Beekeeping: Surviving a 35-Year Pandemic is possible
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Before January 2020, most of us had little appreciation of the long-term negative impacts that the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 would have on our lives. It was only as the virus spread across the world and created a wave of stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns that we realized the full social and economic impact of this disease. The ultimate solution depends on the virus becoming less virulent and pathogenic, reduced vectoring, the host (humans and other animals) becoming less susceptible, and more effective treatments and vaccines.
Did you know that honey bees also have been suffering through an outbreak caused by an invasive parasite and associated disorders for more than 30 years? With the introduction of the parasitic bee mite, Varroa destructor, to North America in the mid-1980s, commercial beekeepers have been constantly struggling to minimize serious colony losses. Despite the passage of time, this threat remains as real and as deadly today as it ever has been. Why? For the very same reasons that SARS-CoV-2 is still causing sickness and mortality in humans, i.e. deadly parasite and associated viruses, efficient vectoring, susceptible host, and minimal to no highly effective treatments or preventative measures.
The varroa mite originated in Asia where it was detected back in 1904. From there, the mite began its inexorable march westward, reaching North America in the mid-1980s. Unlike SARS-CoV-2, it was not spread by human-to-human contact, but by bee-to-bee contact, although humans assisted its spread through the movement of bee stock around the world. Primarily this parasite weakens and shortens the lifespan of bees by feeding on the bees’ fat bodies, but it also causes additional destructive effects as a result of the deadly viruses the mite transmits to honey bees (e.g. deformed-wing virus and others). Left unchecked, varroa infestations and the viruses they vector can easily wipe out entire colonies.
Unfortunately, and despite many years of battling varroa, as a parasite and a vector, there is still no “silver bullet” solution for beekeepers. There are not enough effective treatments, nor are there any new treatments or vaccines on the horizon to protect honey bees from this persistent and lethal combination of threats.
Winter is a difficult time for honey bees even under ideal circumstances, but it’s now a time when the impact of varroa parasitism and virus infection hits the hardest. For many years, winter colony losses have been much higher than they were prior to the introduction of varroa. In recent years, surveys of self-reported colony losses have been suggesting a trend to lower losses of colonies during winter. The percentage of losses go up and down over the years, with some years, such as 2018/2019 seeing the highest level of winter losses since these annual surveys began. On July 25, 2022, the Bee Informed Partnership released on 25 July 2022 a preliminary report of results from their 2022 Annual Loss and Management Survey. Although individual beekeepers and aggregated groups had losses that ranged from bad to good, annual losses are no worse currently than the average over the past 11 years.
It’s difficult to be optimistic that varroa can be eliminated. However, that doesn’t mean we must remain helpless. Over the past five years Bayer’s Dick Rogers developed and fine-tuned the Healthy Colony Checklist, an efficient approach to bee management that is making it easier for beekeepers to efficiently monitor colony health, and improve management of varroa and other honey bee colony disorders.
While many established beekeepers understand the benefits of frequent colony inspections and systematic colony management, there are a lot of new and less experienced beekeepers who would greatly benefit from using this checklist. The Healthy Colony Checklist is based on the definition of a healthy colony, and helps beekeepers focus on the six areas that are most critical when assessing honey bee colony health. The checklist helps beekeepers answer three important questions:
- Is the colony healthy?
- If not, why is it not healthy?
- What needs to be done to fix the problem, or prevent it from worsening?
While deeming colonies “healthy” by visual inspection alone cannot prevent all colony losses linked to varroa and associated disorders, as well as the 6Ps (parasites, pathogens, predators, pollution, provisions, and people), it will most certainly improve the likelihood of a colony surviving.
To be successful, beekeepers know that the key to increased winter survival begins with preparing their colonies for winter. Preparations begin in mid-to-late summer by making sure varroa pressure is controlled before colonies produce brood that will become the adult bees that overwinter. Also, removing weak and unhealthy hives as a management tactic is often described in bee literature, including the 1947 American Bee Journal, which notes that in preparation for winter, “The condition of the colony is probably more important than any other factor.”
Surviving the varroa pandemic hasn’t been easy, especially when there are no simple fixes and beekeepers are already doing so much to keep their bees healthy. Apiculture is in a rebuilding phase that will hopefully lead to a “new normal” for apiculture practices. This will include better treatments and management strategies, effective prevention, use of digital technologies, more data and analytics, and greater mindfulness on the part of beekeepers, researchers, policy makers and regulators. Using best management practices and the Healthy Colony Checklist will go a long way to help protect honey bees as key components of sustainable food production.
NOTE: Any beekeeping groups that would like an introduction to the Healthy Colony Checklist, or more detailed training, can contact Dick Rogers, email@example.com, to arrange seminars or workshops.
The 6Ps: Besides #Varroa, and other disorders that it vectors (e.g. #DWV), there are SIX categories of factors that can impact honey bee colony health, either alone or in various combination. I call this collection of factors the #6Ps: Parasites, Pathogens, Predators, People (management), Provisions (food and forage), and Pollutants. The number one enemy of the western honey bee is the parasitic bee mite, Varroa destructor. Recommendation is to study the biology of the mite, monitor for it in honey bee colonies, and use IPM tactics to manage it. Treatments will/may be needed as often as twice a year or more, but other strategies can help keep mite numbers low as well. Here is a varroa booklet I co-wrote with colleagues at Bayer.