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The Classroom

The Classroom – January 2024

- January 1, 2024 - Jamie Ellis - (excerpt)

The Classroom - ABJ - Jamie Ellis
Q  Preventing Varroa virus transmission

 Has there been any research on practical methods to prevent the viruses that are transmitted through Varroa? We all want Varroa to go away but it seems like it will be here for a while. Could we treat or prevent the viruses from getting into the bee colony, fight the result of Varroa? For example, could we use “x” in a hive to prevent or possibly treat deformed wing virus? This could be done in conjunction with attempts to control mites, not instead of regular IPM.

Jon Nance
Georgia, October


I really like how you are thinking about this. Unfortunately, the answer is “no,” there is no way to control viruses transmitted by Varroa currently. I am aware of several scientists who explore this avenue of research in their laboratories (i.e., methods to control viruses directly). However, there are no antiviral drugs that can be given to honey bees. So, what can one do about viruses in honey bee colonies in the meantime?

Your specific question concerns viruses transmitted by Varroa. As you might imagine, then, the best way to control Varroa-transmitted viruses is to control Varroa. If you cannot control the virus, you must control the vector. This idea is borne out in research as well, research in which scientists have shown that Varroa-associated viral loads decrease significantly in colonies treated for Varroa.

There are also viruses not vectored by Varroa that are present in honey bees. These are somewhat harder to control given they are not vector-mediated, meaning you cannot control them by controlling a vector. The best methods of controlling these viruses in colonies include requeening colonies, ensuring adequate nutrition, and controlling the other diseases/pests for which control options are available. Essentially, you are trying to address the stressors that you can control so that the bees are healthy enough to withstand the virus pressures.

Q Two questions about bees

 This is my first year beekeeping, and I am enjoying it a great deal! I hope my two hives last the winter. I have two questions: One is curiosity and the other practical. In some of Charles Linder’s articles, he mentions how “hard” some crops are on hives, I think particularly watermelons. What makes a crop easier or more difficult for a beehive in a commercial setting?

Secondly, I am a hobbyist on a half acre. I plan on planting a few witch hazels on my property, but how much will that actually help my bees? With limited space, I imagine bushes or trees will produce more forage than will other sources, but is there a way to know how many witch hazel bushes can sustain a hive?

Adam Shaffer
Pennsylvania, October


Question 1: I have not seen the article myself, so I can only suppose what Linder meant by his statement. I can think of two primary ways that some crops can be “hard” on bees. First, they could produce little nectar and/or low-quality pollen. In this case, the crops are providing no nutritive value to the bees and the bees may need to be fed while they are pollinating the crops. I am going to over-generalize here, but in general, crops to which honey bees are moved to provide pollination services are not that great, from a nutrition standpoint, for colonies.

Think about it. Most named honeys come from wild trees/shrubs/plants in the environment, not from crops. In Florida, for example, our main honey plants are tupelo, gallberry, palmetto, Brazilian pepper, etc. Bees are used to pollinate strawberries, blueberry, watermelon, cucumbers, etc., but you do not see strawberry/blueberry/watermelon/cucumber honey. There is one exception in Florida and that is citrus, but honey bees are not taken to citrus to provide pollination services. Instead, they are taken to citrus specifically to make citrus honey. The same is true across the country. You do not typically see almond honey, sunflower honey, cranberry honey, etc. That is because most crops do not provide copious amounts of nectar from which bees can make honey. You can see this clearly if there are nectariferous plants blooming around the target crop. The bees will fly over the crop to get to the plants blooming outside the field. The pollen quality in many of these crops can be low as well.

The other way that crops can be “hard” on bees is related to their treatment needs. There are some crops that growers must treat regularly to keep them healthy and productive. In this case, the bees may be exposed to various pesticides used to control fungi, insects, or other plants. Admittedly, pesticide pressures are lower for bees now than they were decades ago, when harsher compounds were used in greater volumes. Even still, bees can be exposed to several compounds when foraging on a particular crop and this could be an additional reason that Linder noted some crops are harder on bees than are others.

Question 2: I get this question pretty often, especially from new beekeepers or from members of the general public interested in helping honey bees. I have a few thoughts about this question. First, I have never seen any data link the number of acres of a given plant that must be grown to produce X pounds of honey. This is certainly not known for most plants from which bees produce honey. Second, it would take a lot more than you can plant on half an acre to make a real difference for honey bees. Yet, and third, anything you do from a planting perspective will at least help colonies. It is unreasonable to expect that planting certain plants in a limited fashion in one’s backyard will provide all the pollen/nectar that one’s colonies would need. Even still, planting certain plants will at least provide some nectar and pollen to your colonies. I recommend reaching out to your local county extension office to see what pollinator-friendly plants grow best in your area. Penn State University has a pollinator plant planting guide that you can check out here: https://pollinators.
. Honey bees do like witch hazel (the plant you are asking about specifically), so I would simply recommend that you plant the amount of that plant you want to see in your yard.

Four questions about bees

Question 1: Often, I hear people talk about the genetics of the queen and the importance of getting the right sort of queen that will work well for your hive. I understand that, but I have often wondered about the importance of the genetics of the drone. How much do they influence the hive? I know requeening can sometimes calm a defensive hive but can drones have an impact on the strength and weakness of a hive?

Question 2: What is a good way to clean my gloves? They are quite stiff.

Question 3: I had someone on a bee website tell me that I should not sell my honey because I was feeding them sugar water, so it was not true honey. I thought that when you feed your bees, they will only take the food if they need it for energy, not for using it as nectar to make honey.

Question 4: I have often wondered about the life of winter bees. In classes I have taken, we hear about the lifecycle of summer bees and pretty much learn about all their jobs throughout their short life. Winter bees live longer, so what the heck are they doing? I would imagine they spend most of their lives in a cluster staying warm. Is there a time when you have both summer and winter bees in the hive at the same time? How does that work? Do they divide the labor in a different way because their lifespan is different? Can a winter bee join foragers in the fall? Are winter bees always only females?

Tara Cunnings
New Mexico, October


Question 1: Yes. Drones are very important. However, a queen mates with multiple drones (15+), so she has a great effect on the health/productivity of the colony. She is the only bee who is a parent of all the other bees. Any given drone would only sire a fraction of all the offspring in the nest. Let us say, for example, that a queen mates with ten drones and receives an equal amount of semen that she stores from each drone. Every worker would share the queen as a parent. However, any two workers would only have a 1 in 10 chance of sharing the same father. Ultimately, drones are incredibly important and can influence many health/productivity parameters of a colony. Yet, the queen is the single most important parent, as she is the parent all the bees share.

Question 2: I admit that I have never cleaned my bee gloves (well, I have not used bee gloves in >25 years). They mostly stay loose through repeated use. If yours are getting stiff, maybe scraping the propolis off with a hive tool, or steaming them, would loosen them a bit. Baseball gloves have a similar problem so I suspect that you can steam bee gloves much the same way you would a baseball glove.

Question 3: Bees will take sugar water, store it in the comb, and cap it, just like they do honey. Thus, you should not extract honey that was made while you were feeding them and sell it. Now, you can feed your bees when the hives do not have supers on them that you plan to extract. However, I would not extract “honey” that was in the hive while you were feeding bees. You do not want to sell sugar water honey.

Question 4: Winter bees are primarily clustering to keep the colony warm throughout winter. The colony starts investing in winter bees in late summer/early fall. Until the colony begins to cluster, winter bees do much the same work that other bees do. They do overlap with other cohorts of bees in the nest (summer/spring bees). The winter bees are all females. Males are kicked out of the hive by worker bees going into winter.

Q  Making nucs with overwintered queens

 During the spring buildup, I am considering removing the queens (along with bees, frames of brood and food) from my overwintered hives to make nucs and then letting the original hives requeen themselves. Like many things in beekeeping, it sounds like a good idea to solve swarming, but is it? Is there an optimal time to do this and how do I know when I am at that point? How do I know that I am close enough to …