The Bee Convention Circuit 2009
Winter brings us beekeeper conventions, both at the state and national levels. Conventions present scientists the opportunity to present their current research, marketers of new products to make their pitches, and for beekeepers to share their practical experiences. The result is that a hodge-podge of information is presented around the country, and almost no one really gets a good summary of the big picture.
Last year the joint convention of the ABF and AHPA was a dream come true for beekeepers, researchers, and trade show presenters. All the researchers in one place, a single venue with only one trip to book, fewer tough choices to make, and less time away from home. This year, the more popular presenters were suffering from major burnout by the time the ABF convention in Sparks ended. For the common benefit of beekeepers and researchers, I implore the leadership of our national associations to reconsider joint conventions in the future.
In this article I can only briefly touch on what I would consider to be the highlights of subjects of general interest to beekeepers, after having recently attended nine conventions and several other seminars and meetings. I’m not a note-taking kind of guy, so my apologies to those who I forgot to mention, and to those whose talks I missed due to not being able to attend simultaneous presentations.
A sea change is taking place in bee research. The calamity of CCD brought beekeepers together to become politically active, and to push for research funding in the Farm Bill. But of even greater import, is that some in the bee industry went a step further and decided not to wait on Washington, but rather to fund research directly.
In California, Dan Cummings of the Almond Board joined with prominent beekeepers to start up Project Apism.  This organization has funded important research that relates to getting strong colonies into almond pollination. The Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees , chaired by beekeeper George Hansen, is funding a new generation of researchers as “Foundation Scholars,” some of whom gave great presentations on original research. One fascinating presentation was by Juliana Rangel-Posada, who studied colonies prior to, and during actual swarming. She found that scout bees begin recruiting nestmates to future home sites at least two days before swarming, and especially in the hours before departure. The scouts then kickstart the actual swarm emission by piping and “buzz-running.”
In a grass roots effort, beekeeper Eric Olson put up his own hard cash, then lobbied Washington State University to set up the Honey Bee Colony Health Project, headed by Dr. Steve Sheppard, in conjunction with the ARS Tucson lab.
The new National Honey Board has a kitty full of packer/importer cash on hand for research. And finally, state associations and local clubs have been directly funding research (including some of mine) through dues and donations.
What is exciting to me is to see beekeepers becoming more directly and actively involved with funding, directing of, and participating in, honey bee health research.
What can I say? Dennis van Englesdorp and Jeff Pettis gave great presentations on CCD, but no one is yet claiming that they’ve found the smoking gun. Dennis’ presentation was especially interesting in that it showed us how complex and often counterintuitive the findings are. For example, sometimes higher pesticide or miticide levels were associated with healthier colonies!
“CCD” could have been unrelated concurrent collapses, or multifactorial (stress + pesticide + pathogens + weather), or possibly a yet unidentified pathogen (see Viruses below). The big question is, Will CCD be yet another Disappearing Disease that will remain an enigma? In any case, CCD has propelled the honey bee to the forefront of public concern, and initiated a great deal of excellent research into bee biology and management.
Almond Pollination (an analysis that goes beyond the conventions)
I’ve previously written that there were three big factors that could affect this year’s almond pollination prices—water supplies in California, the strength of the dollar vs. the Euro, and whether CCD would take a bite out of the supply of strong colonies again.
Well, it’s three strikes against the beekeepers. Growers are canceling contracts due to the price (or unavailability) of water, nutmeat prices are down due to the strong dollar, and beekeepers have either figured out how to keep their colonies alive with better management or CCD has (apparently at this writing in late January) gone away.
The end result is that California appears to be in danger of sinking into the Pacific under the weight of beehives. Lots of beekeepers successfully made increase, and have plenty of good-looking colonies. What occurs now is that when a grower cancels a contract, there are suddenly hives looking for a new “home.” If they are out of state bees, the beekeeper is desperate to rent them for any amount in order to recoup the cost of hauling them out here. Desperation creates a dangerous situation. As soon as the first beekeeper puts an ad in the paper that he has bees (never mind their condition nor how many hives are actually available at that price) at $100, every almond grower in the state is immediately aware of that low price, and wants to use it as the new benchmark.
The demand for bees may be greatly impacted by lack of irrigation water (the Westlands Water District announced a zero percent allocation this season). However, this may be tempered by those growers who took out crop insurance before December 31. They were able to insure against crop loss at prices up to $1.80 per nutmeat pound (better than the current market price). However, to collect a settlement, they still have to make an effort to produce a crop, which means that they must still place two colonies per acre! However, not all growers took out insurance, and some are simply cutting inputs (including bees) and using any water they can scrounge simply to keep the trees alive until next year.
As I write this, beekeepers are doing their final (or in some cases, first) inspections of their colonies before “move in” to the orchards. Every year a certain percentage of colonies are culled, depending upon the scrupulousness of the beekeeper (some appear not to cull at all). So the supply depends partly upon how realistic beekeepers were about their final numbers when they signed contracts.
There are speculators on both sides—growers hoping to get bargain bees at the last minute (and perhaps risking a very valuable crop in the process), and beekeepers holding back bees, in order to reap a windfall should the supply come up short (perhaps a bad call this season). The prices quoted in the last weeks by these speculators tend to get undue attention—the vast majority of colonies are being rented at near last year’s prices.
By the time you read this, the dust will have settled, but for now it’s too early to tell how the game will play out in next three weeks. My guess is that market forces have simply followed the laws of supply and demand, and the lure of $170 demand gave beekeepers enough motivation to bring up the supply. The elusive $200 colony may have been the high point before the almond pollination bubble popped, just as the California real estate bubble recently popped. This may bode for a shift for many beekeepers back to honey production, and away from the frantic quest to try to nurse every single colony into almonds. Pollination prices will likely be more stable in the future, and settle at about the price that makes it worthwhile to haul bees out from the Midwest.
Another result of the coincidence of these economic factors will be their effect upon the acreage referred to as “pull” orchards. These are older “over the hill” orchards past their peak of production. As long as they were profitable, growers kept them in production, since they didn’t want to replant and miss two years’ worth of crop, when the economics were good. Right now, the economics are not good, but nut prices will likely rebound in a year or two if the world economy recovers a bit. So we may see a number of orchards pulled and replanted this year (or perhaps not replanted in areas with iffy water supplies).
An almond orchard being “pulled” near Glenn this January. If the grower hustles, he can have a new orchard starting to bear on the third year. Photos by the author.
Researchers from across the nation, and around the world, are generally not finding the “new” nosema to be that big a problem. Many beekeepers are wondering if they over reacted by blowing the budget on fumagillin. It is not yet clear why N. ceranae may be so devastating in some areas, but nutrition (see below) certainly appears to be a factor.
Spore counts (which are assumed to correlate with infection level) peak in some studies in May or June, then may disappear spontaneously in fall. Or may suddenly peak again! It may be more serious in cold winter areas, but some in warm areas appear to have problems. The spores also appear to be less hardy than those of N. apis. I will go into more detail perhaps next month.
Perhaps the most trenchant announcement was by Dave Hackenberg that his bees have had Nosema ceranae since at least 1985. I spoke again with Dave this morning for details—he’s been using fumagillin in the fall to some extent since then, but never noticed nosema (ostensibly N. ceranae) to be a problem until perhaps CCD struck.
On the other hand, I got a call later in the day from a Texas beekeeper whose bees returned from Colorado loaded to the gills with spores and struggling to stay alive. This is still the number one N. ceranae question to me: Why does it cause problems in some yards and operations, but not in others?
At the California Bee Breeders meeting yesterday, Dr. Marla Spivak voiced a question that was also on my mind—perhaps our bees are already somewhere in the process of readjusting their immune system to deal with what appears to be a mostly a summertime parasite, that may quietly fade into the background, as tracheal mite has done in many areas.
Meanwhile, the race is on for manufacturers to bring new anti-nosema treatments to market. HoneyBHealthy appears to have some limited effect, and a few European botanical products show promise: Apiherb®, Vitafeed Gold®, and Nosevit®. (Please follow label directions—at least two of the above may be ineffective if mixed into pollen supplement).
I’m glad to see a bevy of new researchers jumping into N. ceranae—WSU’s Matthew Smart, MSU mycologist Dr. Robert Manning, and CSU grad student Chris Mayack. It is exciting to be networking with fresh talent!
At the California state convention, a panel of successful beekeepers (Steve Park, Lyle Johnston, Norm Cary & Richard Ashurst) detailed to us how they managed their bees (that is, to the extent that they really wanted to share their hard-earned trade secrets, plus factoring in that one is a queen producer and another sells pollen patties, and accounting for the “This is what I would have done if I had really gotten around to it” factor).
The short version is that if these guys can’t move their bees to good forage, then they really put the pollen supplement to them. Perhaps 15-20 lbs per colony per season (I personally know that feeding that amount is possible and that it indeed creates monster colonies, but it is a challenge to put that much input into a colony).
Presentations by Dr. Frank Eischen (to whom every almond pollinator owes a debt of gratitude for his practical research), and by Dr. Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman (whose Tucson lab specializes in bee nutrition) clearly demonstrate the value of feeding protein to colonies in times of dearth. Frank’s numbers are amazing when he shows the relationship between protein feeding to the percentage of colonies that finally grade out in almonds. Bottom line, start feeding early (August or September), about a pound a week, and continue until bloom. Not only that, but he demonstrated how protein feeding makes bees more resistant to parasites such as varroa and Nosema ceranae.
Dr Diana Sammataro and Milagra Weiss (a Foundation scholar) have been looking into high fructose corn syrup as bee feed. This turned out to be more difficult research than expected, and not all HFCS’s act the same. In general, though, sucrose gets the thumb up.
One disturbing trend is simply the vast amount of antibiotics, miticides, essential oils, and home-brew cures that are being dumped into commercial hives. Many researchers have expressed wonder that the bees are surviving despite our help, and concern about our accelerating the development of pathogen resistance to this chemical stew.
A current hot button topic is whether the neonicotinoid insecticides (notably imidacloprid and clothianidin) are causing sublethal yet deleterious effects in bees, and whether they are related to CCD. This connection is being hotly debated worldwide, and many have taken sides.
As I announced last month, into this polarized environment, Drs Jerry Bromenshenk and David Fisher (Chief Ecotoxicologist, Bayer Cropscience) stepped up to the plate to see if a mutually beneficial dialog could be opened between the beekeeping organizations, and the major pesticide manufacturers. So far, we’ve had two long and productive meetings, and the ABF and AHPA are currently seating members to a Beekeeper Advisory Board to the pesticide industry.
Bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk and Dr. Dave Fischer (Bayer CropScience) have begun a constructive dialog between beekeepers and pesticide companies. Photo from the meeting at the AHPA convention.
In this process I’ve had the pleasurable surprise to find how open and receptive the Bayer scientists are. This gives me great optimism for the process, if we beekeepers hold up our end of the deal. One obstacle is the visceral distrust that some have of multinational chemical companies. However, beekeeper/supplier Lloyd Spear explains the reality well (by permission):
“Here on the East Coast we have more than our share of respected, large beekeepers putting all the blame on neonics, but the researchers are not, and I think they deserve more support.
“I spent the better part of my adult life working in the corporate environment, including development of major crop pest controls, and it is beyond my comprehension that a group of individuals working for a large chemical company would conspire to (1) design studies that would deliberately hide adverse effects on beneficial insects (2) not publish adverse data (3) not listen to constructive commentary and questions from concerned parties. Sometimes people forget that the ‘corporate environment’ consists of people just like you and me, who are concerned about the environment, what they eat and drink, where their kids play, etc. Even if there were some grand “who is” that wanted to keep matters secret, he or she would be incapable of doing so as the hundreds of staff that contribute to a major product (such as the neonics) just will not let themselves be so manipulated.
“… I wish we would all give greater support to those who are dedicating a good part of their careers to solving the problem and stop condemning those who do not wholly agree with certain ignorant premises.”
Well spoken, Lloyd! The division between the camps was apparent in Sparks when Dr Bromenshenk humorously shared the benefit of his 30+ years of analyzing pesticides and other toxins in bee colonies. He was followed by Foundation Scholar Josephine Johnson who studied the effect of imidacloprid upon bee behavior, and found just how difficult it was to get consistent results.
Dr. Maryann Frazier noted that in her testing program, the average bee sample tested positive for six pesticides (which, according to Dr Bromenshenk is not a historically unusual figure). Unfortunately, the two most common toxins are the beekeeper-applied miticides coumaphos and fluvalinate. Graduate student Judy Wu documented the deleterious effect of coumaphos upon bee brood, and another researcher mentioned that one of the breakdown products of amitraz is also harmful. The bottom line is that the data that I’ve seen to date suggest that in many regions the effects of miticides likely outweigh those of the agricultural pesticides!
However, this is hardly a clean bill of health for the widely used neonicotinoids. As Dr Fischer explains, in the matter of any poison, toxicity is a function of dose. Bayer’s responsibility is to label their products such that when properly applied, the inadvertent dose to bees will cause no harm. Bayer CropScience is currently going out of its way to present a “greener” worldwide image (check their website). It gives them a black eye when beekeepers blame their products for bee kills. We can take advantage of this situation by accepting their offer to be “transparent,” as opposed to stonewalling us. With beekeeper input, we hope to have further studies designed that truly answer questions as to the real world effects of the neonics, especially when combined with synergistic other chemicals such as in tank mixes, or in the presence of viruses and nosema.
The Bayer reps are not at all shy about telling us about areas of concern regarding bee exposure to their products, such as when neonics are applied by “chemigation” and bees drink the water, or when maple trees in the Northeast are injected with large doses of imidacloprid to control the Asian Longhorn Beetle. However, such problems of proper application fall under the purview of the EPA and state or county agencies.
The Bayer dialog, coupled with the meetings that Dave Mendes, Dave Hackenberg, and Jeff Anderson have recently had with the EPA in Washington, are groundbreaking events that herald a new model of cooperation between the manufacturers, the regulators, and beekeepers. We should all be appreciative of the great amount of time and effort those involved are putting into this cause.
Apparent pesticide kill, acute toxicity. This summer in one of the author’s yards. However, testing by Roger Simonds at the USDA National Science Laboratory found no traces of pesticides! Still a mystery.
Unfortunately, not too much new here. The best from my point of view is the renewed interest in breeding lines of bees for mite resistance (Drs Bob Danka and Jeffrey Harris), and for screening for genetic markers for such resistance (Dr Lanie Bourgeois). All the above researchers are at the Baton Rouge bee lab, under the guidance of Dr Tom Rinderer, who has recently moved the commendably successful Russian bee breeding program over to industry collaborators. Dr. Bourgeois also found that our “Italian” bees do not appear lacking in genetic diversity, when compared to actual Italian bees from Italy.
Let me tell you, that the ARS bee labs, under the leadership of Dr Jeff Pettis are producing some great work (although they fail miserably at disseminating it to the industry in a timely manner). You can Google the title “2008 Annual Report on USDA/ARS Research on Bees and Pollination” for abstracts (which may take a year or two to finally make it to press).
Dr Greg Hunt (Purdue) detailed some of the difficulties in assaying bees for grooming behavior. I strongly support this line of research.
Dr Peter Teal of ARS is doing fascinating work in determining the larval semiochemical signals that are “smelled” by varroa mites in order to guide them to larvae of the right age to parasitize. He has already created a mixture of two chemicals that can be used to trick the mite into dropping right off the bees! This research tied into Dr Denis Anderson’s (Australia) research into the many populations of varroa that infect different subspecies of Apis cerana. He feels that there is a constant evolutionary battle between the mites and the bees, based in part upon the modification of semiochemical signals.
Dr Jay Evans (Beltsville) convened an evening meeting of researchers to make plans to sequence the varroa genome. Sequencing the mite’s DNA may open up all kinds of avenues to attack or manage it, biologically or chemically.
Dr Marla Spivak has her usual full plate, showing bee breeders how to select for hygienic behavior in their own stocks, how propolis might be used eventually for mite control, and of a new sampling method for field determination of varroa levels in a bee yard.
No discussion of varroa would be complete without the latest chemical control. Central Apiary has renewed Section 18 registration of Hivastan® in several states (just in time for some, as amitraz was removed from the market). There is a wee bug in that it may cause some adult bee mortality the first day or two after application.
This brings up an interesting point covered by Dr. Eischen—that when you treat a colony suffering from high varroa levels, the bees may already be so stressed that the chemical treatment is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back, and kills the weak older bees. This may be part of the reason that the variable initial bee kill is observed with Hivastan.
Viruses and Antiviral Strategies
Dr Leslie Bailey demonstrated decades ago that honey bee colonies are continually infected by a number of viruses, which usually exist in a “dynamic equilibrium.” The advent of CCD has made our lack of knowledge about bee viruses painfully evident. Luckily, a few researchers are expanding our knowledge. Dr Diana Cox-Foster found that the exposure of colonies to various miticides and chemicals can apparently change the virus dynamics in the hive. No practical recommendations yet, but one more reason to be concerned about the haphazard use of miticides. She also found that it appears that bee viruses move between honey bees and native pollinators via pollen.
Bees can be quickly tested for the presence of viruses these days through the molecular wizardry of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification and the use of “primers” that will bind to specific viruses. Unfortunately, this process currently has a major limitation—labs generally use primers for only eight of the approximately twenty known bee viruses. That means that there are at least a dozen viruses out there that simply remain invisible to normal lab tests!
To the rescue steps Army virologist Dr Charles Wick, who invented the remarkable IVDS machine—which quickly separates out virus particles (virions) based upon size (OK, it’s a bit more complex). His brother, Dave Wick, in conjunction with Dr Jerry Bromenshenk, have brought this technology to the benefit of beekeepers. Dave has found over 20 apparent viruses in U.S. bees (only 6 were known until recently). The exact number remains to be determined, as adjacent peaks may indicate variation in the same virus, and some transient peaks may indicate plant viruses carried on the bees’ bodies. Even more exciting is that he has graphs of the weekly changes in virus composition and levels in colonies!
Preliminary data from IVDS screening for viruses in bees. Putative viral peaks, by percent occurrence in samples from 800 colonies; the x axis is particle size in nanometers. Although not definitively confirmed, the 21.7 peak is consistent with DWV, 25.0 with IAPV, and 32.2 with Sacbrood. The 37.2 peak is a suspected “new” virus that appears to be associated with collapsing colonies. Note that the machine actually produces a distribution of spikes as shown below, as opposed to bars. Graph © BVS, Inc.
However, there is one little problem—although the machine shows “peaks” for each particle size on a graph, it cannot yet put names to the viruses. In the graph above, the two tall peaks could both be strains of sacbrood, in which case it is even more prevalent than indicated. Dave also suspects a second virus at 33.4, which may be masked by sacbrood. He has recently received funding from the Almond Board to determine which virus corresponds to each peak, using two of the world’s best genetic labs. Once this process is complete, then IVDS technology can be used to quickly and inexpensively monitor operations for virus levels, track seasonal changes, and determine the effects of such things as mite levels, miticides, nosema treatments (see the graph below), nutrition, pesticides, and other stressors on the incidence of the various bee viruses. This will provide an incredible and intimate look into the formerly invisible dynamics of viruses within the bee colony!
Three IVDS plots from the same colony, taken 10 days apart, after drench treatment with fumagillin for nosema. The peak at 32.2 appears to be sacbrood virus. The red peak indicates the initial level of virus particles, the blue peak 10 days after treatment, and the green peak yet 10 days later. Similar results were obtained in “sister” colonies. This experiment was not controlled nor replicated, and is only shown for illustration of potential practical uses of the technology. Graph © BVS, Inc.
At this point I would be remiss not to mention that the Bromenshenk team also has a third technology for pathogen identification, that appears to be the most sensitive yet—proteomics. This technology “digests” the bees into simple proteins called peptides. Each species of pathogen has a distinct peptide “signature” that can be “mined” from the digital proteomic database formed from the analysis of the bee sample. It identifies every bacteria, virus, fungus, and protozoan in the bee, as well as every plant virus that the bee is carrying on its body!
The three virus identification techniques—PCR, IVDS, and proteomics—are each powerful alone. However, when combined, surprising discoveries can be made–the Bromenshenk/Wick/Army collaboration may be on the verge of identifying a new virus that appears to be associated with collapsing colonies!
Still on the subject of viruses, the recently-discovered mechanism of RNA interference (RNAi) as an antiviral strategy of insects is a hot topic. Häagen-Dazs Fellow Dr Michelle Flenniken is working at implementing RNAi as an antiviral tool for beekeepers. A U.S./Israeli private company, Beeologics, has a jumpstart on her, since they already have products coming to market that act like vaccines to immunize bee colonies against IAPV, and soon several viruses. Lab tests have been completed, and field trials in several U.S. beekeeping operations are underway.
There are a few individuals who deserve mention for their efforts on behalf of promoting the quality and health benefits of honey. Ron Phipps, Jerry Brown, and Dr. Ron Fessenden have been instrumental in forming the Committee for the Promotion of Honey and Health, Inc.,  whose work stands to benefit the entire industry. Dr. Fessenden has just released a new book The Honey Revolution, which details the health benefits of honey.
Honey purity is always an issue. Roger Simonds, Supervisory Chemist at the National Science Laboratory has tested honey samples from grocery shelves across the U.S., and given them a clean bill of health with regard to pesticides.
However, a recent investigative report by Andrew Schneider “Honey Laundering: A sticky trail of intrigue and crime” exposed the seamy underside of honey imports. Not only do imports of “funny honey” hurt honey’s image, but depress the price paid for domestic quality honey. A big thanks to Customs Enforcement for their actions!
One problem in this country is that we don’t have a national honey standard of identification. This allows unscrupulous companies to sell adulterated sweetened products as “Pure Honey,” and for companies such as ConAgra to use the word “honey” on the label of Orville Redenbacher’s Honey Butter Popcorn, which contains no honey at all! (See the Bee-Quick Wall of Shame, http://bee-quick.com/wall/shame2.html).
Luckily, we have an industry David taking on the USDA/agrimarketing Goliath. Florida hobby beekeeper Nancy Gentry is encouraging the bee industry to run around the USDA and adopt the Codex Standard for honey on a state-by-state basis. In her words, this would empower each state’s “Department of Agriculture to seek enforcement, and gave plaintiffs access to civil courts where they could sue packers who were adulterating honey, or violating anti-trust laws by controlling the market price. As a beneficial consequence, “packers blend” and imitation honeys are also banned, and we can anticipate food manufacturers who use the word “honey” in their advertising to be forced to either include an appropriate amount of honey in the ingredients, or remove the word “honey” from the product label. After sixteen months of working with our department of agriculture, Florida has the first honey standard in the nation.” Hats off to you, Nancy!
Australia is free to export bees to the U.S. as long as they don’t have any diseases that we don’t have. That premise was called into question with the recent finding of colonies of the Eastern Honey Bee (Apis cerana) living in Cairns, at the northeastern tropical tip of the continent. Imports were subsequently suspended, then on, then off, then back on.
Dr. Denis Anderson, the Aussie scientist who named Varroa destructor, spoke about other mites that we do not want in this country, but assured us that no mites were found on the escaped swarms, and that Aussie exports were packaged safely distant from any A. cerana finds. (It is unfortunate that we didn’t get to hear from two other Australians who also attended ABF–Dr. Doug Sommerville, who wrote Fat Bees, Skinny Bees, and Warren Taylor, the major queen and package producer.)
In any case, the issue of Aussie imports is a contentious topic, with the majority of beekeepers appearing to want to restrict their large-scale entry. The imports have been a boon for some commercial beekeepers who restocked CCD-killed colonies for use in almond pollination, but research by Dr Frank Eischen questions their efficacy as pollinators. Dennis van Englesdorp noted that Aussie bees tend to exhibit poor survival once they become infected by varroa and chalkbrood after their arrival. I’m sure that we’ll be hearing more on this battle.
This summary has been haphazard, and I apologize for not doing justice to all the great presenters. I encourage everyone to attend at least one major convention a year, at least for the chance to meet a lot of great people.
4. Maori, E., Paldi, N., Shafir, S., Kalev, H., Tsur, E., Glick, E. and Sela, I. (2008). IAPV, a Bee-Affecting Virus Associated with Colony Collapse Disorder Can Be Silenced by dsRNA Ingestion. Insect Molecular Biology.