a low enough level that our bees survive most of the time… Bees may eliminate a few infected cells themselves if they express the hygienic trait (before we’re even aware of it).  When walking past a hive, if you pick up a sharp, penetrating, offensive odor, then check for AFB. DO NOT PUT OFF YOUR INSPECTION.
Look for the dark brown characteristic larval cappings, and try the “ropieness” test with a twig or toothpick poked into a brown larva.
Learn about the Holst Milk Test. It’s easy to do on fresh samples, or old comb from a dead out.
A 360-nanometer UV flashlight will cause the dried “scale” to fluoresce. (Pollen can fluoresce, too, so don’t be confused).
DON’T IGNORE AFB! Act to contain it.  Remember… the tools and clothing you wear when you work an AFB hive can pick up contamination and spread it!!  Call for help if you suspect you have it. The experts will be glad to help you contain it.
In the greater bay area a case of AFB is found and dealt with almost every year.  It happens in feral hives too. In feral hives, the wax moth consume the brood comb, and with it the infected material. Then swarms rediscover the location and repeat the cycle. For beekeepers the risk is spreading contaminated frames around the yard or handing them off to someone else. So keep hand-me-down equipment separate; if a healthy colony can be raised in the hand-me-down equipment for at least a year, then declare it to be OK.

Did you miss something at the Bee Symposium in Davis on March 3? — Darwinian Beekeeping…
The keynote speaker, Prof. Thomas Seeley, author of Honeybee Democracy, Honeybee Ecology, and The Wisdom of the Hive began his talk by referencing Charles Darwin who studied honeybees to try to understand comb building that he mentioned in Origin of Species.  Evolution by natural selection is relevant in the context of honeybees adaptation to pathogens. “Everything the colonies do when they are living on their own is done to favor their survival and their reproduction and thus their success in contributing to the next generation of colonies”
“Bees that don’t rear brood very well don’t pass on their genes to the next generation.”
Let the bees do what they know how to do without intervention.
Prior to 1988, when Varroa spread nation-wide, Professor Seeley found that in the Arnot Forest, a study area of Cornell University, there were 2.8 feral colonies per square mile.
In the ’90’s he resurveyed the forest again, and found the identical density!
The difference was that the feral colonies from the study area all had Varroa.
Without treatment, through the breeding of survivor colonies, Varroa resistance was established in the feral population.
The ‘environment of evolutionary adaptiveness,’ a term from biologists, is the environment of feral bees.
The ‘current circumstances’ is the novel, managed environment of typical beekeeping.
What are the main differences? Those differences are the gist of the remainder of his talk.
They’re collected in his article in the American Bee Journal, March 2017:
In the talk, Dr. Seeley also mentioned research published in comparing survivability in single-box hives vs. multi-box hives.
The article in ABJ lists twenty ways in which managed beekeeping, including migratory beekeeping, and package and large-scale queen distribution, is different from the way feral bees live.
Many of those points are easy for us understand, and even to adopt.
Some of those points require us to change the way we keep bees!
Are we ready to make the leap?
The last question from the audience, at the end of his talk asked whether the suggested Darwinian beekeeping methods are only relevant to the climate around Ithaca, NY, or could they be adapted to the [Mediterranean] climate of the bay-area.  Tom responded, “There is no one way to do this Darwinian beekeeping.” “It has to be tailored to the way the bees live in each location.” “It’s a rich topic for further research.”  “Darwinian beekeeping is very much local.”

Are there locally adapted bees in the bay area?
Many of us know of bee trees in the community where feral colonies appear to persist for years. A few bee-tree calls come to the Swarm Hotline every year. (We try to encourage the caller to find a way to live with those bees, but that’s another story)
About a third of the Swarm Hotline calls are for extractions of colonies, many of which were established more than a year ago… or have at least survived through the first winter.  None of those colonies were treated for Varroa or anything else, yet they survived.
If the worry is that, without treatment the Varroa will wipe out our bees… the evidence suggests the fear is unfounded… at least if the swarms we catch are of feral origin… or the queens mated with local drones.
The queens used in the research reported in the PLOSone article came from Chico, CA; the colonies were all untreated; particularly the single-box colonies (raised using some of the principles of Darwinian beekeeping) had a higher survival rate than the intensively managed colonies. Those colonies from the commercial queens had some Varroa adaptations.

Some of us are in this game for love of insects.
Some of us are in this game for production… It’s part of our budget… It locks-in some intensive practices.
(Some non-treatment beekeepers are commercial scale… notably Mike Stephanos in Contra Costa County)
Some of us are in this game to help honeybees. If that goal includes evolving locally adapted bees with the genes to cope with all the local pathogens, then some flavor of Darwinian beekeeping is worth a look.