WASHINGTON POST – Honey bee colonies have been dying more often than ever in recent years, largely due to a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.
Parasites and the stresses of commercial beekeeping practices have contributed to the problem, according to Cornell University professor emeritus Thomas D. Seeley, who studies the behavior and social life of honey bees.
“In the past, a beekeeper would expect to lose 10 to 20 percent of their colonies in a year, mostly during the winter,” he said. “Now the mortality in colonies can be 80 percent.”
Bees have been around for about 120 million years, said Brenda Kiessling, a retired physician and certified master beekeeper with the Eastern Beekeeping Society of North America in Vienna, Virginia.
They have proven that they can adapt to changing conditions. “They survived on their own and had to adapt,” said Kiessling, who has been raising honeybees since the early 1970s. “They experienced ice ages and rain storms. Somehow, they survived.”
That knowledge has led Seeley, along with Kiessling and other researchers and hobbyist beekeepers, to delve into Darwin’s beekeeping over the past decade.
What was once a niche practice is becoming more popular among hobbyists. It focuses on creating optimal conditions for bees to make honey while mimicking how Apis mellifera lives in the wild.
This means housing colonies in small hives that replicate the size of a natural nest cavity, spacing hives apart to prevent the spread of parasites from one colony to another, and locating them away from areas treated with insecticides.
Kiessling has been following these rules for the past three years with the bees she keeps at Sandy Spring Gardens in Ashton, Maryland.
But first, he spent nearly a decade reading and researching, including listening to several of Seeley’s lectures on the practice.
Seeley addresses this topic in the final chapter of The Bee’s Life: The Untold Story of the Wild Honey Bee. The term “Darwinian beekeeping” refers to Charles Darwin’s principle that over time natural selection gives species the ability to survive and reproduce.
“If you let an animal live naturally, it can use its whole toolbox and skills to survive and reproduce,” said Seeley, who studies honeybees in the wild in Arnot Forest outside Ithaca, New York. “But when you take any animal and force it to live in a different way, those tools aren’t allowed to work very well.”
The experiment addresses several reasons behind colony collapse. In the United States (USA), a parasite called the Varroa mite, which is not unique to honey bee species, infects them with a deformed wing virus.
Mites can attack honey bees while they are developing. “They come out with shriveled wings and they’re pretty helpless and desperate,” Seeley said.
Fighting the virus starts with getting bees with good genes, Seeley said. “The hobby that beekeepers are taught is that you buy your hive in the winter and nail it and paint it. Then in the spring you order a package of bees from Florida or Georgia and those bees are just garbage,” Seeley said.
In the commercial queen production industry, queen bees are produced on a large scale, bred for large colony size and high honey production, but they are usually not mite resistant.
In the wild, by contrast, adult worker bees (the queen’s daughters) have evolved to kill Varroa mites by biting their legs. This adaptation is better than using miticides to kill the parasite. “Let the bees show you which ones can survive,” Seeley said.
To get mite-resistant honey bees, beekeepers can trap wild swarms by placing forage hives in remote locations away from colonies maintained by beekeepers, Seeley said.
In the spring, when the hive becomes too crowded, the queen and half of the colony will migrate or leave the colony to find a new home. Kiessling recommends catching herds while walking on a tree branch or bush. They may be waiting there for days or minutes, looking for a new home, so you have to work fast.
“If you’re lucky, (the herd) is on the lower branch,” he said. “You can just put your trash can under it and shake it in.”
At other times, searching for the flock can be more dangerous and may involve climbing trees and cutting branches.
Ultimately, you want to raise a colony with a good queen that can survive the winter. Without a queen, a colony cannot survive for long; she lays eggs to produce bees in the colony.
The first winter Kiessling Darwin tried his hand at beekeeping, only one of his colonies survived, so he removed the queen from the colony to freshen it up. To create an additional colony, the queen moved to a new hive. Another winter passed and the queen colony survived, so Kiessling found the queen again and removed her to start a new colony.
Colony mortality is also caused by the stresses associated with migratory beekeeping.
Commercial honey bee colonies are trucked across the country to pollinate almond fields, including in California’s Central Valley, where they are overcrowded and exposed to pesticides.
“They’ve been moved into a slum-like situation, and that’s a great place for the Varroa parasite to move from highly infected colonies to other colonies and infect them,” Seeley said.
Hobbyists have long modeled their ways after commercial beekeeping practices of keeping bees in large hives close to other colonies to maximize honey production.
Seeley sees a shift in that mindset.
“(Commercial beekeepers) are admired for being able to handle a lot of people, but there’s a growing interest in hobbyist beekeepers for kinder and gentler beekeeping,” Seeley said.
“The approach is to be kind and respectful of the ways they have adapted to live and allow them to live naturally and thus allow them to use their survival tools.”
For this, you need to imitate their natural environment. For example, space out hives to prevent bees from drifting from one colony to another and reduce the spread of disease.
In the wild, wild colonies are usually three-thirds of a mile apart, but separating hives over large distances in a hobbyist’s yard is a challenge.
“Unless you live in a rural area, it’s unrealistic for most beekeepers,” Seeley said. In a suburban setting, Seeley recommends having one or two hives with at least 100 feet between colonies. “You do the best you can,” said Kiessling, who places his hives about 300 to 600 feet apart.
Other steps include roughening the interior walls of the hive by scratching the wood with a rasp to encourage the production of propolis, resins, beeswax, and other materials made by the bees, or building the hive with rough-cut lumber to strengthen the colony. the ability to fight against bacterial and fungal infections. Use thick, insulated wooden hives that are set high off the ground. Place them away from plants treated with insecticides and fungicides, near wetlands, forests, and fields with access to a variety of pollinators and clean water.
Also house colonies in small hives that mimic the size of a natural nest cavity. Thus, in the spring, the colony becomes overcrowded and forces the bees to reproduce, which creates a chain of beneficial effects: Within a few weeks, there are no young bees in the colony that the Varroa mite can infect, and the colony can renew itself. to create a new queen.
“When they thrive, be happy and don’t think of it as a failure,” Seeley said. “In most beekeeping, historically, that would have been a failure. You lose labor and honey. Be content with a small harvest of honey.”