Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Breeding bear resistant honeybees

Should I keep on telling bear stories? (I sure have enough of them).

The other night a mother bear and her 150 pound cub knocked over a lone hive that sits by itself on a little knoll.

(The reason why I have these lone beehives sitting all by themselves around the farm is a convoluted story that in part is due to... parasitic mites.

Particularly varroa mites.

Varroa mites are rather new and particularly deadly to the honey bees that, for the most part, populate North America. These mites were introduced, by accident of course, only two decades ago. Sailing to our continent in the hold of a ship. A boat, I understand, that first docked somewhere in Florida.

And within months of this event had prospered greatly, quickly spreading to most of the honey bees all the way across the United States of America

Back then, back when my bees first came in contact with mites I had almost 100 beehives. The next spring only 48 of those hives were alive. (normally, back then, I would have expected no more than 5 to have died over the winter). The next year my losses put us down to 24. Then 14. 6. And finally the last two died.

Commercial beekeepers, and we are talking about people that have hundreds if not thousands of hives, people that predominately make their living from driving tractor trailers loaded with beehives from one corner of our country to the other, getting paid for renting out their hives to the owners of orchards, apples, peaches, almonds. Farmers of vegetables and flowers.

The commercial beekeepers went into a panic. They couldn’t afford to stand by while their hives died (at the time I made my living by teaching school).

So quickly the pharmaceutical industry came up with a mitacide that didn’t out and out kill the bees and wasn’t supposed to contaminate the honey.

To worked to kill only the mites, sort of.

Until after a few years the mites became resistant to the drug, however, by then there was another mitacide. (which of course the mites soon became resistant too)

I never made the chemical plunge. Never treated my bees with chemicals.

(Do you think for a moment that if you put a chemical in a beehive with tens of thousands of insects walking around from one end of the hive to the other that the chemical won't sooner or later get in to the honey? I didn't).

What I did do, though, was replenishing my missing empty bee boxes with bees that were thought to be somewhat tolerant to the mites.

During this time the US Department of Agriculture had sent out researchers far and wide looking for bees that could coexist with the mites. After all, such a thing must exist. It stood to reason, with natural selection, bees adapt to the mites. Instead of waiting for it to happen with our bees, why not find that bee and bring it to us.

And, after looking, several bees were found. One of them, the Russia honey bee had been living with mites for little ill effect for decades, if not centuries.

The researchers brought them back to the US and after a few years rthey became available.

When they did, I bought some.

And then there was a professor out in, I believe, Ohio. who bred for a mite tolerant bee.

I bought some of those.

And there’s others.

Besides the store bought bees I found a swarm of honey bees living up in the forest.

And that’s where the bees on the hill come about.

When I got a batch of mite resistant bees I would put them somewhere on the farm, away from other bees. Instead of having one large apiary I had a dozen.

Not all of these 'mite resistant' bees lived. or where good for producing honey. Some of them were very hot (they poured out of their hives and attempted to sting you in mass).

And a number of them eventually died off. But after a while I was collecting a number of mite resistants bees.

That was until the year of the bear.


Now, though, here in our valley bears are becoming just as deadly to the bees as the mite was.

What do you think I should do to protect the bees? Should I set out, as some have suggested, to kill off the bears?

Or, should I follow the same path I followed with the mites. Should I work to breed a bear resistant bee? And if I do. what characteristics would you suppose those bees would have?


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