Part II - What I learned taking the University of Minnesota Healthy Bees Online Course:

“Keeping Bees Healthy (And On Their Own Six Feet)”
American Bee Journal (March) Vol. 148 (3): 245-247.


Dr. Malcolm T. Sanford

In a previous article, I discussed the rationale and philosophy for the online course “Keeping Bees Healthy (And On Their Own Six Feet),” available through the University of Minnesota’s Extension Learning Management System.1 There is a huge amount of material presented and it is provided in a number of formats. One of the strengths of the modern computer is to have built-in redundancy. We know now that learning styles among human individuals can differ significantly based on various ways information might be packaged and presented. This alternative packaging concept clearly shows here in both the text and graphics used.

The focus of this article is to provide readers a more in-depth view of the material and explain some of what I learned in an effort to entice beekeepers to go online and register. An advantage of the course design is that one can return to it over and over during a long (currently four-year) period. If there are enough registrants, presumably it will also be updated with new information as time goes on.

Reviewing the content, we see several major modules/themes, including a welcoming video by Dr. Spivak herself; six pages devoted to describing a healthy bee colony (super heroine); four pages detailing a strategy for managing diseases/pests (knowledge, prevention and control); seven major resource articles in both .html and .pdf formats, including Comb Replacement, Testing and Breeding for Hygienic Behavior, Hygienic Behavior and Diseases, Hygienic Behavior and Varroa Mites, Sampling for Varroa Mites, Treatments for Varroa Mites, Technique for Finding Tracheal Mites (a video presentation); a set of frequently-asked-questions; and a detailed bibliography.

Taking center stage are the villains: chalkbrood (20 screens), American foulbrood (49 screens), European foulbrood (25 screens), nosema (25 screens), Varroa mites (68 screens), tracheal mites (39 screens) and small hive beetles (48 screens). Each villain has its evil rating and particular Kingdom of Origin. Also listed are its Powers, what it Attacks, Thrives On and Weaknesses.

Predictably, the two most important problems beekeepers face (highest “evil” rating), Varroa mites and American foulbrood have the most information associated with them. Fortunately, both are affected by honey bee “hygienic behavior,” as defined by Dr. Spivak and originally coined by Dr. Walter Rothenbuhler.2.

In the Varroa mite section, we learn the biology of this pest and the important distinction between vertical and horizontal transmission and why the latter in particular must be avoided by beekeepers. The following is the main screen for Varroa mites, “The Destructors.”

The mite life cycle is revealed in all its complexity on accompanying screens and we see why it’s almost completely dependent on the honey bee host. Detailed information on development times and the four main stages of mite development are provided; the graphic showing all four on one honey bee pupa is excellent. I learned that the difference between seeing mites or not on adults is an important distinction when trying to determine infestation levels, and on occasion, although not immediately intuitive, highly-infested colonies may produce a good honey crop. The course also provides good examples of why it’s important for beekeeper techniques to mesh with defensive measures the bees themselves already possess.

Beyond simple screens populated with lists, the course contains links to in-depth articles found in the resources section. Dr. Spivak is known for her work with hygienic behavior and so the article on this subject may be worth the cost of the whole course. An animated graphical representation of what the behavior is and might look like in a colony is added for extra emphasis. The other self-defensive measures by bees (grooming and reproductive manipulation) are described in some detail.

Sampling for Varroa is described in a rather complete article by Dr. Spivak and her colleague, Gary Reuter. I learned how to estimate mite numbers on adults (powdered sugar and alcohol wash) and found in full colonies (sticky board traps). Figuring the percentage of mites generally found in the brood versus adults of a colony is also worthwhile. Descriptions of cultural controls, including screened bottom boards and drone pupae removal are clear and valuable. An added resource is a specific screened bottom board designed by Gary Reuter himself. Mr. Reuter adds a dimension that not many academic programs can boast, the opportunity to reflect on ideas and how they are presented in cooperation with an experienced full-time beekeeper.

Finally, a full description of why pesticides should be applied only as a last resort is provided in the course, revealing the reasons for inadequacy of long-range control measures based on synthetic materials (pyrethrins and organophosphates especially). I found out what is the best chemical control and why, according to Dr. Spivak. An accompanying article reveals the pros and cons of essential oils and organic acids. Finally, the Varroa module concludes with ten questions to test one’s knowledge gained while navigating the associated screens.

The main screen for American foulbrood, the Liquidator, is shown here:


Associated screens reveal the life cycle of the causative organism and its scientific name, only fairly recently changed and not found in many older, classic beekeeping texts. Descriptions of which bee life stage is most susceptible to the disease and how spores and non-infectious rods are related take center stage.

If a colony has this disease (the symptoms are clearly shown via close-up photos), there is a discussion of the so-called “shake-swarm” method as a treatment; this seeks to rid the colony of most causative organisms (and hosts), providing a less-than favorable environment for the disease to rebound. Two other possibilities, burning and re-queening, are addressed and compared.

Another treatment recommended is to renovate brood frames. An accompanying article suggests additional reasons combs should be renovated periodically and provides specific time frames. Traditionally, beekeepers have not done this because it is labor intensive to replace the foundation, and is energetically costly for the bees to draw out new comb. I learned that some beekeepers have combs that are over 30 years old.

Finally, treatment by antibiotics is described and there is a discussion of the new antibiotic that has recently been approved, Tylosin.(Tylan®). Specifically it is important to understand what antibiotics do and how they affect the causative organism, and why preventative or prophylactic treatments are not recommended.

It may be surprising to some, as it was to me, to find out how “evil” tracheal mites can be with respect to a colony of bees. The main screen for The Micro-Congesters seen here is even more dramatic when viewed via computer as the mite-filled, animated tentacles and head move back and forth menacingly.

Horizontal transmission again should be avoided. The mite is microscopic and so it’s really up to the graphics in this section to show what it does and where it is. They do not disappoint. Much of this is taken from the work of Dr. Diana Sammataro who intensively studied this critter. The video showing the removal of the front part of the thorax to reveal infested breathing tubes (tracheae) is extraordinary. As opposed to most of the other evil doers, Dr. Spivak discusses why it might not be the best alternative to treat for tracheal mites (treatments are discussed nevertheless). In addition, all honey bee defense mechanisms for American foulbrood and Varroa (e.g. hygienic behavior) do not confer tolerance for tracheal mite.

This article just exposes the tip of the iceberg of the material presented in the University of Minnesota Healthy Bees Online Course “Keeping Bees Healthy (And On Their Own Six Feet).” Here I have only been able to discuss the three most virulent villains. There are seven total, and include the latest introduced exotic organism, small hive beetle, Aethina tumida. I hope I have convinced you to register for this extraordinary course, and like me become eligible upon completion for your own Warrior’s Certificate.