Leo Sharashkin: Is there such a thing as natural beekeeping? Some people feel that “keeping” bees is inherently unnatural.
Tom Seeley: It depends on how natural it has to be to qualify as natural beekeeping. I don’t think there’s a set definition. But I can keep bees and simulate bees living in the woods very closely. The one thing I do not simulate is having them 30 feet up in the tree. If that disqualifies me from natural beekeeping, that’s fine, but except for that, I think you can actually have colonies of bees living very naturally. And probably the more natural, the better. You may have smaller honey crops, but you’ll probably have healthier bees, so your overall benefits minus costs may come out ahead, and your apiary is a good demonstration of that.
Leo: Thank you, Tom, and you are right: many beekeepers are amazed to see my colonies going for five years or longer without any treatments.
Wild bees can survive treatment-free despite disease
Tom: This reminds me of my experience going back to the Arnot Forest — the research forest at Cornell — in 2002 and finding the wild honey bees were still there. How could that be? We know that if we don’t treat a colony for Varroa, it’s going to be dead in a couple years — usually two years at most! Rarely three years. But there they were. I could have just ignored that and said: “Oh, that’s weird! That doesn’t make any sense, I’m going to forget that.” But no, I saw these treatment-free colonies that persisted and it was such a striking thing I could not ignore it; I realized that could be very important.
And once we started studying how colonies could survive in the presence of Varroa, the story has gotten pretty interesting (see “Surviving without treatments: Lessons from wild bees” in American Bee Journal, February 2016), especially now that we have gotten into the changes in the bees’ genetics, the possible competitive exclusion between viral strains, the importance of colony swarming, etc.
Lifespan of wild colonies: over 6 years
Leo: Do we know how long a treatment-free colony may survive in the wild? What is the longest known lifespan of a wild colony occupying the same bee tree?
Tom: I have just completed a paper that is in press in Apidologie: “Life-history traits of wild honey bee colonies living in forests around Ithaca, NY, USA.” In it, I report a study in which I followed a population of wild colonies (living in bee trees and buildings) at thirty-three different sites for seven years, from 2010 to 2016. I have not followed them all for seven years: year one I’ve started following some sites, then added more in the following years. So some I’ve been checking for seven years, some for six, and some for five, etc. This is the only study that I know where there’s a human being — in this case me — who’s been checking each wild colony nest site three times a year: May, July, September, every year for seven years. I’m doing it so I can have good evidence that the bee colony did not die out and the nest did not just get reoccupied. So I have colonies that I know have been in continuous existence for six years. No treatments. I made enough observations to calculate (and get statistically significant results) that the average lifespan of established wild colonies in that population is 6.2 years. So that’s the best evidence I’m aware of. I’ll keep monitoring these colonies and we’ll see how long they will go.
Why treat bees when wild colonies show resistance?
Leo: Six years! That is fascinating information! And it very much raises the question: why treat bees when we have wild colonies showing resistance to Varroa? You have bees like that in upstate New York, I have them in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, and there are certainly more elsewhere. We may not fully understand which of the traits favor their survival, but the important fact is that they are able to co-exist with the mites. Why not take this genetics and propagate it, breeding queens from that stock? There is such a focus on helping bees survive and cope with Varroa; researchers are trying to artificially breed a more resistant kind of bee by favoring certain traits, such as hygienic behavior — in the meantime most beekeepers continue to use chemical treatments. Why? It looks like nature has done the work for us.
Tom: There are two parts of my answer to that. First, breeding and maintaining lines that have resistance is harder than using a medicine. So much of medicine is formulated around the “magic bullet” approach. Find one thing you can do, put it in the system to solve the problem. And that’s appropriate with human medicine because it’s easier to get people to take a drug than it is to have them change their lifestyle.
With the bees, people have of course tried breeding bees for things like resistance to American foulbrood and Varroa. But you probably know that the stocks that have great resistance to foulbrood also show brood production problems, so as soon as you relax human selection for hygienic behavior bees bounce back and move away from it. So that’s one of the complications.
Second, genetics alone is not going to solve the problem completely, I feel. There is breeding work being done selecting for Varroa-sensitive hygienic (VSH) behavior. The USDA lab in Baton Rouge worked hard to get the Russian bees precisely because there was the expectation that they would have gone through selection for resistance to Varroa. I have not used Russian bees, but quite a few people do. But what Marla Spivak tells me regarding the VSH-trait bees that she has promoted, is that these bees offer some control of the mites, but you still need other controls as well.
I cannot say for sure whether the bees that are living in the Arnot Forest would show resistance to the Varroa mite without all of the features of their lifestyle — it may not be just those genetics that are helping them. Their persistence may be due to their genetics in combination with how they live in small nests, have the freedom to swarm, etc. So I can see a lot of reasons why people want to find the magic-bullet treatment. Here’s the chemical to use — be it oxalic acid or thymol or formic acid.
Leo: Isn’t this the overall approach of how we deal with any problem? Instead of finding a way to prevent illness, we start fighting the disease agent or parasite, often making them stronger in the process. “Trouble-shooting” seems to be our preferred method, and it fires back. Do the bees have the same way of dealing with problems?
Tom: It depends on what aspect of honeybee behavior you are talking about. Of course if their nest is under attack, they will strike back. But individual bees also stimulate their nest mates to work cooperatively so …
Left to their own devices, wild honey bees can survive in climates with -40°F winters. According to the local residents, this colony living in the rock crevice outside Bozeman, MT, has been there “forever.” The nest is betrayed by the fragrance of propolis and honey, which I could smell from 20 ft. Photo by Leo Sharashkin