I recently had the pleasure of meeting Ron Hoskins, who has been keeping bees since 1943 (over 70 years!). He has been on the BBKA executive committee, trained lots of new beekeepers, and is well known, firstly, for his conservation efforts breeding the native British Black Bee, and also for creating a varroa-tolerant strain of honeybee. He has lectured on these subjects as far afield as Norway and Australia. You may have seen him on tv in Spring Watch.
When I arrived, Ron and his friend (another Ron) and I went to pick up 2 swarms and on arriving back at the apiary, they were quarantined some distance from other hives.
He warned that his apiary was crowded (he has ~80 hives), which tends to make bees grumpy, but I found no protection was required wandering through it.
This gave me a great opportunity to ask Ron about the changes for bees he’d experienced since 1943. He told how when WW2 finished, lots of military tractors were sold to farmers, and British agriculture rapidly mechanised. Unlike horses, tractors can plough right up to a field edge, so the wild field margins disappeared. Another significant source of forage, hedgerows, were significantly reduced in some areas to make larger fields more suitable for mechanised management. So there was a big drop in rural bee numbers just after the war. But the biggest step change was when varroa arrived in the UK in 1992. Colonies collapsed all over, and BBKA membership dropped to 7,000 (it is now 23,000) as many people abandoned the craft, and others reduced the number of hives they ran. “It was the first time we considered that perhaps all the bees might disappear.” Before varroa, the majority of bees were feral colonies; now he reckons only 2% are. In his experience, people may often think they have ferals but he examined one such nest which he was assured had been continuously occupied for many years, and found a marked queen.
He gestured to the nearby woods and commented that when he was young, there was a lot more wildlife in woods because there were a lot more nuts and berries as there were sufficient pollinators to fertilise all the flowering shrubs and trees the other life depends on. Now, there’s a pollinator deficit and hence more limited food.
British Black Bees
I then asked Ron about his work in preserving the native British Black bee, Apis mellifera mellifera (a.m.m.). This bee was ideally suited to our wet, variable weather and cold winters, but was essentially wiped out by the acarine mite around 1920, so most British bees are now hybrids with variable characteristics. There are now a number of preservation and reintroduction projects run by BIBBA , Biobees, and others.
This breeding work is where Ron honed his bee artificial insemination skills, but before he built his own micromanipulator in 1986, he used a very elegant technique to ensure his queens only mated with his a.m.m. drones. This relies on the fact that drones can only fly for a short while unless they find a convenient thermal, because they don’t feed themselves and need to be in the hive with obliging workers around to feed them. So Ron’s tip is to site your apiary in an isolated spot, then restrict your hive entrances and wait until a time of day (say 2:30pm) by which time any ‘other’ drones will have already been out and about for a few hours and running out of fuel, and then you release your own to flood the immediate area; 10 minutes later you release your queens. This method isn’t 100% reliable though, so he switched to artificial insemination once he had the opportunity. He is one of only very few people with this extremely delicate skill in the country.
I was interested to learn that drone semen is relatively robust and can be posted round the world without refrigeration. But then, it does survive for years inside queens.
In 1993, with the arrival of varroa, Ron observed a sudden collapse in his Black Bee queens’ fertility and he realised there was only one thing that had changed, which was that he was now using miticides to kill varroa. So he went treatment-free, and their fertility returned.
12 years later, academics began publishing research showing the detailed analysis of what had happened, directly in line with Ron’s observations. It’s actually the drones that had been affected – their lifespans and sperm viability are reduced by every miticide the academics tested. In effect they were “shooting blanks”, and as a drone only becomes fully fertile in the last few days of its life, a few days’ reduction in drone-lifespan has a huge impact.
In his opinion, the increasing problems with hives being unable to successfully requeen themselves is also in part due to the advice from the BBKA and Central Science Lab to practise drone culling, and formic acid treatments for varroa which leads to colonies ejecting most drone eggs. Ron positively encourages drone production.
So, Ron switched his focus to breeding bees that could survive with varroa present. Within a couple of years he had identified one of his 80 hives which was coping well with the varroa, proved it was an inheritable characteristic, and began spreading its genes to his other colonies. This is described in detail on the Swindon Honeybee Conservation Group website, and you can buy nucs of such bees from that group.
Ron has shown, through extensive microscope-based analysis and some video footage, that the bees exhibit at least three types of hygienic behaviour:
- The bees bite and groom-off mites on their sisters. The mites that fall to the hive floor show unmistakeable signs of this damage.
- The workers uncap and eject larvae which they sense have varroa damage.
- Virus blocking. We weren’t allowed to mention this until the research was published so it is covered in this later article, about one third of the way down.
Curiously, in the intervening two decades as varroa problems have grown, Ron’s success with varroa-tolerant bees has been largely sidelined as more conventional beeks and associated organisations have become somewhat obsessed about chemical control of mites – which as Ron found, hammers fertility. However, somewhat ironically, there is now a European Smartbees project to create just such a varroa-tolerant bee, repeating this work; and the mainstream scientific community comes to him for samples and records, although as a non-academic scientist his contribution to their work is barely noted (e.g. he’s reference number 27 in one paper). My impression is that Ron was so far ahead of his time, that his work has not been taken seriously.
So Ron has now been doing this for 20 years and yes, his bees are able to thrive in the presence of varroa. What’s particularly notable for readers of this blog, which is devoted to natural beekeeping, is that he’s a hard line conventional beekeeper: he intervenes with queens and takes a significant honey-crop. He uses National hives; he uses conventional queen selection techniques including artificial insemination; he is a large scale operator (over 80 hives); and his bees have other desirable characteristics for normal beekeepers, as he also selects for temperament, honey yield, etc. In contrast, ‘natural’ beekeepers have been trying to develop resistant strains by breeding from feral stock (more random but arguably a broader gene pool), and we aren’t selecting for any other characteristics. Also, our bees arguably have the additional ‘edge’ benefit of natural comb, and/or heavily insulated hives, to keep on top of varroa whereas his thrive despite the use of foundation and are fine in Nationals.
Like natural beeks, Ron reckons the mites will always develop immunity to any chemical (he’s lived through 3 generations of such chemicals now). And like us, he isn’t worried about the actual number of mites, just whether they are kept in balance – it’s only if the number shoots up that there is a problem. This is in contrast to the conventional “zero tolerance” recipe, which advises that if mites levels exceed a certain threshold, you must treat with chemicals.
After decades of observation, collecting samples and microscopic analysis, he knows why his bees can handle varroa. In his opinion, the strategy I use, breeding from ferals with “survivor” genes, may work; but as I’m not sampling and analysing I’m working blind, I don’t know why it works and so this detracts from its credibility. There is something to this, but as a hobbyist beek, I don’t have the time or equipment to take Ron’s thorough and detailed approach. As far as I’m concerned, if my colonies are thriving, which they are, that’s my ultimate goal.
I then rather cheekily asked why he collected swarms when he is breeding a pure line. He explained that he will monitor these colonies a while to see if they have useful anti-varroa traits. If they do, he will breed from them to reduce inbreeding in his stock. If they don’t, he’ll kill the queens and give the workers to one of the queens he rears en masse. “Remember, I’m rearing queens, I’m always short of workers.”
In conclusion, a fascinating visit with a very experienced beek who has done much for the survival of our bees. Despite Ron’s success with a more conventional approach, I am not recommending abandonment of the low-intervention approach, far from it – in my opinion the encouragement of natural behaviours and reduction of any stressors can only be a good thing – but it does show that in achieving varroa-tolerance in our bees through non-miticide treatment, the two strategies seem complementary, and we should be able to learn a lot from Ron’s extensive and impressive experience.