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Feral Bees

Jan 1, 2016 | 2016 Writings, View All Posts


(I was hoping to publish this essay together with a description of feral bees by another author who has studied them quite extensively. When I could see that the companion article would not be forthcoming, I decided to post nearly the entire manuscript here anyway. I think it’s still a timely and necessary response to the current, failing “bee health paradigm” that’s being foisted on the beekeeping community):

After reading descriptions of feral honeybee colonies, what they are, where they came from, how they are similar to and different from managed colonies, and how persistent they can be with no human attention of any kind—you have to ask, “Why can’t managed colonies live on their own without being constantly measured and counted, fed artificial food, and half-poisoned with everything from tick drenches to strong acids and tobacco smoke?”

They can.

But not in exactly the same way that most managed bees have lived since moveable frame hives came into widespread use.

It always amazes me that commercial beekeepers (like most Americans) will readily (if not eagerly) change their lifestyles; give up their free time, exercise, privacy and even their opportunities to communicate in person with family and friends, in order to keep up with the latest wave of technological innovation—and yet won’t lift a finger to watch and adapt to the rapid biological changes going on in their bees and Nature. This attention and adaptation by commercial beekeepers is the only thing that can bring the industry’s focus back to health and balance. Science can help here and there, but beekeepers have to do the best part of this work themselves.

After nearly twenty years of personally confronting, watching, and eventually embracing tracheal and varroa mites as essential friends and allies, a few things have become clear. The first is that in order to move a productive apiary back toward health and balance, and away from miticides, adaptations must be made in both genetics (breeding) and methods (management). There are no bees you can introduce into your colonies that will solve all their problems and allow you to return to the beekeeping of the 1970’s and early ’80’s; and there are no management schemes that will maintain productivity in an untreated apiary without stock that already has some ability to co-exist with varroa and other pests, and which is capable of further improvement.

Colonies of bees, wherever they are located, are more fragile than they were in the past. More of them die during the winter or during other periods of prolonged stress than was the case in pre-mite times. In Nature, insects in this situation respond and refill their niche by increasing their rate of reproduction when favorable conditions return. Beekeepers need to respond by increasing their rate of producing new colonies. This problem was solved in an elegant way for the northern states with the re-discovery that nucleus colonies (in a 4-frame space, or even smaller) could reliably overwinter outdoors if they were given some protection and packed together with other colonies. This in turn makes it possible to rapidly propagate new colonies in midsummer, using just one frame of brood for each new colony. The simple technique of starting small nucs in June and July, confining them to just 4 or 8 combs until the following May, has more than doubled the productive potential of northern apiaries, without migration. Each beekeeper has to tweak the process and experiment to find the optimum schedule for his or her location and resources. But everyone who succeeds with this method understands that the northern states only depend on southern bees out of habit and and ignorance—not because of biology.

I have described in detail my own methods and how they evolved in many articles, published over several years, and now collected in this website. Michael Palmer (St. Albans, Vt.), Larry Conner and others have also written and spoken widely about their own versions of this scheme; which can hardly be considered new anymore.

It’s time to start using the great productivity of overwintered nucs as a bridge to beekeeping without treatments; to move both hobby and commercial beekeeping back on to a healthy footing; and to restore bees to their proper place as arbiters of healthy and safe environments for all creatures—including us. Various “authorities” have gone to some trouble to ensure the beekeeping public that commercial beekeeping without treatments is “impossible”. My favorite personal response to this is to say nothing and just continue making a living from this “impossible” situation. But watching industrial agriculture proceed relentlessly toward its goal of sterilizing, poisoning and depopulating as much of the globe’s beautiful countryside as possible—under the ridiculous smokescreen of: “The only way to feed the world”—makes it imperative that anyone and everyone with an alternative success and feeling for the beauty and harmony of Nature, speak out and do what they can in opposition. The absorption of beekeeping into the industrial ag system has created what I call “worry-intensive beekeeping”. The strange and toxic alignment of scientists and universities seeking funding, and giant companies that own or control more and more of the world’s land and food resources have created for farmers an endless feedback loop of worry and advice. This is best exemplified by the use of pesticides, the development of resistance on the part of the pest, and then the supposed need for new pesticides. Sound familiar?

Successful organic farming and treatment-free beekeeping have a radically different heart and mind from the industrial ag model. In place of the worry you have attention—the constant watching of the small part of Nature that we can comprehend; and the awareness that the larger part, which we cannot yet see or measure, can assist us if we can just learn to co-operate with it somehow. In place of the advice from industry-trained “experts”, you have the wisdom and experience of countless generations of farmers and beekeepers who lived their whole lives with their crops and livestock, depended entirely upon them for their existence, and passed on what they learned to the next generation. Luckily, in addition to the countless crop varieties and livestock breeds created by these people, some of them wrote about their lives and methods—so we have something to fall back on today after farming has been so thoroughly marginalized in our culture.

The take-home message is: There’s still a place for commercial beekeepers to work and have a nice life outside of the industrial model. The apiary I have today started with just a few colonies and grew entirely from its own resources. I’ve had no other income of any kind since 1990, and the last treatment for mites (or anything else) was applied in April 2002. I was fortunate to have a series of good summers with strong nectar and pollen flows while I made the transition from killing varroa to embracing them as friends and allies. But the best testimonial to the success of this apiary is probably its continued strength and resilience during the years since 2005, when conditions for bees have been much less favorable, and included the two disastrous seasons of 2011 and 2013—by far the worst I’ve seen in my whole career. During all this time I still had bees for sale every year and also produced honey crops above the local colony average. Weather, industrial ag, mites, and the beekeeper’s efforts to control those mites have conspired together to kill the world’s supply of surplus bees and honey. The rising value of these commodities enabled me to make economic progress almost every year, despite the poor beekeeping conditions. At the peak of the beekeeping slump (2011-2013) I moved to a new home base and built two buildings; and yet still emerged with no debts and plenty of bees to fill my locations and to sell. After the chaos, neglect and disruption caused by construction and moving, the apiary is now being run almost exactly the way it was in 1990—with larger winter losses, but with plenty of potential to replace those losses, sell bees and queens, and take advantage of good conditions when they come along.

And I am far from being the best example of an untreated commercial apiary. The migratory beekeeper will be more impressed by the success of my friend Chris Baldwin, of Belvidere, South Dakota and Shepherd, Texas (Golden Valley Apiaries). Chris and I are the same age (61), and we both went to work in commercial beekeeping right after high school. I went to Vermont, and he answered a bee journal ad from Nebraska. Chris eventually married into the outfit he worked for, and has run it ever since as a small family operation without other income of any kind. They produce honey in S. Dakota with 1200–2000 colonies, and winter the bees in Texas for queen rearing and splitting. During the latest drought cycle in S. Dakota, he started sending one or two loads to the almonds each year. During the early 2000’s, Chris was becoming increasingly concerned about the long-term effects of continuous mite treatments, and converted his apiary to the Russian bees over a period of 4-5 years, by just plugging the Russian breeder queens into his normal splitting and requeening routine in Texas. This small number of breeder queens, plus a few more imported over the course of his career, are the only bees that have ever been imported into Chris’s operation. Replacement bees and production queens have always been home-raised. The last mite treatment of any kind (oxalic acid) was applied in 2007. (Chris does use Terramycin if EFB turns up in the cell builders).

Since the conversion to Russian bees and the end of mite treatments, Chris’ yearly routine has continued almost exactly the same as it has during the rest of his career. Like myself, he has larger colony losses than in pre-mite times, but in many years his losses have been the same or lower than those experienced by his neighbors using miticides, and his numbers recover easily during the spring in Texas. Almond pollination brokers will snap up any colonies he is willing to part with, and they have always come back in good condition, ready to split and/or produce a crop of honey in S. Dakota. The combs are not becoming contaminated, and every year Chris has a large pool of potential breeders, all descended for several generations from bees able to live on their own without mite treatments, mite counting or other interference.

For both Chris and myself, the mites have sunk way down on the list of potential beekeeping problems. Weather and environmental problems are now at the top. It’s another testament to Chris’ success that he achieved all this during a terrible drought cycle in his part of S. Dakota; that reduced or eliminated all honey crops for several years in a row. The low point came on July 15, 2006 when, after a week of temperatures in the 110’s to 115’s (degrees fahrenheit), the thermometer rose to 124 degrees and killed 75% of his bees (1500 colonies) in one afternoon. This is three or four times larger than any loss he ever experienced due to mites. Even after this disaster, Chris’ colony count was fully restored during the following spring in Texas. In 2014, both of us had a good crop of honey for the first time in several years.

So now we can see the two most basic requirements for moving an apiary away from treatments, and allowing the bees to take care of themselves once again:

1. Management that is adapted to the bees’ more fragile state; and…

2. Breeder queens from a stock that is already co-existing with mites; surviving and reproducing without


And this brings us back to the feral bees. If a plan like the ones described above had been aggressively pursued by the beekeeping community since 2000, the country would now be filled with bees that could live on their own, and finding good stock to start with would be easy. Instead, American beekeeping has assiduously followed the industrial ag model, which is constantly trying to manipulate the environment with pesticides and artificial food, in order to prop up large scale monocultures. The result is that there are still only a few really solid breeding populations of bees that are suitable for the expansion of untreated apiaries. They more or less fall into four categories:

1. Africanized Bees—There’s really good mite tolerance here, but they are too aggressive and difficult to manage in most beekeeping situations. In areas that they have colonized, beekeepers have no choice but to work with them as best they can. Hopefully their resilient traits will eventually be trapped in more gentle strains—as the Weavers have tried to do in Texas.

2. Untreated stocks developed by individual commercial beekeepers—There’s probably really valuable stock here, but some of these few pioneers have been marginalized, harassed and ridiculed to the point that they are not interested in co-operating with the larger community. I don’t blame them. Producing honey and bee products without the worry, expense and trouble of mite treatments is far more satisfying and interesting than the general practice and conversation in the bee world right now. Any viable breeding population that really has not had any treatments for at least four years should be tested in new areas and compared with other stocks.

3. The Russian Bees—This is still the best primary source of breeding stock for non-treatment available, as far as I can tell. A few more sources would help, but with some persistence you can obtain, over several years, a viable gene pool of this stock from members of the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association. The outstanding work and breakthroughs achieved by Tom Rinderer and his colleagues are being preserved and enhanced by this very dedicated group of beekeepers.

4. The Feral Bees—With the rapidly changing conditions for bees, and a need to increase the gene pool of untreated bees; this is probably the most neglected beekeeping resource in N. America today. The chief difficulty in bringing these bees into the larger world of beekeeping is determining whether a promising feral colony is really part of an evolving feral gene pool, and not a recent escape from a managed apiary.

Once you’re convinced that you have a promising breeder queen whose colony is part of a gene pool surviving and thriving on its own, then testing and propagating those bees into productive managed colonies is the same process you would use for any new stock that had potential to improve your apiary. After weaning a commercial apiary off all treatments, and working with untreated stock for 16 years in a northern location with a short growing season, here’s the method I have found to be most efficient and effective:

Even before this new queen has overwintered as a part of your apiary, graft immediately from her and raise at least 30 daughter queens (50 is better, and 100 is probably the best). At the same time raise queens from your other best sources of stock, and get them all mated in the same, best possible situation. Establish the new queens in small nucs to begin with and allow them to grow onto 4-10 combs by the end of warm weather. Everything works better when the entire apiary has been untreated for 3-4 years, but during the transition away from treatments, you can get a good test by making up the nucs initially with brood from colonies that have not been treated for at least 14 months. Overwinter all the nucs in a similar situation as best you can, and in the following spring you will usually have a very good idea of the new stock’s potential for your location.

The fastest and best way to test a new source of stock coming into your apiary is to raise this series of daughter queens. Raising the new queens in mid-summer and keeping them over the first winter in a nuc gives the fastest, definitive results with the smallest investment of time, equipment and money. A breeder queen with strong potential for the long term will have a really good showing among the daughters after the first winter. The basic strength and resilience of the line is shown by the survival percentage and comparative size of the clusters in early spring. If this is the same or better than the results from other breeder queens used at the same time, then the new stock is definitely worth expanding as a percentage of your apiary. Almost all of the important beekeeping characteristics can be evaluated while the daughter queens’ colonies are still covering just a few combs, and with even 20-30 surviving nucs, the range and variability of these qualities can be gauged as well. If the original mother (breeder) queen is still alive, so much the better—a much larger number of daughters can be raised (and tested) in the second year. If not, her best daughters are good candidates for developing the line further in the apiary. If the line proves to be unsuitable for any reason, the surviving nucs can easily be requeened or routed away from the breeding population before any drones are reared.

One other tip: Making up these nucs initially in split boxes is a huge help when first confronting the possibility of larger winter loss in untreated bees. Even after a 40-50% loss, most of the boxes remain viable, the surviving bees quickly grow into the empty space, and the productive work of the apiary goes on as usual. The expense and labor of establishing the split boxes is almost identical to making nucs in single boxes—an extra cell or queen per box is the only significant difference. When moving through the first stages of non-treatment, the yield from split boxes is far higher; the labor and expense, much less.

You don’t need to import a huge number of breeder queens to change the genetics in your bees and build up a stock that can survive and thrive without treatment. Despite all the hot air about “genetic diversity”, (which, I confess, I have always been rather paranoid about myself), I watched Chris Baldwin build up his productive, untreated apiary of 2000 colonies from less than 10 breeder queens used over a period of five years; and with virtually zero record keeping. During at least one of those years, he did all of his grafting from just one breeder queen—something I would never have had the courage to do.

I hope these examples will encourage more beekeepers—especially commercial beekeepers who cover a lot of territory—to develop the potential existing in all of N. America’s untreated bees, especially the feral bees. It’s time to retire varroa from its position as chief beekeeping problem and focus instead on the real long-term threats to our bees and ourselves: loss of habitat and poisoning of the environment. The experience of my career has shown me that honeybees can adapt to tracheal and varroa mites. They can adapt to rapidly changing weather patterns. But they can’t adapt to a world with no honey plants or to the poisons of a predatory and destructive agricultural system. The idea that “Industrial Agriculture is the only way to feed the world”, is ridiculous and indefensible. In every region, and with every food commodity, there are examples of organic farms with the same or greater yields per acre—with no pollution of the air, soil or water; and with healthier and more sensible lives for the farmers. The point that is valid however, is that there may not be enough farmers left to grow most of our food this way—at least in N. America. It takes more human attention, per acre, to produce food in a creative and regenerative way, and society has pretty much decided that this type of attention is no longer part of our culture. This is the rock-bottom basis of the food disaster that is fast approaching, and the reason why I’ve decided to devote whatever extra energy I have remaining to helping the few young pioneers who would like to make a living from the type of apiary I’ve described in this article. In the long run, I’m hoping Winston Churchill will have the last word: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing…after they’ve exhausted every other possibility.”

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