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Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor – March 2017

- March 1, 2017 - (excerpt)

January 2017 Articles

An open letter to all in the beekeeping world:

It was with great anticipation that I read the second part of Mrs. McNeil’s article: Bond vs. Bomb and Randy Oliver’s Part 1 of The Varroa Problem in the November issue of ABJ. Being both encouraged and disappointed, I decided to wait until Part 2 of Randy’s series before reaching a final conclusion on these Varroa-related articles. Megan Milbrath added yet another article on this topic in the December issue. My initial response began to take on the form of a small book, then came the January 2017 issue with two more Varroa-related articles from Randy. So I’m going to come right to my points as directly as possible.

The main point of these articles is that someday, hopefully, a natural equilibrium will come about between Varroa and honey bees, and that this represents the best long-term solutions for bee disease and pest issues. Also highlighted in these articles are the adverse effects of chemical treatments and their interference with bringing about the natural selection process that confers resistance for our bees. All of our bee authorities, researchers, and scientists are in agreement with this as seen in many recent articles, presentations, etc. This is nothing new; natural resistance to tracheal mites was noted and put to use by Brother Adam and fully presented by Rothenbuhler in the 50s. Park, Pellett, and Paddock noted natural resistance to AFB in the 30s. Doolittle said we don’t have the right to use the family’s money when queens can easily be generated in our spare time. Lawrence Connor had a 3-part call to action for associations and beekeepers on locally-adapted bees in this magazine in 2010. And we were encouraged to follow this path by these researchers long ago. “We can have greatly improved bees if we want them sufficiently.” Cale and Rothenbuhler concluded at the end of Ch. 7 of my 1978 copy of The Hive and The Honey Bee.

And that leads in nicely to the real problem with Varroa which Randy correctly identified: Us. Obviously we don’t want solutions bad enough yet or, to emulate George Imirie, we would get off our lazy butts and do something about it. You cannot solve your (self-created) Varroa problems by pouring chemicals from bottles, experimenting with new delivery methods or increased doses, or by simply ordering a queen from the other side of the country no matter how good she may be or what traits she may possess back home. And there are shining examples of beekeepers succeeding without chemicals and foreign maladapted genetics. Le Conte, Kefuss, Kirk Webster, myself, and many others, as Aiden Wing put it, good, knowledgeable, and experienced beekeepers, succeeding at this. Committed is another word I would use to describe it. There is also a shining example of this on the commercial level with Danny Weaver and BeeWeaver Apiaries.

In the January articles Randy points out some much-needed advice for beekeepers: “get serious about shifting to mite-resistant stocks”, “start demanding of our queen producers that we want mite-resistant stock”, “grow or keep stock adapted to your region”, “finally get serious about dealing with Varroa”, “easier if we as an industry worked together” and more. And was I ever glad to see Randy mention that “maternal lines” are what the feral population has used to adapt and survive. Maybe beekeepers will finally come to understand that daughter queens from foreign genetics does not a locally-adapted bee make!

Unfortunately, the January articles have basically just restated what others have been saying for a while. The advice Randy gives to beekeepers could be used by himself and others of our bee authorities. As long as bee scientists and experts continue to advocate locally adapted bees, no chemicals, and better beekeeping, but then continue to use chemicals themselves, pull in queens from other regions, and basically do the opposite of what they advocate; NO ONE IS GOING TO TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY. You started this series by listing 6 possible options for the future because amitraz is eventually going to fail (I hope it fails tomorrow) and no new short-term chemical solutions appear on the horizon. The first 5 options are the last-ditch efforts before arriving at the final solution of resistant bee stock. Why not skip options 1 to 5 and go straight to the final solution? Oh, I forgot; there’s the inevitable collapse of bee colonies as natural selection removes those not wanted which we’ve been keeping on life support.

What’s going to happen when your chemical alternatives fail? Yeah, it happened to me 20 yrs. ago when I stopped the chemicals and let the bees see to their own reproductive future; I went down to a single colony. That colony, without any form of treatment and a matriarchal queen lineage that is intact for those 20 years, still stands and a thriving apiary is built around it. Every year my apiary inspector comments on how well things are going while scratching her head in wonder and saying she can’t do what I’m doing. As pointed out; it doesn’t take rocket science or tedious work, although recordkeeping of some sort is a must for selection decisions. I figured this out with only basic biology, common sense, and logic. But there I go being arrogant with my success which Randy says doesn’t help the cause. Sorry, but I can find no better argument for my, as Moses Quinby put it, “luck” than the success of the past 20 years. I’m sure LeConte, Kefuss, Webster, and a host of others would agree.

And that leads me to my last comment on these articles, specifically; Randy’s Beyond Taktic. I have great respect for our bee researchers, their education, and all their efforts as they aid us in navigating through beekeeping’s challenges and problems. I wholeheartedly agree and support them in their efforts and advice, particularly concerning local stocks and chemical-free beekeeping. But Randy lost me from the very beginning of this article. Again, although advocating chemical-free beekeeping, the whole article is devoted to the use of chemicals.

Question to Randy: Are you serious about removing chemicals and bringing about resistant bees?

And Randy goes too far when he admits to skirting the law and then gives usage instructions for non-approved methods.Yes, I read the part about adhering to label directions and that it must be registered for use. From what I’ve seen out of many beekeepers, you might as well have dangled a carrot in front of a rabbit and expected it to ignore it. There are enough beekeepers engaging in reckless kitchen chemistry already without someone encouraging them, especially someone they look to for good advice, proper management, and sound answers.

Then, the final insult to me, and others too; treatment-free beekeepers of my ilk are releasing “Varroa Bombs” on those around us. Real beekeepers do not let their colonies come to such a state to begin with so I’m going to hope you mean bee-havers (for which I have no use). There’s a freezer, fire,  local queen, or black plastic bag for any colony that does not have what it takes to survive and thrive. It is a foolish notion to try and keep every colony alive, and contrary to nature’s selective forces. (Take a look at what Kefuss did to keep the selective pressure on when his bees began to get the upper hand on Varroa: he purchased Varroa-infested comb from other beekeepers. Now there’s someone serious about creating resistant bees!) Randy; if your operation were to collapse from removing the tubes from their arms and crutches from under their feet then I invoke the Jedi saying: “These aren’t the bees you want.” Or the bees you need.

Leaders lead best by example. As long as the “movers and shakers”, scientists, and other beekeeping authorities continue to try and convince people to “do as I say, not as I do” you’re not going to see change and you’re certainly not going to encourage beekeepers to try. This has been talked about enough—time for action! Here’s my advice: It’s a new year—drop the chemicals and start making increase from your best survivors. It’s that simple but: HOW SERIOUS ARE YOU?

Sincerely and respectfully,
Terry Combs, Keyesport, IL

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Randy Oliver Responds

Thank you for your comments Terry, although had you waited until I finished my series, I would have answered your questions. As per your exhortation, I have indeed run a survivor yard here in California for many years, diligently looking for colonies that could survive their second season without treatment. And although I’ve tested purportedly mite-resistant stock from many breeders, as well as from hundreds of potential breeders from my own locally-adapted stock, I have unfortunately not been as lucky as you (there is always some degree of luck involved in any breeding program at hitting the right genetic combination). Very few colonies passed the test in the survivor yard, and even fewer of their daughters have done so. Please realize that the mite has much more time to build up in California than it does in Illinois, since our colonies do not benefit from your long brood break. Thus, a California colony must exhibit a far greater degree of resistance than one in Illinois–I will explain the math of this is in an upcoming article.

That said, I recently identified a very promising queen in my operation, and …