Sunday, November 6, 2011

Beekeeper Convention Report by Craig Lints

Recap of the 2011
Washington State Beekeepers Convention
For Methow Valley Beekeepers

By Craig Lints

There were dozens of presentations and an enormous amount of material that was presented at the convention.  Many of the talks were by scientists and were way over my head.  What follows is not a complete recap by any stretch.  But rather, an effort by me to make sense of what was presented as it applies to a practical, small-time beekeeper.

Background:  The state of Beekeeping in the USA

The Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the USDA conduct an online survey to estimate honeybee colony losses annually. Local beekeepers are encouraged to participate.  Go to
Historically, losses of 10% to 15% were considered normal.  In the 1990s, the tracheal mite pushed these numbers to over 20%.  Since the varroa mite has been a problem, these losses have pushed 30%.  For small beekeepers (< 50 hives) in the Pacific Northwest, WSU and OSU estimate that over 40% of colonies were lost last winter.
These numbers are just for winter losses, based on reporting in the first two weeks of April.  There are summer problems such as Colony Collapse.  So the full extent of the losses is probably well in excess of a third of all colonies in the USA each year.
Everyone in the industry is concerned.  The situation is becoming increasingly fragile.  At some point, the capacity of the queen and package industry to keep up with demand could be overwhelmed.
This increased demand is reflected in pricing for packages.  In the 1980s, a package equated to about 20lbs of honey at wholesale pricing.  Even with the very high prices of honey today, a package now costs over 50 lbs of honey.
Scientists and beekeepers all over the country are trying to figure out what is going on and how to restore hive health.  In particular, new genetic and molecular tools are being applied to the problem.
There is mounting suspicion that the problems the industry face are an accumulation of a lot of issues:
1.    Varroa is certainly the most serious problem.  There is a new product available that shows a great deal of promise called Hop Guard.  I will discuss this more below.
2.   Tracheal mites and Nosema
3.   Poor queens.  Many of the presentations addressed this.
4.   Nutritional problems brought about by  monoculture agribusiness
5.    Sub-lethal effects of pesticides and fungicides that accumulate in pollen and wax.
6.   Although there was very little presented at the convention on Colony Collapse, it was clear that there is no “smoking gun.”  It is worth noting that CCD is a “symptom” not a disease.

WSU has a diagnostics lab that is available to all Washington beekeepers. This lab is there to help you! Go to
Data presented at the convention, based on last year’s samples from Washington and Oregon, showed that 85% of samples had varroa mites, 50% had nosema and 40% had tracheal mites.  These are astonishing levels of disease.

Organic, Natural, or Sustainable Beekeeping

There have been efforts going back to 2002 to establish a standard for “organic” honey.  The problem of course is that bees work a huge area. Last year, the National Organic Standards Board finally came up with a formal recommendation.  Go to:
 The standard has not been adopted and it is my understanding that no honey can be labeled as organic at this time.
The proposal will be very difficult to comply with.  For example, the beekeeper must identify all possible sources of contamination within a “forage zone” extending 1.8 miles from the apiary and a “surveillance zone” that extends 2.2 miles beyond that.  This is an area of 10 square miles and 46 square miles respectively.  Imagine a beekeeper with several yards of hives miles apart.
Another term that is used by hobby beekeepers is “natural” beekeeping.   The implication is that, if left alone, bees will do just fine.  This is na├»ve at best.  Most hives that are left alone will die the first winter from varroa and almost all will die by the end of the second summer.
A similar argument is that feral hives represent the solution.  There is a great deal of interest in the genetics of surviving feral hives.  However, these colonies do not necessarily represent a complete solution.  As an example, one presenter pointed to feral colonies in the southern states, where the Africanized bee is making inroads genetically.  These traits survive because the African bee swarms and absconds often, which is a cleansing mechanism, the queens hatch earlier, and the bees  are very mean.
So that leaves us with “sustainable” beekeeping.  Beekeeping is moving to an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system that will involve more labor;  labor to monitor hive health and labor to deploy a range of treatments.  Practically, this means that, except in winter, the beekeeper will need to inspect hives every 10 –14 days.
Taking varroa as an example, an IPM system would:
a)   Monitor mite levels by one or more method:
i)     Screened bottom / sticky board
ii)   Sugar shake, ether shake or alcohol shake
iii) Lab tests (See WSU site above)
b)   Mechanical controls
i)     Sugar dusting with screened bottom board
c)    Biological Controls
i)     Drone brood removal
ii)   Small cell brood foundation
iii) Interrupting brood cycle
iv) Annual re-queening
d)   Chemical controls
i)     Formic Acid
ii)   Hop Guard

Ideally, an IPM system would use two different types of control that work by different methods.

Varroa Control

Because the varroa mite is such a critical problem today, I will summarize what I learned from several presenters.
It is important to understand the life cycle of the mite.  During brood rearing, half of the mites present are on the brood and half attached to adult bees (phenetic).  However, over winter all the mites are phenetic because there is no brood.  Mites increase exponentially in the spring along with the expanding brood nest. 
This presents an opportunity for control.  If mites are suppressed to very low levels coming out of winter, the hive will thrive.  So a low initial level of 10 mites, becomes 20, becomes 40, becomes 80.  Contrast that with a high initial level of 500, becomes 1000, becomes 2000, etc. (My numbers are just examples, not based on real data.)
If a hive starts the year with high mite loads, you will be fighting a losing battle all summer.  A low level in the spring will keep the mite under control until fall. Then a single treatment in the fall could be enough.
There was a great deal of buzz about Hop Guard at the convention.  Hop Guard is available through Mann Lake Ltd. 
Hop Guard is approved in Washington State.  It is a natural byproduct of beer making.   It is food grade.  Tests show no residue in honey.  It only affects the phenetic mites.  As a reslult, several treatments are required over a complete brood cycle of 21 days.
Since Hop Guard only affects the phenetic bees, drone brood removal would be an example of a second IPM method that complements it.

Other Issues affecting Honey Bee Health

There were a variety of presentations related to honey bee nutrition.  For example, just like the human gut, scientists know that the bee gut is a thriving environment for bacteria and viruses.  Using modern genetic tools, scientist are trying to determine which of these are normal and which are detrimental.
Another concern is the loss of natural habitat.  With monoculture, bees increasingly eat a sequential mono-diet.  (As a human, imagine eating nothing but almonds for a month, then apples for the next month, etc).  One scientist presented data showing that a bees fed exclusively almond pollen had lower brood viability than bees fed multiple pollens.
Many of the presenters commented that “good nutrition is the foundation of hive health.”  The importance of nutrition can’t be overemphasized.
There is also concern that many pesticides, although tested for lethal effects to honey bees, may have sub-lethal effects.  One presentation showed that a fungicide used extensively in the almonds dramatically affected the viability of queen cells.
In that presentation, it was notable that the scientist took almond pollen from an “organic” orchard and added the fungicide for the experiment.  However, later, when the lab tests came back, there was a completely different pesticide in both the “treated” and the “untreated” pollen. 
They could not explain where the pesticide came from.  This illustrates the saying that bees are “flying dust mops” and will pick up contaminants that the beekeeper is completely unaware of.

Queens and Queen Breeding

There is anecdotal evidence that commercially raised queens are declining in quality.  Queen failure and supersedure seems to be increasing.
However, one presenter tested 144 queens from 12 different producers and compared the results to data going back 40 years and concluded the queens of today are just as good as they have ever been.
There is some concern that the problem may be the result of in-breeding.  There are 28 sub-species of honey bees in the world.  Although eight of these were imported in the 1800s, only two remain (Italian and Carniolan) with some scattered genetic evidence of a third (Caucasian).
Washington has a major queen researcher in Susan Colbey, who is splitting her time between WSU and UC Davis. She and several graduate students went to Slovakia, Italy and Georgia last year to import sperm from old world sources. 
I especially remember one of her photos in Slovakia.  It showed the “smoker” they used.  It was essentially a large cigarette with a wiff of smoke coming off it.  Apparently the bees are very, very gentle.
She noted that one should not conclude that “genetic diversity” means raising a mutt cross bee (Italian/Carniolan/Feral). Instead she is looking for genetic diversity within a single line of bees.
She is a strong advocate of locally produced queens.  However, because of the complications involved, she feels this is best left in the hands of local breeders. She noted that any breeding program is a long term commitment.  It needs simple and practical methods of evaluating the queens such as queen size, brood viability, temperament, over-wintering survival, disease/pest resistance  and hygienic behavior.

The Good News

I don’t want to leave the impression that the sky is falling.  For example, the Methow is largely insulated from problems that affect beekeepers in other parts of the country such as pesticides and monoculture.
And some beekeepers are having success.  I particularly remember Paul Hosika, who keeps about 75 hives in southeast Washington, with weather very similar to ours.  He raises his own queens and consistently produces over 100 lbs of honey per hive each year.  This year he produced 10,000 lbs.