Each time I read the following letter, I get a picture in my mind of the honey bee hives I used to see as a kid in rural Pennsylvania: peeling paint, rotting boards, rain-admitting gaps, and holes. They were hives that fell into rot and ruin. That was before Varroa mites and a host of other diseases. Back then, colonies persisted for decades until the hives disintegrated into compost.
But this story is current—very much in the age of Varroa—and comes from Renaldo, a beekeeper in southern Oregon.
Our children have a hive/colony they were given over 10 years ago. The ONE deep, is rotting into the stand, which is leaning against the fence in a state of near collapse. The hive consists of one deep with a queen excluder atop that, with two western supers above the queen excluder. It is a mess. I can only imagine the black horror the comb must be.
There are numerous holes in the body of the main hive body, rot and ruin reign. Yet, this hive/colony has been alive and thriving for over 10 years in its present location. When it was given to them, they hoped it would not collapse in the transfer.
So, we have had numerous purchased, pampered, primped, fed, and loved (if you will) colonies started, helped, protected, and failed. We feed them when they start. We treat for pests. We protect from predators. We take little honey and feed in the fall to carry them over.
Our children’s bees have been thriving for 15 years or more with nothing from humans, though they have taken no honey. Fifteen years for a bee hive seems to be a long time, no? Why am I confused?
P.S. You really should see this thing. They have left the entrance reducer in place forever. The bees have chewed it into a sliver. They pop in and out of little rot holes in the sides of the box. They are thriving!
In my experience, a colony like this shows up now and again, but it’s hard to explain. I have one right now—not nearly as ancient as Renaldo’s—but certainly old enough to be intriguing.
My own dilapidated hive
My story involves an empty top-bar hive that I intended to repair. Once upon a time, it had a screened bottom, but the screen was ripped out and left dangling by raccoons who feasted on the bees, brood, and comb.
So the hive sat there a year or more, awaiting my attention, until one day my husband shouted for me to “Come quick!” At that time, an enormous swarm was filing into the bottomless top-bar hive and calling it home.
This thrilled and irritated me at the same time. I was pleased to have the colony but stymied in my plans to fix the hive. We jury-rigged a bottom board to keep out the raccoons. Using scraps from the wood pile, we fashioned a board that could take the place of the screen, drilled dozens of holes in it for ventilation, and slid it in the spot reserved for the Varroa drawer. I figured it might hold for the summer.
Because I didn’t really want the colony in that location, and because I prefer my Langstroths over the top-bar hive, I decided to take from it freely. I never took honey, but I stole anything else I needed to bolster other colonies. I lifted brood, queen cells, worker bees, and combs.
By autumn, the colony was weakened by my ravishing, so I decided to let it go. It had been an asset, but it was now small and I didn’t have an easy way to combine it with my Langs. So I did nothing. While I treated and fed my other colonies, and prepared them for winter as best I could, I did nothing for the colony in the top-bar hive. I reasoned I would rebuild the hive in the spring once the colony was gone.
That was six years ago. In each of those years, I have taken two or three shook-swarms or Taranov splits from it. It continues to provide me with queen cells, brood, bees, and wonder. Still, I have never taken a drop of honey, nor have I treated, fed, quilted, or insulated. The spot where it stands—once sunny, dry, and warm—has grown over with deodar cedar, western red cedar, and Alaska cedar. Low to the ground in deep shade, it no longer gets sun at any time of day. On spring mornings while my other colonies are out foraging, these bees haven’t even peeked out the door. The colony defies everything I know about keeping bees.
Why does it happen?
So Renaldo, you are bewildered for the same reason I am. I sometimes think colonies thrive on being left alone. But then I remember how often I’ve raided that colony and think maybe it is the profile of organisms that live within the hive that makes a difference—the communities of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other creatures that somehow stay in balance when we don’t go in and try to enforce our standards. Then again, maybe it’s the way the physical design of a certain hive interacts with its environment, a feng shui kind of thing.
I’ve noticed that queens I take from the TBH do better than anything I can purchase, and I attribute that to being local and genetically suited for my region. But I’ve never had one of the resulting colonies last so long or be so adept at mite control. I believe it’s more than just genetics, that some hives have an elusive quality, a biological give-and-take, that magically allows the bees to thrive.
Honey Bee Suite
Bee with me . . .
Gary Smith presents an awesome vimeo that follows the life of a red mason bee for one year. The bee lives in a stone wall along with a host of other creatures, all interdependent on each other for survival. Well worth ten minutes of your day.
Lena Struwe writes a thoughtful post about the importance of scientific names and why The New York Times can’t get them right. Don’t miss Botanical Accuracy.
Christopher Wren serves up some nice photos of honey bees on Sedum spectabile. Great shots from the TrogTrogBlog.
A short article in The Economist about “The Decline of Bees” lays out the “bee problem” in clear and succinct terms. The excellent summary reminds us that all bees are in trouble, not just honey bees.
I am delighted to know that some rare colonies can survive Varroa year after year. I cannot explain that, as I often see colonies that die in year two from Varroa (when untreated).
Most colonies we are told about that appear to be one of these survivor colonies are actually locations in which the colony dies off each winter but is re-populated by early spring swarms each year.
Meanwhile, good you are propagating from this line…we need more of them!
Since you never see naturally resistant colonies, you are not able to “explain” it. But a number of temperate climate beeks are keeping bees without chemicals, are recognized, published authorities and well known. Sam Comfort of New York, Michael Bush of Nebraska, Dee Lusby of Arizona, Don Schram of Michigan, and Kirk Webster of Vermont are just the ones off the top of my head. They use NO treatments and have vigorous survivor stock by taking their bees off the meds. It is a vicious downward spiral when honey bees are so dependent and the pest is increasing in resistance.
This is true, but it has taken many years to flood their local areas with the drone prodigy of mite-resistant queens. Randy Oliver talks about the difficulty of doing this, the number of colonies required, the number of generations necessary, and the ability to pretty much isolate your bees from those being flown in from California, Georgia, or in this case, New Zealand. When you work out the numbers and apply it to the quirks of honey bee genetics, you can easily see the difficulties. So while it is possible, it is not something that most hobby beekeepers have the means to pursue.
It is easy to see the value and virtue of going treatment free, just as it is easy to see the value and virtue of reducing the rate of global warming. But most of us don’t have the means to get to work or buy groceries without getting in a car or on a bus, so we end up emitting carbon even though we know it’s not the best thing. And many small-time beekeepers use meds from time-to-time because they don’t have the means to start a breeding program or replace their bees every year.
It is a complex problem and, while it is easy to say what we should do, it is hard to implement change. I sometimes think the treatment-free beekeepers put newbees on a such guilt trip they scare them away from the hobby. That is not good either because perhaps, some day, it will be one of these newbees that discovers an important piece of the honey bee puzzle.
I see my role as encouraging people to keep, or at least appreciate, bees. All types of bees. But it’s not my place to say exactly how they do it. I can offer suggestions, but it’s not my place to hold every individual up to an arbitrary standard. Much of beekeeping is personal, just like what you eat or how many miles you drive or whether you put chemicals on your lawn.
You and I have gone round and round a few times in the past, but I hold my ground on this one. The burning of fossil fuels is my hang-up, but is there any point in listing the names of those who don’t burn them and compare my readers to them? Of course not. Everyone comes from a different place, has different amounts of time and money and education, different values and philosophies. You can’t lead other people until you understand that basic human truth.
We in Los Angeles are taking these very sorts of vigorous, prolific hives—from old suitcases, trees limbs, under floors in the crawlspace, in attics, in walls—and re-homing them to managed hives. They are allowed to draw their own wax combs, something they know how to do from 70 million years of evolution and that is a un-contaminated structure when they make their own. They are not being treated with chemicals or antibiotics or fed syrups and have a unlimited brood nest—no excluders for the humans.
The aspects of hive microbial background populations, genetics and all the other things Rusty mentions are part of the hive ecosystem. Entomologist, Lynn Royce, of Tree Hive Bees is doing a examination of the this ecosystem —www.treehivebees.com There is a lot of interest now in the gut microbial balance of the honeybee, too, and the clear finding is the treatments and sugar feeds change pH and microbe populations of the gut ecosystem.
Our bees are also partially Africanized feral hybrids, and exhibit remarkable resistance to varroa and its vectored diseases. For all the woo-hoo Hollywoodization about AHB, the facts on the ground are quite different. As Phil Chandler of BioBees in the UK remarked in Nat’l Geographic in the June issue—
I met Chandler near Buckfast Abbey, at a gathering of beekeepers. Many around him agree with his diagnosis. Still, they look vexed when he says that the best thing to do for varroa would be—nothing. Keep bees healthy and well fed, but let evolution work. For ten years or more, beekeepers might lose most of their bees, he concedes. But natural selection would eventually lead to some kind of resistant bee. “We have to think of these issues in terms of what is best for bees,” he says. “Not what is best for us.”
Chandler is not optimistic about the future for Apis mellifera; Densley, the Buckfast Abbey beekeeper, is worried, but more hopeful. To cheer them up, I tell them about Harvard University’s RoboBee project: an effort to create tiny, pollinating drones. In principle, the technology is feasible. Autonomous robots identify flowers by color, hover above them, and insert soft probes that pick up pollen. It might take the pressure off real bees, I suggest.
Chandler doesn’t look reassured. Densley too seems less than enthusiastic. “I’m not ready for a world of mechanical bees,” she says. “I think I like the ones we have.” She, like other bee people, is waiting for something to happen.
My fear about having mechanical ‘bees’ is that there would be even less incentive for people to look after pollinators and the natural world. It’s such a cynical response to the environmental problems we have – rather than trying to improve our world so that pollinators can thrive in it again, we give up and replace them with less efficient but more controllable mechanics.
Also, as a addition to the first note, here is a website posting from Pasadena CA, showing my friend Walker’s hives, 15 years old, feral, Africanized honeybees in Lang hives. Not rotting hiveware, however.
http://www.onestronghive.org opening post
Thanks you for this article – I so enjoyed your speculations and feel like you might be on to something with the greater community of organisms, among other factors likely. Just allowing the hive to develop instead of forming it ourselves is such a nice thing to do for bees too!
I have a small top bar hive that was a gift from a friend. He had been keeping those bees for seven years. They were originally a swarm out of an old feral tree hive. He never did anything to/for those bees, so they had been untouched for seven years in their hive. I have only peeked in around the edges, removed one bar of honey this past summer, and noted the small spiders and the wax moth larvae inside. This hive gave me two productive swarms this summer and is going into winter well-stocked with bees and stores. I call them my Holy Grail hive.
It sounded familiar! A local woman joined our club when she found the small farm she bought included a beehive. Two of us went to check it, and could barely get the OUTER cover off for propolis and bridge comb. We got far enough in to see they were queenright, and closed up before we did more damage. (Wherein you learn that old nails and glue – the corners of boxes and frames – have less staying power than said propolis and bridge comb.)
Apparently the former owner, an older gentleman who had to sell the place when his wife required a care facility, had popped a couple supers on every year, taken the honey of which there seemed to be plenty, and never bothered them apart from that.
One of our senior people is helping with them now. They are very aggressive – maybe from not being disturbed for so long? – so he thought about requeening. I squawked!! Whatever else they have, they must have very vigorous genetics to have survived ten, possibly more years of neglect. For now, his approach will be to replace damaged frames and, eventually, the one creaky brood box, get them on a screened bottom and check for pests and mites.
If I had a hive like that, I would be tempted to leave it as is (barring major damage) and make a few splits from it to perpetuate all that resilience. Glad to read your thoughts about the hive’s biotic profile and location, I will pass that along. Thanks!
I agree with your approach. I would hate to lose a queen with so much staying power just for a little gentleness. Use her queen cells to good advantage and you may find they are not as feisty as their mother.
I would love to see a picture of this hive. In my own imagination I can picture it clearly, but to see it in person, especially the part about bees “pop in and out of little rot holes in the sides of the box” I would love to see!
Thanks for sharing!
So funny, my thoughts exactly. Renaldo?
Rusty. My fuel oil guy told me the other day that he has a colony on his property in a log on the ground that has been there for 5 years and was in a tree for at least 5 before that, when it fell during a storm. He asked me to come get it, bees or log and all. I have a spot for it but worry about moving it this late in the year? Your thoughts and or reader’s experiences?
If it’s a couple miles away, I wouldn’t worry about it at all. Just move the whole log if you can, so they can keep their winter supplies intact.
Does your famous top-bar hive have any rotten wood in it? Before the bees moved in, did it ever have enough dampness inside for fungus to work on the wood at all? Just curious. https://www.honeybeesuite.com/joes-mysterious-honey/
No rotting wood at this point. The roof had some rot, but I replaced it last year.