Tag Archives: health

Supply and demand

I believe that the importation of bees is detrimental to the quality of beekeeping in the UK. I think the beekeeping associations – national and local – should do more to discourage imports, that they should strongly encourage rearing local bees, and that they should have more emphasis on promoting the practical skills necessary for sustainable beekeeping in the UK.

This post was going to be called something like “Benefits of a ban” but I think the present title better reflects the problems in UK beekeeping and my views that readily available imported bees actually reduces the standard of beekeeping in the UK. The ban mentioned in the provisional title refers of course to a (potential at the time of writing) ban on the importation of bees and queens due to the recent discovery of Small Hive Beetle (SHB) in southern Italy.

Will there be a ban on imports and is this post relevant if there is no ban?

The European Union allows free trade between member states. However, it might be possible to impose a ban temporarily under Article 36 of the Lisbon Treaty which allows import restrictions for “the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants”. However, whether there is a ban imposed to prevent SHB entering the country or not, I believe that the importation of bees is detrimental to the standard of beekeeping in the UK.

Executive summary

This is a longer-than-usual article, so here’s a summary in four easy-to-digest points:

  • Thousands of queens and packages of bees are imported into the UK annually to meet the demands of; i) newly trained beekeepers, ii) beekeepers who lose stocks overwinter, or iii) beekeepers wanting to increase of improve their stocks.
  • Our temperate climate provides a five month window for queen rearing. This creates a supply and demand problem, with maximum demand at a time when supply is limited. Cheap imported bees and queens act as a disincentive to rebalance this supply and demand.
  • If imports were not available we would have to become better beekeepers, raising more nucs for overwintering, managing and meeting expectations for newly trained beekeepers, improving colony health and hence overwintering success and raising many more quality locally bred queens. Conversely, if the supply and quality of local bees and queens was better in the UK there would be fewer imports needed. We are in a Catch22 situation.
  • Sustainable UK beekeeping (i.e. beekeeping that is no longer reliant on imports) does not mean reductions in numbers of colonies or numbers of beekeepers. Instead it requires, and would result in, an improvement in practical beekeeping skills.

That’s it in a nutshell … however, if you want the unabridged version, read on.

Beautiful ...

Local bees

Introduction and disclaimers

I would support a ban on the importation of bees and queens … not only from Italy, but from other countries as well. My primary reason in supporting such a ban is to restrict the chance that Small Hive Beetle (SHB) will arrive here. I fully appreciate that there are some commercial beekeeping operations that would likely be decimated by such a ban. In particular, it would destroy the business model of the commercial suppliers of early season queens and nucleus colonies (nucs). This is clearly undesirable on an individual basis and I regret the impact a ban would have on the livelihood of the individuals concerned. However, I consider this business model exploits underlying weaknesses in UK beekeeping and a ban would have long-term benefits in the creation of better beekeepers practising a more sustainable type of beekeeping in the UK.

My support for a ban is not to increase the number of queens I sell each season. My queen rearing is very much a hobby-sized activity, limited by my full-time employment, unpredictable deadlines and regular absences on the conference circuit. In many seasons – 2014 being a case in point – I barely generated enough queens for my own use. I would gain nothing from a ban on imports. In contrast, I think UK beekeepers and beekeeping have a lot to gain from becoming more self-sufficient.

UK imports of bees and queens

Annual imports

Annual imports …

Thousands of queens raised overseas are imported to the UK every year. In 2014 alone nearly 10,000 queens were imported from Slovenia, Greece, Italy, Denmark and Cyprus (only listing the countries from which >1000 queens were imported). In addition a further 580 nucs and 1402 ‘packages’ were imported. I’m assuming that the National Bee Unit (NBU) defines a package in the same way they do in the USA – a mesh-sided shipping box containing 1-2kg of bees and a caged queen. 2014 saw the greatest number of imports of the last 8 years and there has been a steady increase since 2007, with queen imports only numbering less than 5000 in 2011. Why is demand so high?

Demand

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

Beekeeping has seen a recent rise in popularity, with hundreds of new beekeepers being trained every year in associations across the country. Many courses recruit 30-50 trainees each winter. Not all these fledgling beekeepers will end up getting their own bees – some accompany partners, some discover they’re allergic to stings and some are horrified the first time they’re suited up and standing next to an open hive – however, many of them do. Inevitably this generates a large demand for nucs early in the season to satisfy the enthusiasm of these new trainees. I was no different … I completed a course between January and March and then waited impatiently for a nuc to be ready. I bought a 5 frame nuc headed by an imported queen from an association member and started my beekeeping in mid-May. Demand for imports is likely to be generated by new trainees, compounded by the recent increase in the popularity of beekeeping and the timing of ‘Begin Beekeeping’ courses.

Annual colony losses

Annual colony losses

Over the last 7 years overwintering colony losses in England have averaged about 20% with – unsurprisingly – the greatest losses during the hardest/longest winter (2012/13). Inevitably some beekeepers, particularly those who are inexperienced or who have only one hive, might lose all their colonies. The most significant cause of overwintering colony loss is high levels of the parasitic mite Varroa and the consequent high level of pathogenic viruses such as Deformed Wing Virus. Understandably, enthusiastic beekeepers want to replace their overwintering losses, again driving up demand for bees early in the season.

I think there are additional potential causes of demand, though these are perhaps spread throughout the season. These are beekeepers a) wanting to increase their stocks or b) improve their stocks by replacement of an existing queen with a particular strain chosen for perceived docility, honey yield or a number of other reasons. There may also be additional demand to replace failing queens – drone layers for example – often identified when the colony is first opened in spring. Enthusiastic newcomers to beekeeping (perhaps entering their second year) as well as beekeepers who have had bees for many years probably contribute to this demand for imported bees and queens to increase or improve stocks.

In addition to the demand from ‘amateur’ beekeepers there is additional demand from some bee farmers, by which I mean individuals who make some or all of their living from honey production and pollination services (rather than individuals who import bees for resale). For example, £200,000 was provided by the Scottish government to import package bees after the 2012/13 winter. I know some bee farmers are entirely self-sufficient, raising queens and nucs to make increase, to replace their own losses and to sell if there is excess. However, with the exception of the large number of packages imported to Scotland over the last two years I have no idea how many bee farmers are reliant on imports. Since hobby beekeepers far outnumber bee farmers I will restrict the majority of my comments to this sector – a group that presumably also includes all newcomers to beekeeping.

Supply

Where do bees come from? In the absence of imports the demand for new queens, nucs and colonies would have to be met by taking advantage of the natural ways that bees reproduce i.e. by splitting strong colonies that are at risk of swarming, by capturing swarms that escape and by forcing the bees to raise one or more new queens by making a colony queenless (or at least think it’s queenless). Since splitting colonies reduces the foraging workforce it may impact on the amount of honey generated; in a normal season a beekeeper generally must choose between making new bees or making honey from any one colony.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

The rate limiting step in making new bees is the provision of newly mated queens. This generally requires warm, settled weather and fertile drones. In this area (the Midlands) we sometimes have suitable weather in April, but rarely have mature drones until May. In contrast, it’s not unusual to have both drones and good weather in September. Therefore home-grown bees – whether mated queens, nucs (and possibly swarms) – should be readily available in the five months May to September. Inevitably these dates cannot be precise – it’s good to let a newly mated queen demonstrate a good laying pattern which takes 7-14 days after she first gets going. Over the last five years the earliest and latest dates I’ve had queens mated on was about the 22nd of April and September respectively.

Mid- to late May or early June is probably 4-6 weeks too late for the peak demand for new queens and nucs. It’s during this critical early season period that overwintering losses and failed queens are detected, it’s the time when keen new beginners want their first bees and when the more experienced want to increase their colony numbers to exploit on the summer flows. The supply of locally-raised bees is currently unlikely to meet this early season demand due to weather restrictions on queen mating.

How can we better match supply and demand?

Or, more importantly, how do we match supply and demand without resorting to imported bees and queens every year? This is unlikely to be solved overnight, but there are several very obvious solutions that would help both meet the demand and improve local beekeeping.

Matching supply and demand requires a combination of increasing supply and reducing demand at critical points in the season. Effectively this should result in supply and demand balancing out over the course of the season. I suspect that the overall demand for new bees and queens could be relatively easily met from locally, or at least UK-raised, bees and queens. However, our temperate climate limits supply at the time of current highest demand. This needs to be addressed to achieve sustainability in UK beekeeping. Dealing with the four types of demand identified above in turn, here are some potential solutions:

  1. Bees for beginners. One obvious solution would be for associations to only train as many beekeepers as they can realistically provide overwintered nucs for the following spring. This would have a number of immediate benefits. It would generate revenue for the association members who provided the nucs. The revenue might also be shared with the association who trained the new beekeeper – they after all ‘created’ the buyer – potentially offsetting the financial losses of a reduction in the total numbers taking the training course. Furthermore, as established members recognise the annual demand from new trainees and invest in the equipment and skills needed to provide the nucs, increased numbers of beginners could again be accommodated on winter training courses. Since the nuc would be provided from locally-raised bees, they should be from a trusted and disease-free source, suited to local conditions and they could be inspected before purchase. If the nuc was overwintered the queen would presumably be well-established and her quality would be obvious. If the nuc was generated early in the same season the beginner would have to wait a little longer, but could be mentored during this period, even working alongside the experienced beekeeper to generate the nuc and monitor its development. Mentoring of beginners and their nucs (and in due course colonies) should then be extended throughout the first season to include the important preparation for overwintering, which takes us to the second cause of high early season demand for new queens and nucs.
  2. Bees to replace overwintering losses. Some losses are perhaps inevitable. However, they can certainly be minimised by good preparation for the winter. This starts as early as midsummer by careful attention to the following points; queen vigour, colony health, stores and the hive. Taking these in the reverse order, it goes without saying that the hive should be watertight, secure and protected against damage (for example, from grazing stock or woodpeckers). There should be sufficient stores present in the hive, either from syrup or fondant fed early enough and generously enough for the brood box to be stuffed at the beginning of winter. Knowing  when to start feeding requires experience – too soon and you’re needlessly increasing your expenditure (the bees will still be foraging), too late and the colony may not lay down enough stores and so starve overwinter. During the winter it is also essential to ensure that the stores are not exhausted, by regularly ‘hefting’ the hive and providing fondant as required. It’s critical that the health of the colony is good going into the winter. This primarily means monitoring the Varroa mite numbers regularly during the season, minimising the mite load in August/September – to help raise a generation of bees for overwintering with low viral loads – and treating again in mid-winter during the broodless period to further reduce mite numbers. Weak colonies in mid/late summer are unlikely to overwinter well – there’s little point in mollycoddling them and (assuming they are healthy) it is almost always better to cull the queen and unite them with a stronger colony instead. The stronger colony will benefit and the weak colony, even if it did survive, would have been slow to develop in the spring. Finally, young vigorous queens generally lay later into the autumn, overwinter better and lay earlier and more strongly the following spring. Therefore it makes sense to replace ageing queens in the summer, rather than risk losing the colony due to her failing in the winter. This doesn’t necessarily mean culling her … she could be moved to head a nuc for overwintering for example, keeping a desirable line going for queen rearing the following season. Ted Hooper (in Guide to Bees and Honey) was a strong advocate of the benefits of young queens for overwintering success, recommending requeening in early September.
  3. Making increase. With a little planning and preparation it is possible to exploit the natural tendency of strong colonies to swarm in April-June to make increase. Although this might reduce honey yield it works with the bees to increase colony numbers. With experience, it’s usually possible to split a well-timed nuc from a strong colony without significantly impacting nectar gathering, with the nuc likely to build up to a full colony for overwintering. In addition, any area with reasonable numbers of beekeepers (and just look on BeeBase to see how saturated your local area is … there are 207 apiaries within 10km of my main out apiary) is likely to yield a number of swarms that will need collecting or can be caught in bait hives. If you divide colonies about to swarm or collect/attract swarms you might end up with swarmy bees, and you have no control of the quality of bees you acquire. However, queen rearing is not difficult and it is easy to requeen swarmy colonies or swarms of dubious quality … which takes us neatly on to improvement of stock.
  4. Stock improvement. Why is an open-mated queen purchased in early May for £40 and flown 1600 miles from Southern Italy likely to be better quality than a locally-bred queen from an association member or group who have been rearing queens in the area for several years, culling their poorest stocks and breeding from their best? Which queen is more likely to raise brood that suits the local environment? Which queen is likely to head a colony with the correct balance of stores and bees to overwinter best? Which queen is more likely, in due course, to yield daughter queens that better suit your local environment, that are placid and exhibit other desirable traits? I have no doubt that a locally raised quality queen would usually be better than an imported queen. However, not all locally raised queens are of good enough quality. This takes us onto the benefits to UK beekeepers of practising sustainable beekeeping.
Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells

Benefits of sustainable (i.e. no imported bees) beekeeping

If an imported queen cost £500 and package was double that there would be a healthy market for local bees and queens. It would be too expensive to rely on imports to make up for overwintering losses. Beginners would happily wait a week or two or three extra for a locally-raised nuc. What if they were even more expensive than that? What if they were priced beyond the reach of any beekeepers? Or what if imports of any bees were banned entirely? If this were the case there would be real pressure for UK beekeepers to generate sufficient numbers of good quality nucs and queens to meet demands throughout the season. This would involve more beekeepers overwintering nucs to make up losses, to make increase or to sell on in the spring. It would result in more beekeepers learning some of the easy methods of queen rearing (not those involving grafting, mini-nucs or instrumental insemination), so they could become self-sufficient, and would encourage individuals or groups to undertake active stock improvement to raise much better quality queens.

Overwintering Everynuc

Overwintering Everynuc

Nucs are more difficult to overwinter than full colonies. But not much more difficult. They have limited space for stores and the winter cluster is smaller. However, high quality poly nucs are now available from a number of suppliers and provide much better insulation to the colony, reducing the rate at which stores are consumed and increasing overwintering success rates. With UK-raised overwintered nucs costing up to £195 in recent years from reputable commercial suppliers the cost of the actual nuc would very soon be recouped even if sold on within the association at a more reasonable cost. If more beekeepers learned how relatively easy it was to prepare and successfully overwinter a couple of nucs it would go some way to meeting the early season demand for bees.

Record keeping

Record keeping …

Most swarm control methods can be readily modified to split a colony, with the queenless ‘half’ raising a new queen in due course. All it requires is a minimum of additional equipment, an appreciation of the timing of the egg-larvae-pupae cycle and the necessary weather and drones for successful queen mating. It also requires reasonable quality bees to avoid propagating unpleasant stock. There’s no point in generating bees that run frantically over the frames, that have a lousy brood pattern, that are aggressive or – my least favourite trait – that follow for hundreds of yards. Any of these take the pleasure out of beekeeping, if combined they are a nightmare (but certainly not unknown). This requires that individuals improve their record keeping, they should improve how they judge their colonies and should then select from their best stock to raise new queens. This doesn’t mean they necessarily have to split (and so weaken) their best colonies … it simply means taking a frame of eggs from their best colony and placing it into a well-populated nuc, then ensuring that queen cells are only raised from the introduced frame of eggs. These small changes in beekeeping practice will enable individual beekeepers to make increase without resorting to imported bees and will – over time – improve both their stocks and their beekeeping.

Queen rearing diary

Tom’s Tables …

Finally, relatively few individual beekeepers keep sufficient numbers of colonies to undertake rational or large scale queen rearing and strain improvement. I certainly don’t. I don’t know how many colonies would be required to start this process off but would suspect it would be at least 50 or perhaps double that number. However, beekeepers with even a handful of colonies can improve their stocks year by year. By routinely selecting from bees with desirable traits for queen rearing and rigorously culling queens with undesirable characteristics – I’ve heard it suggested that the worst 25-30% of stocks should always be requeened – the overall quality of the bees will improve. However, a small group of like-minded beekeepers would easily be managing the 50-100 colonies between them necessary to start more ambitious stock selection. The resources for actually raising queens are relatively limited and could be undertaken in several different apiaries if needed. They would need to agree the quality criteria to judge their colonies against and would need to undertake some joint inspections to decide the desirable lines to keep and the undesirable lines to cull. Groups working together like this already exist, for example several groups work like this in the Native Irish Honey Bee Society.

Conclusions

Soft set and clear honey

One of the end products

Beekeeping is not difficult. It’s a hugely engrossing pastime in which the best results are achieved by working with the bees, not against them or by forcing them. Quick fixes, such as importing queens early in the season, reduces the requirement for good bee husbandry and the need to be observant and gradually improve your stock. Although I think that imports should be banned to limit the chances of small hive beetle reaching the UK, I think a far greater benefit of such a ban would be the resulting improvements in the quality of UK beekeeping. These improvements are not achieved by taking more exams or qualifications. They are almost all practical skills, readily acquired by observation, good record keeping, talking with your friends and learning from more experienced beekeepers already practising sustainable beekeeping.

I would like to see national and local associations more actively promoting the benefits of locally-raised bees. These are the organisations that should be coordinating efforts to become less reliant on imported bees, that should be teaching the practical skills necessary for sustainable beekeeping and that will eventually also benefit from improvements in beekeeping in this country.


Additional resources

Readers interested in some of the ideas above should consider attending one of the BIBBA-organized Bee Improvement for All Days this winter. The goal of these workshops is to encourage “beekeepers of all abilities to improve their bees, using simple techniques without the need for specialist equipment“.

Michael Palmer gives a great talk on sustainable beekeeping. You can watch his talk (The Sustainable Apiary) at the 2013 National Honey Show on YouTube or perhaps see him in person at the Somerset Beekeepers 2015 Lecture Day on the 21st of February.

Time to ban bee imports?

Small Hive Beetle

Small Hive Beetle

The West Sussex Beekeepers Association have proposed the following motion to the BBKA Annual Delegates Meeting (ADM) in January “Following the discovery of Small Hive Beetle, Aethina tumida, (SHB) in Italy in September 2014 this ADM instructs BBKA to urgently seek a ban on the importation of bees and unprocessed bee products into the U.K”. Further details can be found in their newsletter (under the heading Jim’s Jottings, from the illogically named Jim Norfolk, Chairman of the West Sussex BKA). The full proposition from West Sussex BKA, the supporting notes and the response from the BBKA Executive Committee can be found here on the Beekeeping Forum. The Executive Committee of the BBKA does not support the proposition – as summarised in the sentence “At this point in time the Executive does not consider it appropriate to seek or it be possible to achieve a ban on the importation of honey bees and unprocessed honey bee products and does not support the proposition“.

There is little justification explaining why the BBKA Executive Committee do not consider it appropriate to seek a ban on imports. As explained in a recent post, the National Bee Unit have conducted a risk assessment (in 2009) which concluded that “The pathway likely to present the greatest risk of introduction [of SHB] was the movement and importation of honey bees”.

Time is short … discuss this with your association

Please discuss the potential introduction of SHB and how it might be prevented with your own local association. If you feel strongly about it persuade your delegate at the January BBKA ADM to support the motion proposed by the West Sussex BKA. Remember that the UK imports thousands of queens and bees from Europe every year, many are from Italy, but others are from countries like France that also import thousands of queens and bees from Italy. Do you know where the nuc you or enthusiastic beginners purchased in April/May originated from?

The precautionary principle

The precautionary principle is that there “is a social responsibility to protect the [public or environment] from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result“. There is a plausible risk of SHB entering the UK during the importation of bees. Until evidence is provided to the contrary – presumably by the BBKA and others who do not support a ban on bee imports – the precautionary principle should be applied.

The Native Irish Honey Bee Society has “calling for an immediate ban on imports of honey bees on animal health protection grounds“. Malta has already banned imports from Southern Italy. The Local Association Secretaries of the SBA have discussed the threat of SHB where there was considerable support for the following proposition “The SBA urges that all possible measures are taken to prevent the introduction of small hive beetle into the UK. These should include a cessation of trade in live bees from the rest of Europe for 2015 until the true spread of the pest is better known“. The Welsh BKA are discussing the issue shortly.

Eradication after arrival …

With the exception of the introduction of SHB to Portugal in 2004, no country has managed to eradicate the beetle after it has been introduced. In Portugal the beetle was introduced as larvae with a single shipment of queens (illegally) imported from Texas to a single apiary. All colonies in the apiary were destroyed and the ground was ploughed up and soaked in insecticide. Rather than rely on the contingency plans and sentinel apiaries in the UK to detect the beetle after arrival we should use the age-old doctrine of prevention being better than cure … we should do our best to stop the beetle getting here in the first place.

Other benefits of a ban on imports

Decreased reliance on imported bees and queens is likely to significantly benefit UK beekeeping in the long run. We may have to alter the way we train beginners, we might have to do a lot more autumn requeening, we might have to improve our integrated pest management, we will have to increase local queen rearing activities … however, none of these are insurmountable problems and all are likely to improve the quality of UK beekeeping. Bees and queens might become more expensive, but only until local association queen and nuc rearing activities have geared up to cope with the additional demand. I would think that any increase would be insignificant if compared to the cost of lost colonies should SHB arrive and become established in the UK. I accept that there might be issues for commercial beekeepers, but am unconvinced that a business model that relies upon cheap imports is sustainable in the long-term.

Further details on the biology of Small Hive Beetle can be found in this recent Current Zoology paper (PDF download) written by NBU scientists.

CABK Stratford Conference

Falcon Hotel

Falcon Hotel

I’m delighted to be speaking at the  CABK Stratford Conference (the Central Association of Beekeepers; Bringing Science to the Beekeeper) on Saturday and Sunday 22/23 November 2014. I’ll be discussing the identification of a virulent strain of deformed wing virus, characteristics of its transmission and potential ways it might be controlled in the future. The CABK website doesn’t yet appear to list other speakers, but the provisional programme I’ve seen lists Alison Haughton from Rothamsted, Ben Jones from FERA, Jochen Plugfelder from Bern and Bob Smith from Kent.

There should be ample time for discussions so please introduce yourself if you want to chat.

Update

Despite the best efforts of the Falcon Hotel (who appeared to have reserved far too few rooms for the registered delegates) the meeting was very enjoyable. The talks I heard were excellent, with ample time for discussion. In particular I enjoyed listening to Bob Smith who showed us the differences between DN5 frames from two of the major manufacturers … one made to British Standard sizes with the wrong beespace (Thorne’s), and the other with the correct beespace between the top bars, the rebated side bars and the wide bottom bars (National Bee Supplies if I remember correctly). Bob’s talk was the only beekeeping talk I’ve heard with psychedelic imagery and a guitar riff. Bob also demonstrated his enviable woodworking skills with an elegant little (mating nuc sized) observation hive. Jochen Plugfelder gave two fascinating presentations on improved formulations of formic acid for Varroa treatment and the chemistry of queen fighting, the latter supported by excellent video. Ben Jones discussed his studies on dietary influences on foragers and – in a commendably dedicated way – rushed off early to complete a time course experiment. Finally (although it was actually the first talk of the meeting in place of Alison Haughton) Robert Pickard presented a wide ranging overview of social and solitary bees and their mimics. The talk was actually so wide ranging that it was difficult to categorise it and was illustrated with a range of interesting slides.

 

Small Hive Beetle (SHB) and the UK

Small Hive Beetle

Small Hive Beetle

Small hive beetle (SHB; Aethina tumida) is a small, invasive beetle originally from Africa that infests colonies, eating brood, pollen and honey, destroying comb and causing honey to ferment.  Without control, infestation leads to destruction of the colony. SHB is now present globally and, since the 1990’s, has been distributed with bees and bee products (e.g. beeswax) resulting in infestations in the USA and Hawaii, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica and Cuba. SHB was introduced to Portugal in 2004 (in a consignment of queens from Texas) but very rapidly detected and eradicated. This was the first time SHB was present on mainland Europe … it’s now back.

SHB has been detected in Southern Italy and appears to be well established. The UK imports large numbers of bee packages and queens from Italy. There is a very real threat to UK beekeeping … the summary of an article by the National Bee Unit concluded that “Its arrival in the United Kingdom would pose a significant threat to the long-term sustainability and economic prosperity of beekeeping and, as a consequence, to agriculture and the environment through disruption to pollination services”. My opinion is that the export of bees and queens from Italy should be banned until the extent of infestation is known. In addition, the import of bees and queens to the UK (from all countries, not just Italy) should be banned to reduce the chance of inadvertently acquiring the beetle from a third country.

The impact of SHB and its presence in Italy

In the USA, SHB was first detected in Florida in 1998. Within two years it had resulted in the destruction of 20,000 colonies in the USA. Like Varroa, once established, SHB will probably be impossible to eradicate. The National Bee Unit has produced an excellent (and recently updated) guide to SHB (PDF download) which should be compulsory reading for all beekeepers. It describes the identification of the beetle, the consequences of infestation, the likely impact on UK beekeepers and beekeeping, methods of detection (to be covered in another post) and control.

It appears as though the early infestation in the Calabria region of Southern Italy was overlooked, resulting in the beetle becoming quite widely distributed. The beetle was first detected on the 11th of September 2014, a protection zone (20km) and eradication zone (100km) were established with compulsory colony destruction of infested colonies in the former. Over 1500 colonies have been destroyed, but the protection zone has recently been extended to include much of eastern Sicily. SHB is clearly widespread in Southern Italy and COLOSS – the honeybee research organisation – have recently announced that SHB is in Europe to stay.

Southern Italy has a lot of migratory beekeeping meaning that the beetle is quite possibly even more widespread. Particularly worrying for UK beekeepers is that many bees and queens are imported from Italy, either directly or via a third country. In 2014 over 1200 packages of bees and 1750 batches of queens were imported from Italy, in 27 separate consignments. Only 8 of these consignments were inspected. The total imports from EU countries to the UK in 2014 was much larger, with 1400 packages of bees, 580 nucs and nearly 10,000 queens. Many thousands of queens are exported from Italy to France each year, with some perhaps being used to head the increasing number of French-sourced nucs being imported to the UK each year.

I do not think that UK beekeepers need to import bees or queens from abroad. I suspect that many of the imported queens are used to head early-season nucs being sold to enthusiastic new beekeepers at the beginning of the season, or to beekeepers making up for winter losses. I think the currently popularity of beekeeping, the “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” nature of some training courses and, possibly, poor standards of colony preparation for winter and patchy integrated pest management procedures, are the underlying causes for the high demand for early season nucs and queens. I will write separately about this during the winter.

The BBKA have released a statement to the effect that beekeepers should be vigilant, but that the most likely route by which the beetle will be imported is with fruit, vegetables and plant material from the affected area (25th September statement; PDF). There was no suggestion that import of bees from Italy to the UK should be banned. There may be several reasons for this, not least that current EU legislation may not allow such a ban to be imposed. I’m disappointed by failure of the BBKA to take a more aggressive stance to protect UK beekeepers and beekeeping. Although SHB can be transmitted by at least 8 different routes (including flying up to 10km) a published analysis by DEFRA (“Development of an evidence based risk assessment for small hive beetle“)  on the threat from SHB to the UK includes the quote “The pathway likely to present the greatest risk of introduction was the movement and importation of honey bees”. This report was published in 2009.

This situation is developing, but there are only a few months until the new season starts. There are active threads discussing it on the Beekeeping Forum and the – often better informed – SBAi forum. The SBAi forum contains links to a number of maps showing distribution of the beetle in Italy and translations of the pages from reports on Italian beekeeping websites.

What can UK beekeepers and associations do?

Beekeeping associations should discuss their assessment of the risk of SHB to UK beekeeping (as should individuals). Don’t leave this until next season … it may be too late by then. If SHB was to be introduced to the UK I would expect colony destruction to be used as a means of controlling spread, at least initially. Does your association want to risk this? Bee Diseases Insurance (BDI) will cover colony destruction necessitated by the presence of SHB, but the cover is limited to only £50,000 (this is nationally, not per beekeeper). What else could an association do to help prevent SHB changing UK beekeeping?

  • Encourage association member not to import bees or queens. Ideally, don’t import bees or queens at all (do you know where your French-sourced nuc actually originated?) but at the very least don’t import from Italy.
  • Do not allow imported bees to be housed on association apiaries. These often have higher hive densities and so provide ample opportunity for spread. This may also encourage beekeepers to source local bees, rather than having to move from a shared association apiary.
  • Encourage active queen rearers in the association to make queens available to association members who would otherwise purchase imported queens. Allow free adverts in your newsletter? Provide lists of queen and nuc suppliers.
  • Start a queen rearing group so association members become more self-sufficient. Locally bred queens are likely to be better suited to the local conditions, so this makes sense anyway.
  • Encourage beginners on winter beekeeping courses to source local bees from association members rather than purchasing them from an unknown source at the earliest opportunity. They might have to wait a few extra weeks (and I appreciate the urge to get started as soon as possible) but they can get some experience with their mentor during this time and will be much better prepared when the nuc is ready.
  • Overwinter 5 frame nucs for use or sale in the spring. This is too late for this year but requires only a little preparation during the mid/late summer season. This could be done both at the individual and association level … “guaranteeing” local bees for attendees on winter beginners courses.
  • Watch the excellent talk that Michael Palmer gave at the National Honey Show in 2013 on The Sustainable Apiary.
  • Encourage your national beekeeping association (BBKA, SBA, WBKA) to take a pro-active stance to limit the chances of the beetle being imported.
  • Monitor colonies using Correx SHB traps on a regular basis – more on this in a later post.

Once here it is unlikely that we will be able to eradicate SHB. The USA failed, Hawaii failed, Australia failed, Canada failed and it looks almost certain that Italy has failed. 

Further reading

Contingency planning for the Small Hive Beetle – Bee-Craft article from 2012 describing sentinel apiaries, monitoring imports etc.

Beebase (DEFRA) pages on Small Hive Beetle and further notes on contingency planning.

 

 

Deformed Wing Virus

Deformed wing virus (DWV) is probably the most important viral pathogen of honeybees. In the presence of Varroa the virus is amplified to very high levels in the colony, resulting in newly emerged workers – those that survive long enough to emerge – exhibiting the classic symptoms familiar to most beekeepers. These include deformed or atrophied wings, a stunted abdomen, additional deformities or paralysis of appendages and (not visible) learning impairment. There is a clear association between high Varroa levels, high levels of DWV symptomatic bees and overwintering colony losses.

Classic DWV symptoms

Classic DWV symptoms

These images are of workers from a colony treated for a month with Apiguard to reduce mite numbers. Many bees remained with symptoms. I suspect the high levels of mites pre-treatment resulted in the amplification of virulent strains of DWV which continued to cause disease even after the mite numbers were reduced. This emphasises the need to monitor mite numbers and treat appropriately with Apiguard, oxalic acid or – during the season – other appropriate integrated pest management practices such as drone brood culling.

Worker with immature mite

Worker with immature mite …

DWV symptoms and mite

DWV symptoms and mite

 

 

Reducing winter losses

A guaranteed way of reducing winter losses is to only overwinter colonies that are strong and healthy.  Although colony losses can occur for several reasons (e.g. starvation) researchers in Switzerland have shown that high levels of the parasitic mite Varroa and deformed wing virus (DWV), which the mite transmits, are the primary cause of overwintering colony losses. It is therefore important to minimise mite numbers in the colony in early autumn, preferably by treating with a miticide early enough for the queen to have time to lay up more frames before the weather gets too cold. Many mite treatments (e.g. Apiguard and MAQS) stop queens laying.

High levels of DWV

High levels of DWV …

I completed Apiguard treatment of my colonies by mid-September but noticed that one still contained lots of bees showing the characteristic symptoms of DWV infection – atrophied wing development, stunted abdomens and a generally dark coloration. In the photograph (right) there are at least 5 bees visible with these symptoms, one of which also has a phoretic mite attached (lower right hand corner). This colony had failed to build up after a mid-season setback. It was only taking limited amounts of fondant down and the flying bees were bringing back only small amounts of pollen (in marked contrast to neighbouring colonies that – now the Apiguard is off – are piling in huge amounts of pollen for the winter). There were also signs of sacbrood virus which often requires re-queening to eradicate. The queen was still laying, but there was only a frame and a half of sealed brood.

At this stage in the season there is no real chance this colony could build up sufficiently to overwinter successfully. It’s not simply dependent upon the size of the colony, it’s also the vigour. After all, it’s reasonably straightforward to overwinter Apidea or Kieler mini-nucs with a bit of care. These have far fewer bees present than the colony photographed above.

Shake them out

Shake them out …

If the colony had been healthy, but small, I would have united it with another over newspaper. However, I wanted to minimise exposure of other colonies to the brood so instead removed the queen, moved the colony to another corner of the apiary and shook all the bees out. The healthy flying bees should be able to get accepted by another colony. The symptomatic bees would be lost. Although there was a risk that bees carrying phoretic mites would get back to other colonies I carefully checked the frames before shaking them out and saw almost no mites. In due course I’ll treat these remaining colonies with oxalic acid. I subsequently uncapped a frame or so of brood and found almost 50% of capped pupae were mite-associated.

Figures collected and published by the BBKA indicate that, on average in England, ~20% of colonies are lost each winter. In particularly hard winters, such as 2012/13, losses can be significantly higher than this, reaching over 50% in certain regions of the country.

Annual colony losses

Annual colony losses

Aside from ensuring adequate stores are present in late autumn, with hives in good condition to provide protection from the elements, the best way to minimise overwintering losses is to not try and overwinter weak or diseased colonies. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind …