May 26

Virginia Tech study aims to help explain honeybee losses

Virginia Tech study aims to help explain honeybee losses

Happy Hollow Honey
Roanoke Times
00:00 / 02:19

17 images
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times

A Varroa destructor mite found on honey bee pupa in one of Montgomery County beekeeper Richard Reid’s hives.

By Tonia Moxley 381-1675 | Posted 5 days ago

BLACKSBURG — Richard Reid of Montgomery County had beekeeping foisted upon him in 1972 by a landlord and happily kept at it until all his hives died in 1995.

The 1990s kicked off a wave of honeybee losses that continue to afflict U.S. beekeepers and agricultural producers. Debate rages over why bees are dying but solutions are elusive.

Virginia’s roughly 5,000 beekeepers lost nearly half their colonies last year, according to state figures. The die-off is troubling for the nation’s seventh largest apple producer and the beekeepers who must bear about $4 million in replacement costs annually.

Beekeepers nationwide lost 44 percent of their colonies in the 12-month period that ended in April, the second highest loss in the last decade, according to an annual survey released this month by the Bee Informed Partnership, an organization of bee researchers from across the United States.

Since Virginia began tracking colony losses in 2001, the death rate has increased dramatically. Historically, 10 percent or less of hives died annually, according to Keith Tignor, state apiarist for the commonwealth.

Yearly losses swelled to about 30 percent following the invasion of two parasitic mites — tracheal mites in the 1980s and Varroa destructor mites in the ’90s.

To help identify causes of the die-off, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has commissioned a five-year study at Virginia Tech, funding the $1.4 million cost with fees from the agency’s pesticide regulation program. The work is expected to continue through 2018.

In phase one, which is winding down, researchers are collecting, mapping and analyzing samples of bees, pollen and wax gathered from beekeepers. In phase two, researchers plan to set up test colonies in areas flagged by sampling for more in-depth study. A graduate student is surveying beekeepers on their management practices and that data also will be incorporated.

Reid, who took up bees again in 2008, is one of several beekeepers across the state who have contributed samples to the study.

“I’m very interested to know what they are finding,” Reid said.

Knowing whether pesticides are showing up in his hives or other factors are affecting them could help Reid prevent future losses.

Richard Fell, a Tech researcher working on the project, said samples have been taken from about 100 hives around the commonwealth. The bees are being analyzed for nutrition, general health and immunity, and they, along with the pollen and wax, are being analyzed for pesticide residue.

Researchers hope a different approach to a familiar topic will yield concrete answers.

Big problems, big data

Technology is playing a key part in studying one of nature’s most ancient species.

Samples have been mapped using geographic information systems, or GIS. The millions of data points, including the location data, will be plugged into a statistical model to search for regional patterns. Those may help scientists zero in on major problems plaguing the commonwealth’s honeybees.

Other studies have used GIS to examine land use and one other potential factor affecting bee health, said Carlyle Brewster, a Tech insect ecologist who is working on the statistical model for the project.

“I’ve not come across any study that has linked landscape, pesticide and honeybee health,” he said.

Lessons from such a large data set could have wider impacts.

Because Virginia’s estimated 40,000 managed hives each forage on nectar- and pollen-producing plants over large areas of the state, “the bees are an indicator species of what is happening in the environment in terms of pesticide use.”

Tracking losses along with weather patterns also could shed light on climate change in Virginia and how that is affecting native pollinators as well as honeybees, Brewster said.

Honeybees pollinate up to $20 billion in crops in the U.S., according to government figures, and are big business in some parts of the country. In California, for example, honeybees pollinate much of the world’s almond crop, giving rise to large commercial beekeeping operations.

Tignor, the Virginia apiarist, estimates that more than 90 percent of Old Dominion’s beekeepers are hobbyists who maintain one to 10 hives for honey. A handful of beekeepers in the state make their living moving their hives short distances to pollinate crops, Tignor said.

But, Tignor said, whether they know it or not every hobbyist provides pollination for agriculture and forestry, which together make up Virginia’s largest economic sector.

In addition to apples and other fruits, Virginia produces “squashes and cucumbers, all of which require pollination,” Fell said. “We’ve got a lot of secondary crops, from cane berries to strawberries to blueberries to say nothing of home gardeners.

“And even if we say only about 50 percent of that pollination is provided by honeybees, that’s still a damn big figure.”

Many threats, few answers

Like others in the 1990s, Reid’s bees fell prey to the Varroa destructor, a honeybee parasite introduced to the U.S. from Asia that decimated small and large apiaries and continues to plague the industry.

The picture grew murkier in 2006, when a handful of large commercial beekeepers reported entire colonies disappearing seemingly overnight, sparking worries that crops dependent on bee pollination could be at risk. Scientists raced to find the root of what became known as CCD, or colony collapse disorder. They found mites, viruses and other problems, but no single cause.

Attention shifted to a class of pesticides derived from nicotine, called neonicotinoids. These chemicals pose little threat to mammals and birds and are used widely in industrial agriculture as well as by small farmers and homeowners. Most commercial corn and soybean seeds are treated with neonics, as they often are called, and the plants excrete the toxin in their leaves and stems. Sap-sucking and leaf-eating pests die when they feed on the treated crops. Some of the chemicals get into nectar and pollen, too, leading to fears that it might poison honeybees.

Some European countries have banned neonics temporarily to see whether bee losses there will wane. In the U.S., this class of insecticides is regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Spraying neonics on blooming plants is prohibited, for example.

But Fell and other bee experts say there is no good evidence to support the idea that neonics are the primary culprit in honeybee losses. Researchers still are analyzing Virginia samples for neonics, Fell said. But other studies have found few of these chemicals. Where they have been detected, levels have been so low, Fell said, it’s like “a pinch of salt in 10 tons of potatoes.”

“We’re not saying it can’t be a contributing factor,” Fell said. “But it doesn’t seem to be the major problem.”

Calls to ban neonics are premature, he said: “We shouldn’t ban something that we’re not even finding in hives.”

Sampling for the state study has been done in a wide area, from crop and pasture lands to orchard areas to urban and suburban settings. Researchers are looking for traces not just of pesticides but also of commonly used herbicides and fungicides. It could be that chemicals are a problem, but only in certain areas or under certain conditions, or in combination with each other.

Or it could be they are not a major factor.

Flawed conclusions?

The perception that pesticides, and neonics in particular, are to blame for die-offs has been boosted by some laboratory studies on small numbers of bees in cages.

But the immune systems of the young bees often used in those studies might not be as developed as in older bees, making them more susceptible to toxins. Furthermore, Fell said, pesticides at normal plant levels collected by a hive of 30,000 bees might be diluted and cause no problems.

Lab studies can be misleading if they are not followed up with good field studies, Fell said.

After leading field studies in which he fed neonics to a group of colonies over 13 weeks, Harvard public health researcher Chensheng “Alex” Lu concluded in results published in 2012 and 2014 that the pesticides can cause symptoms of CCD.

Fell and Troy Anderson, a pesticide and insect researcher also working on the Virginia study, said Lu fed high doses of neonicotinoids over long periods of time — a situation not found in normal colonies. Specifically, the levels of pesticides exceeded what is found in the nectar and pollen of treated plants. That is a problem with many lab studies, too, Fell said.

Recent studies have shown that bees are good at detoxifying themselves after exposure to neonicotinoids, Anderson said. Besides, neonics are not widely used in Southwest Virginia, yet annual losses hover around 30 percent, he said.

In an email to The Roanoke Times, Lu wrote that he used levels of a popular neonic, Imidacloprid, below what EPA guidelines say is the maximum safe dose and pollen samples collected from across Massachusetts for a more recent project support his choice in dosages.

Neonics first were used in the 1990s. Colony collapse disorder was not reported until 2006, and then only by a handful of large commercial beekeepers. At the time, there were no diagnosis criteria and no official monitoring systems to identify the syndrome, according to Fell and Anderson. Much of the evidence was anecdotal.

In many cases, entire bee colonies disappeared, leaving no dead bees to test for pesticides or diseases.

Markers of health

The Virginia study could solve another riddle.

“My question has always been: What is a healthy bee?” Troy Anderson said.

Surprisingly, there are no standard measures for that, he said. Defining health could help researchers better monitor for disease and other problems. His lab is analyzing bee samples for protein levels, immune response and other markers in hopes of establishing criteria for bee health.

In fact, poor general health might figure into losses.

Commercial beekeepers truck thousands of colonies over long distances, concentrating them in agricultural areas, such as California’s almond country and fruit tree operations in the Pacific Northwest. This stresses the bees and might contribute to lack of nutrition during certain times of the year, researchers say. It also is a recipe for spreading diseases quickly across the country.

Big bee die-offs are not new.

About a century ago, a mass die-off occurred on Britain’s Isle of Wight, spurring a monk at Buckfast Abbey known as Brother Adam to breed a new strain of bees resistant to the mysterious ailment that came to be known as Isle of Wight disease. It alternately has been blamed on a mite species that infects the bee’s respiratory system, and an intestinal parasite called Nosema.

The Buckfast bee eventually helped repopulate hives and still is bred today.

The mighty mite

Students in Anderson’s lab are working on other bee-related projects, from looking for a “bee repellent” that might be mixed with pesticides to research on Varroa mites. Better control of those mites alone would help honeybees, Anderson said.

Efforts so far have focused mostly on miticides. But the mites quickly develop resistance to the chemicals. There’s also the worry that over time they might build up in beeswax, perhaps causing chronic, low-level problems in bees. The Tech study is looking at levels of hive contamination from those chemicals, too.

For his part, Reid decided in 2008 to work on keeping his bees without miticides. In 1996, a year after he put his empty hives away, a swarm moved into idle equipment near his house. They lived there for 12 years with no intervention, he said.

Believing there were honeybees able to fight the mites, Reid said, he was ready to try again. Today, he has more than 160 hives spread across the New River Valley. Last year, he said he lost fewer than 20 percent of his colonies.

Reid has focused — much like Brother Adam — on finding strains of bees that can survive pests and diseases without intervention. He keeps a dozen or so lines, some developed by breeders to resist mites, and some wild bees. He propagates queens from those strains, hoping to develop hardy stocks.

Over the next two years, Fell and his collaborators will set up test colonies and closely monitor them. They will look at factors such as Varroa mite infestation and the health of queens — the “mothers” of bee colonies.

This information will be added to the statistical model to refine what scientists know about Virginia’s honeybees and perhaps lead to better ways to protect them.

May 22

Successful Deep Hive Check Today!


The link above will allow you to see one of two queens we were able to find in today’s deep hive inspection.  Please give this link time to load up as it is a movie!  (Thanks to Erin for capturing this great moment for us)  This queen happens to belong to my grandson Jax,  and her name is Queen Kassia I.  The good news is we found solid evidence of healthy queens in all of our hives today.   Because of all the rain we have had, nectar flow is not good right now, so I am recommending that everyone continue to feed their bees 1:1  sugar water for the next two weeks. At that time we will evaluate and determine if we can stop feeding.  Drawing out new comb is one of the most difficult tasks for our bees and feeding them will lessen the stress.  This means the nectar that is found can be stored and made into honey rather than having to feed all the inside workers.

All our hives are doing well and have no hive beetles present.  It was interesting to see how each hive was different, which also strengthened the idea of having an apiary for our community to learn about and sustain bees.  In two weeks we will go in again and see where we are.  Meantime our next big challenge will be to begin our attack on mites, which all bees have.  Controlling mites will have the greatest impact on our being able to successfully winter our bees.  The next lessons I will be posting on our blog will deal with these pests, how they affect our bee populations so negatively, and ways we can control them.

May 20

When Are Condition Right to Inspect My Hive?

Are Conditions Right to Inspect the Hive?

When is the besNot a good day for hive inspections.t time of day to inspect your hives? Does the weather play a part in inspections?

I have been keeping bees for four years now. I have been home all day and able to inspect anytime I pleased. I know many of you have a busy schedule in life and with crazy weather patterns (LOTS of rain!) is making it difficult to inspect our hives.

I find myself looking at the weather several times a day, trying to figure out how I can arrange my schedule  with you so I can at the Apiary when the conditions are cooperative. I feel like I am learning “The Right Conditions for Inspections” all over again.

There is something a bit dismaying about pulling the top off a hive and having a mob of angry bees swirl up in your face. Cool weather and cloudy /rainy weather can cause this.

Not a good day for hive inspections.  I think the bees can sense a change in the weather. I have learned to pay attention to the sound of a hive. If the sound changes from a peaceful hum and everyone going about their business to an angry roar, it could be because of a change in the weather. I have been inspecting a hive and it clouded up real fast.

The reaction of those bees made me throw down my hive tool and run.When I started keeping bees, I read up on what time of day and under what weather conditions to inspect the hives.

This is what I found:

  • Inspect your hives anytime it is warm enough and the sun is shining. The bees are not too active outside the hive at temps below 57 degrees The warm sunshine is going to get them out and about.
  • Inspect your hives between the hours of 11:00 to 2:00. The worker bees will be out foraging so you won’t have as many to contend with.
  • Inspect whenever you have time and the sun is shining. (Make sure it’s warm enough!)
  • Do not inspect when it is raining. (Rain keeps everyone at home and puts the girls on edge?)
  • Do not inspect when it is cloudy. (Cloudy weather seems to make the girls ill-tempered.)
  • Try to avoid windy conditions (Causes the girls to drift into other hives.)
  • You can inspect while the sun is shining until it gets dark. (Then the girls may not be so nice about you visiting so late.)

These are my favorite conditions for hive inspecting. (Utopia!)

  • Sunshine
  • Few clouds, definitely not overcast or rain clouds
  • I like to get started early in the mornings after the clouds have dissipated and the dew is still on the ground. Somewhere around 8:30 to 9:00 a.m. after working in the garden.
  • The temps should be in the mid to upper 60’s or warmer.
  • I like a gentle breeze, not windy conditions.

It looks like our reality will now be inspections after work (after 5:00 p.m.)  and the weekends when conditions are appropriate. It will definitely be an adjustment for us but, I love keeping bees and will work with the bees and the weather to do what needs to be done.

Right now we are scheduled to meet this Sunday, May 22, at 2:00 PM if conditions permit.  If not, I plan to be in the Apiary at 6:00 PM on Monday, May 23 for any and all who can make it.  I will send a text out Sunday to let you know if are on for Hive Inspection.

May 12



Going forward, I would like for you to leave a comment below each lesson and in your comment leave a message like this:  Scott – Completed Lesson 9.  In fact, I would like for you to go back and do this for all the lessons posted so far.  This will be my way of tracking your progress and adds some accountability to our school.  If more than one person in your family is following along with us, have them leave a comment in like form so that I may know who is working with you.  Also, do not forget, the comment section is a GREAT place to ask questions and leave comments on discoveries and observations you are making.  If you plan to be come a Bee Sustainer….(remember the levels – 1. Bee haver,  2. Bee Keeper – 3. Bee Sustainer)….then you must put some time into this folks!  Becoming a Sustainer in today”s world is much more complex than it used to be thanks to our pesticides, destruction of habitats, and new enemies of our bees.  Besides hands on lessons, you must also arm yourself with knowledge.  DO I HEAR AN AMEN! out there (Use comment section)

On Saturday May 14, we approached the hive from the back, smoked it (if you would like the practice), and lifted off the outer cover and removed the top hive feeder. Next week, we are ready to inspect what is inside.   Since we used Nucs, we did not have to do a 5 day inspection to make sure the hive had accepted her queen.  Our Queen was the mother of all the bees you placed in your hive.  Generally I wait two weeks before doing a complete inspection of the hive….in our case we will be waiting 3 weeks because I am away this week.

We will Plan to Meet Saturday Morning, May 21 ay 1:00 PM.  It is VERY IMPORTANT that you complete lessons 8 and 9 before next Saturday.  I also suggest you read about hive inspections in your book, the Backyard Bee Keeper.


May 9

May 9 – Apiary Update and What You Should “Bee” doing!


Even Jax completes his checklist of things to do with his hive.

It has been a beautiful weather for our bees and all seem to be thriving.  I make visits to our Apiary to check on all hives, and I have been very pleased with the care you are giving them.  We will continue to feed them 1:1 sugar water until this weekend.

Please note that Josh Anders hive is back in place.  We completed a “Bee Stealth” operation last and successfully moved his hive back to his location at the apiary.  If you visit the apiary in the next two days, you will notice a a large brushy bush in front of his hive.  DO NOT MOVE IT!  This is how we are successfully relocating his hive in less than three miles.  Normally bees fly out of the hive on auto-pilot and do not worry about where they are because they have their own gps which will take them home.  However, when they exit the hive now…they have to stop and look around because their normal path is blocked.  This causes the bees to look around and they determine something has changed?  This abnormal exit caused them to RESET their gps to their new location.  This is a method I researched and found that many old time beekeepers use to relocate hives successfully.  It is much less stressful than having to seal them inside their hive for 3 days.  We will know if we are successful if the bees do not show back up at my home.  Even if they do, there is a chance they will find their old hive.

Your Weekend Checklist for your bees:  (Do this on your own)

  1. Suit up and take your top feeder off.  Take your topWhile you have it off, you may take a look into your hive….but lets not pull any frames out right now.  We will be doing a complete hive inspection in another week.
  2. Replace only the screen.  If you have been pouring sugar water through your screen, please take time to hose it off well before you replace it,  (Hose behind the house).  Be sure your have the escape route facing down so bees may exit this way.
  3. Replace top.  I have noticed some of you have still not weighted your telescoping top down.  A hard summer storm can lift your top off if not weighted down.
  4. Use your hive tool and remove your entrance reducer completely.  Take this home as we will need it again this winter.
  5. Send Mr. G a text when you have completed this weekend check and give me a brief report on the condition of your bees.