The following recommendations are based on personal experience and extensive reading on the plight of the honey bee. As a new beekeeper you will soon find out that every beekeeper has his own experiences and opinions. As a new beekeeper you will need to sift through all of this advise and come up with a plan of your own for raising and maintaining your bee colonies.
Potential new beekeepers often enter the hobby with altruistic goals. Most have heard of the plight of the honeybee and after reading various articles think that they can immediately become successful beekeepers. Many potential beekeepers become enthralled with the idea that left alone the bees will naturally develop mite and virus resistance and that everything will be wonderful. This sometimes, but rarely, happens in isolated areas where an apiary is free of outside influences. It also takes years of dedicated effort for this to occur. In the beekeeping community this approach to beekeeping is sometimes called the “Live or Let Die” or “James Bond” method.
Every beekeeper knows that the European honeybee is beset by varroa, tracheal mites and viruses. In combination these three factors can cause the demise of a colony of bees during the additional stress of winter. New beekeepers will quickly be taught this lesson by the school of hard knocks when they lose the majority of their bees the first winter. Ideally it would be in the best interest of the bees to allow them to develop via natural selection the ability to effectively neutralize these pests. Natural selection has the nasty habit of killing of the weak. The double whammy of varroa and viruses if left uncontrolled frequently results in 30 to 100% hive loss over the winter. Such horrendous losses are not necessarily in the best interest of beekeepers who are interested in honey production and selling pollination services. Several approaches have been developed by beekeepers to hopefully end up with the same end result; honeybees that can survive without chemical intervention.
The key to helping the bees survive is understanding the relationship between the bees, varroa mites and the viruses. The honeybee has developed good natural defenses against virus transmission in the colony. However, the recent arrival of the varroa mites has upset the equation. The mites feed on both the adult and larvae bees. In addition they move between bees. Therefore any virus infection in the colony gets transmitted from bee to bee by the varroa and can kill a colony if the mite infection rate is too high. Controlling the level of mite infestation is the key to controlling viruses.
The first thing to be said in a discussion on bee survivability is that 99% the queens received with packages are raised from long established genetic lines. These genetic lines were developed to maximize honey production and the docility of the bees. These established genetic lines have NOT shown the ability to withstand the assault of the three pests. Also to date most major queen breeders have NOT been motivated to change their breeding stock to more resistant types. So every time you purchase a package to replace your winter’s losses you are simply getting more of the same inferior genes. If your beekeeping philosophy trends towards the “live or let die” approach you will probably be purchasing packages every year until you give up and quit beekeeping due to the expense of buying packages every year. Also, when you purchase these inferior queens you are importing the poor genes into not just your apiary, but also into your neighbor’s apiaries since bees tend to mate with drones from other areas. Sad, but true.
There are various approaches to giving your bees a fighting chance against varroa. First is to provide them with a little aid in their fight with their antagonists. This involves the use of chemicals (either natural or artificial) in an attempt to control the mites. History has shown that the mites have repeatedly developed resistance to artificial chemical treatments. Over the last 30 years several chemical treatments were the silver bullet for controlling mites for a few years until the mites via natural selection developed resistance to them. There are currently 4 or 5 treatments that are still effective, but the efficacy of these may also decline in the future. New beekeepers should consult with experienced beekeepers in their area on the use of chemical treatments. Chemicals that kill mites can also kill your bees and also do harm to you if not applied to the proper manner. Also remember that the continued use of chemicals to control mites will not aid the bees in developing a natural resistance to mites. Most hobbyist beekeepers, who are mainly interested in honey production, will probably end up using a chemical approach for controlling mites.
Other less invasive methods include screened bottom boards for the hive, drone brood trapping of varroa, and temporarily caging the queen; all of which can also aid in the fight against varroa. A new beekeeper needs to understand the pros and cons of these approaches and also understand their limitations.
The next (and more difficult) approach is to develop genetic lines of European bees that can control the mite level themselves. Other types of honey bees (Asian) have developed the ability to coexist with the varroa mite. There are many reports of beekeepers who have not chemically treated their hives of European bees for many years and their bees have also developed resistance to mites. Only very dedicated beekeepers are likely to succeed in developing resistant bees because the selection process is long and difficult. The time frame for those who have been successful is on the order of decades. However, hobbyist beekeepers can take the step of procuring queens that have these resistant traits and getting these genes into their apiaries. Varroa resistant lines include Varroa Sensitive Hybrids (VSH), USDA Primorski Russian, Buckfast, and Purdue Ankle Biters. The VSH, Buckfast and Purdue Ankle Biter strains were developed by beekeepers or scientists performing slow and meticulous data gathering, analysis and then long term breeding programs. The Primorski Russian bees were a line of European honeybees that were exposed to mites in the Primorski region of Siberia and over a period of 100 plus years underwent natural selection and finally only resistant bees survived. New beekeepers should read up on these resistant strains of the European honeybee either by doing internet searches or reading about them in one of the bee magazines; such as American Bee Journal or Bee Culture. Users of these specialized strains have reported varying degrees of success.
It is recommended that new hobbyist beekeepers should NOT follow the “live and let die” philosophy for two reasons. The first is that you will most likely lose your bees in the winter do to the varroa and virus effects. All beehives in the US now contain varroa mites; your new hive isn’t any different despite your wishful thinking. You can’t see them (the varroa), but they ARE there. The second reason is that the varroa from your hive will migrate to your neighbors’ hives. Bees inherently drift between hives; especially the drones. Varroa use this phenomenon to expand their territory and populations by hitching a ride on the drones. Also when your hive dies (as it most likely will) robber bees will come to loot the stored honey. In doing this they will pick up mites and return them to their home hives. Thus you are unknowingly infecting your neighbor’s hives with varroa.
In summary every new beekeeper should remember:
1) Every time you buy a bee package to re-stock your hive you are importing same inferior genes into your apiary.
2) Following the “live and let die” philosophy, although altruistic, will most likely result in high colony losses in your apiary and is harmful to your neighbors’ bees also.
3) If truly interested in being helpful to the honey bee you should incorporate varroa resistant genetic lines into your operation; the sooner, the better.
4) Unless you have unlimited financial resources for purchasing replacement packages it is wise to understand and apply a mite control program. After you have become more knowledgeable and are successful in getting your bees through several winters you can then begin experimentation.