Sunday, October 18, 2015

Four Simple Steps to Healthier Bees

Watched this excellent talk by Michael Bush this morning. His four steps to healthier bees boil down to:
  1. No treatments
  2. Breeding local survivors
  3. Natural food
  4. Natural comb
Before this talk even began, I was already on the same page with him, but watched anyway because Michael is a terrific fountain of beekeeping knowledge and always teaches me something new.


  1. Thanks for finding this and sharing. I always enjoy listening to Michael and like you am generally on the same page. It even makes me more sorry that I treated my hive with folic acid this past year. I'm thinking of trying some langs next year (just for something new) and am planning to do foundationless frames if I do, so this was some good background. Have you ever measured your combs to check on the cell size? I keep meaning to but haven't yet.

    1. That's cool that you're going to start Langs! I've thought about it, but I'm not sure I can deal with the weight, especially after my experience trying to pick up a bunch of full honeycombs. Can't wait to hear how to compare them.

      Don't fret too much about treating with formic acid. What's done is done. Besides, every experience is a good tool for learning.

      Have never measured my combs because I don't have a metric ruler. (Lame!) However, I've deliberately avoided bees raised on 5.4 foundation (or on foundation at all). My bees come from Sam Comfort, who has been raising natural cell size bees for years and years, and from Wolf Creek, which raises 4.9 cell size bees. In any case, I feel like my bees were regressed a long time ago to whatever size they want to be, so I don't worry and let them build whatever they want. :-)

  2. Thanks for sharing, classic Michael Bush :). Genetic research has shown that there are specific traits some bees have that are specifically targeted at handling mites, so it is certainly possible. See for example Another interesting finding from Seeley is that the feral bees had a comb size of about 5.35mm, so bees can adopt to mites without going to small cell size.

    I like Michael Bush though he seems to encourage everyone to go treatment free regardless of the bees, rather than starting with the right kind of bees (like you did) to give the bees the best chance to survive. People like Kirk Webster say it takes three things to go treatment free: a healthy population of hives (like 20 or 30), roughly 3-4 years of time, and an isolated area to encourage the right genetics. Starting with a few hives of commercially treated bees, limited time, and an area already populated with beekeepers is a difficult situation and might be counterproductive. I know in the annual surveys in New Jersey, for example, almost twice as many untreated hives die off as treated hives each year, and density of beekeepers might have something to do with this.

    I ended up treating my commercial Italian bees (in a TBH) as you know, still holding out on my local Russian bees (in Langs) as they seem to be doing pretty well without treatment in their first year. Trying to figure out what do with them all next year, though I have some time for that. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. You raise some excellent points, Erik. Glad you brought these up. Definitely worth considering.

      Research is showing all the time that bees can adapt, and that's such a great story you provided. Recently, there was another cool story to come out of England. Declan Schroeder, a microbiologist, has been studying varroa-carried viruses. He compared the viruses in bees from a local TF apiary that was thriving vs. other non-TF apiaries that were experiencing hive losses from DWV, etc. Basically, he found that both sets of bees had high levels of viruses in their systems, but they had different variants. The TF bees had high levels of a variant that basically "innoculated" them against the more virulent forms. However, like you brought up, this type of adaptation doesn't occur overnight. The TF beek had been TF for about a decade or more, I believe.

      Going TF is a hard proposition for a lot of hobbyists because, like you rightly pointed out, we don't have 20 or 30 hives. Therefore, we might start out with 1 or 2, so even a 50% loss feels bigger somehow. Still there are a lot of people who want to do things "naturally" or "organically" and try going TF with bees that come from treated stock, which inevitably leads to huge numbers of hive crashes when these bees suddenly have all their props kicked out from under them. I don't have any info on the NJ statistics, but I wonder if this could be a factor in that high hive loss count for those TF beeks. (BTW, I try not to look at statistics too much because each hive is an individual entity. There are so many variables that could contribute to hive deaths that the stats don't really tell a full story to me. For example, commercial beeks who are highly experienced, are usually not TF. Most TF beeks are noobs -- myself included -- who are still learning the ropes and killing bees in all kinds of ways.)

      Recently a friend of mine asked me if my bees from Sam were "really magic bees." LOL! They're pretty awesome, but no, they're not. Although I just descried taking stats too much to heart, I think I saw some stats on winter hive losses not too long ago that were, nationwide, roughly the same for treated & untreated bees. However, the winter was truly awful last year, and cold, moisture, & starvation will kill any bee.

      Starting with TF bees like I did definitely provides an advantage. However, for people who want to go TF but can't get the bees, I always recommend getting a package of treated bees and requeening with a TF queen. This approach provides the convenience of being able to get bees, but also lets one acquire TF genetics.

    2. Kirk has a point. To go TF, one may need 20-30 hives, but I don't see why all the colonies have to belong to the same TF beek, particularly if there are local feral colonies. Seeley (I think it was Seeley anyway) did a study of local feral populations because he was concerned that their genetics were being watered down by managed, colonies (treated btw) in the area. What he discovered was that the feral colonies' genetics were actually improving genetic diversity in the managed colonies. Feral drones were more vigorous, more virile, and inseminated more queens than drones from local beeyards. Other studies have shown that treating affects bee fertility, so maybe this is why feral drones were better at mating.

      To this point, I think that if even if one person has bees that are better able to deal with winter/make more honey/repel mites, etc., the drones from that colony will go out and improve everyone's gene pool. Actually, one of my plans is to order a couple new TF queens from people like Kirk and Sam every year simply because I know their mating yards are saturated with TF bees. While all of my open-mated queens have been great, I do wonder what types of genes are coming back into my bee yard and don't want my genetics to get too watered down. So I figure by bringing in some new TF genes each year, I'm level setting for me while simultaneously introducing more diversity to the area.

      I certainly don't judge anyone who treats because we all have to do what works for us personally, and it can be really hard to lose all of one's bees. Been there, done that (though it was a bear that killed them, not bugs.) However, it can be a catch-22 trying to balance health & survival. Studies prove that treated bees are not nearly as vigorous or fertile as untreated. But if they survive to fight another day, then for some, treatment might be an acceptable price. Maintaining a TF apiary also has its advantages in terms of bee health and vigor, but the loss of a lot of bees on the way might be too steep a price for many people.

      To Bush's point, though, if we treat, it's hard to stop because without lab testing, it becomes impossible to identify bees that are able to survive on their own. Also, as hobbyists, we may never reach that critical mass of 20-30 hives where we say, "Ok, I can afford to lose a few now." Or we may never bee in a remote enough area to control all the genetics. (Shoot, I can't even control my 9-year old who breaks out into wild dance during the most inopportune times. LOL!)

      So it's a complicated situation, and I empathize with people on both sides of the debate. However, I hope that your bees overwinter beautifully. You shouldn't need to worry about the Russians too much. Mite loads are usually higher in 2nd year colonies.

      Thanks again for raising those excellent points. Will certainly have to think more on Kirk's recommendations.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!