Let bees be bees

In response to Rusty’s recent varroa mite post (her comment form apparently didn’t like the references included in my reply so I posted it here and sent her a link).


Maybe not ‘let mites be mites’ but perhaps ‘let bees be bees’…?


Thanks for all the things to ponder from this post, you’ve clearly given a lot of thought to it. What’s your take on Dr. Kefuss findings:

Initially I skimmed your post and though ‘oh dear, another ‘you must treat’ preachy post’, but I see from reading through your responses to comments that you also carefully monitor your colonies and only treat those that need it to survive.

That being said I composed this reply before reading all your responses to the comments so forgive me for preaching to the choir to some degree…

To state the obvious, environmental pressure drives evolution (http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/evo_14). This is why Kefuss actually purchased frames of brood with mites to insert into his colonies–to help him select for resistant stock (http://bit.ly/2oZPVaO)

And now he simply doesn’t have a problem with mites, and has done quite well selling mite resistant queens in Europe, with proven breeder queens going for more than $600…he even published a paper supporting his findings and made it open source for everyone to read (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00218839.2016.1160709) and there’s plenty more evidence supporting natural selection as the way to resolve the ‘bee crisis’ (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/eva.12448/full).

One point he’s made clearly is that, as local backyard bee keepers, we can influence the genetics of regional stock simply by making sure the good genetics get out there while at the same time minimizing the spread of genetics that don’t cope well with mites–in essence, giving natural selection a little nudge in the right direction. We can do this by encouraging drone production in our strongest, most mite resistant colonies, and re-queening colonies that don’t show natural mite resistance with resistant queens.

I’ve recently read a lot of opinions stating that ‘breeding programs are too complex and don’t work in open conditions,’ and I have to disagree. As an introduced species, Varroa Mites are clearly a problem, but it seems extremely unlikely that we will resolve a genetic problem with a chemical treatment–which may actually be making the mite problem worse–regardless of our good intentions.

Apis Cerana co-evolved with the mite, and knows how to maintain low mite levels. Apis Melifera can (and is) doing the same in diverse geographic regions (both hot and cold) around the globe, and not only in apiaries secluded away from all other bee-keeping operations or feral stock (http://www.resistantbees.com/krise_e.html).

In an important open letter from Terry Coombs on this topic in the March 2017 issue of the American Bee Journal, there’s a treasure trove of references to beekeepers who sought genetic solutions to introduced pest problems, and the author agrees with you that ‘treatment free’ doesn’t mean ‘management free’:

I think part of the rather loud treat/no treat debate stems from folks not realizing that “chemical free” or “treatment free” beekeeping does not necessarily mean “management free bee keeping,” and Coombs articulates that well in his letter, as does Seeley in the article you referenced…linked here for others to read:

I, at times, get frustrated when folks fail to mention that chemical treatments remove the environmental pressure required for bees to naturally evolve, and perhaps more importantly creates selective pressure which drives the evolution of mites more rapidly to a stronger condition (which they can do much faster than Apis melifera with their 10 day reproductive cycle!).

Commercial beekeepers have in large part created many of the problems we experience today, not only by spreading the mite across the globe in the first place, but by breeding for maximum honey production rather than genetic resilience and treating without taking the time to test to see if its needed. This eliminates the environmental conditions which would encourage evolution of stronger bees, and provides the conditions that create stronger mites, as evidenced by the many chemical treatments which are now no longer effective for controlling mites. Mites which have now evolved resistance to the treatment, not all that dis-similar than the ‘super bugs’ we no longer have effective antibiotics for…

So while I agree with you that breeding operations designed to encourage a specific trait are complicated and need isolation, I don’t believe that it’s impossible for local bee clubs to simply start a queen sharing program, where each active member encourages drone production, and grafts or saves queen cells to share, from their strongest, naturally mite resistant hives, therefore improving the genetics of the entire region.

This will of course take time, and an important component is to minimize the spread of genetics from hives that don’t show natural mite resistance.

Yes, individuals with ‘hives as yard ornaments’ are a problem for the spread of mites through horizontal transmission by robbing of weak colonies or drone migration. However, I believe individuals who blindly treat their colonies may actually be doing an even bigger disservice to bee keepers and the natural evolution of mite resistant honey bees by allowing the spread of weak genes from drones in colonies which would otherwise not be able to survive on their own, without treatment.

At least the yard ornament hives won’t have the chance to spread weak genes as they will die out on their own, and if you ask Dr. Kefuss, I expect he’ll tell you that the more mites we have in the region, the faster we’ll see the evolution of mite resistant, feral colonies, which will in turn share their stronger genetics with our open mated queens, in essence creating ‘varroa black holes’ where mites imported by the infested colonies are absorbed and destroyed by mite resistant, feral colonies in the region.

The sound advice for both promoting naturally mite resistant bees and preventing the unnecessary spread of mites coming out of everything I’ve read seems to point to this simple formula:
1. Monitor your mite levels carefully (at least monthly).
2. Manage your mite levels appropriately (by the method you deem appropriate, chemical treatments or brood cycle breaks, etc…)
3. Encourage drone production in strong colonies that show natural mite resistance (they are out there!).
4. * Actively prevent the spread of weak genetics by Re-queening weak colonies with mite resistant queens (from a local provider if possible)

As mentioned in Coombs letter, resistance to many honey bee ailments has been achieved decades ago through a combination of breeding and natural selection–from tracheal mites, to even American Foul Brood! If we all work together to nudge natural selection in the right direction, I believe we will one day be able to look back on the Varroa mite problem as something in the past, just as we can now, for the most part, about tracheal mites.

But if we continue to ‘prop up’ weak colonies with chemical treatments, allowing those genetics into the wild, we do more of a disservice to honey bee evolution than even the abandoned ‘yard ornament’ colonies, which ultimately will push the species to a stronger condition by spreading mites and eliminating colonies that can’t survive in a world full of varroa. Simply put, evolution works if we allow it to.

Thanks Rusty, for all you do for the bee keeping community, and for allowing comments to your posts so that we can all learn more through the process of openly shared ideas and information.