“Thoughts on Survivor Bees”

Bee Culture (November 2005), Vol. 133 (11): 47-49




Malcolm T. Sanford


In my August 2005 article on survivor bees around the world, I mentioned the Russian Primorski stock that has now been introduced into the United States.  A recent review of this program includes the rationale, process and timeline for this introduction, which is now entering a new phase, more heavily dependent on beekeeper input.1   Although the success of this project cannot really be gauged at this time, many beekeepers have voiced disappointment.  Complaints consist of the fact that these bees do not produce as much honey as hybrid bees currently in use, are much more difficult to requeen, and supersede quickly because they continuously build and tear down many queen cells.  However, these behavioral traits may mean a lot in terms of Varroa tolerance, the reason the Russians were introduced in the first place.  The long-range solution will no doubt be that U.S. beekeepers faced with Russian stock behavior will adapt their management to its peculiarities to be successful.


Humans historically have adapted to honey bees that are endemic in a specific region.  They engage in purposeful introduction of other bees from elsewhere at considerable risk to their enterprise.  The history of worldwide introduction of Varroa destructor speaks eloquently and sadly to this fact.  Biogeography of honey bees, thus, is an important area of study.  Unfortunately, it has never been much of a focus for investigators in the United States, perhaps because funding for this kind of research is extremely scarce.  However, it remains of great interest to Europeans. 


A symposium at the Third European Congress on Social Insects, sponsored by the European branch of the International Union for the Study of Social Insects (IUSSI) held in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 22-27, 2005, focused on biodiversity of honey bees.  Ibrahim Çakmak, Uludag University, Turkey revealed information on the various races of Apis mellifera found in Anatolia.  These include A. m. anatoliaca (populations of this race also differ from east to west inTurkey), A. m. carnica (Thrace), A. m. armeriaca (convergence of the Black Sea, Ilgaz and Taurus mountain ranges), A. m. caucasica (eastern Black Sea), and A. m. syriaca in eastern Turkey, bordering Syria and Iraq.  He concluded that honey bees in Turkey differ not only in morphometrics, but also in foraging behavior, and this diversity can be exploited in finding bees tolerant to diseases and pests.  There is evidence, however, that hybridization between races is occurring at a rapid rate due to migratory beekeeping in the country.  Fortunately, pockets of endemic bees can still be found managed by stationary beekeepers.


A.G. Nikolenko, Urfa Scientific Center, Russia, reported on the critical condition of the black European  honey bee (Apis mellifera mellifera).  Much of the decline in this subspecies has to do with habitat destruction; however, hybridization through migratory beekeeping is also taking a toll.  Four intact local populations, nevertheless, have been identified based on immune response, measured by levels of antioxidants such as glyukozo-6-phosphatedehydrogenase.  Immune responses, the author concluded, can be used to separate races and also be employed in breeding programs.  Specific population buildup data for bees in Northwestern Caucasia, Krasnodar region were also reported  by Larisa Moreva, Kuban State University, Russia.


A symposium on swarming in honey bees somewhat paralleled that concerning biodiversity.  Again Ibrahim Çakmak took the lead by reporting information on swarming by the various races of honey bees found in Turkey.  A. m. caucasica swarms at most once a year in its native range, producing only ten to twenty queen cells, whereas A. m. carnica may cast as many as three swarms per season and builds more swarm cells.  Both races, however, swarm far less than A. m. anatoliaca, even though they all appear to be adapted to cold winters in their native range. 


Correlated with higher swarming rates in A. m. anatoliaca is a dry hot summer season.  The same is true for A. m. syriaca, which swarms far more frequently and may build hundreds of queen cells.  This is due to a combination of several things, including unpredictable weather (hot, dry desert conditions) and the fact that it does not have to store as much honey as bees in the north because the winter season is typically wet enough to promote vegetative flowering.  In addition, this race is often challenged by an enlarged group of predators, including two wasps, known to kill entire colonies on occasion.  Although not mentioned in the paper, this author would add the bee eating bird (Merops. sp.) to this list.  Swarming to avoid predation, therefore, is not out of the question.


Readers may remember my musings on Iraqi beekeeping in the August article:  It could be that in a rural village without many resources, a system based on many more traditional, smaller colonies that are not treated and encouraged to swarm and become ‘survivors’ would be more productive in the aggregate than one founded on larger moveable-frame colonies that require treatment and more resources.  Frequent reproductive and migratory swarming are also thought to be one of the reasons that Africanized honey bees in Brazil are mite tolerant and require no treatment.”

I then asked for feedback from readers based on the following questions:


1.      If you were to counsel those beginning from “scratch,” in a region where the bees and people have been devastated by conflict, how much would you suggest relying on local “survivor” bees?  How long could or would you recommend waiting for an industry based on such a stock to develop?


2.      If you needed new genetic material quickly, how would you go about importing queens from the rest of the world with minimal risk?  (Note: so far Acarapis woodi has not been found in Iraq and AFB and EFB are present, but apparently not at epidemic levels; small hive beetle has yet to make an appearance).


3.      In rural villages with established populations of bees in traditional hives made of narrow woven baskets covered with wood ash as a wattle, would you recommend immediate transfer to Langstroth moveable-frame hives and elimination of the traditional hives as is currently proposed?  If not, what would you recommend with reference to developing sustainable and appropriate beekeeping in this setting?

Several subscribers were kind enough to send me their observations.  The majority of the remarks can be summarized in the following from a bee regulator:


The proposal of relying on the recovery of local stock is preferable for many reasons. Being in the foothills of the Caucasus Range, it is particularly valuable to retain the qualities of the native stock. While we like to see them recover quickly and re-establish a flourishing beekeeping industry, the rate of recovery is determined by many factors including the economics of beekeeping and the ability of producers to sell their hive products at a reasonable price. All what I am saying here is that the effort and support for the recovery of the beestock should go hand-in-hand with the rehabilitation of the infrastructure. This may take quite a few years evenwhen it is backed up with outside financial and logistical support.


“I recommend that this "back up" import stock should come from the region instead of overseas sources. For example, northern Iran along the Caspian Sea has had a significant beekeeping industry and it could provide significant quantities of stock.


“Transfer to Langstroth may be ultimately desirable, but for the purpose of development, it is important to first assess the ability of local beekeepers to pay for such high input costs. If much of the region is busy with reconstruction, the availability and affordability of lumber may be out of reach for many.  If woven bee hives have been a traditional hive form in the region, why not aim for a hive body using the same basic materials? I am thinking here of a modified Kenyan Top Bar hive. Instead of using lumber for the hive body, a woven basket can be used that is attached to a wooden frame on which the top bars rest. The input costs will be far lower and construction of woven baskets may offer some local employment (e.g. women's groups, etc.)


“The manufacture of hive bodies, although light industrial, still needs machinery, electricity, spare parts, in some centralized location. This immediately brings up the question of the logistics and costs of distributing hive bodies to villages and outlining areas. Even though Langstroth hive bodies may potentially provide the highest production levels, if the operating environment and infrastructure are not sufficiently established Langstroth hives will simply not be the right technology at this time. My recommendation is to tailor-make a development project with the focus on local input, providing rural families the opportunity for generating some cash flow through simple technology that is locally available and sustainable.”


I received this from a long-time commercial beekeeper:


“If you look at history, when bees were kept in skeps, hollow logs and box hives, the production was around 5 lbs per hive per year and disease was rampant.  When laws were passed requiring moveable frames production increased to the 70 - 100 lb range.  Modern hives are easier to manage in all respects; requeening, moving for pollination or to maximize production, making splits, etc.  I would definitely go with modern hives.


“As for survivor bees, you need to have some understanding of how they survived.  It is my conviction that most survivor hives have survived because of environmental conditions rather than genetics.  Hives in the wild usually have a deep void under them and most mites that fall off do not make it back up to the colony.  Wild hives also swarm often, breaking the reproductive cycle of both the mites and the bees.  After swarming the bees rebuild faster than the mites and therefore can survive longer.  Those that don't rebuild faster do not survive.  Neither mechanism is adaptable to modern beekeeping.

If you go with the non-movable hive then I would go with survivor stock.  But everyone should be aware that it will take 15 to 20 traditional hives to equal one moveable frame hive.”


And this from a bee scientist: 


“Stay with the old bees and the old bee equipment.  Changes will only be possible once you have a group of beekeepers working as a unit or a team.”


Another observation:


“Wholesale transfer to moveable frame hives without appropriate guidance is probably the fastest way of getting AFB and EFB up to epidemic proportions and thus eliminating the incipient beekeeping industry or forcing it into being dependant on chemicals.  Beekeepers are always reluctant to renew brood comb and it is so easy not to with moveable frames in stacks of boxes, thus allowing disease organisms to build up.


“Depending on what is traditional in that area and the forage available and the habits of the native strain, a life cycle of 2 - 3 years for each colony with renewals from swarms could be indefinitely sustainable and rely only on local inputs.  Output would not be maximised but could be high value, including as medicine.  There would also be a regular harvest of wax which has a multitude of uses and can be turned into value - added products, often on a small scale as cottage industries.


“This approach keeps the income close to the original producer and may be a way of bringing income and therefore power to the distaff side.  The beekeepers would probably do well to supply high quality products in limited quantities for the local market at a good price rather than to over-produce and have to dump surplus through packers onto the over-supplied world market.


“I can't remember the name of the economist who made a study of the subject as

if people mattered (cobblers is in my mind) but he coined the phrase 'small is beautiful' and I think it is appropriate in this instance.”2

Finally, I am preserving the words and tone in this comment.  Sometimes English spoken from non-native perspective has greater impact than when conventionally expressed.

“I play with the notion that men trying to impose it's will to nature's doings and more often than not  we find ourselves at the  short end of the stick . So, to me it  became cut and dry : The genetic  features are to be preserved  and  helped along the way  to  survival  of the species  without stepping on the creature's feet.

I am on the warpath with those prohibiting any transport of queen bees with attendants. Is there evidence that queens had  phoretic mites ? Can an inspection be of validity ? Yes ! . Therefore queen shipments of SMR queens  would  give the start up a boost .  I take a dim view of bureaucratic  arguments  since all this  quarantine stuff and associated  ballyhoo  did  nothing  to prevent the spread of  critters or diseases  but guaranteed the  salaries of the  officials.”




  1. Rinderer, et. al. 2005.  “A New Phase Begins for the USDA-ARS Russian Honey Bee Breeding Program,” American Bee Journal, Vol. 145, no. 7, pp 579-582).
  2. Schumacher, E.F. 1989  Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper Perennial Press ISBN: 0060916303).