What is Natural?

Posted on August 1, 2011 in Beekeeping Classes | Short Link

Larry, Noel and I talked excitedly about bees all the way to class. Larry has already built several top bar hives, and is building one for me this week.

We’re ready!

However, the class this week was a difficult one both visually and emotionally. Seeing pictures of a slime out caused by small hive beetle was just plain yucky. We saw, up close and personal, what today’s beekeepers face with the arrival of new pests to the Big Island—the varroa mite and small hive beetle. We were extremely lucky to have Danielle Downey, a State of Hawaii Apiary Specialist, and Ethel Villalobos, from The UH Honeybee Project presenting the most scientific up to date information, and offering their help and expertise.

But perhaps the most controversial guests were Tom and Yuki Glenn from Glenn Apiaries in California. Tom had come with semen from drones from VSH Queens and we watched him artificially inseminate some of Richard’s queens. VSH is for Varroa-sensitive hygienic behavior. How does this work? Bees with this trait will detect mite infested brood, open the cell, and eat the mite offspring and bee larva. Even though the mother mite survives, her reproduction is interrupted, which eventually reduces the mite population in the hive. VSH queens will retain a level of mite resistance even after free mating with unselected drones, so genetic diversity can be maintained. These bees are also resistant to tracheal mites, (which are not in Hawaii), American Foulbrood and Chalkbrood. The website claims this is “the natural way to control mites and brood diseases.” It certainly seems better than chemiclals–check mite, pyrethins or antibiotics.

Artificial insemination and VSH Queens seemed like the perfect natural solution, until Jenny Bach presented a counter argument by asking the question, “What is natural?” Her reasoning was as follows: We have interfered with bee genetics for a while now, producing calmer bees which produce more honey and less propolis. We’ve put them in boxes that make honey production easier for us. We’ve transported them across a whole continent to pollinate mono crops such as the almonds in California, where they inter-mingled and spread diseases. We’ve flown bee packages all over the world, spreading mites and Africanized bees. So should we let natural selection take place so that the bees can recover on their own, or should we help them by speeding up the process with VSH queens?

I came away from the class discouraged. Can I really do this? Am I starting at the right time?

When I got home I emailed my friend Christy in Berkeley, California to ask about her bees. She had just gotten her bees in March at which time she proudly showed me her new hive. This week she told me that her bees are doing great and she’s almost ready to harvest 2 supers of honey. She sent me the picture of her backyard hive (at right.) Her next step is renting an extractor from the same place she got her hive and supers, and took her classes. Her package of bees came in the mail, she bought her hive and supers locally and can even rent an extractor!

OK, Big Island, this seems like a business waiting to happen! In the meantime, I’m once again encouraged. It can be done. Now I’m just waiting for my bees to find me.

Posted by Mary Ann Smiles

wsare_logo_lowThis project was funded by a grant from the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

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