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Join Nicole and Dr. Meghan Milbrath of Michigan State University as they talk about selective breeding for mite resistant queens.
What You’ll Learn
- Selective queen breeding techniques for mite resistant queens suitable for the backyard beekeeper
- Why the varroa mite is so detrimental to bees
- Why treatment free beekeeping does more harm than good
Dr. Meghan Milbrath began working bees with her father as a child over 20 years ago, and now owns and manages The Sand Hill Apiary, a small livestock and queen rearing operation in Munith, Michigan.
She studied biology at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, and received degrees in public health from Tulane University and the University of Michigan, where she focused on environmental health sciences and disease transmission risk. Meghan worked as a postdoctoral research associate under Zachary Huang at Michigan State University, studying nosema disease, and is currently an academic specialist at MSU, where she does honey bee and pollinator research and extension and is the coordinator of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative.
Meghan is active in multiple beekeeping organizations, writes for multiple beekeeping journals, and speaks about bees all over the country. She currently runs the Northern Bee Network, a directory and resource site dedicated to supporting queen producers, and she is passionate about keeping and promoting healthy bees.
Resources & Links Mentioned
- The Sand Hill Apiary Facebook
- Michigan State University Beekeeping YouTube
- Meghan’s Twitter
- The Sand Hill Apiary Website
- Free online class about bees – Pollinator Champions
- Keep Bees Alive
- Project Apis M
- National Honey Board
- Email us! [email protected]
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Welcome to the Backyard Bounty Podcast from HeritageAcresMarket.com, where we talk about all things backyard poultry, beekeeping, gardening, sustainable living, and more. And now here's your host, Nicole.
Hello, everybody. And thank you for joining us for another episode of Backyard Bounty. I'm your host Nicole, and today we're joined by Dr. Meghan Milbrath. She's the owner of Sandhill Apiary and also a honeybee researcher at the Michigan State University and today we're going to talk about breeding and developing our own resistant honey bee stock. So Megan, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you so much for having me.
Absolutely. So I'm currently enrolled in the Cornell Master Beekeeper Program, which is where I found your information and they had a section in one of our lessons that you have kind of a process for people that would like to delve into the world of trying to breed their own resistant honey bees. So I thought that would be a topic that would be of interest to our listeners. So you obviously have quite the history, quite the experience with honeybees. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Sure. So I started keeping bees just as a hobby. When I was a kid, my dad learned keeping bees in 4H when he was a kid in Wisconsin. And so I started when I was young, but just kind of dabbled into that as a hobby for years. And then when I moved to Michigan, is when I started to do it, I thought it would be like a relaxing thing to do during my PhD and it kind of coincided when everything was going downhill with bees, in terms of bee health. And so I took it and really got much more involved in raising queens and selling queens and I've been running it pretty much as a business. Since 2011 I usually try to have around 200 hives while I work. And so I do most of the Queening and kind of through my own bee operation and, and just through my own bees. And then like you said, I work at Michigan State University. So I work with a lot of queen producers in other universities that do breeding programs on doing it kind of more formally at the university as well. So it's all bees all the time.
All the time. No break. Nope, but do you still find it as relaxing?
I mean, yeah, that is the thing about me. I do differentiate the times when I'm working and when the times when I'm just out enjoying, you know, my bees.
Sure. So when it comes to developing resistance stock, why would somebody want to do that?
I mean, that's the goal for absolutely everybody if we could get into a place where bees can function and be in good health in the context of the current threats. Like that is that is the holy grail, right? I mean, that's the thing that we want is bees that can stay healthy, with very little input. The issue that we face today is that most of the pests and pathogens that our bees are coming into contact with are what are known as emerging infectious diseases, meaning that they're new to our honeybees, or they're new to the United States. So in the case of Varroa, that has a long association with a different species of bee. But with our bees, they just don't have the ability to deal with it. And then the same thing is true for the viruses that the mites transmit. So for example, deformed wing virus has been around in bees for a really long time, but it hasn't been injected into them while they're pupating by the mites. So, you know, sometimes it's a completely new virus like some of the viruses we're dealing with. And then sometimes it's a virus that maybe isn't new but has a new pathway. So in all of those cases, we've got pathogens or pests that our bees just don't have the ability to manage. And we don't have the tens of thousands of years or hundreds of years, or however long it would take, before we get to what's called like a host parasite or host pathogen balance, you know, in the long term, it doesn't help the parasite to be so deadly because then they can't get transmitted, you know. So usually they just kind of reach a balance, but we don't have the timeframe in order to do that. So if we can help it by breeding and doing stock selection, that's, that's really what's going to get us to that good place.
So currently, the bees aren't able to, to do this on their own right now to you know, whichever ones die out, they die out, and then the healthy ones propagate.
No, and that is not likely, that's actually not going to happen. And that's a really common misconception within and this is I'm talking about in the context of the United States and in the context for most beekeepers. Okay, so yes, over time, you have natural selection. And then you could have, you know, bees get to that host balance. There's a couple reasons why that's not a thing that just kind of works at a practical level for beekeepers. The first one is that natural selection, in order to get that differentiation, you have to have geographic isolation. So you don't as long as you're bringing in new bees, then you can't get to a point where you you have this, this resistance coming. So for example, if I lived in a completely remote mountain valley, and I let all of my bees die for a couple years and then just bred off of the strong ones. That works, as long as I stay completely remote in the United States and in North America, nobody hardly is remote for bees, like there are some cases. So it's not that you know that it's not that you couldn't do it. But one of the issues that I see is a lot of times people feel like they're doing it and they're going The motion so they're not treating their bees, most of their bees die, they breed off of the ones that are left. But they're getting this constant influx of new susceptible bees and new genes that are mixing in. They're not doing it in that case where they can actually really get to a new population that is diverse.
And when you say remote, how far like I mean, if somebody would thought maybe I'm remote, do you know about what that qualification or standard would be?
I mean, it is really far. Like we've tried, like, I've gone with people to try to set up breeding areas like on top of a volcano in Hawaii, and they were still bees up there, you really have to find a location in which there isn't a lot of new genetics coming in, you know, in it, it is relative, but in most places, and I'll talk to a lot of people that say, "Oh, I know there aren't any beekeepers near me." And that is not true at all. There are bees everywhere in the United States. But one way that people can find it out is just set up a bunch of hives with virgins. If they get mated, then you're not alone out there, you know. So that would be the way that you would test it is put a bunch of queen cells in just little nuc boxes. And if they come back mated, then you're not remote. So the the other thing, though, is that the thing that makes Varroa really difficult is that we have the pressure from the parasite, the mite, but we also are working towards ability to either in you series essence, but sometimes it's more of a tolerance issue of being able to handle the viruses, you know, so the mites do a lot of damage, but a lot of the death is caused by the viruses. And one of the things that we see is, let's say someone is in this really geographically isolated population, they do the live and let die and they kill all the bees. They breed off of the ones that are remaining, and they have this population that is able to handle the threat in that region. A lot of times what we see is those bees, like someone will be like, "Oh, you have survivor queens, I want them." Well, those queens have learned how to survive whatever viruses killing off that population. But there's multiple types of deformed wing virus. And within those, they're, you know, they vary quite dramatically they mix with each other, like there's lots of different types of viruses. So you could have some that can handle that particular group of viruses. And you move those queens to another location that have different threats. And they aren't able to be resistant or tolerant of, in that area. And so that's one of the really hard things. And I'm really careful, like I do try hard to make sure that I'm breeding bees and raising queens off of bees that can survive without me putting in management, but one of the things that I've had is people will take them, put them into a completely different context, and they're not going to work. And my joke is that, you know, like, if we had bees that could universally resist for Varroa and the viruses that were transmitted, the problem would be solved, you know, and if I personally had raised the bees, that could have like single handedly solved the greatest crisis in the last decades. Like, I wouldn't probably be working and living in southern Michigan, I'd have a private island somewhere. You know, saying like, we're, it's things that we're working towards. But even if you got to sit like, even in the success stories where people have been able to get some isolation have been able to find these populations that can be locally tolerant. We're just not at the point where we can be like, "Oh, we've got this Queen, that's great for everybody." And the problem is solved, like if it is we would not be all these conversations on Facebook and all this stuff about you know, who's doing what for treating for mites.
Sure. So for the average, you know, backyard or small scale beekeeper who isn't fully isolated. How can they incorporate this selective breeding into their own apiary?
Yeah, so first, what I like to do is to talk about the difference between breeding and stock selection.
There are some really cool breeding programs and a lot of times that has to do with like, selection for a particular trait, even looking at different ways that different genes are expressed, for example, and using genetic marker selection and things like that. So, you know, Minnesota Hygenic has been a great breeding program and they end up with like a line of bees, or there was just a very recent article about the grooming behavior of the Indiana Mite Biter stock that they developed and like that came out of a really rigorous breeding program. What backyard beekeepers need to know is that that is going on and that there are super good educated people working really hard. Well, we're all struggling to like find us, those of us that can maybe have these behaviors, because I think a lot of people think about like, Oh, I have to be the one responsible for finding this bee and in reality, like it's probably going to take a lot of efforts and ultimately we do need a resistant bee but there's a lot of money and a lot of work going into finding resistant bees from bee breeding for programs. So that's one thing is, is that a lot of backyard people, one of the things that people can do most is actually help with epidemic control. So when we're trying to find bees that are resistant, and we're doing it with stock selection, so just picking the best ones, a lot of times that happens with step wide adjustments. So I've got some bees that are slightly more hygenic, let's say, and then the next generation is going to be slightly more hygenic. And the next generation is gonna be slightly more hygenic and the next generation is gonna be slightly more hygenic. And finally, I get to a point that they can actually handle pretty high levels of, you know, Varroa mites, let's say, but I need to make sure that all those little steps in there that those bees are alive, and I maybe that there's some bees that would be pretty good along that pathway. But if I'm in a context, so let's say you know, where I live in Michigan is really, really high for just risk, so there's tons of Varroa. If I just take a hive and set it out in my area, there'll be a really large amount of mites that are going to come into that hive, those mites could overwhelm a colony and kill it, even though it's it maybe would be the one that I wanted to put beyond that pathway. And so it's really important that in the context of, you know, there are people who are going to be doing breeding, and there are people who are going to be able to do stock selection, but everybody else really has to do their part for epidemic control. So if you're not breeding off of that hive, or if that hive is not good for other reasons, it is really important that we take care to manage the mites in those colonies, so they're not getting dumped on everybody else, and including your own other colonies that you're trying to breed from. So that's I think one of my big messages is that not everybody has to be a breeder for Varroa. You also have a really big role. In just controlling the epidemic, so knowing that your bees are going to affect everybody around you, and knowing that they're affecting the native bees and your neighbor's bees and the Queens that you like, it is really important just to keep to try to get the epidemic under control. That is done by everybody, for people who want to get to the point where they're getting better bees. And if you're at the point where you're raising queens, that's where I get into stock selection. So the difference from that and the university programs is I'm trying to find what are the best bee's that are doing the best in my area under my care. And the method that I use for that is I take lots of good notes, and every Queen has a number. So the way that I market and the way that's worked best for me is to use like pig ear tags or just like a plastic tag that I can staple to the front of the hive and then that number goes with that queen. So let's say I get, you know, you mail me some queens to try out and so I have you know, Heritage Acres 12345678910. And each one of those queens will have a sheet of paper, and I use paper, but you could obviously do it online. And if that Queen dies, that paper just gets thrown away, and I'm not worried about it anymore. And then everybody has the potential to stay within the program and be a potential breeder Queen, until, you know, they get kicked out of the program for whatever reason. And so for me, I'm the, you know, the big ones that are important for me is they have to be nice, they have to make a lot of honey. They can't have diseases, which includes being able to manage levels of Varroa, but they have to be able to let manage levels of Varroa with having a big brood nest. So that is one of the things that I do record who's split and who swarmed and things like that. Another mistake that beekeepers make is they're treatment free through inadvertent control of the brood nest, meaning that you can have someone who, you know, the brood nest gets back filled, and then the colony swarms. And it's you know, it's, messed up the whole year, so much so that there's no brood in there so that the Varroa never grew either.
So I want to have a colony that is on track to make a lot of honey and be good and productive, but also in that context. So if they swarm, they're out of the program, if they have European foulbrood, they're out of the program, if they're mean they're out of the program, if they made way less honey than everybody else, they're out of the program, you know, so like there's many different ways that they can get cut. And I do have the sheets that I use for monitoring on my website. What I've done has been modified from the Ontario Beekeepers Association, and they have a ton of materials on how they do their breeding programs as well. So it is really that everybody has a chance to be in. I record all of these characteristics on how nice they are and then their Varroa counts throughout the season. And the big difference though, is that you know, there's in my mind, there's never a reason to let a colony die, they're animals and they deserve to be treated with respect. And as much as I want to have that be at the end that can handle all these things. There's no reason to kill the colony and to let them die. So for me, I think these treatment regimens where you just say I'm just gonna let them you know, live and let die and breed off of the good ones. For me, I think that's unethical towards bees. And it's just and it's also just dumb, it's because it's not necessary. What we can do is I can say, "Okay, I want to know who can handle Varroa?" Well, I can use monitoring to see which ones are going to die, but I can treat them ahead of time. And so let's say out of the 10 queens that you gave me, you know, nine of them the varroa mites are getting really, really or let's say, you know, two of them swarmed. One of them got chalk brood, and the rest of them are getting really high and Varroa, except for one, what a lot of people think should be done as you just leave them alone, and just see what happens with that one. But what's going on happen is all those rest of them are just going to dump all of those mites, they're going to be really close by, and they're going to dump them right into that one. And that's probably more pressure than it can handle.
Once those colonies die, the mites will just migrate into the low mite count one.
Yeah, exactly. So there's lots of I mean, it's not going to be just like a straight march, right? There's going to be robbing and they'll be drifting. And we do know that as colonies are collapsing from mites, that there's lots of drifting of those, those mites go into lots of nearby hives. And so and that's why I talk about like, just, you know, ethically, it's not okay to kill bees, but ethically to it's your actions are going to be increasing the disease pressure for everybody around you. And now we're seeing those viruses show up in native bee populations. And so we've got a lot of beekeepers that are coming in with like, on the super right track of wanting to have colonies that don't require lots of inputs for mites. But like, they're like that is a really, really good value. But we have to do it in a way that's responsible. And so the way that I'm comfortable doing it that I feel like is responsible is that when I see those colonies start getting off track. And I'm like, okay, they're not going to handle Varroa on their own, which is easy to tell, like all of a sudden, Varroa starts coming, the numbers go up, so then I can treat them, but then I re-queen with that one good one that I have. So then I'm still only breeding off of the ones that do well, I'm just skipping that whole part of like the death in the perpetuating and horrible epidemic.
So let's say you have a colony, so I assume you don't prophylactically treat and then you would test them and don't treat until you're within thresholds. But so once you find a colony that has reached that threshold, then you remove that Queen, treat them and then re-queen them from the hive. That's doing well.
Yes. If it's anything that is potentially getting evaluated for being a breeder Queen, that I will not treat them, unless I know they're getting high. But that does come with re-queening. Now that re-queening may not be immediate, you know, what will happen is, let's say I noticed they're getting high in July, I'll re-queen them or I'll treat them beginning of July. But then, you know, in August, I'm going to make splits, you know, I'm going to break that colony down into nucs and re-queen at that point. So I do want to differentiate though, like that is really important for people raising queens. If you're not raising queens, then there are places that you want to just stay ahead of your mites dieing by all costs, but you're the thing for you is that you should be purchasing your queens from people who are trying to make better queens. So for me, like for example, I'll usually get breeder Queen from either VSH Line or so the Varroa sensitive hygenic line, or from the Purdue line, because those are coming out of breeding programs, or people have done boatloads of work to make these bees that have these traits, so I want to have those traits in my bees. And I think that they're really important. So I'll set up drone yards with 20 Purdue Queens, but I'm going to make them with drone comb, and I want them to get really big, so they make lots of drones. So those colonies, I may just be treating them because what I need is really healthy colonies with really good genetics, nearby all my mating queens without bringing in a ton of disease pressure.
So for the backyard hobbyists that let's say they had a colony where they were wanting to put a new queen in, if we're raising our own queens, which maybe this is sort of taking a sidestep. So let's say I have a colony and this colony is doing great and it's one that I've selected for my resistance program. If that virgin Queen goes out and mates, and mates with others drones of an unknown source is that new queen necessarily going to have those traits from our selected colony that we want to move into new colony?
So, maybe, but it is really going to be a no, I mean, what you've talked about is, is really, really a big important part of it. And I think it kind of shows it's not necessarily that we get to an end point, it's, it's a process, you know, so let's say I, I go through my hundred colonies, and I've got two that are really good, you know, so I'm breeding off the top 2%. And I re-queen everybody with those from those two. I'm going to be right back where I start the next year because those queens are going to go out and meet with 15 to 20 other drones, and we don't know which traits are matrilineal or patrilineal. You know, we don't know necessarily that it's going to come from the queen or from the drone or this particular combo of queen and drone, or that it was just, you know, the emergent makeup of that particular colony because the treats that were looking at aren't the traits of the queen. They're the traits of the group of half-sisters and super sisters. And that is going to be unique every single time. So this process of managing disease in the ones that aren't up to snuff breeding off of our best queens, that happens every year. It's not a "Oh, I went through this bottleneck", and now I have it, because you could go through a bottleneck and have a queen that fits a particular isolated location, but you're gonna have different genetic makeups unless you're completely isolated. And you're going to have different stressors every year, so maybe I figured out the ones that did the best with this particular virus. But then next year, it's going to be a different one that comes to you know, just like how every year we have different strains of flu. You know, you have different disease pressures every single year and you have different weather pressures, you know, you have different maybe you're in a place where it helps to build up really fast in the spring, or maybe you're in a place where it helps to shut down during a drought, it is really looking at overall what is the most successful animal who can thrive the best in my area. And that's just going to change a lot. So for me, I don't have a close, you know, my job, nobody's bought me an island yet for breeding program. I'm open for offers, but I'm not doing a breeding program in a controlled place. And like I said, I try to have about 100 hives total. But really, if you're doing something where you're trying to find a particular rare trait, you have to have hundreds of hives, you have to be monitoring them very closely, and you have to be isolated. So that's kind of out of the realms of what most people can do. But what most people can do is acknowledge that I'm going to get tons of pressure coming in. I'm going to get lots of genetics coming in, but it's still really important for me to select and re-queen off of the ones that are doing the best in my particular area.
So I feel like as far as somebody who just has a handful of hives in their location, it sounds like the best thing to do is start out with a reputable queen treat for mites once they reach the threshold, and then if you have a stellar hive, then to re-queen from that. Is that kind of the really basic nutshell of it?
Yeah, exactly. So you're always, you're doing the best you can. So you're putting the best queens that you can find at the head of these colonies. And it whether it's coming from your own stock, or your neighbor's stock, or a breeding program, you're always starting each year with the best queens that you can find. But you're making sure that if they're not making it, that you're paying attention to that managing disease in those colonies, so you're, you know, being responsible for them and then re-queening out of what you have. I think, just to help people understand that it is kind of a lot of work. And it's a large process. I mean, if it was easy, it would have been done.
We would all be just sitting around drinking coffee being like, remember when Varroa was so terrible, you know, like, we're not there. It's horrible right now. And so I think it is a really good call to action to try to get people to pay attention to those. Because amongst even just all small scale beekeepers, we've got great diversity, especially for people that are focusing on buying local you know? So like we have great diversity in bees, there could be some really good bees in there. And so they could really be helpful by finding those bees, sharing them with their neighbors, raising their queens off of them. You know, it is really important that we do work together. I think it is just a lot of people want it to be so easy as well. I just don't treat, breed off of those. And then we've solved it. It's like anything if you want to do it well and in a way that is actually going to lead to long term change. It is kind of a slog, where we monitor, we pay attention to why the ones are successful, that are successful, we pay attention to why the ones failed. And we're just constantly re-queening with the best queens that we can find.
Sure. And I feel like a lot of beekeepers, it's almost counterintuitive, where if I have a high mite load, and I treat for mites, then my bees are never going to be able to learn to work through that. And we do have an episode coming up with Dr. Ben Eaglesdorp that is going to cover this a little bit more. But I think that that's really one of the challenges is, it's just seems so counterintuitive, but...
Yeah, and I think that's one of the things to think about is that most of our bees don't have the behaviors that allow them to manage mites. And it's not learned. It has to be like, either they have it or they don't. Because, I mean, a dead colony learns nothing. And right now, most colonies left untreated die. And I think that's a, that's something that doesn't get out there enough is I get calls from thousands of beekeepers every year. And a lot of them are just people wanting to know why their bees died. And in most cases, it's because they got overwhelmed with parasites. And when we think about like disease dynamics in other animals, even though like we say, it's counterintuitive, like if we think about bees, really as animals, which they are, it does make more sense. So like, you don't let a dog die of parasites, because it never learned how to deal with the parasites. You know, you just don't do that with other animals the way like if you have a flock of sheep, and some of them are getting really high worm levels, you don't just let the ones with high worms die and transmit tons of worms and put eggs all over your field. Like that's just not how we do it. What we would do is we would treat the ones that are sick, and then find the ones that are really healthy and breed off of the healthy ones. So I think it's it's more giving them the respect that we do to other animals. So I, I have this photo that I use a lot in my talks and it shows a picture of my dog who looks like she's driving a truck. And if I let her drive the truck more, it's not going to make her better. You know, like, she just she doesn't have thumbs, she's a dog, you know, like, she's gonna be a terrible driver, regardless of how much time I give her at the wheel, and your bees, they don't have the capacity to deal with these viruses. So making them suffer through these illnesses, especially now that we know that the consequence is animal death, making it worse for your neighbors who are keeping bees and making it worse for the native bees. Like that's just not acceptable anymore. Like I think before we knew those things, and when we were just trying stuff out like 10 years ago, when we were just trying stuff out. And even 20 years ago, like, like those things are, you know, we have to try lots of things. But now that we know, like, hey, if I just let this colony die from Varroa and I don't manage this parasite, that's really like I feel like that's just kind of getting into irresponsible. And so what we want to do is say we need a long term solution of breeding, but we know enough that we can do it responsibly and that does require parasite management. And it's horrible, and I hate it. Like I hate having to put stuff in hives. Everybody hates putting stuff in hives, it's expensive. The bees you can tell the bees don't like it. You know, there's nothing enjoyable about it. But I think what a lot of people forget is that Varroa like parasitic death and dying because you're overwhelmed with parasites is horrible on the bees. And you know, a lot of people don't see it because it happens in the late fall or the winter when their colonies is closed, but they see it when they put their stuff on their hives. And I think if you had more people really understand, like letting animals die from parisites is really horrible. And if you watch it like if you open up a colony that is going through the throes of death from parasitic mite syndrome, you can see the bees look terrible. You know, it does look like a dying animal. And I think a lot of times when people say people are so focused on like chemicals and treatment free, all of that stuff that they forget to, like, the real success story is whether or not your animal is healthy. You know, and if it's healthy, because you live in an area where there's no disease pressure, you know, that particular year and you don't have to do anything, that's awesome. And if it's healthy, because you live in that area, and you did, you know, dances around your hives and you swear that that's what caused your luck, like, that's perfect too, you know, but if you live in an area where the disease pressures really, really high, you may absolutely want to never put anything in your hive ever. But you do have to weigh that with the fact that your bees are likely not going to be able to handle that parasite pressure. And so knowing that that's the context in which we're keeping bees right now, like that's just at this moment, we are in a epidemic of this like we are in peak epidemic right now. That is the current context. It's not going to be like that forever. It hasn't been like that forever. But like, for all the people that are getting started right now, a lot of people are getting started because they've heard about the things happening with bees. And so like they're choosing it's kind of a dumb decision guys, but like you're choosing to get into beekeeping, at like the hardest time ever, because we have all these parasites that our bees can't handle. So like it puts beekeepers in these really tough situations. Like you don't want to put something in your hive. But we want to make sure that you're doing that knowing that your bees can still like, for me, the top thing is like, "Are my bees healthy?" You know, and if I don't want to put stuff in my hive, I'm saying I'm going to do it in the short term, but I'm also doing it in the long term and if you can't be a breeder, you can support breeding programs, like you can give money to the universities that are trying it. You can 100% support them. There's project Apis M that gives tons of research grants you can give it to like the honey board to all these different organizations that will support breeding programs if you can't do it yourself. So I think a lot of people feel like they're helping by letting their bees die and by not treating, but sometimes you can actually be making the epidemic worse.
Well, especially if you're if you're affecting the native bees too. I mean, that's certainly something to consider.
Right. And especially because a lot of people like we'll get into beekeeping because we love honeybees, but also, like, I mean, it's you can't not love the native pollinators. You know, I mean, they're, they're really like, honey beekeepers usually are also well supportive of the native pollinators. And one of the really hot topics right now in science is looking at what we call pathogen spillover. And so when you've got honeybees like and it's not, it's not that we don't see Varroa growing in other types of bees. But we have picked up the viruses in other species of bees. And so I think it's really important to know that like, yes, we are all adults and we are making decisions for our own animals, but we're not doing it in a vacuum. We are doing it knowing that when our animals get sick, and we're doing this in this context of this huge epidemic that we are actually going to increase the risk of transmission to everybody around us.
I would just like taking it all in you know, because it's really it's a lot to consider. I mean, I know when I first started keeping bees, you know, I was like many people that were you know, kumbaya let nature sort it out and I love the bees and I want the purest honey and the healthiest bees and everything, but I'm starting to learn that that might not necessarily be the best thing for the bees and really, that's that's what it comes down to it. So I've been trying to learn all sides of the story so that I can make the most educated decision and like you said, I don't like the idea of putting these foreign chemicals into my hives, but I also don't like the idea of promoting the spread of disease to native bees and harming other beekeepers in my area. So I think that a combination of timely mite treatment not prophylactic but treating only if they need it combined with a good development of a resistant stock is really the best, you know, kind of the best combination of both worlds and in today's not society, because it's, you know, in in today's world of bees, that that's just kind of whether you like it or not, it's just kind of what needs to be done.
Yeah. And kind of two things that you said there. So one is I think everybody gets into beekeeping, not wanting to put things in their hives, like there's nobody that starts bee Keeping in being like, man, I want to be a treatment. You know, like, give me some synthetic chemicals, let me dump that amitraz in there, but that is why I'm into it. You know, like, that's just not a thing. And so everybody starts in and what usually happens, so what I see in my job like because I do have a position with extraction, so I get to talk to beekeepers all over and what I usually see is that people will get a hive, they will not treat the first couple years or they'll not treat sufficiently so some people do treat but they what I'll say is they don't manage parasites the first couple years so they don't have Varroa under control for about three or four years. And then either they quit beekeeping because it's expensive and disheartening or they start taking Varroa seriously at around three or four or five and that's really heart wrenching because a those bees I mean that's a lot of dead bees. It's a lot of bee suffering, it's a lot of in we're making the epidemic worse, but also that's heart wrenching for those beekeepers, you know that's a lot of money. That's a lot of them dealing with, you know, feeling failure and watching their animals suffer. And like, if we can get to the point where we have more realistic messaging to people coming into it and saying like, yes, you should not be putting treatments in willy nilly. But the real scenario is, is you will likely have to, and if you don't want to put treatments in beehives, then you need to wait until we've got a better handle of this epidemic. You know, maybe it's just not now is the best time to keep bees maybe wait until we're further along in this breeding program. But most people who get beehives and set them up in their yards. That place that they chose to keep the bees is a place that has high disease risk just because we're just in the midst of it. And so, if you're getting into it, like yes, it's great not to want to put any like nobody wants to put stuff in their hives, but realize that you are making the choice Between bee health and doing it. The one nice thing though is we have monitoring. So we don't have to wait until bees die, to know that they're at risk. So if you can take the time to learn how to do an alcohol wash or how to do a powdered sugar rule, and there's tons of resources on those, that makes the biggest difference and I can tell you like, hoping that your bees don't have Varroa is a totally different scenario than knowing that they are free from parasites. You know, if I go out to the bee yard and I do a sample and I don't have any Varroa, I can sleep well. If I go out to the bee yard, I don't do a sample. I hope they don't have Varroa. You know, it's probably not going to be the case. And so if you can, if people are really adverse, if you're really, which I mean, people should be like not wanting to put stuff in their hives, you really have to get on with monitoring and if you cannot monitor, like paying attention to your bee club. So let's say I've got two hives in my yard. And I will be the first to say that monitoring is hard. I didn't really realize it because we do it thousands of times per year. You know, so for me to take a scoop of bees, it's like second nature. And then when I watch people getting into it, I'm like, "Oh, yeah, it's actually really hard to do and it's clumsy and it's frustrating." So, if you can get to the point where you are comfortably monitoring, that is the best thing you can do because then you know, hey, this colony legitimately doesn't need treatment. This yard is not at risk. You know, my bee yard is not under a bunch of disease pressure or, "Holy cow! This yard is really struggling." I need to do something quick before I'm a, you know, nuisance to all these other bees, or, well, this colony is just on the verge. I'm glad I caught it. Let me treat the diseases so that my animal can be healthy. So like the monitoring makes a huge difference. If you can't monitor which there are lots of beginners that cannot do it. It doesn't keep you off the hook for keeping your bees healthy. If you can't monitor, you can pay attention to what's going on with your neighbors. So if my neighbor is like, I tried to monitor I got two bees in the scoop, I got stung up, I hated it. But they can go to their bee club and say, hey, what levels are you guys getting? And everybody's like, Oh, I'm at zero, then you're fine. If you're, if you've got four people that are saying, like, Oh, I saw six mites in my sample, then you can be like, Alright, I have enough local data to tell me that the disease pressure is high in this region.
So you mentioned that on your website that you had a queen selection form and some other resources.
Yes. So I have an education tab because I know there's a lot of information and it is a really complex topic. So I have an education tab, it's "Sandhillbees.com", and that has kind of an outline. It's called towards treatment free. That describes kind of what I've been talking about is how we work towards having better bees, but in a way that is more responsible. And then for people that are interested in trying it, there's a bees tab. And on that website, it talks about how I select the bees. And it also includes like the forms that I use. So if people want to just like, you can make whatever data form that you want for selection, but it's sometimes nice to like, edit off of one of someone else's draft. The other website that I work on is we have one that's called keep bees alive, that's really focused, it's "keepbeesalive.org". And that's really focused on getting people to monitor so not just hoping that they don't have mites but knowing that they're doing their part and that in controlling the disease. The one point that I do want to make is there's a huge world of difference between treating for mites and managing disease. It's not whether or not you put something in your hive. It's whether or not your bees are healthy. One of the biggest things that we see is that people will get to the point where they realize that they have to do something for Varroa. And a lot of times they'll do something that is too little too late. And then they'll be like, well I treated and my bees still died. And like a lot of times, we'll just do yeah, it will be something much too small. So it's not whether or not you are treatment free or treating it is whether or not your bees are healthy.
So if you only have to do a little bit to manage disease and your bees are healthy, yay. If you have to do a lot of work to manage disease, that might be the scenario that you're in. But if your bees are healthy, that's the important part. And then you could always just re-queen them with ones with better genetics if you want to work towards that end of us having better bees. So the the monitoring really helps and that that website that keep bees alive that org really helps push that message that we need to keep bees alive through this process. We need to make sure that we're managing disease as we work towards having better bees.
Sure. And I definitely think that's a goal of all beekeepers is to have alive healthy sustainable bees. So I'll put the links to those in the show notes so that people can find those and all the other links that we've talked about along the way. And Megan, thank you so much.
Thank you so much for having me and talking bees and for educating other people about bees. It's wonderful.
Absolutely. I really enjoy your your expertise and sharing all of your information. Thank you. And for those of you listening, thank you so much for joining us for another episode, and we'll see you again next week.
Thank you for listening to Backyard Bounty, a podcast by HeritageAcresMarket.com. Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review. If you have a question you'd like us to answer on the show, please email us at "[email protected]". Also find us on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube at Heritage Acres Market. All the links mentioned in this podcast will be included in the description. See you again next week.
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