On Saturday 21st October 2017 we were very pleased to welcome Ron Hoskins of the Swindon Honeybee Conservation Group to talk about his research into varroa tolerant bees.
On the face of it the words ‘varroa tolerant bees’ is not quite believable given that we as beekeepers are told that we must treat our bees for varroa by those who ‘know’. Those who surely know more than us the simple beekeeper. We have to fork out often hundreds of pounds to ply our lovely bees with nasty chemicals. Are there really no other alternatives and what are the side effects?
The WBKA in recent years carried out a survey (page 25) asking its beekeepers how many hives they lost; those beekeepers who treat for varroa and those who don’t. The findings showed that the beekeepers who didn’t treat for varroa lost fewer colonies over winter.
Beekeepers who don’t treat are castigated by the community for overloading everyone else’s colonies with their varroa ridden bees as they abscond from their own colony to live with another colony as their colony dies away. All I ask is ‘where is the evidence for this’. Is it any wonder that approximately half of the beekeepers in Wales prefer not to join an association when they are almost ordered to treat their bees with no hard evidence.
Earlier this year I visited Ron at his group’s breeding apiary. Ron and his team monitor several characteristics of colonies including varroa drop, but they look for more than just the numbers dropping they are looking for the percentage of bees that have bite marks on them. Why?
In the mid 1990s Ron noticed that the varroa from one colony had ‘bite’ marks on it whereas the varroa from others didn’t. He stopped treating the colony with damaged mites for varroa and it thrived.
Ron and the team have worked tirelessly since then to find evidence for the hypotheses that bees bite varroa from each other. He has an observation hive in his apiary laboratory and managed to film one bee pulling a varroa from another. Now the bees can remove varroa themselves from much of their body, but when the varroa embeds itself between thorax and abdomen on the upper side of the bee, it simply can’t access it. This is when Ron filmed a bee removing a varroa from such a position on another bee with its mouth parts.
Ron and the team have observed other varroa related hygienic behaviour including the bees removing pupae that have varroa on them. Ron noticed the white antenna of the pupae appearing on the floor as well as young under developed varroa This triggered him to investigate further and to film bees removing varroa infested pupae.
Deformed wing virus DWV is also related to an over infestation of varroa. Working with an entomologist and a virologist (marine biology) it was found that Ron’s bees had a type of DWV that the bees can live quite happily with. As Ron explains the entomologist is an insect specialist but not a virus expert. As beekeepers we need the two to work together.
Ron has not seen a bee with DWV in his colonies, yet his bees thrive alongside varroa. How closely do you look at your bees? Ron explained about the different causes for wings being deformed and the key one really is full grown adult bees with deformed wings. You may also have seen small bees with deformed wings, this is caused by the varroa sucking so much of the bodily fluids, up to 60% from the bee. Also bees with wings that are ‘points’. Apparently this is because the bees cannot pump th wings up. Note the differences.
I can only provide a taster of Ron’s talk to us today, but I will continue to visit him, I will start to look for varroa with bite marks in colonies I have that don’t have DWV. I will treat colonies that I feel need treating, but not those that I judge don’t need it. In the meantime I aim to look out for those key pointers relating to hygienic bees. I also feel that breeding queens by AI using the semen from the Swindon bees can be a step to our local bees becoming more varroa hygienic.
Many thanks again the Ron and Eddy Eggleston for visiting us today.
Also special thanks to those who brought cake with them! Claire, Sue, Lyn and Alan and everyone who helped to make this a successful session