Category Archives: Science

Virus resistant bees?

In the early/mid noughties there was a lot of excitement about a newly discovered pathogen of honey bees, Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV). This virus was identified and initially characterised in 2004 and, a couple of years later, was implicated as the (or at least a) potential cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) 1..

CCD is, and remains (if it still exists at all), enigmatic 2. It is an oft-misused term to describe the dramatic and terminal reduction in worker bee numbers in a colony in the absence of queen failures, starvation or obvious disease. It primarily occurred in the USA in 2006-07 and was reported from other countries in subsequent years 3.

Comparisons of healthy and CCD-affected colonies showed a correlation between the presence of IAPV and colony collapse, triggering a number of additional studies. In this and a future post I’m going to discuss two of these studies.

I’ll note here that correlation is not the same as causation. Perhaps IAPV was detected because the colony was collapsing due to something else? IAPV wasn’t the only thing that correlated with CCD. It’s likely that CCD was a synergistic consequence of some or all of multiple pathogens, pesticides, poor diet, environmental stress, migratory beekeeping, low genetic diversity and the phase of the moon 4.


Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus is an RNA virus. That means the genome is made of ribonucleic acid, a different sort of chemical to the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that comprises the genetic material of the host honey bee, or the beekeeper. The relevance of this will hopefully become clear later.

RNA viruses are not unusual. Deformed wing virus (DWV) is also an RNA virus as is Sacbrood virus and Black Queen Cell Virus. In fact, many of the most problematic viruses (for bees or beekeepers [measles, the common cold, influenza, yellow fever, dengue, ebola]) are RNA viruses.

RNA viruses evolve rapidly. They exhibit a number of features that mean they can evade or subvert the immune responses of the host, they can acquire mutations that help them switch from one host to another and they rapidly evolve resistance to antiviral drugs.

To a virologist they are a fascinating group of viruses.

IAPV isn’t a particularly unusual RNA virus. It is a so-called dicistrovirus 5 meaning that there are two (di) regions of the genetic material that are expressed (cistrons) as proteins. One region makes the structural proteins that form the virus particle, the other makes the proteins that allow the virus to replicate.

Schematic of the RNA genome of Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus

There are many insect dicistroviruses. These include very close relatives of IAPV that infect bees such as Acute Bee Paralysis Virus (ABPV) and Kashmir Bee Virus (KBV). They are very distant relatives of DWV and, in humans, poliovirus; all belong to the picorna-like viruses (pico meaning small, rna meaning, er, RNA i.e. small RNA containing viruses … I warned you about the Latin).

Phylogenetic relationships between picorna-like viruses

Like DWV, IAPV-infected bees can exhibit symptoms (shivering, paralysis … characteristic of nerve function or neurological impairment in the case of IAPV) or may be asymptomatic. The virus probably usually causes a persistent infection in the honey bee and is transmitted both horizontally and vertically:

  • horizontal transmission – between bees via feeding, direct contact or vector mediated by Varroa (not all of these routes have necessarily been confirmed).
  • vertical transmission – via eggs or sperm to progeny.

IAPV resistance

An interesting feature of IAPV is that some colonies are reported to be resistant to the virus. This is stated in an interesting paper by Eyal Maori 6 but, disappointingly, is not cited.

At the same time these studies were being conducted there was a lot of interest in genetic exchange between pathogens and hosts (e.g. where genetic material from the pathogen gets incorporated into the host) and an increasing awareness of the importance of a process called RNA interference (RNAi) in host resistance to pathogens 7.

Maori and colleagues screened the honey bee genome for the presence of IAPV sequences (i.e. a host-acquired pathogen sequence) using the polymerase chain reaction 8. About 30% of the bees tested contained IAPV sequences derived from the region of the genome that makes the structural proteins of the virus. Other regions of the virus were not detected.

Two additional important observations were made. Firstly, the IAPV sequences appeared to be integrated into a number of location of the DNA of the honey bee (remember IAPV is an RNA virus, so this requires some chemical modifications to be described shortly). Secondly, the IAPV sequences were expressed as RNA. This is significant because RNA is an intermediate in the production of RNAi (with apologies to the biologists who are reading this for the oversimplification and to the non-scientists for some of this gobbledegook. Bear with me.).

And now for the crunch experiment …

Virus challenge

Maori and team injected 300 white eyed honey bee pupae that lacked the integrated IAPV sequence with virus.

Only 2% survived.

They went on to inoculate a further 80 pupae selected at random. Thirteen of these survived (16%) and emerged as healthy-looking adults. The 67 corpses all showed evidence of virus replication and lacked the integrated IAPV sequence in the bee genome.

In contrast, the 13 survivors all contained integrated IAPV sequences but showed no evidence for replication of the virus.

This is of profound importance to our understanding of the resistance of honey bees to pathogens … and in the longer term for the selection or generation of virus-resistant bees.

If it is correct.

Subsequent studies

It’s of such profound importance that it’s extraordinary that there have been no subsequent follow-up papers (at least to my knowledge).

What there have been are number of outstanding but indirectly related studies that have demonstrated a potential mechanism for the integration of RNA sequences into a DNA genome.  We also now have a much improved understanding of how such integrated sequences could confer resistance to the host of the pathogen.

Perhaps the best of these follow-up studies is one by Carla Saleh 9 on the molecular mechanisms that underlie the integration of viral RNA sequences into the host DNA genome. This study also demonstrates how an acute virus infection of insects is converted to a persistent infection.

One of the big problems with the Maori study is explaining how RNA gets integrated. RNA and DNA are chemically similar but different. You can’t just join one to the other.

Saleh showed the an enzyme called an endogenous reverse transcriptase (an enzyme that converts RNA to DNA) was required. In the fruit fly virus model system she worked with she showed that this enzyme was made by a genetic element within the fruit fly genome (hence endogenous) called a retrotransposon.

Importantly, Saleh also showed that the integrated virus sequences acted as the source for interfering RNAs (RNAi) which then suppressed the replication of the virus.

The study by Saleh and colleagues is extremely elegant and explains much of the earlier work on integration of RNA pathogen sequences into the host genome.

However, it leaves a number of questions unanswered about the bits of IAPV that Maori claim are associated with virus resistance in honey bees.

Unfinished business

The Saleh study is really compelling science. Perhaps the same process operates in honey bees?

This is where issues start to appear. The honey bee genome has now been sequenced. Perplexingly (if the Maori study is correct) it contains few transposons and no active retrotransposons.

Without a source of the reverse transcriptase enzyme there’s no way for the RNA to be converted to DNA and integrated into the host genome.

The second major issue is that there are conflicting reports of the presence of viral sequences integrated in the honey bee genome. The assembled sequence 10 appears to contain no virus sequences but there are conference reports of sequences for IAPV, DWV and KBV using a PCR-based method similar to that used by Maori.

Where next?

There’s a lot to like about the Maori study on naturally transgenic bees (a phrase they used in the conclusion to their paper).

It explains the reported IAPV resistance of some bees/colonies (though this needs better documentation). It implicates a molecular mechanism which has subsequently been demonstrated to operate in a number of different insects and host/pathogen systems.

It’s also a result that as a beekeeper and a virologist I’d also like to think offers hope for the future in terms honey bee resistance to the pathogens that can blight our colonies.

Monoculture ... beelicious ...

Monoculture … beelicious …

However, the absence of some key controls in the Maori study, the lack of any real follow-up papers on their really striking observation and the contradictions with some of the genomic studies on honey bees is a problem.

What’s new?

Eyal Maori has a very recent paper (PDF) on RNAi transmission in honey bees. It was in part prompted by the second of the IAPV studies I want to discuss that arose after IAPV was implicated as a possible cause of CCD. That study, to be covered in a future post, demonstrates field-scale analysis of RNAi-based suppression of IAPV.

It is important for two reasons. It shows a potential route to combat virus infections and, indirectly, it emphasises the importance of continuing to properly control Varroa (and hence virus) levels for the foreseeable future.


Magic mushrooms not magic bullets

Bees are very newsworthy. Barely a week goes by without the BBC and other news outlets discussing the catastrophic global decline in bee numbers and the impending Beemaggedon.

These articles are usually accompanied by reference to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and the apocryphal quote attributed to Albert Einstein “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live” 1.

They also generally illustrate news about honey bees with pictures of bumble bees … and conveniently overlook the global increase in honey bee colonies over the last 50 years.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story 2


And the story is particularly newsworthy if it includes the opportunity for a series of entirely predictable (but nevertheless amusing) puns involving mushrooms or fungi 3.

And for me, it is even better if it involves viruses.

It was inevitable I’d therefore finally get round to reading a recent collaborative paper 4 from Paul Stamets, Walter Sheppard, Jay Evans and colleagues. Evans is from the USDA-ARS Beltsville bee labs, Sheppard is an entomologist from Washington State University and Stamets is a really fun guy 5, an acknowledged mushroom expert and enthusiast, award-winning author 6 and advocate of mushrooms as a cure for … just about anything. Stamets is the founder and owner of Fungi Perfecti, a company promoting the cultivation of high-quality gourmet and medicinal mushrooms.

An an aside, you can get a good idea of Stamets’ views and all-encompassing passion for ‘shrooms by watching his YouTube video on the Stoned Ape [hypothesis] and Fungal Intelligence.

Fungi and viruses

It has been shown that extracts of fungi can have antiviral activity 7, though the underlying molecular mechanism largely remains a mystery (for a good overview have a look at this recent review in Frontiers in Microbiology by Varpu Marjomäki and colleagues). I’m not aware of any commercial antivirals derived from fungi 8 and none that I’m aware of are in clinical trials for human use.

Stamets cites his own observations of honey bees foraging on mycelia (the above-ground fruiting body we call ‘mushrooms’) and speculates that this may be to gain nutritional or medicinal benefit.



This seems entirely reasonable. After all, bees collect tree resins to make propolis, the antimicrobial activity of which may contribute to maintaining the health of the hive.

I’ve not seen bees foraging on fungi, but that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t.

Have you?

Whatever … these observations prompted the authors to investigate whether mushroom extracts had any activity against honey bee viruses.

Not just any viruses

Specifically they tested mushroom extracts against deformed wing virus (DWV) and Lake Sinai Virus (LSV).

DWV is transmitted by Varroa and is globally the most important viral pathogen of honey bees. It probably accounts for the majority of overwintering colony losses due to a reduction in longevity of the fat bodied overwintering bees.

LSV was first identified in 2010 and appears to be widespread, at least in the USA. It has also been detected in Europe and is a distant relative of chronic bee paralysis virus. It has yet to be unequivocally associated with disease in honey bees.

Not just any ‘shrooms

Mycelial extracts were prepared from four species of fungi. As a lapsed fly fisherman I was interested to see that one of those chosen was Fomes fomentarius, the hoof fungus which grows on dead and dying birch trees. This fungus, sliced thinly, is the primary ingredient of Amadou which is used for drying artificial flies 9.

Hoof fungus … and not a honey bee in sight.

Mycelial extract preparation took many weeks and generated a solution of ethanol, aqueous and solvent soluble mycelial compounds together with potentially contaminating unused constituents from the growth substrate. This was administered in thin (i.e. 1:1 w/v) sugar syrup.

Don’t just try hacking a lump off the tree and placing it under the crownboard 😉


In laboratory trials all the fungal extracts reduced the level of DWV or LSV in caged honey bees by statistically significant amounts.

Unfortunately (at least for the layman trying to comprehend the paper) the reductions quoted are n-fold lower, based upon an assay called a quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction. Phew! It might have been preferable – other than it being appreciably more work – to present absolute reductions in the virus levels.

Nevertheless, reductions there were.

Encouragingly they were generally dose-dependent i.e. the more “treatment” added the greater the reduction. A 1% extract of hoof fungus in thin syrup reduced DWV levels by over 800-fold. Against LSV the greatest reductions (~500-fold) were seen with a different extract. In many cases the fold change observed were much more conservative i.e. less activity (though still statistically significant).

A) Normalised DWV and LSV levels in individual bees. B) Activity of mushroom extracts against LSV.

These lab studies encouraged the authors to conduct field trials. Five frame nucleus colonies were fed 3 litres of a 1% solution of one of the two most active extracts. Virus levels were quantified 12 days later. Control colonies were fed thin syrup only.

These field trials were a bit less convincing. Firstly, colonies fed syrup alone exhibited 2- to 80-fold reduction in DWV and LSV levels respectively. Against DWV the fungal mycelial extracts reduced the level of the virus ~40-fold and ~80-fold better than syrup alone. LSV levels were more dramatically reduced by any of the treatments tested; ~80-fold by syrup alone and ~90-fold or ~45,000-fold better than the syrup control by the two mycelial extracts.

Or is it any ‘shrooms … or ‘shrooms at all?

It’s worth emphasising that syrup-alone is not the correct control for use in these studies. As stated earlier the mycelial extract likely also contained constituents from the fungal growth media (sterilised birch sawdust).

The authors were aware of this and also tested extracts prepared from uninoculated birch sawdust. This definitely contained endogenous fungal contamination as they identified nucleic acid from ‘multiple species’ of fungi in the sterilised sawdust, the majority from three commonly birch-associated fungi (none of which were the original four species tested).

The authors are a little coy about the effect this birch sawdust extract had on virus levels other than to say “extracts from non-inoculated fungal growth substrate also showed some activity against DWV and LSV”. In lab studies it appears as though ‘some activity’ is between 8- and 120-fold reduction.

Without some additional controls I don’t think we can be certain that the compound(s) responsible for reducing the viral levels is even derived from the mushroom mycelium, whether the endogenous ones present in the sawdust, or those grown on the sawdust.

For example, perhaps the active compound is a constituent of birch sawdust that leaches out at low levels (e.g. during the extraction process) but that is a released in large amounts when fungi grow on the substrate?

Hope or hype?

Readers with good memories may recollect articles from fifteen years ago about fungi with activity against Varroa. In that case the fungus was Metarhizium anisopliae. There are still groups working on this type of biological control for mites but it’s probably fair to say that Metarhizium has not lived up to its early promise 10.

A lot more work is needed before we’ll know whether mushroom extracts have any specific activity against honey bee viruses. There are lots of unanswered questions and it will take years to have a commercial product for use by beekeepers.

Don’t get rid of your stocks of oxalic acid or Apivar yet!


What are the active ingredient(s) and mode of action?

Do the extracts actually have any activity against the viruses per se, or do they instead boost the immune response of the bee and make it better to resist infection or clear established infections?

How specific are the extracts? Do they have activity against other RNA viruses of honey bees? What about Nosema? Or the foulbroods? If they boost immune responses you’d expect a broad range of activities against bee pathogens.

You’d also expect that bees would have evolved to actively forage on mushroom fruiting bodies and so be a common sight in late summer/early autumn.

Are they toxic to bees in the longer term? Are they toxic for humans? Fomes formentarius is considered “inedible, with a slightly fruity smell and acrid taste”. Delicious!

Finally, is the reduction in virus levels observed in field studies sufficient to have a measurable positive influence on colony health? It’s worth remembering that Apivar treatment reduces mite levels by 95% and virus levels by about 99.9999%.



Magic mushroom is a generic term used to refer to a polyphyletic group of fungi that contain any of various psychedelic compounds, including psilocybin, psilocin, and baeocystin. Talk to Frank to find out more about the effects and dangers of magic mushrooms. The de facto standard guide for the identification of magic mushrooms is Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World by … you guessed it, Paul Stamets.

The term magic mushroom was first used in Life magazine in 1957.

A magic bullet is a highly specific drug or compound which kills a microbial pathogen without harming the host organism. The term (in German, Zauberkugel) was first used by Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich in 1900. Ehrlich discovered/developed the first magic bullet, Salvarsan or Arsphenamine, an organoarsenic compound that is effective in the treatment of syphilis.

Mycelial extracts of fungi are not (yet at least) a magic bullet for use in the control of honey bee viruses.

Teaching in the bee shed

An observant beekeeper never stops learning. How the colony responds to changes in forage and weather, how swarm preparations are made, how the colony regulates the local environment of the hive etc.

Sometimes the learning is simple reinforcement of things you should know anyway.

Or knew, but forgot. Possibly more than once.

If you forget the dummy board they will build brace comb in the gap 🙁

There’s nothing wrong with learning by reinforcement though some beekeepers never seem to get the message that knocking back swarm cells is not an effective method of swarm control 😉

Learning from bees and beekeeping

More generally, bees (and their management) make a very good subject for education purposes. Depending upon the level taught they provide practical examples for:

  • Biology – (almost too numerous to mention) pollination, caste structure, the superorganism, disease and disease management, behaviour
  • Chemistry – pheromones, sugars, fermentation, forensic analysis
  • Geography and communication – the waggle dance, land use, agriculture
  • Economics – division of labour (so much more interesting than Adam Smith and pin making), international trade
  • Engineering and/or woodwork – bee space, hive construction, comb building, the catenary arch

There are of course numerous other examples, not forgetting actual vocational training in beekeeping.

This is offered by the Scottish Qualifications Authority in a level 5 National Progression Award in Beekeeping and I’ve received some enquiries recently about using a bee shed for teaching beekeeping.

Shed life

For our research we’ve built and used two large sheds to accommodate 5 to 7 colonies. The primary reason for housing colonies in a shed is to provide some protection to the bees and the beekeeper/scientist when harvesting brood for experiments.

On a balmy summer day there’s no need for this protection … the colonies are foraging strongly, well behaved and good tempered.

But in mid-March or mid-November, on a cool, breezy day with continuous light rain it’s pretty grim working with colonies outdoors. Similarly – like yesterday – intermittent thunderstorms and heavy rain are not good conditions to be hunched over a strong colony searching for a suitable patch containing 200 two day old larvae.

Despite the soaking you get the colonies are still very exposed and you risk chilling brood … to say nothing of the effect it has on their temper.

Or yours.

Bee shed inspections

Here’s a photo from late yesterday afternoon while I worked with three colonies in the bee shed. The Met Office had issued “yellow warnings” of thunderstorms and slow moving heavy rain showers that were predicted to drift in from the coast all afternoon.

All of which was surprisingly accurate.

Bee shed inspections in the rain

For a research facility this is a great setup. The adverse weather doesn’t seem to affect the colonies to anything like the same degree as those exposed to the elements. Here’s a queenless colony opened minutes before the photo above was taken …

Open colony in the bee shed

Inside the shed the bees were calmly going about their business. I could spend time on each frame and wasn’t bombarded with angry bees irritated that the rain was pouring in through their roof.

Even an inexperienced or nervous beekeeper would have felt unthreatened, despite the poor conditions outside.

So surely this would be an ideal environment to teach some of the practical skills of beekeeping?

Seeing and understanding

Practical beekeeping involves a lot of observation.

Is the queen present? Is there brood in all stages? Are there signs of disease?

All of these things need both good eyesight and good illumination. The former is generally an attribute of the young but can be corrected or augmented in the old.

But even 20:20 vision is of little use if there is not enough light to see by.

The current bee shed is 16′ x 8′. It is illuminated by the equivalent of seven 120W bulbs, one situated ‘over the shoulder’ of a beekeeper inspecting each of the seven hives.

On a bright day the contrast with the light coming in through the windows makes it difficult to see eggs. On a dull day the bulbs only provide sufficient light to see eggs in freshly drawn comb. In older or used frames – at least with my not-so-young eyesight – it usually involves a trip to the door of the shed (unless it is raining).

It may be possible to increase the artificial lighting using LED panels but whether this would be sufficient (or affordable) is unclear.


Observation also requires access. The layout of my bee shed has the hives in a row along one wall. The frames are all arranged ‘warm way’ and the hives are easily worked from behind.

Hives in the bee shed

Inevitably this means that the best view is from directly behind the hive. If the shed was used as a training/teaching environment there’s no opportunity to stand beside the hive (as you would around a colony in a field), so necessitating the circulation of students within a rather limited space to get a better view.

A wider shed would improve things, but it’s still far from ideal and I think it would be impractical for groups of any size.

And remember, you’re periodically walking to and from the door with frames …


If you refer back to the first photograph in this post you can see a smoker standing right outside the door of the shed.

If you use or need a smoker to inspect the colonies (and I appreciate this isn’t always necessary, or that there are alternative solutions) then it doesn’t take long to realise that the smoker must be kept outside the shed.

Even with the door open air circulation is limited and the shed quickly fills with smoke.

If you’ve mastered the art of lighting a properly fuelled efficient smoker the wisp of smoke curling gently up from the nozzle soon reduces visibility and nearly asphyxiates those in the shed.

Which brings us back to access again.

Inspections involve shuttling to and from the door with frames or the smoker, all of which is more difficult if the shed is full of students.

Or bees … which is why the queen excluder is standing outside the shed as well. I usually remove this, check it for the queen and then stand it outside out of the way.


In mid-March or November the shed is a great place to work. The sheltered environment consistently keeps the temperature a little above ambient.

Colonies seem to develop sooner and rear brood later into the autumn 1.

But in direct sunlight the shed can rapidly become unbearably warm.


All the hives have open mesh floors and I’ve not had any problems with colonies being unable to properly regulate their temperature.

The same cannot be said of the beekeeper.

Working for any period at temperatures in the low thirties (Centigrade) is unpleasant. Under these conditions the shed singularly fails to keep the beekeeper dry … though it’s sweat not rain that accumulates in my boots on days like this.

Bee shelters

For one or two users a bee shed makes a lot of sense if you:

  • live in an area with high rainfall (or that is very windy and exposed) and/or conditions where hives would benefit from protection in winter
  • need to inspect or work with colonies at fixed times and days
  • want the convenience of equipment storage, space for grafting and somewhere quiet to sit listening to the combined hum of the bees in the hives and Test Match Special 😉

But for teaching groups of students there may be better solutions.

In continental Europe 2 bee houses and bee shelters are far more common than they are in the UK.

I’ve previously posted a couple of articles on German bee houses – both basic and deluxe. The former include a range of simple shelters, open on one or more sides.

A bee shelter

Something more like this, with fewer hives allowing access on three sides and a roof – perhaps glazed or corrugated clear sheeting to maximise the light – to keep the rain off, might provide many of the benefits of a bee shed with few of the drawbacks.


Leave and let die

If you follow some of the online discussions on Varroa you’ll see numerous examples of amateur beekeepers choosing not to treat so as to ‘select for mite-resistant bees’.

For starters it’s worth looking at the ‘treatment-free’ forums on Beesource.

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

The principle is straightforward. It goes something like this:

  • Varroa is a relatively new 1 pathogen of honey bees who therefore naturally have no resistance to it (or the viruses it transmits).
  • Miticide treatment kills mites, so favouring the survival of bees.
  • Consequently, traits that confer partial or complete resistance to Varroa are not actively selected for (which would otherwise happen if an untreated colony died out).
  • Treatment is therefore detrimental, at the population level if not the individual level, to the development of Varroa-resistant bees.
  • Therefore, don’t treat and – with a bit of luck – a resistant strain of bees will appear.

A crude oversimplification?

Yes, I don’t deny it.

There are all sorts of subtleties here. These range from the open mating of queens, isolation of apiaries, desirable traits (with regards to both disease resistance and honey production 2), livestock management ethics, our responsibilities to other beekeepers and other pollinators. I could go on.

But won’t.

Instead I’ll discuss a short paper published in the Journal of Apicultural Research. It’s not particularly novel and the results are very much in the “No sh*t Sherlock” category. However, it neatly emphasises the futility of the ‘do nothing and expect evolution to find a solution’ approach.

But I’ll start with a simple question …

How many colonies have you got?

One? (in which case, get another)



One hundred?

Eight-two thousand? 3

Numbers matters because evolution is a numbers game. The evolutionary processes that result in alteration of genes (the genotype of an organism) that confer different traits or characteristics (the phenotype of an organism) are rare.

For example, viruses are some of the fastest evolving organisms and, during their replication, mutations (errors) occur at a rate of about 1 in 104 at the genetic level 4.

This is why we treat ...

This is why we treat …

But so-called higher organisms (like humans or bees) have much more efficient replication machinery and make very many fewer errors. A conservative figure for bees might be about 10,000 times less than in these viruses (i.e. 1 in 108), though it could be as much as a million times less error-prone 5

There are lots of other evolutionary mechanisms in addition to mutation but the principle remains broadly the same. The chance changes that are acquired by copying or mixing up genetic material are very, very infrequent.

If they weren’t, most replication would result – literally – in a dead end.

OK, OK, enough numbers … what about my two colonies?

So, since the evolutionary mechanisms make small, infrequent changes, the chance of a beneficial change occurring is very small. If you start with small numbers of colonies and expect success you’re likely to be disappointed.

Where ‘likely to be’ means will be.

The chances of picking the Lotto jackpot is about 1 in 45 million for each ticket purchased. If you expect to win you will be disappointed.

It could be you … but it’s unlikely

If you buy two tickets (with different numbers!) your chances are doubled. But realistically, they’re still not great 6.

And so on.

Likewise, the more colonies you have, the more likely you’ll get one that might – by chance – acquire a beneficial mutation that confers some level of resistance to Varroa.

Of course, we don’t really know much about the genetic basis for resistance (or tolerance?) to Varroa in honey bees. We know that there are behavioural changes that increase survival. We also know that Apis cerana can cope with Varroa because it has a shorter duration replication cycle and exhibits social apoptosis.

There are certainly ‘hygienic’ and other traits in bees that may be beneficial, but at a genetic level I don’t think we know the number of genes that are altered to confer these, or how much each might contribute.

So we don’t know how many mutations will be needed … One? One hundred? One thousand?

If the benefit of an individual mutation is very subtle it might offer relatively little selective advantage, which brings us back to the numbers again.

Apologies. Let’s not go there.

Let’s cut to the chase …

Comparison of treated vs untreated colonies over 3 years

Miticides – whether hard chemicals like Amitraz or Apistan or organic acids like formic or oxalic acid – work by exhibiting differential toxicity to mites than to their host, the bee. They are not so specific that they only kill mites. They can harm other things as well … e.g. if you ingest enough oxalic acid (5 – 15g) it can kill you.


Amitraz …

Jerzy Wilde and colleagues published their study 7 comparing colonies treated or untreated over a three year period. The underlying question addressed in the paper is “What’s more damaging, treating with potentially toxic miticides or not treating at all?”

The study was straightforward. They started with 100 colonies, requeened them and divided them randomly into 4 groups of 25 colonies each. Three received treatment and one was a control.

The ‘condition’ of the colonies was measured in a variety of ways, including:

  • Colony size in Spring (number of combs occupied)
  • Nosema levels (quantified by numbers of spores)
  • Mite drop over the winter (dead mites per 100g of ‘hive debris’)
  • Colony size in autumn (post-treatment) and egg laying rate by the queen
  • Winter losses

The last one needs some explanation because in one group (guess which?) there were more winter losses than they started the experiment with.

Overwintering colony losses were made up from splits of colonies in the same group the following year, so that each year 25 colonies went into the winter i.e. surviving colonies were used to generate additional colonies for the same treatment group.

Treatment and seasonal variation

To add a little complexity to the study the authors compared three treatment regimes:

  1. Hard chemicals only – active ingredients amitraz or the pyrethroid flumethrin (the research group are Polish, so the particular formulations are those licensed in Poland – Apiwarol, Bayvarol and Biowar).
  2. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – a range of treatments including Api Life Var (primarily a thymol-based treatment) in spring, drone brood removal early/mid season, hard chemical or formic acid in late summer/autumn and oxalic acid in midwinter.
  3. Organic (natural) treatments only – Api Life Var in spring, the same or formic acid in late summer and a midwinter oxalic acid treatment.

The fourth group were the untreated controls.

To avoid season-specific variation they conducted the experiment over three complete seasons (2010-2012).

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

The results of the study are shown in a series of rather dense tables with standard deviation and statistic significance … so I’ll give a narrative account of the important ones.

Results …

The strength of surviving colonies in Spring was unaffected by prior treatment (or absence of treatment) but varied significantly between seasons. In contrast, late summer colony strength was significantly worse in the untreated control colonies. In addition, the number of post-treatment eggs laid by the queen was significantly lower (by ~30%) in untreated control colonies 8.

Remember that early autumn treatment is needed to reduce Varroa infestation and so protect the winter bees that are being reared at this time from the mite-transmitted viruses.

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

The most dramatic effects were seen in winter losses and (unsurprisingly) mite counts.

Mites were counted in the hive debris falling through the open mesh floor during the winter. In the first year the treated and untreated controls had similar numbers of mites per 100g of debris (~12). In all treated colonies this remained about the same in each subsequent season. Conversely, untreated controls showed mite drop increasing to ~43 in the second year and ~114 in the final year of the study.

During the three years of the study 30 untreated colonies died. In contrast, a total of 37 colonies from the three treatment groups died.

The summary sentence of the abstract to the paper neatly sums up these results: 

Failing to apply varroa treatment results in the gradual and systematic decrease in the number of combs inhabited by bees and condition of bee colonies and consequently, in their death.

… and some additional observations

Other than oxalic acid, none of the treatments used significantly affected the late season egg laying by the queen. Api Life Var contains thymol and many beekeepers are aware that the thymol in Apiguard quite often stops the queen from laying. Interesting …

I commented last week on queen losses with MAQS. In this Polish study, 8 of 50 colonies treated with formic acid suffered queen losses.

In the third season (2012) 45% of the 100 colonies died. More than half of these lost colonies were in the untreated controls. In contrast, overall colony losses in the first two years were only 9% and 13%. Survival of untreated colonies for a year or two is expected, but once the Varroa levels increase significantly the colony is doomed.

Overall, colonies receiving integrated pest management or hard chemical treatment survived best.

Evolution …

March of Progress

Evolution …

Remind yourself where the colonies came from that were used to make up the losses in the treatment (or control) groups … they were splits from colonies within the same group. So, colonies that survived without treatment were used to produce more colonies to not be treated the following season.

Does this start to sound familiar?

Jerzy Wilde and colleagues started with 25 colonies in the untreated group. They lost 30 colonies over a 3 year period and ended up with just two colonies. Had they wanted to continue the study they would have been unable to recover their losses from these two remaining colonies.

If you don’t treat you must expect to lose colonies.

Lots of colonies.

Actually, almost all of them.

… takes time

This study lasted only three years. That’s not very long in evolutionary terms (unless you are a bacterium with a 20 minute replication cycle). 

It would be unrealistic to expect Varroa resistance to almost spontaneously appear. After all, there are about 91 million colonies worldwide, the majority of which are in countries with Varroa. Lots of these colonies will not be treated. If it was that easy it would have happened many times already.

What happens when you start with more colonies and allow more time to elapse?

Well, this ‘experiment’ has been done. There are a number of regions that have well-documented populations of feral honey bees that are living with, if not actually resistant to, Varroa.

One well known population are the bees in the Arnot Forest studied by Thomas Seeley. These bees have behavioural adaptations – small, swarmy colonies – that lessen the impact of Varroa on the colony 9.

Finally, returning to the title of this post, there is the so-called “Bond experiment” conducted on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Scientists established 150 colonies of mite-infested bees and let them get on with it with no intervention at all. Over the subsequent six years they followed the co-evolution of the mite and the bee 10.

It’s called the “Bond experiment” or the Live and Let Die study for very obvious reasons.

Almost all the colonies died.

Which is why the title of this post is more appropriate for those of us with only small numbers of colonies.


Natural vs. artificial swarms

I’ve now covered four of the most frequently used swarm control strategies. These are:

  • Pagden’s artificial swarm – the horizontal splitting of the colony
  • The vertical split – an equipment-frugal variant of the above involving a vertical separation of the colony
  • The nucleus method – in which the queen is removed with sufficient workers to make up a small (nuc) colony, leaving the original colony to rear another queen
  • The Demaree method – which, at its simplest, relocates the queen from the brood and associated nurse bees, but does not physically split the colony

If conducted correctly all should prevent loss of a swarm. However, the individual methods – even the first three which involve the physical separation of the bees in the hive – are not the same.

In addition, these swarm control methods do not recapitulate the separation of bees that occurs when a hive naturally swarms.

The purpose of this post is to contrast the original and new colony composition of the split-based methods of swarm control (i.e. Pagden and vertical) with natural swarms.

Temporal polyethism

I introduced this term when discussing the honey bee colony as a superorganism. It means that adult worker bees have different roles depending upon their age. For the first two and a bit weeks they have duties inside the hive such as cell cleaning, brood rearing and wax production.

They then transition through a period of being guard bees before becoming foragers, flying from the hive and collecting water, nectar and pollen.

For convenience I’ll refer to these two groups of bees as young, nurse or hive bees and flying bees.

Vertical and horizontal splits

The classic Pagden artificial swarm and the vertical split are fundamentally the same process.

If unsealed queen cells are found during a colony inspection the queen, with a frame of emerging brood, is moved to a new box. This box is placed on the site of the original hive.

The remaining bees and brood are moved, either to one side in the case of the Pagden or on top of the queen-containing box (separated by a split board) in a vertical split.

Split board ...

Split board …

Critically, the new box with the brood and bees is provided with a new hive entrance, located off to one side or on the opposite side of the original hive 1.

Flying home

Over the following day or two the flying bees leave the relocated brood box with the new entrance and return to the queen-containing brood box in the original location.

As a consequence of their excellent homing navigational skill, the hive manipulation results in the separation of the bees into two populations:

  1. The flying bees i.e. those over ~3 weeks of age that had orientated to the original hive location, which are now located with the queen.
  2. The nurse bees i.e. those less than 3 weeks old, which remain in the relocated brood box, together with the brood in all stages (eggs, larvae and pupae).
Artificial swarm separation of the colony

Artificial swarm separation of the colony

How does the artificial swarm compare with the age distribution of bees in a real swarm?

Real swarms

I’ve previously discussed prime swarms and casts. The former contain a mated queen. In contrast, casts are produced from very strong colonies after the prime swarm has left. Casts are headed by a virgin queen. These are sometimes called after swarms and are usually smaller than prime swarms.

What about the workers in the swarm? What might be expected?

Perhaps they’re primarily the older flying bees? After all, these are the bees that have finished their hive duties and are now routinely foraging outside the hive. It’s the natural place for them.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

Alternatively, remember that swarms have no ‘homing’ instinct for a day or two after emerging. They can be readily moved and you can safely ignore the less than three feet or more than three miles rule. Perhaps this means that they’re primarily young bees that have yet to go on their orientation flights?

Real experiments and contradictory results

Enough speculation … how do you determine this experimentally?

There have been numerous studies of the age distribution of bees in natural swarms. However, the data tends to be rather contradictory though the methods used are often broadly similar.

How do you determine the age composition of workers in a swarm?

Essentially you ‘spike’ the colony with a set number of marked bees of a known age over about 8 weeks. This is easy to do, but tedious.

Workers are allowed to emerge in an incubator. On the day of emergence (0 days old) they are marked with a colour that distinguishes them from older or younger bees. Every three days 100 identically marked i.e. same age, bees are added to the study hive(s). Over the period May to July this will accumulate red, then yellow, then blue, then mauve, then cyan, then pink etc. cohorts of workers, each representing a known age class.

It must be a nightmare spotting the queen in these hives 😉

The colony is allowed to swarm, the swarm collected and the number of bees of the different age cohorts in the swarm counted.

I missed a step out there. Have you ever tried counting the bees in a swarm? It’s much easier if they don’t move.

1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, er, where was I? Damn!

1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, er, where was I? Damn!

Perhaps it’s best that I missed that step out 🙁

What you end up with is a count of the total number of bees in the swarm and the numbers of bees of each 3 day cohort over the last several weeks. You can therefore determine the age distribution of the workers in the swarm.

Is it as simple as that?

I’ve actually oversimplified things a bit. There’s a possibility that different age cohorts of bees die within the hive at different rates, perhaps depending upon forage availability or weather or something else.

Think about it. Assume there was a dearth of nectar in late May and the blue and red labelled cohorts added during that period were underfed and died prematurely.

If there were very low numbers of blue and red bees in the swarm you might assume that these ages were ‘left behind’ by the swarm … when actually they weren’t able to swarm at all.

The real question is therefore whether the age distribution of bees in the swarm is similar to that in the parental hive.

OK, OK … is it?


Swarms do contain bees of all ages.

However there are significantly more young bees and many fewer old bees than would be expected from the age distribution of workers in the parental colony.

Age distribution of bees in swarms

Age distribution of bees in swarms

The o and e in the graph above represents the position of the observed and expected median age class for the expected distributions. So, in swarm C the observed median age is ~10 days old, whereas the originating hive median age was ~19 days.

The graph above comes from a 1998 study by David Gilley 2 and supports earlier work 3 by Colin Butler 4 which is often cited as one of the definitive studies on the ages of bees in a swarm.

Additional considerations

Is it surprising that young bees predominate in natural swarms?

Swarms usually emerge from the hive late morning or early afternoon on warm, sunny days. In fact, at exactly the time most older bees aren’t in the hive anyway because they’re out and about foraging.

Remember also that swarming is a precarious activity for the colony. Most swarms do not survive 5. Natural selection will have resulted in swarm populations that maximise their chance of survival.

Once bees start foraging their life expectancy is pretty short. It has been estimated that they experience about 10% mortality per day. If only old bees left in the swarm with the queen the newly established colony would very rapidly dwindle in size, perhaps before significant numbers of new brood emerged (which takes 21 days from the first egg being laid). This would likely limit the chances of survival of the new colony.

What has this got to do with artificial swarms?

As beekeepers (or at least as responsible beekeepers) we spend May and June rushing about like headless chickens trying to control swarming in our bees.

Many of us achieve this using a variety of methods which are generically referred to as artificial swarms. I suspect that many beekeepers think that the artificiality is because of our interventions.

Where have all my young girls gone?

Where have all my young girls gone?

It is … but it’s worth remembering that the artificial swarms we generate are very different in composition to natural swarms. Our artificial swarms predominantly leave the older bees associating with the queen, with the young bees remaining with the brood.

These old bees have to draw new comb and rear the new brood. These are activities they last did weeks ago (a long time in the life of a bee).

Final thoughts

There are artificial swarm control methods that were developed to better replicate the age distribution of bees in a natural swarm. One example of these is use of a Taranov board. I’ll cover this in a future post.

It’s also worth noting that the bees of different ages in a natural swarm have different roles even before they occupy a new location. The older bees form a mantle around the bivouacked swarm that protects it from inclement weather (amongst other things) and the oldest bees are the scouts responsible for finding a new nest site.

Again, both topics for another post … I’ve got bait hives to set out 🙂


Superorganism potential

The term superorganism can be used to refer to a colony of honey bees. The term gained prominence in the mid/late noughties having been reintroduced by the world-renowned myrmecologist 1 E.O. Wilson.

Bees, like ants (myrmex, “ant”, from the Greek μύρμηξ), are social insects in which there are divisions of labour. Different individuals within the colony perform different tasks. Some of these roles are defined by the castes in the colony – queen, worker and drone in a colony of honey bees for example – and some are defined by physiological differences between individual members of the same caste.

The term superorganism describes the entirety of the colony and is defined as a group or association of organisms which behaves in some respect like a single organism.

Essentially, a superorganism has characteristics and behaviours that the individuals within the colony – due to caste or physiological specialisation – do not exhibit.

The superorganism operates as a unified entity, collectively working together to maintain and reproduce the colony.

Division of labour and temporal polyethism

Drones and queens have relatively straightforward roles in the colony. Drones, like teenage boys, lounge around eating and thinking about sex. The queens are egg-laying machines.

An egg laying machine

An egg laying machine

Although there’s undoubtedly work involved in laying your bodyweight in eggs at the height of the season, the real work in the colony is – appropriately – done by the workers.

Worker bees exhibit temporal polyethism i.e. they display different patterns of behaviour depending upon their age. They have a maturational schedule in which they sequentially undertake age-correlated roles in the colony:

  • Young bees work in the hive in a series of roles starting with cell cleaning (days 1-2), nursing developing larvae (nurse bees; days 3-11) and wax production (days 12-17).
  • After two to three weeks the workers undergo significant physiological changes (weight loss, changes in immune function, reduced stress resistance) which prepare them for a productive life outside the hive. During this period the bees transition through a period when they act as guard bees.
  • Older bees (the ‘flying’ bees) perform a range of foraging activities including water carrying, pollen collection and nectar gathering.

And then they die in the field 🙁

Behavioural plasticity

This behavioural maturation is controlled by a so-called negative feedback loop between vitellogenin (Vg 2) and juvenile hormone (JH).

Nurse bees have high Vg levels which are reduced at the transition to foraging. Conversely JH levels increase with the onset of foraging (I know this sounds counterintuitive). These changes are responsible for a range of physiological changes in the worker bee.

Behavioural maturation in worker bees

Behavioural maturation in worker bees

But it’s not as simple as that. High Vg levels can block JH synthesis, so delaying maturation and foraging. Similarly, JH may reciprocally inhibit Vg synthesis and induce early foraging.

Clearly that last couple of sentences indicates that worker maturation is not an invariant process. It doesn’t always occur after 2-3 weeks.

In fact, the maturation or ageing process in honey bees is a very interesting phenomenon.

Ageing exhibits seasonal variability and remarkable plasticity.

Nurse bees can survive for at least 130 days and overwintering bees may survive up to 280 days. Clearly ageing in bees is a remarkably variable process. Overwintering bees ‘mature’ into either nurse bees or foragers. Presumably this has evolved as an effective mechanism of allowing spring colony build up (by having sufficient bees for the different roles) once environmental conditions improve.

In addition, there is another striking feature of the maturation process of honey bees.

Under certain social environmental conditions maturation is reversible.

This reversible maturation can be demonstrated by removing the nurse bees from the hive. Under these conditions some of the younger foragers revert, both behaviourally and physiologically, to nursing tasks. JH levels drop and Vg levels increase.

Old foragers are unable to undergo this rejuvenation.

Reversible maturation in worker bees

Reversible maturation in worker bees

Which finally and in a round the houses way gets me to the subject I meant to cover in the first place this week …

Brood and the superorganism

The honey bee colony superorganism not only contains a queen, workers and drones. It also contains brood. In the following text I’ll use the term brood as a collective noun meaning all the eggs, unsealed larvae and sealed pupae in the colony (unless otherwise specified).

Is the brood a component of the superorganism?

It certainly is.

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

Remember previous discussion of laying workers. These are workers that lay unfertilised eggs which develop into drones. Egg laying by workers is suppressed by pheromones produced from unsealed brood 3. Therefore brood does influence the behaviour of the colony 4.

If the complete colony – brood, workers, drones and a queen – is a superorganism, which components of the colony, individually or together, have the potential to form the superorganism?

And why should this matter?

Swarming and the superorganism

During swarming, either naturally during colony reproduction, or during manipulation by the beekeeper, the ‘superorganism’ is broken up.

During natural swarming the (old) mated queen leaves the colony with 60-75% of the workers to establish a new colony. By the time the swarm leaves, the original colony – which has all the eggs, larvae and brood (obviously) – is usually already well on the way to rearing a new queen. The (new) virgin queen emerges, gets mated, and the colony has successfully reproduced.

Many of the colony manipulation methods that are used to prevent the loss of natural swarms exploit the potential of the components in the colony to form a complete new colony.

Most ‘artificial swarms’ work by breaking the colony – the superorganism – into two parts:

  1. The queen and the ‘flying’ bees. Even young bees can fly, so the term ‘flying’ bees refers to the older bees from the colony that have matured sufficiently to leave the hive.
  2. The nurse bees and all the brood.
Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

These two parts both have the potential to create a new colony.

The queen and the flying bees that form the swarm (or the queenright part of an artificial swarm) occupy a new site (or hive 5), draw comb in which the queen lays, the larvae are fed 6, pupate and emerge. At the same time, foragers collect the necessary nectar and pollen to maintain the new colony.

The swarmed colony (i.e. the queenless part of an artificial swarm) contains ample stores and the nurse bees. What they don’t have is a queen. But they do have eggs and young larvae. The nurse bees select and feed one or more of these young larvae with copious amounts of Royal Jelly. A few days later a virgin queen emerges, matures, mates and returns to the colony to start laying eggs.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Therefore both natural and artificial swarms exploit the potential in both parts of the original colony to eventually reproduce the colony.

No potential

Not all components of the colony have the potential to give rise to a new colony or superorganism. A solitary queen doesn’t even have the ability to feed herself properly, let alone double up for egg laying and nursing larvae duties.

This comes as a surprise to some people. If you frequent any of the online discussion forums you’ll sometime see questions posted like this:

What sort of hive do I need to buy to put a queen bee in to make honey?

Followed by some polite, or not so polite, responses saying that there’s a little bit more to beekeeping than that 7.

The ‘flying’ bees alone, in the absence of a queen, also have no potential. They can lay eggs (as laying workers, see above), but since the eggs are unfertilised the colony will be doomed. It’s not unusual for a queen from an artificial swarm (or from a cast) to fail to return from a mating flight, so condemning the workers in the hive to oblivion.

Swarms and behavioural plasticity

The classic artificial swarm involves moving the nurse bees and the brood to a new site, leaving the queen and the flying bees in the original location.

You do this so that the flying bees that have orientated to the position of the original hive – whether out in the field actively foraging or in the moved hive – eventually return and so become separated from the nurse bees and the brood.

In doing this you remove the urge to swarm and you weaken the queenless hive.

The majority of those flying bees are foragers.

And this is where behavioural plasticity is essential. remember that the artificial swarm predominantly contains foragers, not the nurse bees needed to feed developing larvae.

Some of these foragers undergo rejuvenation to produce wax or to become nurse bees. These build new comb and, in a few days, feed larvae that have hatched from the eggs laid by the queen.

This behavioural plasticity contributes to the potential of the artificial swarm to produce a new colony or superorganism.

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

Do the same processes happen in natural swarms?

That requires a discussion of the worker composition of swarms which is not straightforward and will have to wait for another day 😉


Hanging around

I’ve recently discussed the misnamed ‘phoretic’ phase in the life cycle of Varroa destructor. Here we’ll briefly explore some features of this important, but non-reproductive, phase. It’s important because, as I’ll show, it influences subsequent mite reproduction.

I won’t rehash the life cycle of Varroa in detail as I’ve covered it previouslyVarroa is an ectoparasite of honey bees. It reproduces in capped cells, feeding on the developing pupa. A mated female mite enters the cell a few hours before capping and she and her incestuously mated daughters are released when the bee emerges.

The longer pupal development takes, the more progeny mites are produced, so Varroa has evolved to preferentially infest drone brood.

A smorgasbord of viruses

As an ectoparasite of honey bees, Varroa is responsible for the transmission of a smorgasbord of pathogenic viruses to the developing pupa. Subsequent virus replication, particularly by the aptly-named deformed wing virus, can result in developmental deformities.

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Emerging workers with deformities are rapidly ejected from the hive. Other infested workers, with high viral levels, have reduced longevity. This is probably what accounts for the majority of overwintering colony losses. It may also explain so-called ‘isolation starvation‘.

The ‘phoretic’ phase

Mites outside capped cells are termed ‘phoretic’ mites. Recent studies have indicated that these mites are feeding on the workers to which they are attached. The same studies have shaken the long-held assumption that Varroa feeds on haemolymph 1 by rather neatly demonstrating that it is the fat body tissue of the bee that is the plat du jour.

The duration of the ‘phoretic’ phase is dependent upon the state of the colony. Since it is defined as the phase in which mites are not associated with developing pupae, in a broodless colony all the mites are ‘phoretic’. Under these circumstances mites remain ‘phoretic’ until either brood is produced, or they fall (or are groomed) off and drop through the open mesh floor.

The duration of the ‘phoretic’ phase

In colonies with ample brood the ‘phoretic’ phase is, on average, 6 days in length. The range often quoted is 4 – 11 days. The absolute figure must depend upon a number of factors. These include the chance of a mite encountering a late-stage larva. This is presumably influenced by the amount of suitable-aged brood in the colony and – because there is a division of labour in the hive – the type of bee upon which the mite is riding around the colony on.

For the purpose of this post we’ll consider bees of three ages – newly emerged, nurse bees and foragers. Newly emerged bees (days 1-2 post emergence) clean cells and nurse bees (days 3-11) feed developing larvae. Older bees are involved in wax production (days 12-17) and foraging (>18 days until death).

Logic would dictate that mites would ‘choose’ 2 to associate with bees that bring them into contact with developing larvae of the right age to infest.

Do they?

Hanging around with nurses

Xie et al., (2016)3 assembled artificial colonies containing equal numbers of new bees, nurse bees and foragers, all suitably marked so their age was known. These colonies were provided with a queen, open brood and stores. At the start of the experiment the colonies had 1500 bees and low Varroa levels.

The scientists then introduced 200 ‘phoretic’ mites from another colony 4 and left the colonies for 48 hours. They then age-sorted the bees and harvested all the ‘phoretic’ mites by washing them off in alcohol.

'Phoretic' mites prefer nurse bees

‘Phoretic’ mites prefer nurse bees

On average, ~16% of the nurse bees had ‘phoretic’ mites attached. In contrast, only ~10% of the foragers and ~5% of the new bees had mites. These studies involved seven individual experiments, in two countries and two separate years, using a different source colony for the mites. The statistics are significant.

So mites prefer nurse bees.

Is this ‘simply’ 5 because the nurse bees are more likely to bring the mite into close proximity with a suitably-aged larvae?

Or does associating with, and presumably feeding on, nurse bees have other benefits for the mite?

Mite fecundity and fitness

Fecundity is the reproductive productiveness 6 of an organism.

We’ve obliquely tackled this subject recently. Using an in vitro artificial ‘feed packet’ system, Ramsey and colleagues demonstrated that mites fed on the fat body of bees laid more eggs i.e. they had higher fecundity.

Xie et al., also tested fecundity of ‘phoretic’ mites from newly emerged bees, nurse bees and foragers. They did this by manually harvesting mites after a 3 day ‘phoretic’ phase, adding them to a pre-pupa and then counting the number of progeny female mites 9 days later.

Mite fecundity and fitness

Mite fecundity and fitness

‘Phoretic’ mites from nurse bees exhibited higher fecundity (more female offspring), higher fitness (more mature female offspring) and lower infertility (female mites that did not generate offspring).

So evolution has elegantly resulted in ‘phoretic’ mites associating with the right type of bee to bring them close to developing larvae (upon which they reproduce) and made them better able to reproduce once they get there.

Why do Varroa mites prefer nurse bees?

This is the title of the Xie et al., paper.

Xie et al., sort of answer the question they posed in the title. What they don’t do is explain why ‘phoretic’ mites on nurse bees are more fecund. However, the recent Ramsey paper suggests that this may be because nurse bees have a larger fat body and higher levels of vitellogenin.

If they’re better fed perhaps they produce more viable offspring? 7.

Another known unknown (semiochemicals)

How do mites detect the differences between new, nurse and older bees?

Perhaps they ‘smell’ different?

Mites preferentially infest drone brood because it produces a range of methyl and ethyl esters of straight-chain fatty acids, in particular methyl palmitate.

Similarly, the preference for nurse bees might be explained by their production of another semiochemicals 8. If we could identify this semiochemical it might be possible to create a ‘sponge’ soaked in it that attracted all the mites in the colony.

A bit simplistic, but you get the idea.

In reality, it’s likely that nurse bees are identified by the relative strengths of a range of semiochemicals produced by bees of different ages.

In reality it’s also likely that dropping a ‘sponge’ soaked in eau de nurse bee into the colony could unbalance all sorts of other events in the hive … 🙁

I told you it wasn’t simple.

Rattus norvegicus

Rattus norvegicus

Hanging Around is the fifth track on Rattus norvegicus, the 1977 debut album of one of the finest rock/punk bands of all time, The Stranglers. The album also includes the incomparable Peaches and (Get a) Grip (On yourself), both of which were released as singles.

No more heroes from the same year, but a different album, is also a classic by the same band.

You had to be there … I was 😉



Pedantically not phoresy

The life cycle of the ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor essentially consists of two stages. The first is within the capped cell, where reproduction takes place. The second occurs outside the capped cell when the recently-mated female progeny mites matures while riding around the colony attached to a nurse bee.

Almost without exception this second stage is termed the phoretic phase.

It isn’t.


Phoretic is an adjective of the word phoresy. Phoresy is derived from the French phorésie which, in turn, has its etymological origins in the Ancient Greek word φορησις.

And φορησις means being carried.

Which partly explains why the correct definition of the word phoresy is:

An association between two organisms in which one is carried on the body of the other, without being a parasite [OED]

Phoresy has been in use for about a century, with the word phoretic first being recorded in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America (25:79) in 1932:

It is possible, as suggested by Banks (1915), that such young mites are phoretic, being carried about from place to place on the host’s surfaces.

And, no, they weren’t discussing Varroa.

“Without being a parasite”

These are the critical words in the dictionary definition of phoresy which makes the use of the word phoretic incorrect when referring to mites on nurse bees.

Because mites on nurse bees are feeding – or at least a significant proportion 1 of them are.

They are therefore being parasitic and so shouldn’t be described as phoretic.

Om, nom, nom 2

Last week I discussed the recent Samual Ramsey paper presenting studies supporting the feasting of Varroa on the fat body of bees.

In the study they harvested bees from a heavily mite-infested hive and recorded the location on the bee to which the mite was attached.

The majority were attached to the left underside of the abdomen. More specifically, the mite was wedged underneath the third abdominal tergite 3.

What were they doing there? Hiding?

Yes … but let’s have a closer look.

Ramsey and colleagues removed some of the mites and used a scanning electron microscope to examine the attachment point on the bee. Underneath the tergite there is a soft membrane. The imprint of the body of the mite was clearly visible on the membrane.

Varroa feeding location on adult bee

Scanning EM of Varroa feeding location on adult bee

The footpads of the mite were left attached to the membrane (left image, white arrows), straddling an obvious wound where the mouthparts had pierced the membrane (black arrow). Between them, the inverted W shape is presumably the imprint of the lower carapace of the mite.

The close-up image on the right even shows grooves at the wound site consistent with the mouthparts of the mite.

These mites were feeding.

Extraoral digestion

Varroa belongs to the order (a level of classification) Mesostigmata. Most mesostigmatids feed using a process termed extraoral digestion.

Extraoral digestion has also been termed ‘solid-to-liquid’ feeding. It involves the injection of potent hydrolytic enzymes which digest solid tissue, converting it to a semi-solid that can be easily ingested. It can reduce the time needed to feed and it increases the nutrient density of the consumed food.

If Varroa fed on haemolymph it wouldn’t need to use extraoral digestion. Instead it would need all sorts of adaptations to a high volume, low nutrient diet. Varroa doesn’t have these. It has a simple tube-like gut parts of which lack enzymatic activity … implying that digestion occurs elsewhere.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Do the images of feeding mites support the use of extraoral digestion?

EM cross-section of Varroa feeding

EM cross-section of Varroa feeding

The image above 4 shows the cross-section of a Varroa (V), wedged under the tergite (Te), feeding through a hole (arrow in the enlargement on the right) in the membrane (M). The fat body (FB) is immediately underneath the membrane. The scale bar is incorrectly labelled 5.

A close-up of the wound site shows further evidence for extraoral digestion.

Feeding wound at higher magnification

Feeding wound at higher magnification

Beneath the wound site (C, arrow) are remnants of fat body cells (white arrow) and bacteria (black arrow; of two types, shown in D). A closer look still at the remnants of the fat body (E and F) shows cell nuclear debris (blue arrows) and lipid droplets (red arrows).

These images are entirely consistent with extraoral digestion of fat body tissue by feeding Varroa. The presence of bacteria near the wound suggests that bacterial infection may result from Varroa feeding, possibly further contributing to disease in bees.

So, pedantically it’s not phoresy

So-called phoretic mites, unless they’re on the thorax or head of the bee, are not really phoretic. They are being carried about, but they are also likely feeding. By definition that excludes them from being phoretic.

Instead they are ectoparasites of adult bees.

What are the chances that beekeepers will stop using the term phoretic?

Slim to none I’d predict 6.

And, of course, it doesn’t really matter what the correct term for them is.

What’s more important is that beekeepers remember that it’s at this stage that mites are susceptible to all miticides.

The June gap

But it’s also worth thinking about the potential impact of brood breaks.

During brood breaks all the mites in the colony must be ‘phoretic’.

Generally, the majority of the mites in a hive are in capped cells. Depending upon the stage of the season, the egg-laying rate of the queen and other factors, up to 90% of the mites are associated with developing pupae.

But as the laying rate dwindles more and more mites are released from cells and become ‘phoretic’, unable to find a suitable late-stage larva to infest.

And which bees do the mites associate with?

Nurse bees primarily, for reasons I’ll discuss in the future. But – spoiler alert – one of the reasons is likely to be that they have a larger fat body.

So, a mid-season brood break (e.g. the ‘June gap’) is likely to result in lots more nurse bees becoming both the carriers and the dinner of the mite population.

Some or many of the nurse bee cohort may perish, perhaps from damage to the fat body or from the viruses acquired from the mite. However, bees exhibit phenotypic plasticity, meaning that older bees can revert to being nurse bees when the queen starts laying again.

Late season brood breaks

In late summer mite levels are usually at their highest in the hive. A brood break occurring now will release a very large number of mites to parasitise the adult bee population.

Presumably these mites select the bees best able to support them 7.

And which bees are these? The nurse bees of course. But it’s also worth remembering that there are key physiological similarities between nurse bees and winter bees. Both have low levels of juvenile hormone and high levels of vitellogenin (stored in the fat body).

So I’d bet that the ‘phoretic’ mites during a late season brood break would also preferentially associate with any early-produced winter bees.

Furthermore, once the queen starts laying again – perhaps in early/mid-autumn – the winter bees being produced would be subjected to the double-whammy of high levels of mite infestation and potential damage from ‘phoretic’ mites.

Practical considerations

More work is required to model or actually measure the impact of late season brood breaks, high levels of ‘phoretic’ mites, nurse bee numbers and winter bee development.

Compare two colonies of a similar size with a similar mite load, treated at the same time in early autumn with an appropriate miticide. If one of them experienced a late summer brood break (pre-treatment) and consequent high levels of ‘phoretic’ mites, does this reduce the chances of the colony surviving overwinter?

Who knows? Lots and lots of variables …

Fundamentally, it remains important to treat colonies early enough to protect the winter bee population. You’ve heard this from me before and you’ll hear it again.

However, it’s something to think about and I can see ways in which it might influence the strategy and timing of mite control used. I’ll return to this sometime in the future.


Chewin’ the fat

A little over a year ago reports started to circulate of a study showing that Varroa feed on the fat body of bees rather than on haemolymph.

Having worked in Glasgow through the early noughties the title of this post was a no-brainer and an outline draft was written in December 2017. However, the peer-reviewed paper wasn’t published until last month, so it’s only now we’ve got the chance to judge the study and consider its implications.

Varroa feed on hameolymph, right?

Historically this was the accepted dogma. However, the experimental data supporting this conclusion – based upon labelling bees with radioactive isotopes and seeing what the mites acquired after feeding – was really not definitive. The experiments had been done in the 1970’s and the specificity of the labelling was a bit dubious. In addition, during the intervening period scientists had determined that, unlike vertebrate blood which is rich in cells and nutrients 1, haemolymph has little of either and is actually a pretty lousy food source.

In addition, and somewhat more circumstantially, Varroa control using chemotherapeutics fed to bees (and subsequently taken up by the mite during feeding) had been relatively disappointing.

Perhaps these chemicals weren’t getting to the right tissues of the bee?

Perhaps Varroa don’t feed on haemolymph after all?

The Ramsey study

This new study reports three independent experiments that, together, indicate that Varroa actually feed on the fat body of bees, rather than on haemolymph. The paper is so-called ‘open access’, so anyone can access it and therefore I’ll just provide a synopsis of the important bits.

The questions Samual Ramsey and colleagues attempted to answer were:

  1. Where on the bee do mites feed? Is it primarily or exclusively near the fat body?
  2. When Varroa feeds, what host tissues are ingested?
  3. What sort of diet is required to maintain Varroa and allow their reproduction in vitro2.

Location, location, location

The authors counted phoretic mites on 104 bees. Over 95% of them were located on the underside of the body, predominantly on the left side of the bee, under the tergite or sternite3 on the third metasomal segment (i.e. the second visible segment of the abdomen).

Mite location on nurse bees

Mite location on nurse bees

This position is consistent with feeding on the fat body tissues which are most abundant under the inner ventral surface of the metasoma.

Seeing red

Bees were fed with Nile red, a lipophilic fluorescent stain that preferentially accumulates in the fat body. They co-fed bees with uranine, a differently coloured fluorophore that accumulates in the haemolymph. They then allowed mites to feed on the fluorescently labelled bees and subsequently photographed the mites under fluorescent light.

The rationale here was straightforward. If the mites fed on the fat body they would stain red due to taking up the Nile red stain.

Mites visualised after feeding on fluorescently labelled bees

Mites visualised after feeding on fluorescently labelled bees

Which they did.

It was notable that the red stain predominantly accumulated in the rectum and gut of the mite (image O above). The authors conducted all sorts of controls to confirm that the stains actually stained what they were supposed to – you can view these in the paper.


In the final part of the study the authors maintained mites in vitro (in an incubator), feeding them on a diet containing increasing amounts of fat body or haemolymph. These are tricky experiments and in some way the least satisfactory part of the study.

Two results suggest that fat body was beneficial or essential to the mites. Firstly, only mites that had 50% or more fat body in the diet survived for 7 days. Secondly, there was a dose response to the amount of fat body in the diet and fecundity. Mites on a 100% fat body diet exhibited 40% fecundity, the highest level observed in the study.

What can we conclude from the Ramsey study

Of the three experiments presented, the Nile red fat body stain uptake by mites is reasonably compelling.

The feeding position study is essentially correlative, but there could be other interpretations of the data. For example, that location on the bee might be the least accessible to a ‘grooming’ bee. Perhaps it’s a survival mechanism?

Survival and fecundity in in vitro studies wasn’t great. However, in defence of the authors, fecundity of mites under natural conditions can be as low as 40% and is not higher than 80%. Not all mites have baby mites. Thankfully.

Only 20% of the mites survived one week under in vitro conditions, even on a 100% fat body diet. In contrast, mites fed haemolymph alone died within 48 hours. This poor level of survival was surprising and suggests other essential components of the diet were probably missing.

Other published studies have shown reasonable survival of Varroa for at least 3 days, with at least one report of mites surviving on flowers for up to 7 days. I’m also aware that other laboratories can maintain mites in vitro for longer than 7 days without using any honey bee-derived components in the diet.

Hang on … what is the fat body anyway?

The fat body is multi-functional. It has been compared to the vertebrate liver and adipose tissue. It acts as a major organ for nutrient storage, energy metabolism and detoxification of things like pesticides.

Vitellogenin made by and stored in the fat body reduces oxidative stress and is associated with extending the longevity of overwintering bees. The fat body also has critical roles in metamorphosis.

So, not only multi-functional, but also very important.

Significance of the results … is this a game changer?

This paper has been discussed online as a ‘game changer’. That’s probably a bit strong. Whilst the fluorescent stain uptake study is reasonably convincing it must be remembered that it was conducted on adult bees.

Do mites on pupae also feast on the fat body?

This will have to be determined in the future. It’s a more difficult experiment of course.

The other two studies, and a number of additional small observations I’ve not discussed here, are certainly supportive, but not alone hugely convincing. The in vitro study in particular will be interesting to compare with (currently unpublished) studies from other laboratories that do not use honey bee fat bodies in their mite feeding and maintenance diet.

Practical matters

Does it matter what part of the bee the mite feeds on?

Clearly it does for the mite, but what about the beekeeper?

I think this study is significant for the beekeeper for two reasons – the first will only be relevant if and when lipophilic miticides are developed, the second matters right now.

  1. Strategies are being developed to add highly specific miticides to the diet of bees which are then delivered to Varroa when the mite feeds. To date, these have been rather underwhelming in their performance. If Ramsey is right, modification of these miticides to make them lipophilic (like the Nile red fluorphore) will concentrate them in precisely the right place to ensure the mites get a lethal dose.
  2. A key product of the fat body is vitellogenin. The long-lived overwintering bees have high levels of vitellogenin. Mites feeding on, and depleting, the fat body would be expected to result in reduced vitellogenin levels in the bee 4. This would explain why high Varroa levels are associated with reduced longevity of winter bees and consequently increased overwintering colony losses.

The most important take home message

To prevent mites that feed on fat bodies from damaging vitellogenin production miticides have to be used early enough to protect the winter bees.

In the paper Ramsey makes the statement:

Simple reduction of mite loads late in the season to decrease the overwinter parasite load may not be enough, as it still allows for the mites to damage tissue critical to the process of overwintering …

Instead …

A treatment schedule that includes treatment in late summer or early fall before mites can significantly damage fat body in developing winter bees would likely be more effective.

Which is precisely the point I’ve made previously about treating early enough to protect winter bees.

What the Ramsey paper adds is the piece of the jigsaw possibly explaining why late summer treatment is so important.


Chewin’ the Fat was a four-series Scottish comedy sketch show. It was broadcast from 1999 to 2002, with further Hogmanay specials until 2005. The show had a recurring cast of characters and sketches including The Big ManThe Banter BoysThe Lighthouse KeepersBallistic Bob and Taysiders in Space.

Gonna no' dae that

Gonna no’ dae that – The Lighthouse Keepers

Chewin’ the Fat was filmed in and around Glasgow (where I worked at the time) and the characters parodied a range of local ‘types’ … pretentious Kelvinsiders, Glaswegian gangsters, narcissistic golfers, The man from Kilmacolm, and shellsuit-wearing, chain-smoking, hard-drinking Glaswegian neds.

It was a bit rude and definitely an acquired taste. Without subtitles, some of the scenes would probably have been unintelligible south of the border.

Mites equal viruses

Healthy bees are happy bees 🙂

Sounds good doesn’t it?

Actually, there’s no evidence that bees display or perceive most of the emotions often attributed to them 1.

Happy? Who knows? But certainly not healthy ...

Happy? Who knows? But certainly not healthy …

A more accurate statement might be “Healthy bees are more productive, they are less likely to die overwinter, less likely to be robbed out by wasps or neighbouring strong colonies and their parasites and pathogens cannot threaten the health of other honey bee colonies or, through so-called-pathogen overspill, the health of other pollinators.”

More accurate?

Yes … but it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue 😉

Whether it makes the bees happy or not, beekeepers have a responsibility to look after the health of their livestock. This includes controlling Varroa numbers to reduce the levels of pathogenic viruses in the hive.

How well are virus levels controlled if mite levels are reduced?

I’ll get to that in due course …

Midwinter mite massacre

The 2018 autumn was relatively mild through until mid/late November. In the absence of very early frosts colonies continued rearing brood.

We opened colonies in mid-November (for work) and found sealed brood, though it was clear that the laying rate of the queen was much-reduced.

These are ideal conditions for residual mite replication. Any mites that escaped the late summer/early autumn treatment (the ideal time to treat to protect the overwintering bees) continue to replicate, resulting in the colony starting the following season with a disappointingly high level of mites.

I’ve noted before that midwinter mite levels are paradoxically higher if you treat early enough in the autumn to protect the all-important winter bees.

Consequently, to start the year with minimal mite levels, I treat in midwinter with a trickled or vaporised oxalic acid-containing (OA) treatment.

A combination of colder weather (hard frosts in late November) and brood temperature measurements 2 indicated mid-December was a good time to treat.

Midwinter mite massacre

Midwinter mite massacre

18th December

In one of my apiaries ten colonies were treated. Some were definitely broodless (based upon Arnia hive monitoring). Others may have had brood, but colonies were not routinely checked.

Over the four day period after vaporising these ten colonies dropped a total of 92 mites. More than 50% of these were from just one double-brooded colony. Overwintering nucs 3 dropped no mites at all in the 12 days following treatment.

This was very encouraging. These are lower midwinter mite levels than I’ve seen since returning to Scotland in 2015.

The one colony with ‘high’ mite levels received two further treatments (on the 22nd and 27th) in an attempt to minimise the mite levels for the start of the season. Going by the strength of the colony and the debris on the Varroa tray it was presumed that this colony was still rearing brood.

Mite drop following the third treatment was negligible 4.

Why are mite levels so low?

I think it’s a combination of:

  • Luck
  • Use of natural, organic, bee-centric and biodynamic beekeeping methods
  • Varroa-resistant bees
  • Very tight control of mite numbers in the 2017/18 season, primarily by correctly timing the winter and the late-season autumn treatments. This is simply good colony management. Anyone can achieve this.
  • A brood break midseason and/or a broodless period when splitting colonies (both give opportunities for more phoretic mites to be lost through grooming). Undoubtedly beneficial but season-dependent. I’ll be discussing ways to exploit these events in posts next year.
  • A low density of beekeepers in Fife, so relatively little drifting or robbing of poorly managed colonies from neighbouring apiaries. Geography-dependent. Much easier in Fife than Warwickshire … and easier still in Lochaber.

And what do less mites mean?

Varroa is a threat to bee health because it transmits pathogenic viruses when feeding on developing pupae.

The most important of these viruses is deformed wing virus (DWV).

Generally, the higher the level of infestation with mites, the higher the viral load 5. This has been repeatedly demonstrated by studies from researchers working in the UK, Europe and the USA.

It is well-established that colonies with high viral loads have an increased chance of dying overwinter, due to the decreased longevity of bees infected with high levels of virus.

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

In our work apiaries we regularly measure DWV levels. For routine screening our limit of detection is around 1,000 viruses per bee.

We don’t actually count the viruses. They’re too small to see without an electron microscope 6.

Instead, we quantify the amount of the virus genetic material present 7, compare it to a set of standards and express it as ‘genome equivalents (GE)’.

Many of the bees tested this year contained ~103 (i.e. 1000) GE, which is extremely low. Bees from Varroa-free regions (e.g. Colonsay) carry similar levels of DWV.

Most of our colonies were at or close to this level of virus much of the 2018 season. This is 100-1,000 times lower than we often see even in apparently perfectly healthy colonies in other years or other apiaries.

For comparison, using the same assay we usually detect about 1010 (ten billion) DWV GE per bee in symptomatic adult bees from heavily mite-infested colonies.

So, less mites means less viruses which means healthier bees 🙂

And they might even be happier bees 😉

And your point is?

It’s worth remembering that the purpose of treating a colony with miticides is to reduce the transmission of viruses between bees. This transmission results in the amplification of DWV. This is why the timing of treatments is so important.

Yes, it’s always good to slaughter a few (or a few thousand 🙂 ) mites. However, far better massacre them when you need to protect particular populations of bees.

This includes the overwintering bees, raised in September, that get the colony through to the Spring.

Remember also that it ‘takes bees to make bees’ i.e. the rearing of new brood requires bees. Therefore strong colony build-up in Spring requires healthy workers rearing healthy brood.

This is why it’s important to minimise mite levels in midwinter when colonies are broodless.

What do most beekeepers do?

Fifteen months ago I published a post on the preparation of oxalic acid solutions for trickling colonies in midwinter.

Whatever the vapoholics on the online forums claim, trickling remains the easiest, quickest and least expensive way to treat colonies in midwinter 8.

The best time to treat in the winter is when the colony is broodless. Here in Fife, and often elsewhere, I believe that this usually occurs earlier in the winter than many beekeepers treat (if it happens at all … or if they treat at all).

I usually treat between the end of the third week in November and mid-December, at the end of the first extended cold period.

Oxalic acid preparation recipe page views

Oxalic acid preparation recipe page views

Looking at the page views for these oxalic acid recipes it looks as though many beekeepers treat after Christmas 9 … which may be suboptimal if colonies had a broodless period and now started rearing brood again.

Mine have.

This winter has been quite mild (at least at the time of writing) so there may yet be opportunities to treat really effectively during a broodless period.

Or the chance may have gone …