Last year, or perhaps the one before, I stumbled upon the Ulster BKA ‘Winter Webinars,’ and I’m so glad I did. The speakers are often very well informed about whatever the latest things going on in the beekeeping world are. Many webinars on bees contain bits that I’ve heard before, but I don’t mind at all. This walrus needs to re-read or re-hear good info regularly to prevent him from straying down some rabbit hole – which inevitably ends badly due to the size difference between rabbits and walruses.
I’m always delighted when beekeeping webinar speakers have some experimental data to share, although I’ll happily take anecdotes and opinions from people who have succeeded over decades. In the end, we do have to do what works for us, which may not suit other locations or ways of working – however, the more of those rabbit holes I avoid, the better.
Do it with a smile
The presentation by Prof. Robert Paxton on bee viruses was terrific. Lots of science presented with incredible enthusiasm. Some people have a talent for sharing their joy and wonder with others, almost as if they have just discovered it, even though it’s probably something they have done repeatedly for years. I suppose it’s like Taylor Swift (or any musician) having to balance her back catalogue with new songs – she does it with a smile and gives it everything, even if it’s for the thousandth time. Somehow, I have compared walruses to rabbits and a biology professor with a musician. Weird how the mind works.
Deformed Wing Virus
At the University of Sussex, Robert Paxton was working on his PhD while I was there as an undergraduate studying Chemistry with Economics. I probably bumped into him at some point – knowing me, in a bar – not realising that 37 years later, I’d be glued to my iMac watching his talk on bee viruses.
The essence of Prof. Paxton’s message was that Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) is nasty for honey bees. Although many viruses were already present in bees, the advent of the varroa mite changed things dramatically. The one virus which seemed to benefit most from Varroa, at the cost to our bees, was DWV. What’s more, a strain – DWV B – is more virulent than the original DWV A and appears to be becoming dominant in bee populations. The fact is that if you, or in rare cases your bees, don’t control varroa mites, your bees will die within three years. Not exactly headline news, but good to see the research that goes into backing up what beekeepers experience.
I now monitor mite drops using an alcohol wash in the summer. I won’t treat a colony if it doesn’t need it. Mite counts help me with selecting breeder queens for the following year. It’s not the only criteria, but it is a big one. The things that matter to me are honey crop, temper, the propensity to swarm and mite count. As a small queen producer with only 50 colonies to choose from, I know my efforts are insignificant, but they matter to me. If there is even the slightest chance that I’ll get bees that can cope better with mites, it’s worth a shot, but so far, I need to treat at least once per year and usually twice.
There is evidence that DWV spreads from honey bees to wild bees, probably by visiting the same flowers simultaneously. The virus flow seems to be one way, from honey bees to wild bees, not the other way around. We know from our own experience that viruses can hop from one species to another, sometimes with disastrous consequences. However, many wild bees and pollinators visit different flowers to the ones prefered by honey bees. From what I’ve read and heard, it seems to me that:
- honey bees worldwide are increasing in numbers because humans use them to pollinate crops and care for them
- however, in some intensively farmed agricultural areas, all pollinators have suffered due to a lack of suitable forage throughout the year and probably some chemicals
- colony stress is a vector for virus outbreak, as is the varroa mite
- although DWV is the big one, Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV) is becoming increasingly problematic for honey bees
Bee farmers are not the bad guys, in my opinion, nor are farmers in general. Society demands affordable food in plentiful supply. Farmers navigate government legislation and incentives to provide our people with what they need. The growth of the human race has been an extinction event for many species; we dominate our planet as the ultimate unchallenged apex-predator. Perhaps viruses will have the last laugh, but governments and corporations can make the most significant change, for good or bad.
Individuals and communities can make some change too, but it’s not easy. We are all responsible to some extent for how our world is; we elect those in power and buy goods and services from companies that may or may not give a damn about anything but balance sheets.
Gosh, that suddenly became a rant. Sorry about that. I’m a great fat hypocrite as I sit in my centrally heated home with two cars on the drive. I admit it. I don’t want to burn my bra or chain myself to anything. I want to experience the joy of keeping bees and the simple things like family and food and walking and occasional holidays. For that last one to happen, I have to wait for the latest virus pandemic to subside. They are supposed to be ‘one hundred year events’ – I hope so.
Must do better
In other news, I checked an apiary recently and discovered that my old enemy, the mouse, has been on the scene. Two of my colonies show evidence that the little rodents have snuck into the hives and done what they do (eat comb and defecate everywhere). I’m an idiot. Beekeeping keeps proving this to me. Why did I not put some wire mesh across the entrances? Will I never learn? Schoolboy error. Must do better. Luckily I have plenty of good healthy bees ready to explode into life when spring arrives. So there it is – a note of optimism on which to end!