Practical tips to achieve varroa resistant bees

Recipe for Success

To succeed, we must have a good concept. We are fortunate that we can rely on the experiences of many beekeepers who have already paved the way for us.

Fortunatelly we were able now to establish a new concept, through the help of experienced small cell beekeepers,  how you can start sucessfully with small cell hives where other hives are nearby. The problem radicates in migration and reinfection by Varroa mites.

–> new concept

In the 90s Erik had a brilliant idea. At that time, there were already some beekeepers around the world, who had managed to breed resistant bees. He wrote to his colleagues about his experience, and asked them to describe theirs. The underlying idea was that if they all had done it, or had partially succeeded in breeding bees that fought back against the disease by themselves, there must be, in all these different forms of management, some truth. Back then the Internet was not yet as widespread as it is today, these beekeepers had little contact with each other – thus they had all achieved it in their own way. Erik said – if we make a summary of all the different experiences, we would have some very useful guidelines to get to our main aim, resistant bees. This summary of experience has existed since 2004.

Dee Lusby has 25 years of experience in dealing with disease-resistant, small cell bees without any treatment, so in addition with Erik’s study success is very likely.

I am now trying to form a concept from these sources that will include the most important points, from which we can develop a very good starting point.

First, we should accustom our bees to small cells – reduction of distance between frames or thickness of frames to 32mm

Then we should consider the natural arrangement of the combs.

– At the beginning we should work only with nucsuntil 80% of the bees can survive on their own. This means that we wait until a colony has nearly filled the box, and then instead of supering it, we make a nuc with the queen. We take 3 or 4 sealed brood combs, the queen, honey and pollen, and put all of them in a different box or nuc, and place it in the same yard, but orienting the entrance in a different direction. This means that the parent colony has a breeding break, because they raise a new queen and the nuc as well, since all the flying bees return to the parent colony. So we have created in both an advantage in terms of Varroa reproduction. If this whole thing is made very strong, with plenty of bees, lots of capped brood and a lot of food, we will be soon able to repeat the same process. Thus we are able to quickly build a nice collection of small cell colonies.

Manage all the colonies in the apiary the same way (do not mix large and small cell colonies)

Spread the colonies out in the apiary, have them as far away from each other as possible, to avoid drifting.

Only place 6-12 colonies in each apiary to begin with. If you loose all colonies in an apiary due to domino effects, you won’t lose all of them.

Plan for more than one small apiary (placed”together”), as isolated as possible from other bees.

The best colonies are placed in the center apiary, the worse are placed further away. The new queens bred are mated in the center of these project apiaries, or in the center apiary.

Also try to make sure that apiaries that may spread mites heavily aren’t placed close to your project apiaries.

Use no chemical whatsoever in the project .

– Mite populations have to be kept low to hinder re-infestation of other colonies this is possible by other means, for example by removing all capped brood in two stages, with for example 9 days in between. Remember this is not done to keep good a producing colony alive, but to hinder re-infestation of the other colonies.

– Make sure, or as sure as possible, that you have a healthy microfauna in your colonies, or try to improve it, by for example get a nontreated colony from somewhere to mix in these bees and combs with your bees.

– Use combs which are drawn on wax foundation made from as chemical free wax as possible

– Try to leave as much honey as possible for winter food. After all that’s what the bees ”expect” for winter food.

– if problems appear in the first autumn, we can use powdered sugar to help. Also if there is strong re-infection by mites from other hives we can apply this same type of treatment.

– Teach the bees to build no more than 10% drone brood on any comb. This means cut out a small corner on each foundation sheet, where the bees will then rear their drone brood, and then in every inspection of the hives , cull step by step, any combs that have more than 10% drone brood.

– Ensure Accurate recording of each hive in every inspection

– no migration of hives

In the beginning, if we just start with nucs, the problem of the varroa mite is kept to a minimum. 

I have to add what is happening in the nucs then.
Since we form the nucs with 3 to 4 sealed brood combs, we soon  have a lot of young emerged bees.
A 4.9 mm Langstroth comb has 8600 cells (a 5.44 mm has only 7000 cells) and if we assume that a brood comb has 2/3 brood cells, we come at 3 frames of brood to 17,000 bees (with 4 frames of brood 23,000).
As the nuc is situated on the same apiary, all the foraging bees return to the mother hive and the egg laying of the queen will be drastically reduced.
And such a number of young bees, that also do not have to complete much brood care, have the consequence that they eliminate the Varroa mites very successful from the newly infected cells. The correlations between the number of bees, lifespan of bees, hygienic behavior and cell size, we present in our lecture.

We must not forget to give these nucs enough food, pollen and honey, as the most important is the strength of the hive. Or rather, the number of bees for the necessary work.
And that is simply in small cell bees much larger for two reasons.
For one thing, the brood nest is more compact due to the smaller cell size and also spacing of the honeycomb is reduced. Thus, fewer bees are necessary for brood care. On the other hand the lifespan of small cell bees is much larger than that of the large cell bees, which understandably has a decisive contribution that an excess of bees is available for the work to be performed in the hive.

Through this great number of bees the hygienic behavior is stimulated.

Now we see the distinct advantage of working with nucs at the beginning of our shifting to small cells.
Because as we know each hive HAS TO GO through one (or more) crises until it can defend itself on its own against the diseases.
And with this approach, we make it much easier for our bees.
The crisis will run less serious.

When we are frequently looking through our hives, it will enable us to become familiar with the habits of the bees and to study how they defend themselves against these diseases.

Some say that frequent opening of the hives should be avoided. Of course, this is right when our visit causes stress in the colonies. Since we arranged the natural order of the combs, we have seen an incredible peace in our hives. When we open them, the bees go down, they behave completely passively and continue to work normally. Thus, you can explore your hives as often as you want, and the most important issue is that WE, the beekeepers, will learn to recognise signs of crisis in the hive in the very first stage and we must also learn to respond to it properly.

We will then see how the bees defend themselves against the Varroa mites and chew out the infected cells.

Then we’ll have to watch how they build the small cells and also to intervene constantly to help them. The small-cell foundations are drawn best near to, or in, the brood nest. Heavy nectar flow is also problematic and our timing has to be adapted, so that they will not have to build too much comb during slow nectar flow times.

If I cannot do all of these points, is it worth just starting with the small cells?

On the one hand it is quite clear that it will be much easier if we can change all these points.
But on the other hand, there is no reason, I think, to continue with the over-sized cells. This gives even more problems, as can be seen with the present disastrous situation of the bees.

If you do all the possible changes in the hives (small cells, comb arrangement, 10% drones etc., etc.) you will get the bees in a decidedly better, healthier condition.

You will see that they will defend themselves against the Varroa mite by hygienic behavior and that is something that very few beekeepers have achieved so far. But if reinvasion comes, you can treat with powdered sugar to help your bees. If you use it once per month, 200g per box of bees, you will always be able to see what is happening on the bottom board. To have complete success, you will need to have many hives and the others remain simply overwhelmed.

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