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.




How to submit Bees for Disease Analysis to USDA

Special thanks to Janet Peterson, Beekeeper extraordinaire, of www.cloud9relaxation.com for sharing this information with me:


Prodcedure for Submission of Samples for Diagnosis:

General Instructions

  • Beekeepers, bee businesses, and regulatory officials may submit samples.
  • Samples are accepted from the United States and its territories; samples are NOT accepted from other countries.
  • Include a short description of the problem along with your name, address, phone number or e-mail address.
  • There is no charge for this service.
  • For additional information, contact Sam Abban by phone at (301) 504-8821 or e-mail: samuel.abban@ars.usda.gov

How to Send Adult Honey Bees

  • Send at least 100 bees and if possible, select bees that are dying or that died recently. Decayed bees are not satisfactory for examination.
  • Bees should be placed in and soaked with 70% ethyl, methyl, or isopropyl alcohol as soon as possible after collection and packed in leak-proof containers.
  • USPS, UPS, and FedEx do no accept shipments containing alcohol. Just prior to mailing samples, pour off all excess alcohol to meet shipping requirements.
  • Do NOT send bees dry (without alcohol).

How to send brood samples

  • A comb sample should be at least 2 x 2 inches and contain as much of the dead or discolored brood as possible. NO HONEY SHOULD BE PRESENT IN THE SAMPLE.
  • The comb can be sent in a paper bag or loosely wrapped in a paper towel, newspaper, etc. and sent in a heavy cardboard box. AVOID wrappings such as plastic, aluminum foil, waxed paper, tin, glass, etc. because they promote decomposition and the growth of mold.
  • If a comb cannot be sent, the probe used to examine a diseased larva in the cell may contain enough material for tests. The probe can be wrapped in paper and sent to the laboratory in an envelope.


Send samples to:

Bee Disease Diagnosis
Bee Research Laboratory

10300 Baltimore Ave. BARC-East
Bldg. 306 Room 316

Beltsville Agricultural Research Center – East
Beltsville, MD 20705


Include a short description of the problem along with your name, address, phone number or e-mail address.
Example text:

To the best of my knowledge these bees died in early January 2017. Several cups of bees were dead on the bottom of the hive and a few lethargic live bees were on the comb which are included in this sample. They had plenty of honey in the hive.

Thank-you for your lab analysis.


Oxalic Acid for Varroa mite control…Not so much.

I just saw a presentation put on by the company who worked to get Oxalic acid approved in the US for Varroa Destructor mite treatment.  I wasn’t impressed, and in fact it only confirmed for me what many scientific articles and several books have concluded:

Varroa Destructor, as an introduced pest, has dramatically disrupted the life of Apis Mellifera, but the path to resolution of the problem lies with genetics, not chemicals.

Attempting chemical control of Varroa Destructor is a lost cause and is actually creating stronger mites, and weaker bees.

(Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees, Sanford and Bonney, Top-bar Beekeeping, Crowder and Harrell, and http://www.beeculture.com/splits-varroa-more-colonies-fewer-mites-new-queens-what-could-be-better/ , http://www.beeccdcap.uga.edu/documents/spivak466.pdf are some published examples)

Some extension agents were known, in the not so distant past, to pressure keepers into treating to ‘prevent the spread of mites’.  It seems more realistic in light of new research and the reality of feral survivor colonies that we should now pressure keepers NOT to treat, to prevent the spread of weak genetics that can only survive with human assistance through chemical treatment.

But still, a lot of us continue to search for a technological solution to a genetic problem.  Mites are here to stay.  And while we may one day get lucky and find a chemical that can block an essential part of the mites metabolic pathway that they can’t evolve their way out of, wouldn’t you rather have bees that didn’t NEED treatment? Varroa Destructor mite’s much shorter life cycle gives them a genetic edge–allowing them to evolve resistance to many of the chemical treatment we come up with in a relatively short period of time.  Using chemicals to weed out weak mites is only exacerbating the problem to the point that Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees even goes so far as to define a modern Honey Bee colony as having four permanent inhabitants, a queen, workers, drones, and mites…

The list of treatments no longer effective continues to grow (http://www.biosecurity.govt.nz/pests-diseases/animals/varroa/paper/varroa-treatment-options.htm, search for ‘resistance’ within the article).  As of this publication Treatments containing Thymol and Oxalic Acid, for now, seem to be an exception.  Contrary to tonights presentation, the article above even suggests that genetic resistance for Oxalic Acid is unlikely…time will tell.

The most rational ‘treatment’ for mite control we have at present is to assist natural selection by pushing the European Honey Bee toward more rapid evolution until they achieve Mite resistance and can live ‘in harmony’ with mites like their Asian cousins Apis Cerana, where the Bees and Varroa Destructor co-evolved in the first place (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022201109001906, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varroa_destructor).


“But I’m not a geneticist…how can I enhance natural selection to make stronger bees?”

It’s simple.  Kill your queens that don’t produce offspring with hygienic behavior and allow the colony to rear it’s own new queen who will then mate with local, feral survivor stock (unless your neighborhood beekeepers also treat their bees, resulting in weak genetics in your regional drone population…).  (http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Fact-Sheets/A-Sustainable-Approach-to-Controlling-Honey-Bee-Diseases-and-Varroa-Mites/Text-Version/Testing-Honey-Bee-Colonies-for-Hygienic-Behavior)

This eliminates a queen with weak genetics, disrupts the brood cycle long enough to dramatically reduce mite populations, and results in a queen with locally tuned genetics for your region–hopefully with some hygienic or new, yet undiscovered mite resistant traits.


Here are a list of the things from the presentation tonight at the Buncombe County Bee Club (www.wncbees.org) meeting which prompted me to write this post…

Our well meaning, corporate sponsored presenter early on let us know that:

*Oxalic Acid is 95% effective at killing mites in the phoretic stage of their life cycle…

I took this to mean:
You only kill the weak mites, leaving the strong ones to breed a new, stronger crop of mites potentially even more genetically resistant to chemical treatment.  With their shorter life cycle (just 10 days from egg to adult) natural selection works at a rate more than 36 times faster than a bee colony whose queen is replaced annually (this is an over simplification, but you get the idea…The potential for genetic variation occurs with every new sexual reproduction event, but it’s more complex as Honey Bees mate with more than one drone, and my math above doesn’t account for winter in temperate regions).  Not only is this much more complicated because queens store sperm from many drones, confusing me on the difference between inter generational genetic variation (which will occurr every 10 days with mites, but only when the queen is replaced in a colony), and inter-sibling genetic variation (which must be less significant)…But I’m only lightly poking at (and becoming aware of) the significant complexities of natural selection forces on two entirely different types of reproductive strategies, that between the eusocial Honey Bee and the subsocial Varroa Destructor mite…(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1224642/ and Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping, Carson, Chapter 3: Sociality).

Any geneticists bothered to read this far?  Help me out, send a note to clear all this up for me.

Back to what the presenter had to say:

*The acid is ineffective at treating mites in the reproductive phase of their life cycle, inside capped brood cells.

*The acid is 70 times more toxic to mites than bees…meaning it is toxic to bees just 70x less.

*Treatment of packages (where all mites are in the phoretic stage and the Oxalic Acid would be most effective) isn’t recommend as bees treated in this way, tend to immediately abscond when hived.

*Treatment by Oxalic Acid should only be performed once a year to reduce the chance of creating resistant mites.

*Never treat a colony with honey supers on (I guess top bar keepers should mark their combs in the hive when treatment occurs).

*The acid in its concentrated form is a poison, and a corrosive agent.

*Handling requires protective googles, gloves, and clothing, as well as a readiness for immediate first aid measures.

*It is relatively cheap.  You can buy enough for several treatments… for about the same cost as a Minnesota hygienic queen.

*While he cautioned that stored diluted solutions should be well labeled, he showed bottles stored in a household refrigerator alongside food.  In my opinion, hazardous chemicals, especially corrosive poisons, should never be stored alongside food under any circumstances.

*If stored incorrectly, the dilute solution will contain break down products more toxic to bees.

And at this point, I decided to leave the presentation before it was finished.


Why would I put money into a dangerous chemical product, with special handling, storage, and disposal requirements, which may result in stronger mites while not hurting the bees ‘all that much’.


Especially when, for no cost at all, I can kill the queen in a weak hive and let them rear a new one, or bring in a new queen cell from a stronger hive…


Given that Varroa sensitive traits are genetically recessive (http://www.beeccdcap.uga.edu/documents/spivak466.pdf this is a great article) we’re going to have to have vast participation in no-treatment activity to enhance natural selection.


The one thing that gives me solace is that eusocial insects are some of the most successful on the planet, and genus Apis have managed to survive for 25 million years (http://bibba.com/honeybee-origins/).  Maybe all we really need to do is get out of their way and stop poisoning them with chemicals so they can evolve to withstand the parasites we have introduced to them through global trade.  Either way, I expect they will out live Homo sapiens on this planet, as they are not actively engaged in poisoning their own well.


But who needs the EPA, Really!