Beekeepers: Surviving a 30-Year Pandemic

By Dick Rogers, beekeeper, principal scientist and entomologist, Crop Science, a division of Bayer

Just a few months ago, most of us had little appreciation of the gravity of the novel coronavirus. It was only as the virus spread across the world and created a wave of stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns that we realized the full social and economic impact of this disease. As we wait for infectious disease strategies to “flatten the curve,” we look forward to a return of some form of normalcy. The ultimate solution depends on developing effective treatments, vaccines and prevention measures.

varroa on beeDid you know that honey bees also have been suffering through a pandemic caused by an invasive parasite and associated disorders for more than 30 years? With the introduction of the Varroa mite, commercial beekeepers have been constantly struggling to prevent serious colony losses. Despite the passage of time, this threat remains as real and as deadly today as it ever has been.

The Varroa mite pandemic originated in Asia before beginning its inexorable march westward, reaching North America in the mid-1980s. Unlike COVID-19, it was not spread by human-to-human contact, but by bee-to-bee contact, although humans assisted its spread through the movement of bee stock around the world. While this parasite weakens and shortens the lifespan of bees by feeding off of them, it causes additional destructive effects as a result of the deadly viruses the mite transmits to honey bees. Left unchecked, Varroa infestations and the diseases they vector can easily wipe out entire colonies.

Unfortunately, and despite many years of combatting Varroa, there is still no silver bullet solution for beekeepers. We don’t have enough effective treatments, nor are there any new treatments or vaccines on the horizon to protect honey bees from this persistent and lethal combination of threats.

Winter is a difficult time for honey bees under normal circumstances, but it’s also a time when the impact of Varroa parasitism and virus infection hits the hardest. For many years, winter colony losses have been much higher than they were prior to the introduction of Varroa. In recent years, surveys of self-reported colony losses have been suggesting a trend line to lower losses of colonies over winters. However, 2018/2019 saw the highest level of winter losses since these annual surveys began. The Bee Informed Partnership will soon release this year’s survey, and although I’m hearing reports that range from bad to good, I’m hopeful that we’ll see some improvement in the average colony losses in 2020.

bees on pollen pattyAs one who’s been a beekeeper and bee researcher since long before the time of Varroa’s arrival, it’s hard to be optimistic in the face of our current situation. But just because we can’t wave a magic wand to make the Varroa problem go away doesn’t mean we must remain helpless. Over the past few years, the Bayer Bee Care Program has fine-tuned the Healthy Colony Checklist, an efficient approach to bee management that is making it easier for beekeepers to effectively manage Varroa and other disorders. While many established beekeepers understand the benefits of systematic colony management, we’ve got a lot of new and less experienced beekeepers who would greatly benefit from using this checklist.

Successful beekeepers know that the key to better winter survival begins by preparing their colonies for winter in mid-to-late summer. The Healthy Colony Checklist helps beekeepers focus on the six areas that are most critical when assessing a honey bee colony’s health and offers tips to help beekeepers establish the healthy colonies that are required for successful wintering. The checklist helps beekeepers answer three important questions:

1) Is the colony healthy?
2) If not, why is it not healthy?
3) What needs to be done to fix the problem, or prevent it from escalating?

While deeming colonies “healthy” by visual inspection alone cannot prevent all colony losses linked to Varroa and associated disorders, it will most certainly improve the odds of a colony’s success. One of the best ways to improve winter survival of honey bee colonies may also be the simplest. It’s based on the fact that healthy colonies have a higher probability of surviving the winter than unhealthy ones. For many years, experienced beekeepers have routinely culled weaker hives in the fall because these colonies had little chance of surviving the winter. Removing weaker hives as a management tactic is often described in bee literature, including the 1947 American Bee Journal, which notes that in preparation for winter, “The condition of the colony is probably more important than any other factor.”

inside a bee hiveUnfortunately, I’m afraid we’ve become too accustomed to living with unhealthy colonies. That’s partly because invasive parasites, predators and pathogens, including the Varroa mite, small hive beetle and others, are occurring at the same time the demand for pollination services in agriculture is peaking. And while it still makes sense for beekeepers to routinely devote a lot of energy to protecting healthy colonies, they can’t afford to ignore the increased need for pollination services. Many beekeepers will do almost anything they can to meet that demand – even if it means trying to bring weak colonies back from the brink.

Surviving this Varroa pandemic isn’t easy, especially when there are no simple fixes and beekeepers are already doing all they can to cope with this continuing threat. But that doesn’t mean we won’t stop trying to find a better way. Apiculture is in a rebuilding phase and achieving a “new normal” requires better treatments and management strategies, effective prevention, reliable digital technologies, and greater mindfulness on the part of beekeepers, researchers, policymakers and regulators. Using best management practices and the Healthy Colony Checklist will go a long way to help protect honey bees as key contributors to sustainable food production.