Varroa Virus and Social Distance

A virtual presentation for the Comox Valley Bee Club for the April 2020 virtual meeting. In years gone past we had some things that were normal, and they just happened year over year. Winter weather was predictable, in the interior of the province we would have the occaisional cold snap, and once in a while a blizzard. On the coast we had one more weather item to add into the list, a howling southeast wind that originated in the vicinity of Hawaii and came off the Pacific ocean loaded with moisture would produce torrential rains which we effectively called the Pineapple Express. I guess times have changed, and weather folks are dreaming up new names constantly for the same old stuff we’ve seen all our lives. There is the ‘Arctic Blast’, the ‘Polar Vortex’ and the ‘Atmoshperic River’. Beekeeping is much the same, old terms will get new names, the current buzz is ‘social distance’. As we come into the latter part of April I have worked hard to keep the news of pandemic away from my bees. Wifi in the bee yard has been disconnected, power turned off to the plugs at the scale so there is no extra light, and the bees will go to bed early. The problem still exists tho, they can fly, and thru the day they do fly out to go grocery shopping, fetch water, and do all the normal humdrum things required to continue living and raising brood. And while they do all these normal day to day things, some will come into contact with other bees that have been infected with the Varroa Virus. When that happens, it is inevitable that eventually that virus will come home with one of them and begin spreading thru the colony. Varroa virus attacks the young, and starts by attacking the brood before it has even had a chance to emerge. Varroa virus can propogate to pandemic situations in a matter of weeks, and has been known to kill off entire bee yards in a matter of 6 or 8 weeks when beekeepers are not tending the bees properly. African and Russian sourced bees have learned how to use the concept of social distancing to help deal with the Varro virus, while Italian and Carnolian bees do use social distancing to some extent, not nearly as much or as effectively as bees like scutellata. So how do bees accomplish this task? It begins when the queen will decree the colony must practise social distancing. The queen will gather up about half of the bees and they will move off to a spot at least 2 meters away from the hive, often a tree branch, while they wait to see if the hive has truely been infected. The expectation is the medical staff (those folks in the funny white suits with the bee proof hat) will arrive shortly and test the hive to see if it has been infected with the Varroa Virus. It’s a 2 minute test involving a bottle of alchohol, and results are available immediately. If the test result is positive, then the hive will be put under quarantine and the bees out on the tree branch will have to go find a new home. For people, 14 day quarantine is not a big deal, so they will just hang around till they can go home again. For the honeybee it’s different, a 14 day quarantine is a third of a lifetime, so they wont stick around waiting for the all clear to return home, they will head off and find a new place to call home. Scutellata take this concept to an even higher level, rather than find a place to build a new home, they will as often as not just find an existing hive then take over. When the bees decide on their own that it is necessary to begin practising social distance that presents a number of issues for the beekeeper. First off, we don’t really like to see half of the bees fly away to a new home, that involves losing a lot of bees. The second part of this, as often as not, those bees will not find a hollow tree like it shows in all the books and cartoons. Reality is more like what you see on the 628DirtRooster channel on Youtube, bees neatly setting up house in the walls and eaves of somebody else’s house. Reference the paragraph above, wifi turned off in the bee yard, I absolutely do NOT want my bees to see those videos and start getting bright ideas. So therefore as a beekeeper I will help my bees to practise social distance without becoming a nuisance in my neighbors walls. There are many ways I can accomplish this goal without allowing the bees to use the fly away method. If I analyze what happens when the bees do this on thier own, we see two distinct changes in the makeup of the colony. First, it’s now much smaller so the focus will be back on raising brood, and secondly, the bees have separated the queen from the brood. This also makes a lot of sense, in the hive the queen is the ‘purveyor of everything’ and the brood is most susceptible to damage from the varroa virus, so it makes sense to separate them. The first, and easiest way to accomplish our goal, is to simply preempt the queens decree. I can walk up to the hive and take one of the boxes, place it on a bottom board 2 meters away ensuring that box has at least half of the brood, and both boxes have eggs. This method is easy, and I dont have to find queens or any other difficult beekeeping tasks, just move a box then walk away. The sudden and rapid drop in population will cause the bees to become so worried about making new brood, they wont worry about the varroa virus for a while. One of the boxes will be in an absolute panic and start raising a new queen. the main drawback to this method is, it virtually guarantees the bees will make no surplus honey over the spring flows, and one of the boxes will likely not have enough bees to be productive over the summer fireweed flows. On the bright side, one box will have a fresh young queen and will likely be in great condition for the winter come fall. Does the walk away help control the varroa virus? Not really, it just spreads it between the new boxes just like the bees. BUT, the box that makes a new queen does present an opportunity for the beekeeper. 28 days after the walk away, one box will have a fresh young queen just starting to lay, and no capped brood in the box. That’s a pretty good opportunity to use your oxalic acid vaporizer. Another method that is commonly used to enforce social distancing with honeybees is called the ‘cut down’. Similar to the walk away, but it does require one to do some beekeeping tasks like ‘find the queen’. To accomplish the cut down, go thru the colony and find the frame with the queen and place it in a nuc box sitting on a bottom board at least 2 meters distant from the original colony. To this nuc box add one more frame with capped brood, and a frame with pollen and honey, leaving all the rest in the original location. The theory is, with most of the workforce left in the original location and now queen laying, the bees can all focus on hauling in nectar and making a large honey crop. Literature tells us, the cut down is best done about a week before the onset of main flow. I’m sure it works really well for folks that have a crystal ball and can tell exactly when we are a week away from the flow starting. I’ve had a hive on a scale for some number of years, and I can say with absolute certainty, correct timing 3 out of 6 years for our place would be to cut down on April 15, and on the other years, correct timing would have been on May 15. My conclusion, getting the timing exactly right, it’s a coin toss. But with that said, I do use the cut down for a different situation. When we find a colony making queen cells, we will take the queen and a frame of brood to start a nuc. Some colonies make a good honey crop when we do this. Other times, I guess the bees find the social distancing away from the queen to cause anxiety and loneliness so they dont do much in the way of gathering nectar and making honey. As far as controlling the varroa virus, cut down provides the same opportunity as the walk away in one of the boxes, fresh young queen just starting to lay, and no capped brood, an ideal time to use the vaporizer. So far, all of the methods presented to assist your bees with the practise of social distancing tend to focus on population reduction, but they dont do much for distancing the queen from the brood. Another method that appears to be popular online, altho I will admit to never having tried it myself, directly addresses the issue of distancing the queen from the brood. For this method, colloquially referred to as a ‘fly back’ online, one starts by picking up the entire colony and moving it to a location at least 2 meters distant from where it currently sits, then place a new bottom board with an empty box in the spot you took the hive away from. Now go thru the original hive, find the frame with the queen and move it into the new empty box. To the new box you now add a frame feeder, and fill it with fresh new undrawn frames. Finally put a pollen patty on it and then the lid. This is best done early in the day. The theory now is, the non flying house bees will stay with the brood in the old box at the new location. The flying foragers will fly out to get stuff, then go back to the place they were oriented, now containing the new box with queen and empty frames. The bees will react with ‘OMG we have swarmed, I need to start making new comb’. The bees will immediaely use the syrup in the feed to get to work making new comb, and the queen will lay in it as fast as they make it. That’s the theory, I’ve never tried it myself, but I may experiment with a fly back style this summer just to see how well it does work. All of the methods of assisting bees with social distancing presented so far have the side effect of creating a new colony, similar to how it would play out if the bees were left to do it on thier own. Not all of us want new colonies, and some are not allowed to have more colonies in the yard, be it a municipal ordinance or a spousal ordinance, end result is the same. Is it possible to assist our bees with social distancing in a manner that does not create new colonies? The answer is yes, and there are multiple ways to accomplish this task. The simplest and easiest way to make sure the queen is not coming in contact with the brood, is to kill the queen. Yes, it’s a drastic method, but it is very effective. The colony will begin new queen cells almost immediately. In 4 weeks you should have a fresh young laying queen. If you time killing the queen to be a week before the flow, many would expect a great honey crop as the bees have no open brood to tend thru the flow while making a queen, so they should make honey and a queen. My own experience with hives where queens were killed or removed, bees tend to make honey OR a queen, not honey AND a queen. In 10 years of keeping bees, only once has a queenless colony made a decent honey crop for us while raising a queen. As far as how this method helps with varroa virus, as above, it doesn’t do much to deal with the varroa other than create an opportunity for you to put a vaporizer into a colony that has no capped brood. So now another method to separate the queen and brood to manage social distancing, but without creating a new colony. Start by setting an empty box beside your existing colony. Go thru the colony and move brood frames into the empty box. While doing this, ensure the queen is not moved, she must stay in the original box. Once done, re-assemble the original box adding frames as required. Place a queen excluder over the original box, then two empty honey supers, then another queen excluder. Now place the box with all the open brood above that excluder and ensure there is an entrance available for the top box. Expectation is, foragers continue to come and go out of the original entrance. Nurse bees will gravitate up to the top box where the open brood is. After a day, queen pheremone will be almost non existant in the top box, nurse bees up there will start to raise a queen. Foraging force will continue to come and go as per nomal, the queen in the bottom will be laying. In the bottom brood nest, population is reduced so the queen will no longer have a desire to trigger that social distancing. The workforce is unaffected so they should contine working on putting honey into those supers. In the top box, the nurse bees will raise a new queen separate from the nest down below, she will go out the top entrance when it’s time to mate, then when she returns she will start a brood nest in the top box. Once there is a brood nest started in that top box, beekeeper needs to go to the bottom box, kill the queen, then move the new brood nest to the bottom. This method is good for keeping the colony full size, raising a new queen and producing a honey crop. Do not leave it to long with both queens laying, as the older one will almost certainly decide to invoke social distancing on her own if left to long. This method is no help and possibly detrimental with respect to dealing with the varroa virus. These are my thoughts for this month. We can try shelter our bees from all the news these days, but the virus is pervasive, and within a month social distancing will be come the trend amongst our honeybees, just as it is for all the people today. We are not going to prevent them from getting that message. The best we can do is assist them with the process so our bees can all practise social distancing without becomiing a pest in the neighborhood. This month is about helping our bees to be socially responsible as they begin their fight to flatten the curve with varroa virus. Next month we will start discussing vaccinations for our colonies unaffected, and treatments for those that test positive.