Honey and bee : Entombed Pollen
‘Entombed’ pollen is identified as having sunken, wax-covered cells amid ‘normal’, uncapped cells. photo: Journal of Invertebrate Pathology

Honeybees ‘entomb’ hives to protect against pesticides, say scientists
by Fiona Harvey / 4 April 2011

Honeybees are taking emergency measures to protect their hives from pesticides, in an extraordinary example of the natural world adapting swiftly to our depredations, according to a prominent bee expert. Scientists have found numerous examples of a new phenomenon – bees “entombing” or sealing up hive cells full of pollen to put them out of use, and protect the rest of the hive from their contents. The pollen stored in the sealed-up cells has been found to contain dramatically higher levels of pesticides and other potentially harmful chemicals than the pollen stored in neighbouring cells, which is used to feed growing young bees. “This is a novel finding, and very striking. The implication is that the bees are sensing [pesticides] and actually sealing it off. They are recognising that something is wrong with the pollen and encapsulating it,” said Jeff Pettis, an entomologist with the US Department of Agriculture. “Bees would not normally seal off pollen.”

But the bees’ last-ditch efforts to save themselves appear to be unsuccessful – the entombing behaviour is found in many hives that subsequently die off, according to Pettis. “The presence of entombing is the biggest single predictor of colony loss. It’s a defence mechanism that has failed.” These colonies were likely to already be in trouble, and their death could be attributed to a mix of factors in addition to pesticides, he added. Bees are also sealing off pollen that contains substances used by beekeepers to control pests such as the varroa mite, another factor in the widespread decline of bee populations. These substances may also be harmful to bees, Pettis said. “Beekeepers – and I am one – need to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what we are doing,” he said. “Certainly [the products] have effects on bees. It’s a balancing act – if you do not control the parasite, bees die. If you control the parasite, bees will live but there are side-effects. This has to be managed.” The decline of bee populations has become an increasing concern in recent years.“Colony collapse disorder”, the name given to the unexplained death of bee colonies, is affecting hives around the world. Scientists say there are likely to be numerous reasons for the die-off, ranging from agricultural pesticides to bee pests and diseases, pollution, and intensive farming, which reduces bee habitat and replaces multiple food sources with single, less nutritious, sources. Globalisation may also be a factor, as it spreads bee diseases around the world, and some measures taken to halt the deaths – such as massing bees in huge super-hives – can actually contribute to the problem, according to a recent study by the United Nations.

The loss of pollinators could have severe effects on agriculture, scientists have warned. Pesticides were not likely to be the biggest single cause of bee deaths, Pettis said: “Pesticide is an issue but it is not the driving issue.” Some pesticides could be improving life for bees, he noted: for many years, bees were not to be found near cotton plantations because of the many chemicals used, but in the past five years bees have begun to return because the multiple pesticides of old have been replaced with newer so-called systemic pesticides. Studies he conducted found that bees in areas of intensive agriculture were suffering from poor nutrition compared with bees with a diverse diet, and this then compounded other problems, such as infection with the gut parasite nosema. “It is about the interaction of different factors, and we need to study these interactions more closely,” he said. The entombing phenomenon was first noted in an obscure scientific paper from 2009, but since then scientists have been finding the behaviour more frequently, with the same results.

Bees naturally collect from plants a substance known as propolis, a sort of sticky resin with natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal qualities. It is used by bees to line the walls of their hives, and to seal off unwanted or dangerous substances – for instance, mice that find their way into hives and die are often found covered in propolis. This is the substance bees are using to entomb the cells. The bees that entomb cells of pollen are the hives’ housekeepers, different from the bees that go out to collect pollen from plants. Pettis said that it seemed pollen-collecting bees could not detect high levels of pesticides, but that the pollen underwent subtle changes when stored. These changes – a lack of microbial activity compared with pollen that has fewer pesticide residues – seemed to be involved in triggering the entombing effect, he explained. Pettis was speaking in London, where he was visiting British MPs to talk about the decline of bee populations, and meeting European bee scientists.

by Tom Phiilpott / 21 Jan 2011

Remember the case of the leaked document showing that the EPA’s own scientists are concerned about a pesticide it approved that might harm fragile honeybee populations? Well, it turns that the EPA isn’t the only government agency whose researchers are worried about neonicotinoid pesticides. USDA researchers also have good evidence that these nicotine-derived chemicals, marketed by German agrichemical giant Bayer, could be playing a part in Colony Collapse Disorder—the mysterious massive honeybee die-offs that United States and Europe have been experiencing in recent years. So why on earth are they still in use on million of acres of American farmland?

According to a report by Mike McCarthy, environment editor of the U.K.-based Independent, the lead researcher at the USDA’s very own Bee Research Laboratory completed research two years ago suggesting that even extremely low levels of exposure to neonicotinoids makes bees more vulnerable to harm from common pathogens. For reasons not specified in the Independent article, the USDA’s Jeffrey Pettis has so far not published his research. “[It] was completed almost two years ago but it has been too long in getting out,” he told the newspaper. “I have submitted my manuscript to a new journal but cannot give a publication date or share more of this with you at this time.” (I was not able to speak to Pettis for this post as he is in meetings all day today; but he’s agreed to an interview Monday.)

Pettis’s study focused on imidacloprid, which like clothianidin is a neonicotinoid pesticide marketed by Bayer as a seed treatment. The findings are pretty damning for these nicotine-derived pesticides, according to McCarthy. He summarizes the study like this: “The American study … has demonstrated that the insects’ vulnerability to infection is increased by the presence of imidacloprid, even at the most microscopic doses. Dr. Pettis and his team found that increased disease infection happened even when the levels of the insecticide were so tiny that they could not subsequently be detected in the bees, although the researchers knew that they had been dosed with it.”

To my knowledge, Pettis hasn’t spoken to U.S. journalists about his unpublished neonicotinoid research. But he did appear in a 2010 documentary called The Strange Disappearance of the Honeybees by U.S. filmmaker Mike Daniels, which has been screened widely in Europe but not yet in the United States, McCarthy reports. Pettis’ remarks in the film are what alerted the European press to his findings on neonicotinoids. I have not been able to view the film, but I have obtained a copy of the transcript [PDF] of the portion in which Pettis appears. The filmmaker caught up with Pettis at an international conference of bee scientists known as Apimondia in Montpellier, France, in September 2009. Apparently attendees had been buzzing (sorry) about research by Pettis showing that low levels of neonicotinoid pesticide interacted with common pathogens in a damaging way for bees. Pettis and his research collaborator, Penn State University entomologist Dennis Van Engelsdorp, spoke frankly about their findings for the film.

In the transcript, Pettis says he and his research team exposed two sets of honey bees to Nosema, a fungal pathogen toxic to honey bees. One set was also exposed to a neonicotinoid pesticide; the other not. “And we saw an increase, even if we fed the pesticide at very low levels—an increase in Nosema levels—in direct response to the low level feeding of neonicotinoids, as compared with the ones which were fed normal protein,” Pettis says in the film, according to the transcript. Van Engelsdorp stressed that the changes occurred even at levels of neonicotinoid exposure “below the limit of detection.” He adds:“The only reason we knew the bees had exposure [to neonicotinoid pesticides] is because we exposed them.”

This is potentially game-changing research for understanding Colony Collapse Disorder. Scientistshave been focusing on the interaction between the Nosema fungus and a virus called Iridoviridae as the culprit. Pettis’ research seems to suggest that neonicotinoids play a role, too—and at levels so low that researchers may be overlooking them. The grassroots group Food Democracy Now has a petition asking the EPA to ban Bayer’s toxic pesticide clothianidin.

So, let’s get this straight. The chief scientist at the top U.S. government bee-science institute completed research two years ago implicating a widely used, EPA-approved pesticide in what can plausibly be called an ecological catastrophe—the possible extinction of honeybees, which pollinate a huge portion of U.S. crops. Why are we just now hearing about this—and why are we only hearing about it through an obscure documentary filtered through a British newspaper? I’ll be digging into these questions next week. In the meantime, consider this. As I wrote in my December piece on this topic, Bayer’s neonicotinoid pesticides are taken up by millions of acres of corn plants every year and expressed in pollen fed on by countless honeybees. It’s time for the EPA and USDA to be absolutely open about their scientists’ concerns about these poisons—open about it, and willing to act on it.

Jeffery S Pettis
email : Jeffery.Pettis [at] ars.usda [dot] gov

Germany Bans Chemicals Linked to Honeybee Devastation
by Alison Benjamin / 23 May 2008

Germany has banned a family of pesticides that are blamed for the deaths of millions of honeybees. The German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) has suspended the registration for eight pesticide seed treatment products used in rapeseed oil and sweetcorn. The move follows reports from German beekeepers in the Baden-Württemberg region that two thirds of their bees died earlier this month following the application of a pesticide called clothianidin. “It’s a real bee emergency,” said Manfred Hederer, president of the German Professional Beekeepers’ Association. “50-60% of the bees have died on average and some beekeepers have lost all their hives.”

Tests on dead bees showed that 99% of those examined had a build-up of clothianidin. The chemical, produced by Bayer CropScience, a subsidiary of the German chemical giant Bayer, is sold in Europe under the trade name Poncho. It was applied to the seeds of sweetcorn planted along the Rhine this spring. The seeds are treated in advance of being planted or are sprayed while in the field. The company says an application error by the seed company which failed to use the glue-like substance that sticks the pesticide to the seed, led to the chemical getting into the air. Bayer spokesman Dr Julian Little told the BBC’s Farming Today that misapplication is highly unusual. “It is an extremely rare event and has not been seen anywhere else in Europe,” he said.

Clothianidin, like the other neonicotinoid pesticides that have been temporarily suspended in Germany, is a systemic chemical that works its way through a plant and attacks the nervous system of any insect it comes into contact with. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency it is “highly toxic” to honeybees. This is not the first time that Bayer, one of the world’s leading pesticide manufacturers with sales of €5.8bn (£4.6bn) in 2007, has been blamed for killing honeybees.

In the United States, a group of beekeepers from North Dakota is taking the company to court after losing thousands of honeybee colonies in 1995, during a period when oilseed rape in the area was treated with imidacloprid. A third of honeybees were killed by what has since been dubbed colony collapse disorder. Bayer’s best selling pesticide, imidacloprid, sold under the name Gaucho in France, has been banned as a seed dressing for sunflowers in that country since 1999, after a third of French honeybees died following its widespread use. Five years later it was also banned as a sweetcorn treatment in France. A few months ago, the company’s application for clothianidin was rejected by French authorities.

Bayer has always maintained that imidacloprid is safe for bees if correctly applied. “Extensive internal and international scientific studies have confirmed that Gaucho does not present a hazard to bees,” said Utz Klages, a spokesman for Bayer CropScience. Last year, Germany’s Green MEP, Hiltrud Breyer, tabled an emergency motion calling for this family of pesticides to be banned across Europe while their role in killing honeybees were thoroughly investigated. Her action follows calls for a ban from beekeeping associations and environmental organisations across Europe. Philipp Mimkes, spokesman for the German-based Coalition Against Bayer Dangers, said: “We have been pointing out the risks of neonicotinoids for almost 10 years now. This proves without a doubt that the chemicals can come into contact with bees and kill them. These pesticides shouldn’t be on the market.”


A Practical Plan For Removing All Treatment From Commercial Apiaries

Hobby beekeeping in America is obviously going to survive and thrive in the future. A small, but certain percentage of the population will always be fascinated by honeybees and want to be around them as much as possible—even if they don’t make a living from them. During these times when honeybees are always facing possible destruction by parasites, weather, pesticides or some combination of factors, and the basics of successful beekeeping have become unclear, these “amateurs” are the people who can and do experiment with every conceivable management practice until some of their methods succeed on a regular basis and then spread throughout the community. This pool of energy and enthusiasm, along with a strong and growing dedication among hobbyists to keeping bees without treatments, will ensure that a new, healthy beekeeping will eventually emerge, and also create a new generation of professional beekeepers who started with one colony, and eventually gave up other work in order to pursue bees full-time.

But it’s the commercial part of our industry that’s really having trouble now. There are a much smaller number of commercial beekeepers today than there were ten years ago, and no matter how much economic success someone may have had in the last few years, most of the community considers everything to be at risk, and watches with great concern the continuous decline of honeybee health and resilience. In an attempt to maintain a certain cash flow or standard of living, the focus remains fixed on killing mites and other parasites instead of using them as allies and assets, and on artificially propping up the bees in unhealthy situations (like almond pollination). In a large apiary with many investments spread out in different parts of the country and relatively few skilled people riding herd on all the bees, it can be very difficult to make basic changes, even when the desire is there.

I don’t think any of us who have managed to live from treatment-free beekeeping for the last several years would claim to be immune from the problems and concerns of the industry in general. But in the end the focus in health and the work of making the transition to non-treatment has made beekeeping much less stressful and more enjoyable, and has given us much hope for an interest in a positive future for beekeeping. It’s arguable now that treatment-free beekeeping can be just as profitable as any other beekeeping scheme. But these things were not easily won. In a certain sense it’s not all that complicated. My friend Chris Baldwin likes to say: “The people who are succeeding with untreated bees now are the ones who quit treating their bees.” But these were not people who were giving up or looking for an easier way. They were people who had made a commitment to a healthier future for beekeeping and had already done considerable thinking and working in that direction before they backed off their treatments. When I went through the process of gradually eliminating the treatments from my apiary, I didn’t know what I was doing and made many costly mistakes. There were no good models to follow at that time—at least for bees in the kind of environment where I live.

But things are different now. The number of beekeepers who are functioning without treatments is larger every year, and their collective experience and knowledge is growing and becoming more solid. As usual, there’s lots of speculation about what is really happening, biology-wise, in these cases. Don’t waste too much energy worrying about this. Scientists get paid to study these kinds of problems, and they will certainly share their results with you after they have impressed their peers by publishing an elegant paper in the right journal at the right time. Meanwhile, it’s much more fun and profitable to focus on the basics of healthy beekeeping, pay attention as you work, learn from your mistakes, and build on your successes. In North Carolina last fall, Greg Rogers summed up honey production in the Smokey Mountains for me this way: “We know where, but we don’t know why.” In getting rid of the treatments in your apiary, you don’t always have to know why in order to know how.

After watching this process go on for more than ten years, and listening to and observing others as they go through it, I think it’s possible now to recommend a more specific, 4-year plan to other commercial beekeepers who want to continue with beekeeping in the future, and who understand that the underlying health, stability and resilience of their bees is the only really stable foundation for such a business in the long run. Short-term profits (sometimes very large ones) have been made in the past by exploiting the bees and using them as hard as possible. In the future, and over a working lifetime, the largest profits (in both money and a decent lifestyle) will go to those who abandon the focus on profit and concentrate instead on the “wild” health and resilience of their bees, while resolving to live themselves on the by-products of this process. The self-organizing, creative power of Nature needs to be tapped as the primary energy source, and this is accomplished by working with the four essential elements of “Wild Farmers Getting Horizontally Minded” (explained last month).

If Nature is willing to move from point A to point B, she always has more than one way to make the journey. There are undoubtedly more ways than one to eliminate the treatments from an apiary, but I’m describing here a way that has already been pioneered by myself and others. I made the transition without going into debt, but I made many mistakes, and the overall economic trajectory of the apiary was disrupted while the transition was in progress. Some income was lost as the mites carried off the poorly adapted bees, but this income has been largely or entirely recovered in recent years as the industry in general declines, and the value of bees, queens and honey from untreated colonies increases. With what is now known and available, I have no doubt that many apiaries could go through this process with a much smaller immediate economic disruption, or even none at all. The key is to re-organize the apiary around the principles outlined above, and take advantage of the growing demand for untreated bees, and the queens that produce such bees.

There are six things an apiary must have at the outset in order to successfully make the transition to non-treatment. I would be afraid of investing time and money in this direction if any one of these six were missing or unobtainable.
1. Good Food for the bees.
2. Clean Combs and/or the ability to draw new combs quickly.
3. Resistant Bees—Stock that already has proven itself capable of surviving and thriving in untreated situations for at least two years.
4. Mating Control—one way or another, at least 75% of the drones mating with your queens must come from your own colonies.
5. The ability to Raise All Your Own Queens and Requeen all your colonies annually.
6. A good Attitude.

Now let’s go back through these in reverse order, starting with the most critical one—having a positive Attitude: I remember hearing a radio spot about an Iowa farmer who consistently produced the highest per-acre yield of corn in the state, by quite a wide margin. Eventually he was persuaded to give a series of workshops about his methods. He always began by stating: “The most important thing in growing a good crop of corn is having a good attitude…” After a few more minutes of talk like this you could hear the pencils snapping in the background as the assembled farmers broke them with their hands or their teeth in frustration. They came to find out how deep to plow or how many pounds of this or that to spray on the crop in order to achieve a record yield. But instead most of what they heard was about how important it was to imagine what it’s like to be a corn plant, and what’s necessary to keep growing rapidly through changing extremes of moisture, heat and drainage. When he finally mentioned his choices of varieties and fertilizers, it was almost identical to what most people in the room were already using. It was his genuine love of the corn plant, and his constant attention to his plants and all aspects of the growing environment over many years that enabled him to consistently produce a record crop.

Commercial beekeeping without treatments is only for people who love Nature and their bees, who personally manage and work with their bees every day, and want to stick with beekeeping over the long haul. It’s important to be a farmer first, and a broker of bees and bee products second. Embracing the methods of Nature can mean opposing or ignoring the recommendations of the larger community or their spokespeople, who may have something to sell and are still operating on the assumption that pesticides and other agricultural chemicals are and always will be essential. Let’s not forget that beekeepers have always been among the most inventive and independent-minded people in every society.

One of the extremely important and powerful tools that Nature uses to help insects recover from a serious shock is the process of rapid decline and then expansion in a population in order to change the genotype and activate defenses that were not functioning previously. This is one of the most difficult things for production and profit-oriented beekeepers to embrace in a positive way; but so far all the evidence says there is no way to move to a stable and resilient beekeeping future without using it to our advantage. Look at the way varroa mites recovered over and over, after out most determined efforts to kill every last one of them, and how they adapted and became immune to even the most deadly poisons. Honeybees have the same ability to adapt, rebound and become stronger than they were at the beginning of the process; but only a few people have so far made good use of this principle. With what we know now, the process can be controlled, and the declines kept to a manageable level. There still needs to be planning and preparation for a possible loss of production and income, but this is no different than having contingencies ready for poor weather or low prices—things farmers and beekeepers have always had to deal with. Over the last few years several beekeepers have told me they’d like to give up their treatments, but they could never withstand a 40-50% loss of their colonies. The trouble is that many commercial beekeepers have now experienced losses on this scale (sometimes more than once) and have not been able to use the situation to create better bees and beekeeping for the future.

The second prerequisite for moving away from treatments is having the ability to Raise Your Own Queens and Requeen at least 75% of your colonies each year. This is important for “pulsing” new stock rapidly through the apiary as treatments are withdrawn. The first couple of years when colonies are left unprotected are the most difficult, and having all young queens of a tested stock is the best offense here. Embedded in this suggestion are two important principles: The first is to reduce the number of colonies per beekeeper—in large part to make sure all colonies can be requeened every year, at least for the first few years. In the end this will lead to greater intensity of production (explained in the March 2008 ABJ) and much more enjoyable and profitable beekeeping. The second is to utilize Nature’s ability to recover after a shock by increasing the rate of reproduction when conditions are favorable. In practical terms this usually means increasing the rate of making new colonies. A powerful way of doing this is to start two nucs in each box instead of one. Then, when mites and parasites weed them out, even a 50% loss will only take a few boxes out of productive use. I’ve described my methods for doing this in detail in the past, and so have several others.

Mating Control is the third essential ingredient in this recipe. Your new queens must mate with your breeder queens from the previous year (via drones from the daughters of those breeders). Any of the three methods of mating control (Instrumental Insemination; Natural Mating in Isolation; and Drone Saturation) can be used to produce bees that don’t need treatments. It’s interesting that each of these three schemes will lead your apiary off in a somewhat different direction genetically, over several generations, even if they start with the same breeders. Drone Saturation shifts the apiary genotype more slowly than the other two options, but this method yields the most stable and diverse gene pool in the long run, and is in any case the only practical option for most commercial beekeepers.

Most of my own bees are located in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, where it’s very crowded with bees belonging to several different owners, each pursuing a different program. I first set up an isolated mating yard in the mountains above the valley when tracheal mites came, and I planned to use it for breeding bees resistant to this parasite. The extra time and effort required to mate queens in isolation proved unnecessary in this case because most stocks already present in the valley already had the ability to adapt quickly to this new pest, after recovering from the initial shock and after the most susceptible colonies had perished. Few treatments were applied, and soon the open mated daughters of outstanding survivors were doing just as well as sister queens mated in isolation. But the experience gained in setting up that first isolation apiary served me well later when varroa came and it became clear that queens grafted from proven survivor stock had to mate with drones representing other proven survivors in order to eliminate treatment pressure on the mites, and make steady progress from one generation to the next. I’d be afraid to start on this now unless I was quite sure that at least 75% of the drones mating with my new queens were coming from my own selected colonies.

Before you start eliminating treatments across the board, you want to stock your equipment with Resistant Bees—daughters of proven survivors if possible. Even here you want to be careful and seriously consider what to start with. Some colonies that can live without treatments with no problems do not pass on that ability to their daughters, even when carefully mated to other survivors. It’s safest to get your foundation stock from a large pool of bees, collectively managed and succeeding without treatments—or at least with very infrequent treatments—over several years. This is evidence that the ability to co-exist with mites and viruses is both present and heritable. The only bees of this sort that I can recommend based on experience are the Russian stocks, which are soon to be available from an expanded network of certified breeders. They already have a large enough gene pool to prevent inbreeding depression, and a carefully worked out mating scheme—so you can purchase unrelated stock every season for several years if necessary. The Russians have advantages and disadvantages for most beekeepers. On the plus side I put first of all their strong and easily heritable ability to co-exist with mites and virus, as well as their overall resilience and “wildness”. They are at the same time very gentle, frugal bees that winter exceptionally well with small clusters. The main buildup starts later than with most other bees, but then proceeds very rapidly, and they are extremely good honey gatherers. The only things I don’t like about them are the frequency of swarming, and a relatively weak desire to draw comb in the spring. (It’s not an issue for me, but they also don’t mix with other, non-Russian bees as well as Italians do). The people who are doing well with these bees and really like them are all removing brood in the spring, creating a smaller brood nest during the swarming season; and then producing a honey crop in mid-summer or later. Beekeepers who need a lot of bees in the spring or depend on an early honey flow have difficulty dealing with the strong swarming urge. I hope there are other broad-based survivor stocks out there that are suitable for others to use for beekeeping without treatments. A few are being advertised—you should question both the producers and some of their customers closely if possible before devoting a lot of space to them in your apiary. The purpose of writing this is so that you can create your own uniquely adapted stock of healthy and resilient bees—so this gene pool of untreated bees can continue to grow.

Clean Combs are the next requirement for any kind of healthy beekeeping. This implies the ability to draw new combs rapidly—at least 20% of your total comb number per year, and more is better. The source of wax for your foundation is a concern, but the truth is I don’t know of the best plan for dealing with this problem, or how important it really is. I devoted a huge amount of time, energy and money setting up a system to make the small number of sheets (2,000-4,000) that I need every year, from my own wax. Now that it’s done I consider it a vital and fascinating part of the apiary but I’ll be the first to admit that it takes a lot of time. Finding a manufacturer who will make foundation for you directly from your cappings wax would be theoretically the best of both worlds, but this is hard to arrange. According to the folks at Penn State, there may be some effective techniques for filtering contaminates out of wax, so this may recede as a problem as time goes on. I don’t like plastic foundation, but I do keep some of it on hand for emergencies, and buying it unwaxed and rolling on wax of your own sounds like a workable compromise to me.

I should say at this point that it is not necessary to have some certain cell size in your combs in order for bees to adapt to non-treatment. Now, if I am found dead with a stake driven through my heart shortly after you read this you will know where to find the murderer—among the small-cell people. I tried to work with smaller comb size, but my breeding program progressed much faster than my ability to change combs. Now I have combs with worker cells throughout the natural size range (5.1-5.4 mm), and my foundation mill prints out a 5.2 size pattern. It’s far more difficult and costly to establish a large number of existing colonies on small-cell combs than it is to propagate promising stock and survivors, and step up the rate of colony reproduction to offset heavier than normal losses during the “collapse” phase. As far as I can tell, every commercial apiary that is functioning successfully without treatments went through exactly the same pattern of collapse and recovery—no matter what size combs they were using. They did share one thing when they made the transition however: They all had combs that were not seriously contaminated. So, replacing your combs and stabilizing mite control with formic or oxalic acid are important things to accomplish before the transition to non-treatment.

The last requirement for that transition is the most obvious of all; Good Food and a healthy environment for the bees—as essential to their health as it is to ours. Having the opportunity to visit with beekeepers from several different parts of the U.S. and Canada has made it very clear that I have better, natural food, and a more healthy environment for my bees than many commercial beekeepers have access to. This is partly because I live in a relatively clean, dairy farming region with a wide variety of good nectar and pollen sources, and partly because my bees are not subjected to the stress of moving. A lot of research and work has been done recently around supplemental feeding, and hopefully this can fill some of the gaps in our environment that industrial farming has created. But I don’t think there’s any real substitute for clean, bee-gathered nectar and pollen, and I’d be afraid to try weaning bees off their crutches and props if they couldn’t stay in one place, with good nectar and pollen, for at least six months of the year. So now, after all this preparation, the actual 4-year transition process is fairly straightforward. Be prepared for a period of comparative chaos as unselected stocks are mixed together in the first two years and losses increase in the third and possibly fourth year.

Year 1: Management can vary, according to location and whether you migrate or not, but the goal is the same: Requeen all colonies with queens raised by yourself from promising survivor stock you obtained from elsewhere. Graft from several different queens and raise extra small nucs to replace queens that fail later in the season. Keep track of which queens came from which breeders, and continue treating the apiary with formic and/or oxalic acid.

Year 2: Same as year one, except graft from different promising stock obtained from elsewhere. This year your new queens are getting mated (75% or greater) with your breeder queens from the year before. By the time your new queens are laying their second round of brood, your apiary is filling up with worker bees that have promising survivors for both mothers and fathers. Keeping track of the families is more important this year because these queens will be the foundation stock of your own untreated families in year three. Decide whether to make one last treatment in the spring of Year 2. Carefully evaluate the necessity of artificially lowering the mite population on more time against the possible damage to your new, extremely valuable queens and a longer wait before being able to tell for certain which colonies are really thriving without treatment. Begin propagating nucs at a faster rate to compensate for the increased loss of colonies in Year 3.

Year 3: Now you’ve reached the really chaotic part. Your bugs may be a hybridized mix of stocks you were not familiar with in the past, and their behavior is all over the map. Even worse, colonies are starting to fail, and you will feel like someone trying to quit smoking and have to force yourself not to get out the heavy artillery and kill the mites another time. Don’t panic. You’ve allowed the element of Wildness to come into your apiary, and now is your chance to get it to work for you. This year you should graft principally from your own stock—the best of what you raised the year before. This is when keeping track of the families is important to avoid inbreeding depression in the future. Resist the temptation to graft entirely from just a few of the best looking colonies and try to find at least two good daughters from each of the breeders you used the year before. From this point on, each time you choose a grafting mother you are potentially starting a new family that could be very important in your apiary for many years to come. In year 3 you are mating the best of the crosses you made from imported, untreated stock, with the total gene pool you have so far imported. I recommend that in Year 3 you do about 20-30% of your grafting from more imported, promising stock—as a source of new, unrelated families, and because your own bees are not fully tested yet; not enough time has elapsed since the last treatment. Year 3 is also when you really see the importance of increasing nuc production and/or starting two nucs in each box. The extra queens and colonies keep most of the equipment in production as the apiary goes through the “collapse” part of the natural cycle, while bees and mites begin adapting to continuous co-existence.

Year 4: With a little luck from the weather, during Year 4 you should start to see and feel some really positive momentum resulting from all your hard work, as the apiary calms down and enters the “recovery” part of the natural, insect-challenge cycle. By the end of the year, the great majority of your worker bees will have both fathers and mothers selected by a joint committee consisting of yourself, the two mites, viruses and all the other known and unknown parasites and challenges that are part of the environment where you live. Mites and other factors select for survival, vigor, overall fitness and resilience; and you finish the process by selecting again for the desirable economic and beekeeping characteristics. Over the next few years, the bees will become much more uniform, as you have “boiled down” your gene pool until only combinations that are both good survivors and good economic producers remain. The important thing now is to start the gene pool growing again, first by maintaining at least 12-15 families, founded upon unrelated, or only slightly related, breeder queens; and second by starting a new family each year from a small amount of outside stock. This provides a constant source of unrelated genetic material “bleeding” slowly into your apiary to compensate for that which is lost as you continue to select for your favorite traits. Hopefully in the future there will be many more untreated apiaries to buy and trade stock with.

There will be other downturns and challenges in the future—but now you have a way of dealing with them, and also benefitting from them. By selection, rapid turnover of queens and the acceleration of nuc production, many difficulties can be overcome. After the bees recover from a shock, the work habits already in place will yield a surprising number of extra colonies, queens and queen cells. The sale of these products can equal or exceed the income lost during the “collapse” years of the cycle. These extra bees and queens can help reverse the nationwide downward trend in colony numbers and serve as the foundation for a more stable, healthy and satisfying beekeeping in the future.

As long as this essay has become, the information and advice it contains still needs to be amended and adapted to each new situation. You can get suggestions and hear about the experiences of myself and others, but only you can figure out the best way to run your apiary without treatments. We’re not using the healing and creative power of Nature in commercial beekeeping now; and we never will until more people stop treating their bees and propagate good stock out of that new environment.

by Kirk Webster /

Now, I had been warned, but I was still not prepared for the difference in attitude and ambiance I would encounter at the 2nd Annual Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference in Leominster, Massachusetts in late July 2010. If you are genuinely looking hard for a positive new vision of beekeeping for the future–this is an event you must attend. Most of the 100 or so attendees were hobby beekeepers and some wanna-beekeepers. So there was plenty of naive, positive energy there, to be sure. (We need a certain amount of that sort of energy.) But there was also, among both presenters and attendees, an astonishing variety and depth of practical and successful experience with bees kept without treatments of any kind. Aside from this meeting’s overall ambiance, the thing that struck me most was the balance somehow maintained between an overall awareness of the gravity of current beekeeping problems, and the simplicity, ease and elegance of the solutions arrived at in very different locations and circumstances. Almost all of these solutions, however, were only won after a very difficult struggle; and all of them required the cultivation of an open mind and learning how to allow Nature’s multifaceted powers of resilience and recovery to function without impediments. All of those who have achieved this with bees are pioneers at this point. Many of them have been ignored, ridiculed, harassed or even worse, as part of their reward for achieving something deemed “impossible” by “experts”; or by those who are always trying to co-opt the end result while other people do the work. (As in all other worthwhile endeavors, it’s not possible to have real, long-term success with honeybee health without doing the work.) All of this makes our pioneers all the more determined to share what they know with all honest and genuine comers– making it easier in the future than it was in the past. The completely open nature of all the conversation, the willingness to help and share, and the absence of competitive and proprietary feelings were all very striking at the Leominster meeting.

At the same time, it must be stressed that there were no special recipes or any single, infallible road to success revealed. In fact, some of the presenters have completely opposed views on certain points. The overall message of the conference I would summarize in three statements:
1. There are now both commercial and hobby beekeepers succeeding with untreated bees, in many parts of the world and using an astonishing variety of equipment, stocks and techniques.
2. There are good examples, shared experience and guidance available to help people who want to move toward non-treatment; or to start off that way from the beginning.
3. Many of the non-treatment beekeepers have had similar experiences, but in the end each beekeeper discovers his or her own combination of stock, equipment and management that works for them in their situation. There is no substitute for steady attention and work– applied in your own location.

As the presenters got up to give their talks, one after another spontaneously burst out with what a huge relief and pleasure it was to be at a meeting entirely devoted to a healthy future for bees and beekeeping, with everyone freely sharing whatever they have to contribute. The gravity of beekeeping’s current plight was kept always in mind, but the shared convictions about destructive agricultural practices and the correct way to overcome them created a huge sense of relief and shared energy for just about everyone who came to this meeting.

Here’s the cast of “characters” who presented at the 2010 Leominster meeting, and a brief description of their work and message:

Dee Lusby‘s name is known to everyone who has made even a half-hearted search for knowledge about treatment-free or “organic” beekeeping. As far as I know, she has the only commercial apiary in Europe or North AmErika that has been completely free of treatments since before the varroa invasion. Her bees are in Arizona’s Sonora Desert, between Tucson and the Mexican border. She and her late husband Ed, (a descendent of one of the oldest beekeeping families in the U.S.) pioneered the use of small-cell sized foundation and combs for control of parasitic mites and overall bee health. Their pioneering work–which was so far ahead of its time– their independence and long-term success, and their outspoken defense of their practices have generated a huge amount of controversy that continues up to the present. Dee’s talks are sometimes hard to follow due to the many esotErik references cited, and frequent mentions of the fights she’s had to wage with an Establishment with different aims and methods than her own. But if you can separate the “heat” from the “light”, what lies beneath is a very broad understanding of honeybee health, and one of the best blueprints so far available for keeping bees healthy in the long run. Her assertion that the solution to our honeybee problems is one third genetic, one third management, and one third environmental is, in my experience, completely bulletproof. Let the detractors say what they want, she still maintains 800 colonies with minimal help and produces several varieties of beautiful desert honey. She helps to organize a treatment-free conference every year in Arizona, and invites the attendees to see for themselves that her bees are healthy and vigorous in a difficult environment. Some of the major equipment manufacturers are now making and selling small-cell foundation, so the cell-size controversy is likely to be resolved as more people try it out and weigh in. I’d been in touch with Dee and Ed off and on by phone for many years, and it was a great pleasure to meet her in person for the first time last summer. My own untreated apiary has evolved into something quite different from Dee’s, but she and Ed provided a lot of the initial inspiration and courage necessary for me to pursue this path.

Another presenter, Sam Comfort, is a beekeeping tycoon. Well… he’s the biggest top-bar beekeeper in the Northeast. Actually, he’s not very tall or heavy, but he does have more top-bar colonies (around 200) than anyone I know of except maybe Wyatt Mangum in Virginia, or Les Crowder in New Mexico. I always thought it would be great to have a top-bar hive or two and see what the bees would do inside; but I shuddered at the thought of trying to make a living from them. But Sam seems to be doing well selling top-bar boxes and top-bar nucs in the Hudson Valley.

Just out of college, Sam cut his teeth working for a couple of Vermont beekeepers, and later learned how to raise queens for them in South Carolina. He worked for another couple of outfits in Florida, before heading to Montana to work for a honey and pollination business based there. As Sam tells it, he worked pretty hard for a couple of years, and also built up a hundred or so colonies of his own– which he was allowed to bring along on the trucks to the almonds, and collect the pollination fee. I guess he always lived in the company trailers, and didn’t have much opportunity to spend money. So his back wages built up for quite awhile, and when he left and his employers bought out his bees, they had to pay him in one shot what a new doctor or a tenured professor might make as an annual salary. This allowed Sam to “retire” for awhile, and try to figure out an easier way to live around bees. That’s when he came back to his old haunts in the Hudson Valley, reverted to his hippy ways, and started his top-bar apiary (– keeping it completely untreated from the beginning. Sam brought some top-bar hives to the conference, and enjoyed manipulating them for us in his shorts and sleeveless T-shirt, without shoes or even a smoker. Some of us think Sam should be a little more responsible, but he does have a very large and entertaining store of beekeeping experience for someone as young as he is… Oh yes, he’s also written some great songs about what it’s like to be a worker, drone, or queen; and to be honest some of us strongly resent the fact that, no matter how smelly or dirty he is, the young women all cluster around him like flies around molasses…

Corwin Bell, another top-bar beekeeper from the Denver/Boulder Colorado area, has a wonderful and hilarious presentation about how he became a beekeeper, and all the painful lessons he had to endure in order to unlearn his initial training and allow the bees to thrive on their own. He now oversees a huge swarm “rescue” network of volunteers who save unwanted swarms and establish them in top-bar hives. His other career is in computer mapping, so he has a computer map of the location and status of all these semi-feral colonies, now numbering in the hundreds. Many of these hives are continuously occupied for several years, with almost no care or interference. Some of his apprentices are now starting spin-off programs in other western locations. (

Erik Osterlund has been one of my earliest, most steadfast and best friends during the years of struggling toward treatment-free beekeeping. Many long phone conversations have occurred between my home in Vermont and his in Sweden. Last summer marked the fourth time I’ve had the privilege of meeting him in person– each time here in the U.S. Erik works part-time as editor of the Swedish beekeeping magazine (Bitiningen), and part-time as a commercial beekeeper. In both of those capacities he has travelled to many distant countries to observe and report on bees, mites and beekeepers who have managed to live together in harmony. He was a long-time associate and disciple of Brother Adam, and still follows closely the breeding protocols of his mentor. The bees he has now are derived from Buckfast stock (which is quite popular in Sweden) with the addition of apis mellifera monticola, which he obtained on an expedition to Kenya together with other Scandinavian beekeepers.

I’ve described Erik many times as “the best prepared for the varroa invasion of any beekeeper I know, or can imagine.” Varroa didn’t reach his part of Sweden until three years ago, so he had to observe, test and select his bees in other mite-infested locations before the parasite reached his home apiary. He also downsized all of his combs to 4.9 size cells before the mite invasion. (More on this next month). Erik’s wide experience in both research and practice, his calm demeanor and deep religious faith gave the meeting a wonderful grounded quality, which might have been impossible to achieve by the rest of us AmErikan iconoclasts.

Mike Palmer is a very accomplished honey producer from Vermont who now has a rapidly growing queen and nuc production branch of his apiary as well. He is still using treatments on his bees, but we have hope for Mike, and he has fully embraced the principles of selection and rapid mid-summer propagation of nucleus colonies, which were essential to the success of myself and others who no longer treat. Mike likes nothing better then sharing what he knows, and he gave some great lectures and demonstrations about his methods, as well as his take on the current state of the honey market.

As part of the Vermont contingent, I put in my two cents, but my biggest contribution to the meeting may have been to convince Chris Baldwin to stop fretting over grasshoppers for a few days and join us in Leominster. Chris is a honey producer who raises his queens and nucs in Texas in the spring, and produces honey in S. Dakota during the summer. Aside from the Weavers, he has the largest apiary of untreated bees that I know of–1500-2000 honey producing colonies– and is also my best example of how larger apiaries can move to eliminate treatments. Chris got on board with the Russian bees a couple of years after I did, and just like all of us early converts, he endured some serious losses along the way, including an episode in July 2006 when two-thirds of his bees died in one day in S. Dakota when the temperature reached 124 degrees (F). But, by propagating his best survivors, flooding his mating area with his own drones, and rapidly propagating new colonies, his bees are now not just survivors of mites and virus, but also record high temperatures and even trips to the disease cesspool of California almonds. Unfortunately, despite his great success with breeding and propagating bees, his apiary has been held hostage for several years now by a terrible weather cycle in his part of S. Dakota. In addition to being a great beekeeper, Chris is a great guy who loves to share and help others, and we hope he can come to the meeting again next year. (

The cast of presenters was rounded out by Julian Wooten of N. Carolina, who gave an impromptu and entertaining talk about supplying the bees and training the actors for making the film: The Secret Life of Bees. And the last official talk was given by James Fearnley of Nature’s Laboratory LTD in England. Just as we were starting to become jaded by too much of a good thing, James roped us all in again with his fascinating accounts of a long career with beehive and botanical pharmaceuticals, and how these things are going to be absolutely essential to maintaining human health in the future. We all hope to see and hear more of him in the future as well.

Now, there’s one more show to report on, and I saved the best for last. These great presentations, the wonderful atmosphere and special camaraderie would never have come together in the same place if it wasn’t for Dean Stiglitz and Ramona Herboldsheimer. As far as I can tell they did 99% of the event planning and organization; and even with a good sized crew of family and friends helping out, they still managed to do about 60% of the work during the conference– including teaching a two-day beginners course and giving presentations themselves on management and hive microbes.

Dean and Ramona started out as many hobby beekeepers do now, struggling for years to keep their new package colonies alive, despite following all the standard advice. After hearing about, and then working with Dee Lusby, the bee fever really descended on them and took over their lives as they abandoned the “shoot-em-up” defensive school of beekeeping, and embraced a more positive and pro-active approach. Now they are basically trying, with their own bees, to find out how many of Dee’s management ideas are suitable for New England. They also have started bottling and selling different honeys from treatment-free apiaries. It’s noteworthy that they were sought out by the Penguin Group (of publishers) to write the beekeeping volume for the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” series. Penguin, on their own, decided this was the best way to portray beekeeping in general, and this is the only post-varroa book I know of entirely devoted to treatment-free beekeeping. (Other than needing more photos, it’s very good.) And then, in their spare time, they organize the conference…

It would be hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of organizing an event than these two did. The venue was beautiful, set in a preserved tract with footpaths thru the surrounding forest and fields. There were nice airy rooms inside and plenty of outdoor tables for eating and visiting. The food was wonderful, and anyone with the nerve to complain about the cost of the meeting should just save their money for a few trips to McDonalds– since the food by itself was worth more than the fee for the entire meeting. The talks were arranged so that a story line emerged and built on itself as the meeting progressed, and every evening people relaxed around the campfire, visiting, singing songs and telling stories into the wee hours…

Earlier I recommended this meeting to everyone searching hard for a more positive vision of beekeeping’s future. Dean and Ramona have found a new venue for the 2011 meeting that can accommodate both more people and more bees. So make your reservation soon (at It’s OK to be concerned and upset about the plight of the honeybee, but please bring an open heart and mind, and leave your pessimism and proprietary notions at home.

Leave a Reply