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Retrogression Back to Normal – Part 1

The Way Back to Biological Beekeeping, Part 8

Picture in your mind the world as a basic map of honeybee thermal/cell size zones based on composites of hot and cold land area masses. Now picture this as lateral belts going around the world with the hottest zones and smallest sizes near the Equator and volcanic hot thermal zones, and the largest sizes near 60, latitude in belts going around the world and the tops of colder mountain ranges. Now picture in your mind the world surrounded in layers with the smallest sizes being on the bottom where compression is greatest, and the largest sizes being on top where compression is least. Now picture in your mind that every honeybee thermal/cell size zone has a natural range of small, medium, and large cell sizes to allow for bees to transition into and out of habitat areas as vegetation and rain occur throughout a yearly cycle. With smaller cell sizes a beekeeper would gain variability and with larger cell sizes a beekeeper would gain less. As you go from the Equator, both North and South, picture smaller yellow hot-weather bees getting bigger to about the 30 latitude belts around the world.

Picture a transition zone here, where yellow hot-weather honeybees and dark (black or brown) cold-weather honeybees come together and overlap co-mingling. Yellow hot-weather honeybees will naturally be at their largest sizing and dark cold-weather honeybees will naturally be at their smallest. As you go from the 30 latitudes towards the poles, picture the dark cold-weather honeybees getting larger to about the 60 latitude belts, where their natural migration north transitions to an end. Now picture in your mind, in the tropics, only yellow hot-weather honeybees at sea-level and when you reach about 3500 – 4000 elevation, a transition to dark cold-weather honeybees again. Now picture in your mind, in the temperate zones, only dark cold-weather honeybees at sea-level, except where volcanic areas create hot thermal-zones allowing for yellow hot-weather bees to survive naturally. Again within these limited yellow bee zones, transition would occur towards dark honeybees, as elevation is increased.

Now picture in your mind this only occurring with pure strains/races of honeybees, except in transition zones where hybridization would occur. Now picture in your mind hybrid mixes of different honeybees as always being bigger in size than the pure strains/races they originate from. Now picture in your mind simple hybrids being naturally occurring in Nature and complex hybrids only occurring in an artificial environment.

NOW, LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS. (We will re-state the above prior to discussing bee breeding, applicable to field mechanics/management only). Question: If honeybees, when they swarm out of oversized domesticated hives, retrogress downward in size, then how stable is a hybridized mixture in this scenario, especially if bigger flys slower? Same scenario relative to Africanization? If honeybees for evolution security, acclimatize to natural sizing, then should not we as an industry be following them to solve our problems of diseases and parasitic mites? If domesticated honeybees in a given area swarm and retrogress downward, should not this be a sign that the artificial comb size in use is wrong for that particular area? If retrogression back to natural sizing, in any given area/region cannot be accomplished in one retrogression-step smaller, due to the extent that we as an industry went bigger artificially, then what is the fastest way back to natural biological beekeeping without the use of chemicals, antibiotics, and essential oils; and it taking a large amount of time, which we seem to be running out of?

RETROGRESSION: The first step in retrogression is to survey colonies in each area/region that are both domestic and feral (Note – Colonies on oversized artificial brood foundations do not fully correlate with naturally occurring breeding cycles, necessitating that differences be taken into account or excluded from survey. Further, colonies in the feral, whether established or un-established, need to be separated visually by subcaste matings, to establish their true degree of being natural, feral, i.e. all small subcastes, all large subcastes, or mixed-size subcastes noting the degree.)

While this is taking place, a historical survey needs to be accomplished to ascertain what traditional comb cell sizes where, prior to use of artificially enlarged foundation, by each area/region. Comb cell sizing here needs to be split into two categories: 1) That what was, prior to importation and subsequent hybridization; 2) That what was, after importation and hybridization; but before the use of artificially enlarged foundation.

Where historical data is insufficient for verification of traditional sizings, physical observation of retrogression by physically removing domesticated honeybees from artificially enlarged brood combs will be required. Note: This may require several steps, to finally arrive at a standard range of smaller sizing by use of “V-cut ” top bars. Beekeepers can gauge very quickly what size brood foundation their local honeybees prefer. All they need is to makeup a few brood supers with top bars in them only, with 5 degree angle cuts for feral swarms to build comb upon, precoated with beeswax to facilitate comb building during the swarming season. Then all that has to be done, is measure the inside diameter of the cell wall to ascertain the common worker cell size for the geographic area. Beekeepers doing this should find that their feral bees (large caste/mixed-size castes) and even their own domesticated bees will prefer a smaller size brood comb than what they are probably now using. Here, first rule-of-thumb to clear up parasitic mite problems should be…do what the bees prefer!

Keep in mind, the idea is to figure out how many retrogressions it will take to bring the honeybees in a given area back to traditional natural sizing. Repeat the above mentioned process, with V-cut top bars on several domesticated hives and several well established feral colonies (not less than 10 each). We found the average here in Southern Arizona to be about 4 for our domesticated hives and 2 for established feral colonies. We found it impossible to make the retrogression back to natural sizing in one jump (This was our retrogression attempt to 5.0mm sizing). Two retrogression would be required, but it became apparent that the time-frame would be a limiting factor, because we didn’t have the time to retrogress our whole beekeeping outfit for each retrogression required (figured 10 years for each retrogression for changing 1,000 hives with foundation) for our domestic hives. We decided to see if we could speed the process up to match what we observed on the feral side. Consequently, we decided beekeepers cannot do an old-fashioned comb shake-down, from today’s domesticated hives and restart on new undrawn 4.9mm foundation, to match the top-of-the-sizing-spectrum for traditional sizing before artficial hybridization by man, without modifying the technique to fit today’s needs relative to stress by parasitic mites/secondary diseases, limited time-frame within which to work, and the different requirements for field management, between domestic and feral.

PROCESS FOR SPEEDING-UP RETROGRESSION: This is a definite multi-year application to accomplish. Depending upon the size of the beekeeping operation, it can take anywhere from 3 to 15 years average to accomplish. The first year is a preparation year for creating “seed-frames” for what will be pot-progressive work, the years following. Work is begun by the preparation of “removeable swarm-catching frames” to act as stimuli for producing seed-frames of drawn-out 4.9mm brood-comb foundation. It also fills a two-fold purpose of speeding-up retrogression, while supplying a renewable source of clean uncontaminated beeswax for foundation making (We will be going over making foundation by hand later). Depending upon the size of the operation to be converted back to natural comb sizing, figure making about 50 supers of swarm-catching frames for every 1000 hives, or 5 supers of swarm-catching frames per 100 average.

Begin by catching feral swarms. When hiving unestablished swarms, separate by worker caste sizing, keeping small-cast workerbee swarms for production of seed-frames, by immediately placing upon 4.9mm foundation. Hive the swarm into a super of undrawn foundation setting on a queen excluder, which is setting upon a bottom board. Use a tight top cover to close. Transport to desired location. DO NOT REMOVE QUEEN EXCLUDER FROM BETWEEN BOTTOM BOARD AND SUPER UNTIL FOUNDATION IS DRAWN AND QUEEN IS LAYING ON A MINIMUM OF 2-3 FRAMES.

When hiving an established feral colony, cut out feral combs and mount into swarm-catching frames. Take care to keep brood together, filling each frame as much as possible. When hiving during a good nectar flow, discard pollen and honey stores (bring an empty bucket to put in to take home). Most established swarms cut-out, will fill 2-5 frames with mounted brood when transferred into swarm-catching frames. NOTE: If 3 mounted brood frames or less, place in super on top of queen excluder, on top of bottom board, and complete filling the super with frames of undrawn 4.9mm foundation. If 4 to 5 frames of mounted brood when transferred into swarm-catching frames, place 1 (NO MORE) frame of undrawn 4.9mm foundation in the center of the cut feral comb mounted into swarm-catching frames. Then fill out the rest of the super with frames on undrawn 4.9mm foundation. Make sure super again is setting upon a queen excluder, setting upon a bottom board. Use a tight top cover to close. Transport to desired location.

DO NOT REMOVE QUEEN EXCLUDER FROM BETWEEN BOTTOM BOARD AND SUPER UNTIL FOUNDATION, ON FRAMES IN CENTER OF SWARM-CATCHING FRAMES AND AT SIDES OF SWARM-CATCHING FRAMES, ARE DRAWN AND YOU HAVE HAD A CHANCE TO REPOSITION THEM TOGETHER IN THE CENTER OF THE SWARM-CATCHING FRAMES, FOR THE QUEEN TO LAY IN AS A CONSOLIDATED WORKING UNIT.

Note: By removing pollen and honey while hiving the bees, you speed up comb drawing, because by creating no place for the bees to put stores, you trigger wax production in honeybees. Continue cycling of drawn 4.9mm foundation from the sides of the swarm-catching frames to the established consolidated working unit. When the swarm-catching frames are adjacent to the sides of the super, remove and replace with more 4.9mm foundation. Next melt-down the feral comb and recycle wax into foundation as a clean renewable resource. Clean and recycle swarm-catching frames with another colony. Upon completion of first super with drawn-out foundation and stores of brood, pollen, and honey, super a second box and continue, repeating supering as desired.

Retrogressing domesticated colonies, established on oversized foundation, requires a different approach. First, beekeepers must separate the comb sizes within their colonies to be retrogressed. This is best done going into winter, leaving the broodnest to settle into the smallest drawn comb available to overwinter upon. Then when the honeybees are at their smallest body sizing going into Spring for the year, just before brood-rearing begins, an old-fashioned hive shake-down should be accomplished. This is done by physically shaking the bees off of the combs and restarting like a shook-swarm, into a super filled with new undrawn frames of 4.9mm foundation, sitting upon a queen excluder, sitting upon a bottom board. Honey-syrup and a pollen patty (made with honey and pollen only) may need to be supplied to induce bees to draw wax foundation. Use a tight top cover to close. DO NOT REMOVE QUEEN EXCLUDER FROM BETWEEN BOTTOM BOARD AND SUPER UNTIL FOUNDATION IS DRAWN AND QUEEN IS LAYING ON A MINIMUM OF 2-3 FRAMES.

Note: For those colonies that will not draw comb out properly, stop, and remove all undrawn foundation. Continue drawing comb with hives that will draw out 4.9mm foundation properly. When excess drawn comb is available in hives that will draw out comb properly (not necessarily filled with honey or pollen, just drawn out enough to hold pattern (1/8″ to 1/4″on cell walls), remove and add to those colonies that will not draw comb properly. Again shake down bees to restart queen laying on correct pattern. Once queen is laying on correct pattern of 4.9mm comb foundation and brood is sealed, again add frames of undrawn 4.9mm foundation and finish filling out super. Beekeepers will find that once, bees reluctant to draw comb are given properly drawn frames of foundation from another colony, and go through a full brood-cycle to size down newly emerging bees, the colony will straighten out. Upon completion of first super with drawn-out foundation and stores of brood, pollen, and honey, super a second box and continue, repeating supering as desired.

This is the process to be followed the first year for catching feral bees or retrogressing domesticated colonies from oversized brood foundation. The objective is to create as much correctly drawn-out 4.9mm comb foundation as possible, to act as seed-frames for the second year’s work, and to stabilize as many colonies as possible with stores of pollen and honey. Foundation not correctly drawn is to be culled and melted down, cycling back into undrawn foundation for reuse.

Note: Only by careful culling of misdrawn comb foundation will beekeepers bring parasitic mites and their accompanying secondary diseases under control so no chemicals, essential oils, and antibiotics are necessary for field maintenance. REPEAT: THE OBJECTIVE IS TO CREATE CORRECTLY DRAWN-OUT COMB TO ACT AS SEED-FRAMES FOR THE SECOND YEAR’S WORK. NOTHING ELSE WILL WORK IN THE END. BEES THAT WILL NOT CORRECTLY DRAW OUT FOUNDATION OVER THE COURSE OF THE YEAR WILL SUCCUMB TO DISEASE, DIE AND/OR NOT OVERWINTER PROPERLY. DO NOT TRY TO SAVE THEM OR YOU WILL PERPETUATE YOUR MITE AND DISEASE PROBLEM. TREAT THIS AS SURVIVAL OF FITTEST ONLY, AND EXTINCTION FOR THAT WHICH WILL NOT RETROGRESS TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM BIOLOGICALLY BACK TO TRADITIONAL BEEKEEPING.


Signed: Dee A. Lusby, Amado, Arizona, USA