Beekeeping really started in ancient times with honey hunting and humans harvesting the honey from hives in tree cavities. Traditional honey bee hives kept by the first beekeepers were either conical skeps made of straw or wicker plus mud or wax or cylinders of clay. The problem with these hives is that you have to destroy them to harvest the honey because the comb is fixed (not movable) inside the hive. Skeps are now illegal in some places because they foster poor management and promote disease.
The three most common modern beehive designs are the Langstroth hive, the Warre hive, and the Kenyan Top Bar hive. Of these, the Langstroth hive (invented by Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth) is by far the most common. One advantage of all of these hives is removable frames that help a beekeeper test for diseases such as Varroa mites and harvest honey without destroying the colony. Langstroth hives and Warre hives are vertical hives, but in Langstroth hives the honey supers go on top of the hive with the brood on the bottom, whereas in a Warre hive, the brood is on the top and the honey is on the bottom. Top Bar hives are horizontal hives with brood in the middle and honey on the edges.
There are probably hundreds of different hive designs out there, some designed for aesthetics (garden hives) and some for specific purposes like queen breeding (queen hotels). Still others are meant to simulate the natural habitat of honey bees (log hives). While others try to streamline aspects of beekeeping such as honey harvesting (Flow Hive). Starting out with a more common beehive design will probably help you overcome the steep learning curve in beekeeping and make it a more enjoyable experience.
More Information: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-secret-to-the-modern-beehive-is-a-one-centimeter-air-gap-4427011/
Propolis is a sticky substance made from the resin of certain trees. It is found inside honey bee hives coating the walls and sealing gaps. It not only helps to make the hive waterproof and airtight, but also is antimicrobial, acting as part of the honey bee super organism immune system. Some people take propolis orally (usually in a capsule or tincture) in the hopes that it will boost their immune system. Unfortunately, there is not much hard science to support this practice.
Studies have shown that honey bee colonies that collect and use more propolis in their hives have lower incidence and better recovery from diseases like American Foulbrood (AFB), chalkbrood, and Nosema. Unfortunately, because it is sticky and makes it hard to inspect hives, beekeepers have been actively breeding out bee strains who collect and use lots of propolis. This, along with Varroa mites, may be one reason for the current high rate of colony loss.
The trees that honey bees collect propolis from most often in Michigan are poplars and cottonwood trees. If bees do not have access to these trees, they may collect other sticky substances such as asphalt. Bees who collect propolis will only forage for propolis and never for pollen, water, or nectar. The resin is stored in the forager bee’s pollen basket, but when she returns to the hive, she will require another bee’s help to bite away the collected resin.
More Information: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xsj8mB4KKZs
In the last post we discussed the different subspecies of Apis mellifera, the Western honey bee, the species of honey bee kept by beekeepers in the United States. From these subspecies, people have bred certain strains or stocks of bees. This selective breeding is usually done to preserve certain desirable traits, usually disease or mite resistance. The definitions of strains, stock, lines, and breeds of bees is a little murky and sometimes purebred subspecies of A. mellifera are also referred to as strains, stocks, lines, or breeds.
Some common honey bee stocks include: Buckfast, Saskatraz, Purdue Ankle-Biter (PAB), Varroa Sensitive Hygienic (VSH), feral chewers, and “survivor stock.” The Buckfast bee line is a subspecies of A. mellifera (A. m. buckfast) and was developed by a monk in England to fight the devastation wrought on English bees in the early 1900s by the tracheal mite. These are a combination of Italian bees and German bees. Saskatraz bees are from a breeding program in Saskatchewan, Canada whose primary goal was increased honey production (anecdotal reports say they are also resistant to Varroa mites). All the rest of the mentioned strains have been bred for either general disease (VSH) or Varroa mite resistance. “Survivor stock” are from overwintered colonies who survived Varroa mites with only rigorous IPM mite management and no chemical treatments. PABs and feral chewers are known for their increased grooming habits which include chewing the legs off of the adult mites and killing them.
It is difficult to selectively breed bees because the queens mate away from the hive with 10-20 different drones from multiple colonies that are not their own. This maintains the genetic diversity which is normally better for keeping a colony healthy and prevents inbreeding. Unfortunately, this also means that most beekeepers have no control over the genetics their queens return with after a mating flight. Selective breeding programs either artificially inseminate the queens with sperm from drones with the desired genetic trait, or supersaturate the miles surrounding the queen’s hive with drones with the desired genetic trait.
More Information: https://honeybeehealthcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Commercial_Beekeeping_062121.pdf (page 3)
There are between 7 and 11 different species of honey bees. For example, Apis cerana, the Eastern or Asian honey bee is the original host for the Varroa mite, but is not found in North America. Apis dorsata, the giant honey bee, is also only found in South and Southeast Asia. Apis koschevnikovi inhabits Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo. Again, there are no native honey bees in North America, but the colonists brought over Apis mellifera, Western honey bees, and they have been present in North America ever since.
Within the species Apis mellifera, there are 26 recognized subspecies. The most widely known subspecies is Apis mellifera scutellata, better known as the “Africanized” honey bee. Other common European subspecies of Apis mellifera include: Apis mellifera ligustica (Italian honey bee), A. mellifera carnica (Carniolan honey bee), A. m. mellifera (German black bee), A. m. caucasia (Caucasian honey bee), and A. m. artemisia (Russian honey bee).
Many bees in North America have become hybrids of these subspecies, so bees not obtained from a certified breeder will probably have mixed genetics from more than one of these subspecies. Generally, overwintered MI bees are considered “Michigan mutts.” However, some beekeepers choose to start with or maintain more pure lines of bees or hybrid bees that are a cross between certain subspecies based on the traits of those subspecies. For example, many people prefer Italians because of their calm temperament and increased honey production. Others prefer Russian bees for their reported Varroa mite resistance. Most beekeepers in the U.S. try to avoid keeping bees with Apis mellifera scutellata genetics because they tend to be super defensive bordering on aggressive, sting more frequently, swarm more often, and produce little honey. However, they are routinely kept by African beekeepers.
More Information: https://bee-health.extension.org/subspecies-the-place-of-honey-bees-in-the-world/
Many people get into beekeeping to “save the bees,” and honey bees have become a vital part of our agricultural system, pollinating crops such as almonds, blueberries, and apples. Unfortunately, honey bees are not native to North America, so keeping honey bees to “save the bees” is a lot like keeping backyard chickens to help with the plight of the Kirtland’s Warbler. Worse, when uneducated beekeepers fail to manage their colonies properly, they spread pests and diseases to our native bees, doing harm instead of good.
I am NOT saying that we shouldn’t keep honey bees. I enjoy keeping bees, love honey, and have no intention of giving that up. However, what I am saying is that there are much better things to do to “save the bees” than to become a beekeeper. These include, but aren’t limited to, planting native forage, never planting ornamental flowers, limiting or stopping the use of pesticides in your yard, encouraging your local government to plant community gardens of native plants, cutting down on the amount of lawn you have and replacing it with native plants, supporting bee-friendly farms, planting bee-friendly trees, and donating to organizations who support pollinator education and conservation.
Consider also that honey bees often compete with native bees for our dwindling floral resources. Since the 1930s, the United States has lost a staggering 97% of wildflower meadows, leaving little forage for our native bees. Additionally, honey bees are often attracted to invasive plant species such as star thistle, proliferating this noxious weed.
More Information: https://www.nwf.org/Home/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2021/June-July/Gardening/Honey-Bees
A hive inspection is a thorough examination and recording of the status of a hive including the contents of every frame. This is usually only done once a year. Most of the time beekeepers will be performing a hive check. For a typical hive check, the beekeeper is looking for 4 things: 1) Is the hive queenright?, 2) Does the hive have enough of the right kind food for the time of year?, 3) Does the hive have the proper amount of space for the time of year? 4) Are there any signs of disease or pest issues (i.e. doing a mite test)? Other more specific checks might be looking for things like queen cells or a virgin queen or if an introduced queen has been accepted, checking to see if a mite treatment was successful (i.e. retesting a hive for Varroa mites), finding and marking a new queen, or checking to see if two hives combined successfully.
Before a beekeeper enters their apiary, they should have a plan for what they are going to do with each hive and the proper equipment to perform the checks, including some form of record keeping to keep track of what they intended to do and what they actually did. The beekeeper’s plan should include contingencies, for example, what to do if one of the hives is queenless or if one of the hives needs more space or if a Varroa mite test reveals the need to treat the whole apiary. This may also entail bringing extra equipment or mite treatments to the bee yard.
Checking if a hive is queenright doesn’t necessarily mean finding the queen. Often it is difficult for new beeks (beekeepers) to find an unmarked queen, but fortunately the presence of single eggs in the middle of the floor of a cell is a sign that a queen was present in the hive at least 3 days ago. Likewise, the presence of small, C-shaped larvae indicates a queen’s presence in the hive at least 6 days ago. Hives should have abundant pollen stores in the spring and summer for brood rearing and abundant honey stores in the fall for the winter. Bees generally require more space in the spring and summer less in the fall and winter. A careful inspection of the brood chamber and a Varroa mite check will often warn you of the presence of pests or pathogens.
More Information: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CohtHUThEVc
Acids (& oils)
The next level of the IPM pyramid is where intervention/treatment begins with what are termed “soft” chemicals. These are naturally occurring acids and essential oils commercially formulated for maximum efficacy against Varroa mites with minimal harm to your bees. “Soft” chemical acids include HopGuard 3, FormicPro, MiteAway Quick Strips, and Oxalic Acid. “Soft” essential oil treatments include formulations containing menthol and thymol like ApiLife Var. At the top of the pyramid are “hard” chemicals or conventional pesticides, to which Varroa mites have already developed resistance in some cases. These include amitraz (Taktic, Apivar), tau-fluvlinate, and coumaphos.
Any chemical treatment needs to be used with the utmost care with thought given to the temperature, time of year, whether or not honey supers are present, if there is brood present in the hive, and what protection needs to be worn by the beekeeper when administering the treatment. It is illegal to apply chemical treatments to your hive in a manner inconsistent with the instruction label. It is illegal to apply pesticides (including essential oils) to your hives that have not been approved for use as Varroa mite treatment in honey bees. When treating, it is best to treat all hives in an apiary at the same time. This prevents the mites from "hive-hopping" from the treated hive to an untreated hive.
Do you know what doesn’t work as a treatment? Doing nothing, letting your bees “develop resistance” against Varroa, letting the “weak” bees die (this is animal cruelty), and creating Varroa bombs that infect your neighbor’s hives and the local native bee population. “Treatment-free” does not mean doing nothing. In fact, it is a rigorous system of integrated pest management that includes actively euthanizing mite-susceptible hives. For most new beekeepers, this is not a viable strategy for mite control.
More Information: https://honeybeehealthcoalition.org/varroatool/
The first step to integrated pest management of Varroa mites is testing your hives about once a month to monitor your mite levels so that you can treat at the appropriate time with the appropriate treatment. There are 2 validated testing methods for Varroa mites: 1) the powdered sugar roll, and 2) the alcohol wash. Of the two, the alcohol wash is easier and more accurate, but it does kill the tested bees (although properly done, the powdered sugar roll will also probably kill some bees). Both tests require 300 bees (½ a cup) collected from the brood chamber. Sticky boards are often advertised as a non-invasive way to test for Varroa mites, but these are not an accurate or useful way to test your mite levels. Testing is crucial to mite control because treating at the wrong time can be harmful to your bees and create resistance in the mites. There is an app called MiteCheck to help guide you in testing your bees for Varroa mites.
Think of IPM as a pyramid. At the bottom are preventative techniques and at the top are interventions/treatments. The base of preventative techniques is termed cultural. These include culling old comb (Varroa prefer old comb), introducing mite-resistant bee stock into your apiary such as Purdue Ankle-Biters, VSH (Varroa Sensitive Hygienic) or Saskatraz, and breaking the brood cycle (because the mites reproduce in the brood). Some models will also list small-cell comb as a cultural control, but recent studies have proven this is not an effective control of Varroa mites.
Next are physical or mechanical techniques. These include drone board removal or drone-trapping (which physically removes mites from the hive), screened bottom boards (which may prevent mites groomed from adult bees from crawling back on bees), and new products which heat the hives to temperatures at which mites cannot live. Some models will also list powdered sugar as a physical control of Varroa mites, but scientific studies have shown that the periodic application of powdered sugar by sprinkling it into hives is ineffective in controlling Varroa mites.
Varroa mites breed exponentially. This means that an untreated, unmanaged hive with one mite in the spring will have thousands of mites by the fall. To make matters worse, the mite population of the hive is peaking just as the adult bee population of the hive is dwindling and just as special winter bees are being made to try to ensure the survival of the hive through the winter. The physical and physiological damage that the mites cause means that even if the hive technically survives to winter, the winter bees of the infected hive will likely be small and weaker than those of a healthy hive and the colony will not survive the winter.
One thing that sounds counterintuitive when it comes to Varroa mites is that big, booming colonies are more affected by mites than smaller, weaker colonies. This is because the mites breed inside the brood and a large hive with tons of brood will also therefore have a much higher mite load. Smaller colonies don’t have as much brood for the mites to “hide” in and breed in, and adult mites on adult bees may be groomed off by other bees. Unfortunately for beekeepers, it is often their largest, most “successful” hives that succumb to Varroa mites.
Varroa mites reproduce inside the capped brood cells of honey bees. The adult females can sense when a cell is about to be capped and jump into the cell and hide under the bee larva until the cell is capped. When the larva begins to pupate, the foundress mite feeds on the pupa and begins to lay her eggs. The first egg is always a male and the subsequent eggs are all females. When the eggs hatch the female mites will breed with the male mite and when the weakened adult bee emerges from the cell, the mated females (including the foundress) will escape and find adult bees to attach to. Varroa mites prefer to reproduce in drone brood cells because drones take longer to mature and therefore more of the mite eggs will have time to hatch and mate releasing more mature, adult mites on average.
More Information: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6y9FqNw6y8
All honey bee colonies, except those which are extremely isolated with no other hives in at least a 12-mile radius, are affected by Varroa mites or subject to infection through visiting the same flowers as infected bees, robbing hives infected by Varroa, “drift” (bees coming home to the wrong hive) of bees from infected hives, and most importantly from hives that have become “Varroa bombs.” A Varroa bomb is a colony that has become so infested with Varroa mites, that the remaining live bees all abscond (leave in mass) from the hive and fly off in every direction to find a new hive. These bees spread the mite infection far and wide and can cause a rapid and fatal increase in Varroa mites, even in a previously uninfected hive.
Beekeeping in North America is now much more difficult due to this insidious parasite. Large for mite, Varroa is still nearly impossible to spot on a honey bee because it often hides between the plates of exoskeleton on the bee’s abdomen where it punches a hole in the bee’s cuticle and feeds on the adult bee’s fat bodies. Varroa also damages bee pupae when it reproduces inside capped brood cells and feeds off the developing brood. As if this was not enough damage, Varroa mites have also been shown to spread bee viruses such as Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) and activate bee viruses already present in a colony.
In 1985 beekeeping in North America was forever changed by the introduction of the Varroa destructor mite from Asia where it is a parasite of the Asian honey bee, Apis cerana. Apis cerana, having evolved alongside the Varroa mite, has developed multiple strategies for dealing with it. Unfortunately, Apis mellifera, the Western honey bee and the bee kept by almost all beekeepers in North America, did not evolve with this mite, and has had little time to adapt to Varroa destructor.
More Information: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0135103