“Survivor Bees Around the World; Why I No Longer Keep Bees”
Bee Culture (August 2005), Vol. 133 (8): 19-21.




Malcolm T. Sanford

In my October 2004 article on mite tolerance in honey bees, I mentioned the July 2004 article by Dr. Tom Seeley, who is increasingly finding mite tolerant bees in Cornell University’s Arnot Forest. At that time, I said, “The fact that honey bees can take care of themselves in spite of being subjected to the ravages of an introduced, exotic species, the external (outside) parasitic mite Varroa destructor, which has been responsible for the death of so many managed colonies, should astonish no one.  This has already been seen in bee populations in the wilds of Western Russia near Vladivostok (Primorski stock) and reported in Serbia with Carniolan bees (Apis mellifera carnica), giving rise to “Yugo” stock.  Hints of it have shown up elsewhere in Europe, which has a much longer history of mite infestation than the Americas.  Finally, it is taken for granted in Brazil, where a huge beekeeping industry is beginning to flourish in spite of universal challenge by these mites.”

Since then, I have found more evidence of untreated survivor stock.  Yves Le Conte

UMR 406 INRA/UAPV Écologie des Invertébrés, Laboratoire Biologie et Protection de l’abeille, Site Agroparc, Domaine Saint-Paul, 84914 AVIGNON Cedex 9, France; E-mail:  leconte#avignon.inra.fr reports the following at the First European Conference of Apidology, Udine, Italy 19-23 September 2004:


Varroa destructor invaded France in 1982 and spread all over the country in a few years. The feral colonies disappeared, completely destroyed by the mite. In 1994, a few feral colonies could be observed back in different places. An experiment was designed to look at the survival of those colonies, especially after the winter, to be sure that it could not be swarms introducing the same sites. We made an investigation to evaluate the presence of feral and untreated colonies surviving to the mite, and collected about 40 colonies untreated since at least 2 years. We confirmed the ability of bee colonies to survive to the mite, some of them being untreated since 9 years”


And I reported in April 2005 on the research by Dr. John Kefuss  presented at the American Beekeeping Federation  Convention in Reno, Nevada in January:  “Dr. Kefuss has seen survival increase in colonies since 1993 in France through use of his James Bond test, ‘live and let die.’  This is often not rapid enough to confer Varroa tolerance for his taste, and so he has also implemented the ‘Bond accelerated treatment’ or BAT.  Varroa-infested brood is directly introduced into colonies to provide greater challenges.  In many cases 90 percent of the colonies so infested are dead in less than six months, but the ones that survive are good candidates for further breeding efforts.  To maintain tolerance (resistance) Dr. Kefuss instrumentally inseminates daughters of resistant queens, and then spreads them out in different bee yards, where they are often naturally mated.  In his own words, ‘Actually what we do is even more simple. Once we have selected breeder queens we produce virgins from them that are taken to out yards to mate. We also sometimes inseminate to produce breeder queens from our best stock. From these inseminated breeder queens we produce virgins that we mate naturally. So actually a beekeeper does not have to use insemination at all and should be able to get very good results.’”


Recently, my travels have taken me to the war-ravaged country of Iraq to consult with beekeepers there about rebuilding their apicultural enterprise.  Because of security concerns, I did not enter Iraq proper, but spent my time in the northern part of the country, the semi-autonomous entity known as Kurdistan.1  This area has undergone formidable challenges due to many years of conflict.  The most serious was the era when Saddam Hussein attempted to eradicate the Kurdish population through military might.  The heart of this campaign was to literally destroy the many villages that dotted the landscape using any means possible, including heavy equipment and poisonous gas. 


Those able to escape fled into the mountains to resume a time-honored activity as peshmerga irregulars.  These fighters that literally “face death” are formidable warriors with a history going as far back as the 1920s and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Along with human refugees, I learned that the honey bees kept in traditional basket hives were also victims of the conflict, and many of those also escaped into the nearby mountains.  Like their human counterparts, therefore, peshmerga honey bees also now inhabit the Kurdish landscape in the foothills and high mountains that constitute the border between Iraq and Iran. 


As I bumped over the roads of northern Iraq (Kurdistan), I realized that this provided a unique opportunity for the region to begin to develop beekeeping from scratch via “peshmerga” bees.  Literally from the ashes of Kurdistan apiculture could arise a Phoenix of an industry based on untreated “survivor” honey bees, not dependent on chemicals for treatment of Varroa as found in much of the rest of the world.  Is this just an academic dream or a real possibility?  Only time will tell, but in the meantime I am asking my colleagues and readers to send me reflections 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?


Ever since I sold my hives of bees in Ohio and moved to Florida in the 1980s, I have thought about reconstituting a personal apiary.  Although I have kept bees in a number of settings in the past, since becoming a full-time academic this has not been the case.  My reticent to reenter the activity has caused some anxious moments during my career.  How could I as an apicultural consultant expect to have any credibility if I personally did not engage in the activity?  I was asked the question again in Kurdistan and as usual my answer raised a few eyebrows.  In response, I prepared a talk on the subject entitled:  “Why I no longer keep bees.”


The major reasons I no longer keep bees include the fact that it is takes much more time, effort and expense that it did in the past.  In addition, the keeping of bees forces me to be something that I really have no interest in becoming, a pesticide applicator.  Thus, the activity no longer appeals to me as enjoyable.  In summary, there are two words that have caused me to abandon keeping honey bees: Varroa destructor. 


It is indeed ironic that the cause of my abandoning the beekeeping craft has and continues to be other beekeepers.  The indiscriminant, purposeful movement of bees and associated mites around the world by humans has caused enormous transformation.  The history of the introduction of Varroa, and the alacrity with which beekeepers around the world clambered aboard the “pesticide treadmill” in response are tragic and well known.  I was right in the thick of it as first Acarapis woodi (tracheal mite) came to Florida in 1984, followed by Varroa jacobsoni (now Varroa destructor) in 1987.  As time went by it became clear that I simply was not going to have neither the time nor temperament to have colonies of my own.


My discussion with the Iraqis included the usual litany of pesticide use, emergence of resistance to various products, and the inevitable search for more toxic substitutes.  I finished with a discussion of the recent findings with respect of tolerant and “survivor bees.”  As part of that I mentioned the fact that in Iraq the ultimate survivor bees do exist, but it would take time and patience to find and propagate them.  One of the best ways to start would be to take another look at traditional basket hive beekeeping, which supports a larger population of bees in smaller hives that are often not managed by beekeepers at all. 


This brings to mind Kirk Webster’s article in the March 2005 Bee Culture entitled: Restoring Health.  “After many dreary years,” Mr. Webster begins, “when the American beekeeping community seemed unshakably committed to stop-gap mite control measures that were sure to prove self-destructive in the long run, there are now popping up around the country various success stories from beekeepers producing good crops of honey, pollen, bees and queens without the powerful hormone-disrupting chemicals; and in some cases without any treatments at all.


He concludes: “The key point here is that now there’s a viable and growing pool of unrelated, mite-resistant bee stocks and management techniques being used in the U.S. that all beekeepers can test, combine and utilize in their own locations and  circumstances.  All regions of the country should now be able to move toward really healthy bees and long-term solutions to our beekeeping problems.  This is enormously good news.”


Indeed it is and not just for North America.  What really caught my eye, however, was Mr. Webster’s statements concerning his three apiary “departments.”  He concluded that honey-producing colonies, with a large brood nest throughout the active season, were most vulnerable and easily destroyed by mites.  Those devoted to nuc production, however, were able to stay healthy for a significantly longer time.


He wrote, “Every year, a portion of the overwintered nucs are (sic) retained and allowed to grow onto 20-30 combs.  Then, in June and July, each one of these large brood nests is broken up into from five to 10 four-frame nucs and provided with queens from the isolated mating yard.  All of these nucs spend the following winter outdoors on just four or eight combs.  Once the Russian stock became available, and the new queens were mated with proven drone mothers, I was able to wean this part of the apiary off all treatments in just one generation.  Losses are higher than in the ‘good old days,’ but the enormous productivity of  the system compensates for this, and now all the new queens are tested in the real world, and forced to sink or swim independent of half-baked theories, and the bias caused by counting mites.”


The “productivity” of Mr. Webster’s nuc-producing colonies might mirror itself in a similar system in Iraq where the smaller traditional basket hives would be less apt to be overcome by mites than larger colonies based on the Langstroth hive.  The traditional colonies are propagated by using the bees’ swarming behavior to make increase.  Bees in the earlier part of the season can often outstrip the mite population in growth, but are overcome later in the year when the bee population inevitably declines and is overcome by increasing mite numbers. 


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.


Mr. Webster concludes: “My income was reduced as  I invested my time and energy into the hope of a better future for my apiary.  This may be an un-American stance to take…but I think it’s essential if the next generation is going to enjoy keeping bees as much as we have.”


To this statement, I can only add a resounding “amen.”  As I told those in Iraq, I’ve waited a long time to resume my beekeeping activities.




1.  Kurdistan Observer, accessed June 20, 2005 <http://home.cogeco.ca/~kurdistan3/26-6-04-opinion-ardishir-who-decide-for-kurdistan.html>