In addition to getting together our solar panel system, plans, and permits, we’ve been working on a grant proposal to greatly expand our bee breeding program. This application was written for nonbeekeepers. A more technical grant proposal is in the works for a beekeeper-specific organization. We have made a habit of sharing our grant proposals as part of our efforts to be open about our successes and failures.
Honeybees are facing intertwined challenges leading to colony collapse disorder, but the biggest single threat is the Varroa mite. Unfortunately, the industry standard is to treat every hive repeatedly with mild to fairly toxic chemicals. An alternative has been pioneered in Africa, Wales, and Gotlund and demonstrates that mite-tolerant bees can be bred. The reason that this practice is not widely adopted is economic: high losses mean at least five years without producing honey or other revenue. We plan to create tools and genetic stock needed for beekeepers of all scales to transition to treatment-free bees, but we need help with the start-up costs of a medium-sized apiary and a budget to help us spread the word about this solution.
The first year of the full-scale project is the most labor and cost intensive and requires support. The apiary must be established and populated (Result 1). The hives must be divided and managed (Result 2). Finally, tools for beekeepers of all scales must be created and shared (Result 3). All of these tasks incur costs that cannot be made up by honey sales or other revenue because its success depends on concentrating all the bees’ efforts on repopulating their colonies each year instead of producing honey.
We are partnering with Agrecol, a local prairie-seed producer with 80 ac of grasses, flowers, and forests to house our breeding project. Queen bees control the genetics of the entire hive and mate within 2–5 mi of their colony. Therefore, this isolated location with rich resources is ideal for the project. We plan to install sixty hives (Result 1). Each hive costs approximately $150 and lasts for many years.
Over the course of the year, we will manage these hives: we will monitor for the level of mites and tolerance in the hives and will also divide the hives as they grow to produce new colonies. Luckily, we can start with 20–30 colonies of bees and double the population in the first year to fill all sixty hives (Result 2). Typically, beekeepers would not split hives but instead try to encourage honey production; we are managing these hives for breeding and selection, not economic gain.
This work is pointless if it is not shared, and we have two ways to do this. First, the methods we use to select for mite-tolerant bees will be written up in publications aimed at small-, medium-, and large-scale beekeepers, allowing them to replicate our project (Result 3). This information will also be shared through presentations to interested groups, media, and an online network. Second, after three to five years, we will have a large, stabilized genetic population and may begin to sell extra colonies of bees, which will spread mite-tolerant bees in the region.
Anybody following the news knows that honeybees are in crisis. Bees are a critical link not only in the human food chain but the entire ecosystem. Pesticides, insecticides, and disease contribute to colony collapse disorder, but the biggest problem facing the North American honeybees today is the parasitic, disease-transmitting Varroa mite. Unfortunately, the answer of the beekeeping industry is to adopt Dow’s motto: “better living through chemistry.” They use insecticides in the hives to kill mites, but using poisons in an enclosed space is worrying for the honey you eat and—more importantly—the bees’ health and long-term chances for survival. Beekeepers in Asia, Africa, Wales, and Gotlund have bred bees that don’t need chemical treatments to survive, but two impediments keep this solution out of North American hives: economic concerns and lack of knowledge. This project seeks to overcome these hurdles, but we need help to move beyond our pilot study to full-scale implementation.
The Low Technology Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research organization with the primary goal of developing strategies to house, clothe, and feed ourselves in a post-fossil-fuel world. We undertake research projects aimed at human-scale, DIY solutions to systemic problems. Last year, for example, we ran a USDA-funded study of small-scale potato-growing methods with local market gardeners because spuds are the most versatile and easy-to-grow staple foods in an economy where fossil fuels are not available for shipping staples around the world. We have been looking seriously at the Varroa mite problem for four years, starting with an examination of the peer-reviewed science. We found that a solution had been found and used in places around the world: stop treating your bees, let those that cannot live with mites die out, and then breed the survivors to replace them. This has been done successfully in Africa (where beekeepers could not afford chemical treatments), Wales (where beekeepers all agreed to undertake this step), and Gotlund (where researchers repeated the results).
The difficult part of this method—and the reason it has not been adopted in North America—is that it requires beekeepers to go without income for at least three years and requires some specialized knowledge. Industrial-scale beekeepers who earn their living through their bees are unwilling to undertake this breeding program because they would incur the same operational costs but earn no income from any of their three main sources of revenue: honey, pollination services, and bee colony sales. Small-scale beekeepers, on the other hand, would be willing to go without honey (many do already), but first, do not know that this method is available to them or how to divide their existing hives into multiple daughter colonies, and second, that without a critical mass of beekeepers persuing this solution
The following proposal will take you step by step through what we—and others—have done up until this point, what we propose to do with the assistance of your organization, and how this will contribute to breaking down the two systemic impediments to wider adoption of this solution.
Varroa Mite and Honeybees: A Quick-and-Dirty Primer
The Varroa mite (Varroa destructor) originated in East Asia and has spread out across the rest of the world over the last century. It is a parasite and only lives in the hives of honeybees (Apis mellifera). An adult female mite hitches a ride on a bee, much like a woodtick. As that worker bee passes over comb with a bee larva inside, the mite jumps down into the cell and is encapsulated with the developing bee. She lays eggs, first a male, and then females. They mature quickly and the brother inseminates the sisters, which develop alongside the bee larva, feeding off her hymolyph and fat bodies (bee blood and fat). As the bee emerges from the cell, weakened from nutrient loss and potentially infected with mite-borne diseases, the mites also spread out—all the daughters are now fertile and seek out new cells to start the cycle again.
Beekeepers have been fighting back against Varroa for decades. Unfortunately, the mites have gotten past all quarantines (Australia was the last mite-free area, lasting up until 2018). Once in the US, they spread quickly because commercial beekeepers truck their bees across the country to winter in Florida citrus groves and pollinate almonds in California. These beekeepers treat their hives with a cocktail of chemicals (over a quarter of commercial beekeepers used at least three different miticides in 2017 according to the Bee Informed survey). Some miticides are harsh and kill mites by breaking down their cell walls, nervous system, or eggs—the most popular miticide has the same active ingredient as Tactic ant poison, which cannot be good for any insect that comes in contact with it. Other “organic” chemicals, such as formic and oxalic acid, are also used. In addition to the anthrocentric concerns about chemicals in our honey, these treatments seem to weaken bees and the mites are becoming resistant to many of them. The problem remains that it is difficult to “kill a bug on a bug” as the industry saying goes.
The tendency to fight against a parasite is understandable, but in this case, the opposite approach appears to be more effective: let the mites kill the bees. While counter-intuitive, this strategy has a basis in nature. Natural selection puts pressure on species and only allows those individuals with the best adaptations to their environments to survive. In this case, some bee colonies have natural defenses against mites. Some bees have “hygenic” behavior and bite the legs off mites, throw out infected larvae, or leave cells with breeding mites closed to let them die. By treating hives indiscriminately, beekeepers are eliminating natural selection pressures and allowing all bees to pass on their genes. In our project, we will create a “genetic bottleneck,” which is a strict selection for bees that can control mite populations or survive with mites. Only the bees with the correct genetics can make it through this bottleneck, but all survivors will have these traits. One additional benefit of this style of beekeeping is that most people will not have to purchase new colonies each year, as is the norm now—this will be a bigger selling point than mite tolerance to some beekeepers.
This method has been done in a few locations around the world. In East Asia, where the mite emerged, bees adapted because the beekeepers did not realize what was happening. In Africa, beekeepers could not afford chemical treatments, they experienced population crashes as the mites arrived, but those that survived were bred out and now exist without treatments. In Wales, beekeepers joined together and decided to let this selection process run its course on a regional scale. And researchers also put hives on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea and documented as this selection process ran its course.
Expanding Our Pilot Program: What We’ll Do—With Your Help
For the last four years, we’ve been carrying out a small-scale pilot study. In 2015, we bought a single colony of bees. We divided that colony and any colony that survived the winter (when mite-intolerant hives die out) since then. Only the bees with genetics and behaviors that allow them to tolerate mites survive and pass on their genetics. But we have a problem with the small-scale study.
Breeding bees is not as easy as, say, cows, where a single bull can be put into a breeding pen with the desired cows. A queen bee emerges from her cell and flies out of the hive on mating flights. She travels up to five miles to find up to twenty drones (male bees) to mate with. This presents two problems. First, each queen uses fifteen to twenty different strains of genetic material to fertilize her eggs because of her multiple mates. Second, those drones may come from any hives in that five-mile zone, not just those colonies with mite-tolerant genetics. Therefore, we need to expand our program to create a breeding zone flooded with the right genes. In the 2020 season, we plan to put sixty breeding hives on a prairie-seed-growing company’s land in southern Wisconsin. This will allow us to breed a large number of mite-tolerant hives in an isolated location.
We are currently under contract with Agrecol (http://www.agrecol.com/), which has over 2,500 acres of fields planted with approximately 200 species of prairie plants, many of which require bees for pollination. In the spring of 2020, we will set up six sets of ten beehives, five creating an outer ring and one in the center. The hive groups will be placed to maximize access to bee-friendly crops—good for the bees and Agrecol. For this service, Agrecol will pay us $3,000 annually. By placing a ring of hives around a central location, we can concentrate our mating queens in the center, thus increasing the likelihood that they will mate with drones from our own genetic stock. Also, this area is not as heavily populated with other beekeepers, and genetic mixing should be minimized.
Each colony will be housed in a typical Langstroth hive consisting of a bottom board, two deep hive bodies, and an inner and outer cover. The most economical of these hives are made of lower-grade materials and cost about $150 from commercial suppliers, but by building them assembly line-style, Johnson can produce them with better materials at the same price. Each of the hives will be placed on a hive stand to keep the entrance out of the snow, safe from predators, and high enough for us to inspect the hives. As a hive can weigh over 200 lb before the winter, these stands must be sturdy and are built out of cinder blocks and thick wooden posts laid horizontally at a cost of about $500.
The bees themselves will come from a local beekeeper, Paul Zelenski, who has been selling locally raised bees for years and is part of the treatment-free interest group here locally. We are asking for enough money to purchase thirty hives, which we will split into sixty hives midseason. Each colony of bees costs $200 at current market rate.
Throughout the season we will have to spend considerable time working with the bees. First we must build the hives and hive stands and then set them up them at Agrecol before the ground thaws. In the spring, we will transport the bee colonies and install them in the waiting hives. Every other week we’ll spend a day or two inspecting the hives, looking for bee health, measuring colony strength, and testing for mites and mite-tolerant behavior. Taking mite levels will help us document and monitor how mite levels affect winter survival and will help us identify the pattern of tolerance selection. Once the hives have reached enough strength to be split (likely in June), we will divide each of the hives into two or three colonies, bringing our total number up to sixty. Each of the new hives will raise its own queen, meaning we’ll be keeping the genetics isolated (i.e., no outside genes coming in). Over the remainder of the season, we will continue to monitor the hives regularly, preparing them for winter in the late fall by giving them basic protections.
We will not “equalize” the hives, as is common practice: most beekeepers will give extra honey and resources from a strong hive to a weak one, but because we want the weak hives to die, we will not artificially affect selection. We do not anticipate removing any significant amount of honey, allowing the bees to keep it for the winter and thus obviating our need to feed them supplemental sugar in the spring (as is common practice). The money received from Agrecol for pollinating their prairie fields will pay for our hours.
In succeeding years, we will carry out a similar pattern: repairing hives, monitoring and splitting survivors, and building up for winter. In the initial year, we expect 70–90 percent die-off each winter and we will have to split the survivors (i.e., those with the ability to live with mites) to repopulate the “dead-out” hives (if 90 percent die, we will buy in colonies, kill their queens, and give them new queens from our survivor stock). After that, the mite-related colony deaths should decrease, and when we have only 20–30 percent die-off, we will begin to sell extra bee colonies to local beekeepers interested in treatment-free, locally raised bees. This income will pay for the equipment that goes with the sold bees and outreach. We explained our action plan here in depth because it is the core of what we want to share with others; without sharing this method, this progress would be pointless.
Getting the Word Out: Our Plan to Educate and Share
Similar plans have been tested successfully in a few other locations, but the story has not gotten traction in the US. A big part of what we want to do with this project is build a community of beekeepers interested in developing their own strains of mite-tolerant bees. To that end, part of the funds will go toward outreach and building that community through presentations, publications, literature, videos, podcasts, colony sales, and an online forum.
Each year, we will seek out opportunities to share information about our breeding program and how beekeepers of every size can work towards breeding their own treatment-free bees. Many communities have beekeeping groups who are constantly looking for presenters (especially those from outside their immediate area). Most states have an apiary inspector, extension service, or other government-sponsored bee entities. Many universities have at least one person doing research on bees. We would approach beekeeping groups, state organizations, and universities in an expanding ring from our location in southern Wisconsin and use part of these funds for travel expenses to give presentations.
We will also produce and distribute written material at presentations, events, and online. The institute has started a series of technical manuals for different sustainability topics (the first one covers vermicompost, or worm composting). Our goal is to create a short but complete manual for a self-sustaining apiary aimed at small- and medium-scale beekeepers. This illustrated guide would walk through the rationale and genetics behind this method before describing step-by-step how to do it in one’s own apiary. For larger-scale beekeepers, we hope to put together a proposal for an economically viable way to transition to tolerant bees (e.g., taking a percentage of bees out of direct production and breeding up their own tolerant stock to eventually replace their commercial hives). Funds will help us cover staff time and publication costs.
Additionally, we will write articles for publication in a variety of industry and public journals and magazines. Some general audience pieces will be shopped to news outlets and magazines. More technical articles will be submitted to hobby and industry publications, such as Bee Culture, Bee World, the American Bee Journal, and American Beekeeping Foundation Quarterly. This will help spread the news about this process beyond the Midwest.
We will also produce and share videos and podcasts about this program. The institute has a running series of videos to which we will add a series of how-to episodes as well as some updates on how the program is going. Similarly, the institute’s podcast series, the Low Tech Podcast, will cover updates and interviews related to the breeding program. We will also approach podcasts such as Treatment Free Beekeeping, Beekeeping Today, PolliNation, Kiwimana Beekeeping Show, Bees and Such, and the Beekeeper’s Corner. This is time-intensive and funds will be used to subsidize staff hours.
After our population has stabilized, we will begin selling our extra hives. In the first few years, we’ll have to split the ten to thirty colonies that survived the winter to repopulate our sixty hives. Once we have over 70 percent survival, we’ll have too many bees. They will be sold as nucleus colonies to beekeepers in the region. If this creates a surplus in our budget we may begin a program of giving away mated queens for beekeepers to replace their current queen (this effectively replaces the old genetics with our new, tolerant ones). This will provide regional beekeepers with local, treatment-free bees at market rate (since we’re not charging a premium for our bees), which will enrich our local genetic pool.
Finally, we will create and build an online community of people interested in and experimenting with this method of breeding mite-tolerant bees. Using a free online forum service (such as Google or another one hosted on the institute’s website), we will have people available to discuss and answer questions of others carrying out this same selection process. Others can share their successes (to be replicated) and failures (to be avoided) with their fellow beekeepers. This will help us grow our reach beyond the Midwest as well. Funds will be used for staff time to create, manage, and contribute to this forum.
Honeybees face many challenges and it is frustrating that a solution exists to solve one of the biggest problems, but most beekeepers do not know it exists and those who do are unwilling to adopt it. This program would demonstrate that a medium-size apiary can be viable with treatment free bees. It will serve as an example to and resource for the beekeeping community. By providing information in many forms and reaching as wide an audience as possible, a group of interested beekeepers may begin to change the face of apiculture in North America. Funds from your organization would go specifically to purchasing hives and colonies to let us get to full scale the first year, instead of incrementally growing over the next five years. This is more effective because it creates a zone flooded with preferred genetics, instead of a smaller pool if we must start at a small scale. Funds will also support our outreach efforts, especially in the first year when travel and labor costs will be the greatest. In addition to the intrinsic benefit to beekeeping provided by this program, your organization will receive positive feedback for supporting this project, as we will happily acknowledge and display your organization’s name and logo whenever it is appropriate. We’d be glad to work with your corporate office and/or marketing department in any way that can share this information and your organization’s central role in getting it off the ground.