The Way Back to Biological Beekeeping, Part 9
We have talked about the process followed the first year for catching feral bees or retrogressing domesticated colonies from oversized brood foundation. Writing from the standpoint of Southern Arizona area conditions and confining thoughts to a discussion of necessary data and observations gleaned in a semi-arid, but still temperate location, note to those following this Saga, that this is basically a non-migratory area and we are working with colonies in apiary sites that have been permanently set (some for decades, generation to generation), making these sites perfect for determining field feasibility for natural biological controls for parasitic mites and secondary diseases without the use of chemicals, essential oils, and antibiotics. To assess, understand, and retool colonies to fit a natural biological system, beekeepers must work with stable apiary sites from which to observe and learn, by process of trial and error, that which works, figuring out why; and that which does not, also understanding why not. The objective then being, to implement.
Transitory colonies of bees, caught-up within a perpetual migratory yearlong loop are incapable of completely adapting due to constant area/regional movement, not allowing for natural acclimatization necessary for evolution. Though associated inherent problems of parasitic mites and secondary diseases for transitory colonies of bees, may be CONTROLLED with proper field manipulative management, relative to use of small cell foundation matching the top-of-the-range natural traditional sizing for a given area for acclimitized honeybees, this does not apply to the breeding aspect of migratory colonies which has no relativity to real-world natural selection.
Once the process of catching feral bees or retrogressing domesticated colonies from oversized brood foundation has been accomplished the first year, with the creation of as much correctly drawn-out 4.9mm foundation as possible with stores of pollen and honey, the colonies need to be assessed going into Winter to make sure they contain enough stores to overwinter. If reserves are not adequate they need to be supplemented. Preferably feed honey and pollen only. Do not feed substitutes. When feeding honey, feed it as granulated honey, in manila paper packets with 1/4 punched feeding holes. If feeding pollen, feed it as a mixture of pollen/granulated honey patties. Place both as needed right next to or directly above the brood nest or cluster. Replace as necessary. (Note: granulated honey, fed in packets this way, is assimilated within the hive like regular stores of gathered honey). To stimulate brood rearing in the Spring, switch out the granulated honey in manila paper packets and change to LIQUID honey in manila paper packets, with pin-holes (4-6 each side, just enough to let honey slowly drip, but not enough to run/stream). With the feeding of liquid honey, pollen/honey patties must be fed, if internal stores of pollen are inadequate to initiate brood rearing.
Prior to initiation of broodrearing in the Spring, while the bees are still clustered, pull surplus drawn-out foundation where stores have been consumed. Leave hives as singles with drawn-out combs. Where supplemental feed is still necessary, or you are feeding to stimulate broodrearing for Spring build-up, use undrawn frames of foundation in a second story super around the feeder packets positioned over the brood/cluster. As broodrearing increases, and drawing- out of new wax commences, this restarts the process of drawing new frames of foundation for the coming year.
Store pulled surplus drawn-out foundation temporarily in supers standing on end, in a cool place until used. Store butting, facing bottom to bottom, with top-bars facing out (placement this way will keep out rodents).
As soon as enough fresh nectar/pollen is being collected to sustain bees and initiate natural broodrearing in the field, begin shake-down of selected colonies from oversized combs onto your seed-frames of surplus drawn-out foundation. Use 3-5 frames, depending upon your supply of seed-frames made the previous year. Remember, like the previous year, this is done by physically shaking the bees off of the combs and restarting like a shook-swarm, only this time instead of using all undrawn frames of foundation, you are now using 3-5 frames of drawn-out foundation (Note: Place drawn seed-frames together in center of super with undrawn foundation on either side to establish a compact broodnest/cluster site). This will speed up the process of retrogression, by giving the queens an immediate place in which to lay brood, instead of having to wait for comb to be drawn-out to lay in. Like the previous year, place the shaken down colonies upon a queen excluder, upon a bottom board, to prevent swarming until the queens are laying upon a minimum of 2-3 frames. You should notice that this year, once the queens have finished the first brood cycle and new bees are emerging, the bees will be sized down to proper sizing and should be drawing small natural comb foundation more easily, necessitating less culling of mis-drawn foundation.
Having accomplished the field shake-down of selected colonies from oversized combs, continue the objective of creating correctly drawn-out combs. CULL ANY COMBS WITH MORE THAN 10% DRONE CELLS DRAWN ON ANY ONE SIDE. MAKE THIS A MANDATORY FIELD MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUE. THERE IS VALID REASON FOR DOING THIS. It has been previously demonstrated that Varroa mites prefer drone brood to worker brood for reproduction in the feral population of honeybees. Generally, about 40% of drone cells are infested, while for workers, the average is close to 10% (Note: For Trachael mites the feral average is also about 10% for workers for infestation levels). It has been demonstrated that the larvae food is the stimulant in oversized bigger cells for attracting Varroa infestation. For many years it was traditionally taught to cull drone combs as much as possible.
Since the advent of Varroa, this practice has been reversed to the detriment of our industry. Beekeepers should go back to the old traditional way of culling drone combs, as there will always be plenty of drones reared in corners of the frames or in cells that become enlarged by accident. It should always be remembered that while the drones do no work physically in the hive, THEY DO ACT AS THE BEST ATTRACTANT TO PULL DISEASE AND PARASITES TO THEMSELVES AS FIRST TARGETS, SO WORKERS CAN SURVIVE THROUGHOUT THE ACTIVE SEASON. THEN, WHEN THE HONEY IS IN AND NEW QUEENS ARE MATED, THEIR JOBS DONE, THEY ARE CAST OUT TO INITIATE CLEANSING THE HIVE OF ITS DISEASE AND PARASITE PROBLEMS.
On a natural biological system, the few phoretic mites that remain are quickly filtered out through the brood nest by the workers chewing-out and/or removing mites from infected larvae cells (cleansing). By culling brood frames which have excessive (more than 10%) drone cells, beekeepers limit colony infestations and reduce Varroa infestation down, using the 40% vs 10% infestation level difference to their own manipulative hive management advantage. Additionally, by changing out and shaking-down colonies from oversized brood combs, they further reduce the attraction for Varroa to enter pseudo-drone cells, (aka: artificially oversized worker comb acting as an attractant with more larvae food for mites) and reproduce at a higher than natural 10% infestation level. By beekeepers actively culling drone comb to less than 10% drone cells per drawn frames, beekeepers can reduce the naturally occurring 10% infestation level in Nature to below 5% with field manipulative management.
In the second year of retrogression back onto a natural biological system of keeping bees, beekeepers must learn to look for visual signs that their colonies are cleansing themselves of parasitic mite and disease problems. QUESTION: Just what are the signs to look for, to see if workerbees are chewing out and/or removing Varroa mites (cleansing) from infested larvae cells?
In Southern Arizona, the chewing-out of Varroa mites (cleansing) happens on the downside of the honey flow. It starts slowly as the queens stop laying drones, picks-up speed as the drones are expelled from the hive, then tapers-off just prior to the end of broodnest cleansing time. By the time the broodnest is resituated and cleaned by the workers, with the pulling-out of old larvae cocoons and reshellacked, beekeepers will find Varroa mite infestation reduced to a non-detectable level in most cases; and under control by the workerbees. In Southern Arizona, this happens approximately twice a year with the primary cleansing season occurring in the fall. Other times beekeepers will see it occurring, will be right after a colony requeens, when the hive workers are throwing out drones and getting ready to roll again.
Beekeepers will see cleansing mostly around the periphery of the broodnest of sealed worker cells, although it can occur as a buckshot brood pattern in weaker hives, or in a strong hive where large numbers of mites are transferring from drone to workers. In some hives beekeepers will see a combination of both patterns, starting from the sides of the supers and progressing towards the center of the broodnest. When this happens, the buckshot brood pattern is normally nearest the pollen and honey frames, changing to the periphery around the edge of the broodnest of sealed worker cells, as frames are looked at nearer the center of the brood nest.
Beekeepers should look for signs, like uncapped worker brood with the pupae exposed and in many cases cannibalized. If there was only one Varroa and it was located on the head between the eyes, many times the pupae will be unharmed, as the workerbees have only to remove the mite to rectify the situation. If the Varroa is situated on the back of the head between the thorax, the workerbees will eat the head off to get to the Varroa. If the Varroa and/or another is situated on the thorax, workerbees will eat down to that also. If those Varroa and/or more are located on the abdomen, lodged between the tergits, the bees will continue eating down. Beekeepers should notice that when the workerbees are doing this and working only with removing Varroa mites from healthy bees, the pupae will be a HEALTHY WHITE COLOR, which shows that the workerbees are not removing diseased or infected larvae/pupae. (Note: What they are doing is cleaning-out infestation, like our human livers clean out impurities from our bodies. They are also recycling protein as a food source, being labor efficient.)
When Varroa is removed from the top of the head and the pupae left unharmed, beekeepers will usually notice that the pupae, are at-a-state of purple, darkening eyes. Beekeepers observing colonies, will find that the bees seem to chew-out Varroa when other chores of the hive are not pressing, i.e. honey gathering and major broodrearing, showing that they have a way of prioritizing work. Until workerbees are ready to cleanse the broodnest on the downswing of honey flows, Varroa mainly infest drone larvae and pupae.
Thus the drones, although they do no work physically in the colonies, DO ACT AS THE BEST ATTRACTANT BY BODY MASS AND THEREFORE A BETTER BASIC FOOD TARGET, TO PULL DISEASE AND PARASITES TO THEMSELVES AS AN INHERENT DEFENSE MECHANISM WITHIN THE COLONY CASTE STRUCTURE’S DIVISION OF LABOR, so workers can survive throughout the active season raising vital brood and gathering stores of honey and pollen. Then as the season winds down, the drones are thrown-out, and the WORKERBROOD ACTS AS A LIVING LIVER IN THE HIVE PURGING THE OVERPOPOULATION OF VARROA MITES, BY CHEWING OUT (CLEANSING), to bring the colony back into a balanced parasitic mite host relationship (similar to that of Apis Cerana).
Each new broodrearing season, the cycle repeats. Uncapping of sealed workerbrood (manually by hand, for field observation), NOT UNCAPPED BY WORKERS DURING THIS TIME, have revealed non-infested pupae by Varroa. When beekeepers see these signs, they can know that their bees are doing what they should, to handle the problem naturally without the use of chemicals, essential oils, and drugs. CAUTION: Do not confuse this phenomena with starving bees that need pollen and/or honey, and are driven to eat their own for nourishment to survive hard-times. Beekeepers must learn to see with their eyes and understand the difference.
As progress continues in retrogression, beekeepers will notice more colonies stabilizing. As parasitic mites become more controllable, by the end of the second year, beekeepers should notice the workerbees beginning to chew-out drone cells, cleaning them as they do worker brood cells. (Note: While all this is going on throughout the active year, beekeepers should be actively culling combs for irregularities, i.e. incorrectly drawn size, disease, etc.) Beekeepers should notice, that just as culling for incorrectly drawn foundation subsides, so will the culling of diseased combs. This signals that the colonies are coming into balance with a natural system of beekeeping, working with Nature effectively instead of to the detriment – side, by being out-of-tune with natural flora and climatic conditions, etc..
During the second year, beekeepers should continue catching feral swarms as a renewable resource for bees and clean, uncontaminated wax for recycling into foundation. Beekeepers also need to start planning how many hives to get ready for production for the third year (End year with colonies, a minimum of 3 deep supers of bees, pollen and honey, with all drawn 4.9mm foundation), and how many hives to keep using for the production of seed-frames to continuing shake-downs each Spring until all colonies maintained are retrogressed back onto a natural biological system of beekeeping. Here it is suggested that newly caught feral swarms be allowed to do the balance of the drawing-out of foundation work, along with forced-splits (swarm cells in colonies, necessitating divides rather than having bees go to the bushes).
During the second year beekeepers need to also plan to start recycling empty shook-down boxes of frames of oversized combs. If chemical treatments were used in management, beekeepers also need to plan decontamination wax procedures prior to recycling wax into new undrawn foundation.