The Best Kept Secret, Revisited
or: Beekeeping, Like the Phoenix, Rises From the Ashes…
by Kirk Webster of Middlebury, VT
“With continuous attention, the farm is pleasant, beautiful, amazing and easy to take care of. It is proof against all calamities and disasters. Without continuous attention, the farm is never ending work and difficulty…”
During more or less the last month of 1998, I wrote an essay called “The Best Kept Secret”, which was published by the Small Farmer’s Journal in the 1999 summer and fall issues. There, I tried to describe the wonderful world I had discovered when I was a teenager, and which had almost nothing to do with my upbringing; but which I somehow managed to thoroughly occupy during most of my life. This world is so different from the one that has been created by our industrial, electrocuted modern culture that we don’t even have good language to describe it. The closest one word description that we have is “farming”…
My own experience in farming has been centered around beekeeping; and in the fall of 1998, American beekeeping was about to encounter its most serious challenge, and undergo a complete transformation. Now, in the spring of 2014, both of these processes are still in full swing. The challenge came from a tiny parasitic mite (Varroa jacobsoni) that formerly lived in a normal, balanced parasitic relationship with a tropical Asian species of honeybee (Apis cerana). At some point, possibly 100 years ago, these mites began to infest “European” honeybees (Apis mellifera — the ones we use) in parts of China, Russia and Japan. By moving queen bees and honeybee colonies from one end of Russia to the other, and from Japan to South America, beekeepers began inadvertently moving these mites all over the world, and now they infest Apis mellifera colonies on every inhabited continent except Australia.
Varroa mites quickly became the most serious problem beekeepers in Europe and North America had ever encountered. European honeybees and Varroa Jacobson had no history of co-evolution, and this pest was much more devastating to its host than a parasite can usually afford to be. Varroa mites have the ability to spread rapidly from one colony to another. In the early years of the infestation, over 99% of affected honeybee colonies would perish — whether they lived in a managed apiary, or as a feral colony in a hollow tree — unless a beekeeper took drastic action to somehow kill most of the mites in the colonies at least once a year. Something quite difficult to do without killing the bees at the same time. This situation changed beekeeping overnight. Beekeepers went from being the last farming fraternity who were uniformly opposed to pesticides (especially insecticides, of course) — and had no need for them — to being reluctant, and later enthusiastic pesticide applicators themselves. Beekeeping had finally been forced into the mainstream of American agriculture and now, like many other American “farmers”, commercial beekeepers have abandoned their independence and wait, hat in hand, for the next piece of “expert advice” to tell them which miticide to apply this year. Meanwhile, the wax combs that the bees live on (and which also function as the “liver” of the colony by absorbing pollutants and poisons) are becoming contaminated and creating another serious stress for the bees to deal with. Other problems which bees and beekeepers have had to deal with at least since World War II — loss of habitat, environmental degradation, crop protection chemicals and a shrinking honeybee genetic pool — are all still with us and accelerating. To sum up we can say that honeybees have never had it so hard…
“The Best Kept Secret” (TBKS) was written in great haste at the end of 1998, because I knew that very soon I would have to deal with the situation described above. I wanted to record the wonderful, positive things I had learned and experienced — and which I knew could apply in many situations beyond my own — in case my personal story and momentum was swept away by the Varroa mite, and rapidly changing conditions for bees. I knew the next ten years or so would be very difficult — and I was certainly not disappointed…
It is my great pleasure to relate, however, that my sequel is a good-news story. Despite many setbacks and much more difficult conditions for the bees since 1998, my apiary has managed to survive, and even thrive during this difficult period — thanks to the guidance of my mentors and the experience, insights and habits that were built up during the years I described in The Best Kept Secret. I’ll be the first to admit that there were elements of serendipity that were enormously helpful to me, and which may indeed have protected me from a complete failure. I’ll describe for you the most important one:
There were actually two different, exotic mite pests that came to American honeybee colonies during the late 80’s and early 90’s. In my part of the country, the tracheal mite (Acarapis woodi) arrived first, in 1986 or ’87. This microscopic pest lives in the bees’ breathing tubes, and came originally from Europe, via Mexico. It was normally co-evolved with honeybee colonies in Europe for at least 100 years; but honeybees in North America had never been exposed to it, and heavy losses occurred when American bees encountered tracheal mites for the first time. In the days before mites, the normal winter loss of colonies in the northern U.S. was about five percent. When the T-mites came, American beekeepers often lost 50% or more of their total colony count during the winter. I myself lost 50% in three of the first five winters after that initial exposure. At the time, this seemed like the end of the world but, as I described in TBKS, I already had in place a method of propagating new colonies much faster than we did in the past. And these “nucleus” colonies — which were made up in the midsummer, and overwintered as a very small cluster — were for some, still unknown reason, not much affected by the T-mites over their first winter. This enabled me to replace my winter losses, and continue to expand the apiary size without buying any bees. In any case there was no effective treatment against the tracheal mite, and all beekeepers had to muddle through as best they could. Some commercial beekeepers went out of business, but many began migrating to the southern states to escape the long period of winter confinement, and split colonies during the early southern spring. (Tracheal mites shorten the lifespan of the winter bees — which destroys the colony during the cold weather when no new bees are hatching out.) This set the stage for the massive movement of honeybee colonies throughout the country, and the absorption of most commercial apiaries into the industrial ag system.
In my case it took about five years of rapidly propagating the best survivors, and then testing them against the Vermont winters, for the apiary to stabilize and return to low winter losses. This was an enormous relief, but something else happened here, way beyond my best expectations or hopes: The bees that remained in my equipment at the end of this process were far better than the bees I was so proud of before the mites arrived. They had much bigger winter clusters, and at the same time wintered on less food and still had plenty of reserves in the spring. They were tough as nails, and required very little management or attention. It finally dawned on me that the tracheal mites had selected these bees, with very little attention required on my part. My contribution was to rapidly propagate the best survivors, and then set up the new colonies so that all the healthy ones could easily survive the winter. This was a great example of Sir Albert Howard’s principle that pests and diseases should be viewed as friends and allies, and can point out where our practices are unbalanced or poorly adapted. The combination of breeding and management used together — which proved to be such a powerful tool for dealing with the tracheal mite — later became the basis for dealing with the much more difficult varroa mite as well. (Detailed descriptions of the philosophy and methods I use in the apiary can be found at www.kirkwebster.com. Most of these are articles published over many years in the beekeeping journals.)
If I hadn’t had this experience with the tracheal mite first, I would never have had the courage to attempt it with the varroa mite. The tracheal mite was a normally co-evolved parasite. This means the parasite lived together with its host, weakened them perhaps, but did not destroy more than a small percentage of the host colonies. Among the greater host population (total number of colonies in this case), there was a large variation in the response to infestation. Some colonies perished, some were weakened, and some were nearly unaffected. Even after a heavy winter loss, there were still many healthy colonies remaining, and the most resistant colonies were easy to identify. With a little help from me, the total colony count could recover in one season, and even grow.
The varroa mite however, was a much more difficult problem. After wiping out untold thousands of colonies in Asia, Europe and North America, it was given a new scientific name: Varroa destructor. Completely appropriate. It terrified us because there were apparently no survivors if an infestation was left unchecked. This mite had only recently started living together with our European honeybees, and they hadn’t learned yet how to co-exist. The pest was far more destructive to its host than a parasite can usually afford to be. Almost every single beekeeper in North America who wanted to continue with their trade or hobby had to change overnight from being an anti-pesticide activist, to being a pesticide applicator. I was one of them — I don’t believe there was an alternative at that time. The “wisdom” passed down to us from authorities was that “breeding bees resistant to varroa mites would be like breeding bees resistant to wolves”.
The enormous good news that I’m able to report now after almost fifteen years is that this last statement has turned out to be completely untrue. Despite denial, ridicule, occasional tepid support, ostracization, and even active interference from “certified” bee authorities, there are now a handful of commercial beekeepers and a small battalion of hobby beekeepers who keep their bees alive from one year to the next, producing honey, pollen, propolis, bee venom and surplus bees; and use no treatments of any kind. In my own case, I started using the Apistan strips that everyone used at the beginning. They worked like a miracle at first; quickly killing all (actually almost all) the mites in the hive without apparently harming the bees. At least it was a synthetic pyrethroid product with very low toxicity to mammals (like us). It was really easy and the beekeeping world heaved a huge sigh of relief — then went right back to beekeeping-as-usual, plus chemical treatments. But I was still lying awake most nights in a cold sweat. This was a train wreck waiting to happen. Mites are notorious for quickly developing resistance to pesticides, and I didn’t expect this mite to be any different. I was determined to find another way of dealing with this problem by the time varroa became resistant to the Apistan strips.
(footnote: It’s hard not to point out here that the useable lifespan of a safe and effective product like Apistan could have been doubled by simply alternating annual treatments of Apistan with formic or oxalic acid. The tactic of applying different materials in alternate years in order to delay the development of pesticide resistance has been well established in crop protection circles forever, and why it was not used in this case, when the whole insect-pollinated food supply hung in the balance, can only be explained by conspiracy theorists and the inmates of mental institutions. This could have freed up a crucial amount of time for developing alternative, better strategies for dealing with the problem. As it turned out, hardly any beekeepers or researchers used what time they had to even try to find alternatives. Apistan was effective for five or six years, and then the industry and regulators moved on to much more dangerous and toxic mite treatments — setting the stage for the honeybee collapse that’s in progress today.)
Meanwhile, some chinks were starting to appear in the varroa’s armor. After initial infestation, and the complete colonization of all honeybee colonies, the parasite’s virulence began to back off a couple of notches. This is what any ecologist would expect to happen in such a situation, as Nature always does her best to move toward some kind of balance. After two or three years, a few colonies started popping up that had survived without any treatments; some were feral colonies in hollow trees or in the walls of houses, and some were “domesticated” bees in abandoned bee yards. The highly aggressive and difficult to manage Africanized bees in Texas and Arizona turned out to have a fair amount of resistance to the varroa mite, with up to half of the colonies surviving the first wave of infestation. So, there was hope that Apis mellifera might be able to co-exist with Varroa destructor, and that such bees could be selected and propagated.
The real breakthrough came when the bees from Russia’s far east, near China and Japan, were imported into the U.S., and later released to American beekeepers. This brilliant, well planned and extremely well executed piece of work was done by the very same USDA (well… same USDA, different people) that I have been criticizing all along. But they hit it right this time. Dr. Tom Rinderer and his colleagues at the USDA Bee Lab in Baton Rouge went to the one place in the world where European honeybees and Varroa destructor had lived together for the longest amount of time — perhaps 100 years. They ascertained that the bees and mites were in fact coexisting, and that beekeeping was thriving there. Big crops of honey were being produced with very few mite treatments. They brought back enough queen bees so that even after going through the strict mandatory quarantine they still had a viable gene pool to work with. After testing to ascertain that the new bees were resisting mites in North America the same way they were in Russia, the Russian bees were released to any interested American beekeeper. But they didn’t stop there — the release was done in such a way that the whole gene pool would be preserved, and so that American beekeepers would get optimum results without troubles due to inbreeding. In complete honesty and without any exaggeration, I can say that this piece of work has been of more practical help to me than all of the bee research done in North America during the last fifteen years, put together. So, even though the USDA has been complicit in many of the small farmers’ most difficult problems, it is still possible for something helpful to emerge there. Unfortunately, the trend is still against us, as we’ll see a little later.
The Russian bees are not immune to the varroa mite — far from it. But they do have several mechanisms and strategies that we know of (and certainly others that we don’t know) that allow them to co-exist, and keep the annual damage at a level that can be repaired by the bees’ natural ability to reproduce. The most important thing is that these bees are still a “wild type”, and capable of further improvement. “Wild Type” means that, though they are distinctive in appearance and behavior, they still have a deep gene pool and a good deal of variability within the whole population (total number of colonies in this case). Russian bees also have many other positive traits that are sought after by beekeepers: They are gentle, and easy to work with; resilient; conservative with their food stores; and very sensitive to changes in their environment. They can resist other bee diseases and — best of all in my location — they have a huge desire to gather nectar, and overwinter well with small clusters.
They do have one major flaw: Their population dynamics in general are very different from the more familiar Italian bee, and in particular they are very determined to swarm in the early summer — whether they appear to be crowded or not. This one characteristic is probably most of the reason why these bees have not been adopted wholesale by the American beekeeping community. So far, most beekeepers are content to use Italian bees, plus chemical treatments. After all, this is what they are advised to do by the beekeeping research and extension communities.
Besides the presence of varroa mites, and the downward spiral they have triggered in the beekeeping community, there is another aspect of beekeeping that has completely changed in the last fifteen years. For the first time in my life, the public in general is very aware of honeybees and their plight. During the first half of my career, most of the general public knew almost nothing about bees of any kind. Now everyone knows something about them, and many people follow the ongoing story in some detail. In fact, if you haven’t heard the latest press release about honeybee decline, you can pretty much just stop someone randomly in the street and find out. Bees have made it into the news and the public consciousness. In some ways this is wonderful, and hugely important. The pollination issue and potential threats to the food supply have applied enormous leverage on people’s understanding of the interconnectedness of Nature and the importance of farmers and beekeepers. It’s like we’ve been promoted from being curiosities to being valuable members of society. In the middle of nowhere, people I’ve never seen before will stop me on the road, just to tell me how glad they are that I’m out there keeping some bees alive. Go into any store or the bank — if they know you keep bees, they want to know all the latest…