Helping Everyone Breed Chemical-Free Bees: An Update on Blooming Prairie Foundation–Funded Project

Bees are facing more than one challenge right now in North America. In addition to changing habitats and climates, as well as the increasing reduction of crop diversity in rural areas, bees must deal with increased use of pesticides and other chemicals in their environments. The single biggest problem, however, is the now-endemic parasitic mite, Varroa destructor. This mite arrived in the 1980s and has since been met with chemical resistance; that is, beekeepers have applied toxic chemicals and compounds to kill varroa while leaving the honeybee alive. This “sweet spot” is difficult to achieve. In other parts of the world, bees have been allowed to evolve resistance to this parasite. We’re trying to artificially induce that evolution here. The Low Technology Institute’s bee-breeding program aims to test and demonstrate the effectiveness and feasibility of self-sustained breeding of mite-tolerant colonies. Thanks to funding provided by the Blooming Prairie Foundation (BPF), we have successfully established our apiary and have carried out the needed tasks in the first year of a decade-long effort.

Paul looking on hives early in the summer.

Early Challenges Borne of COVID-19

We began working as early in the spring as was possible while facing two challenges, both brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. First, a project of this size requires the work of people working together. We had planned to enlist novice beekeepers to help them gain experience and experienced beekeepers to help teach and complete the tasks. This was no longer possible, and Paul and Scott had to prepare hive stands, sort equipment, install the bees, and manage them alone. The only times they worked together, they had to wear masks inside of already-claustrophobic bee suits.

The second challenge was a series of unfortunate events brought on by the delays caused by COVID-19. As BPF was forced to delay its funding decision, we were unsure of the scale of our financial support when it was time to purchase bees. We decided to put our meager initial funds ($3,000 from our host, Agrecol, a prairie seed company) all towards purchasing bees. This meant that we had planned to volunteer all of our time and get our equipment from beekeepers’ cast-offs and donations. It is not best practice to accept old equipment because it may carry disease. In this case, our decision was a fateful one, and some of the old equipment did indeed carry American Foulbrood. This spore-borne bacteria can be devastating to a colony (which must be euthanized and the dead bees and equipment burned) and apiary (which must be quarantined).

Field Activities

We can add on to Benjamin Franklin’s saying: in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and bee reproduction in the spring. In preparation for the arrival of our bees, we gathered as much equipment as we could to install the first twenty bee colonies. We set up stands that could support the weight of four hives, each weighing up to 250 lb in the fall, when full of honey for the winter. We set out hives consisting of bottom boards, boxes full of frames, and lids. Unfortunately, instead of a crew of new and experienced beekeepers to help us, Paul and I had to complete all of this work alone and in masks, due to COVID-19 safety measures.

In the late spring, our bees arrived in “packages,” which are essentially shoe-boxes with screened sides full of about ten thousand bees, a can of sugar water, and one queen. Each package had to be opened and shaken into a waiting hive. The queens were contained in a cage, which was also set in the hive. The queen was released three days later, once the workers had gotten used to her presence and pheromones. At this point, it was up the the bees to build wax comb and fill it with honey, larvae, and pollen. We made a video to promote the project at this point.

Full hives (background) that were split into the smaller hives (foreground) with space for more hives on the stands.

By mid-summer, our bees had expanded enough to be split into two colonies each. In the meantime, with the BPF funds awarded, we had built more equipment to house these colonies. We also purchased twenty more colonies and added them to more equipment. Although not all the splits were successful, we had almost sixty hives by the summer. We were able to have a little socially distanced help working with the bees at this point. We were also on WPR’s Larry Meiller Show to discuss the project. We were also featured in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Scott with a frame of bees (image by John Hart, Wisconin State Journal).

It was in the middle of the summer that we detected American Foulbrood in some of the hives. Luckily we had dispersed the hives in clusters and were thus able to quarantine the infected hives and their neighbors. We found that some of the donated equipment was producing the disease, and so all of that equipment was removed from all hives, whether or not they were symptomatic. It was burned. The infected hives were sealed, which caused the bees to die, and then the entire hive was burned. Two hives had foulbrood in two separate clusters. The other hives in these clusters were monitored but were not found to be infected. No new colonies were brought into these isolation clusters. We gave all hives a prophylactic treatment of antibiotics to help them fight off any wayward bacteria being brought in. This is not a regular occurrence and if we have successfully eradicated the bacteria, we will not need to apply antibiotics in a typical year.

New equipment awaiting distribution.

The bees were largely left for the rest of the summer to build up their strength for the winter. New boxes were added to the hives to give them more space to store honey and pollen. By the fall, each hive had at least the minimum amount of space to successfully overwinter. At this time we also put out a sugar slurry for the bees to clean up and take back to their hives. Currently the bees are continuing to build up their strength and awaiting the onset of winter.

Adherence to and Deviations from the Proposed Project

We have been able to follow the proposed project almost exactly, excepting the two unforeseen difficulties brought on by COVID-19. Although we were not able to include our educational component this year, we hope that the pandemic restrictions will be eased by next late spring or early summer, in time for us to invite beekeepers out to help and learn on the project. We are a few hives weaker than we wanted to be at this point due to the presence of American Foulbrood, but this will be no problem, as in the next year we anticipate that we’ll be able to replace them with splits from our stronger hives.

Strong hive, midsummer.

What we haven’t done yet is the significant outreach activities that are in the proposal, but this is by design. Beekeeping, especially building an apiary in the first year, is time consuming. The winter, however, leaves us free of responsibilities, and so we plan to build up the outreach programs outlined in the proposal: presentations, publications, literature, videos, podcasts, colony sales, and an online forum.


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