Anyone who has looked at my macro-photographic pictures knows that I like to photograph insects in general and bees in particular. I find them interesting.
About 25 years ago I established a honey bee hive in my yard. I did all the things that the books said to do. I bought the packaged bees with the included queen and installed them in the approved hive with its rack of frames and other accoutrements. I had the bee suit and the smoker and I fed them syrup and checked on them every once in a while, and they seemed to thrive. And even though New England winters are awful they survived into the next year and seemed to be thriving. But after the second winter they were all dead.
This was disappointing. But I persevered and started all over. A new hive, new bees and away we went. But this time they were dead by the next spring. I read up on what had happened. Tracheal mites and varroa mites had become the scourge of beekeeping. Hives were dying off by the thousands. Eventually chemical treatments became the “solution” for keeping honey bees alive in the Age of Varroa.
But I was unwilling to keep bees that needed to be loaded with poison to survive. Beyond the question of whether honey produced by semi-poisoned bees was safe or appetizing I just didn’t see the sense in raising creatures that were incapable of surviving on their own. But I kept an ear open hoping for an announcement of the discovery of bees that were resistant to varroa mite infestation. Decades passed and I lost track of the whole thing.
But this week I watched a YouTube video by a beekeeper up in Vermont named Kirk Webster (how’s that for a New England name!) who has been raising bees without medication for twenty years. It was very interesting. So, this Webster guy lost lots of his bees in the varroa mite plague. And earlier he lost lots of hives to the previous tracheal mite outbreak. But apparently, the surviving hives had better genetics and their descendants were able to thrive in the environment that contained these parasites.
And it seemed a big part of the answer had to do with Mr. Webster’s embrace of natural selection. By allowing the mites to eliminate the weaker hives the stronger bees became the basis of his new stock and they thrived. And possibly part of that selection was a race of Russian bees that he had adopted during that time. Possibly bees that had been exposed to the enormous range of climates and fauna found in the vast Eurasian continent gave them a distinct advantage over the European bees.
Well, I warned Camera Girl that sometime in the indeterminate future she might see me walking around the grounds wearing a bee suit. She shook her head and went back to preparing food for tomorrow’s party while mumbling disparaging remarks about someone or other. Well, not everyone is as enlightened and innovative as some other people. But the takeaway is that there are definitely beekeepers who have found success with keeping bees without dousing their hives with insecticides and poisons. Something for me to think about.