Notes from Dr. Jamie Ellis’ Varroa Presentation and My 2018 Plan

Dr. Jamie Ellis, University of Florida

Dr. Jamie Ellis, University of Florida

It was a pleasure to visit the 40th Annual Tri-County Beekeeper’s conference in Wooster, OH again this March.  I missed last year but made sure to attend this year with both Randy Oliver and Jamie Ellis on board as speakers.

The focus, and rightfully so, for both Jamie and Randy was the Varroa mite. I follow Randy’s website updates throughout the year, especially his “blue towel” notes, with great interest.  

Dr. Jamie Ellis in particular was fun to listen to as I’d not had the opportunity until this conference to hear him speak. He is a professor at the University of Florida, married with four children, one of which sat with us at his presentations watching an iPad with headphones on. :) Here’s a brief bio on him:

Dr. Ellis is the Gahan Associate Professor of Entomology in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of Florida. At the University of Florida, Dr. Ellis has responsibilities in extension, instruction and research related to honey bees. Regarding his extension work, Dr. Ellis created the UF, South Florida, and Caribbean Bee Colleges, and the UF Master Beekeeper Program. As an instructor, Dr. Ellis supervises Ph.D. and masters students in addition to offering an online course in apiculture. Dr. Ellis and his team conduct research projects in the fields of honey bee husbandry, conservation and ecology, and integrated crop pollination. 

There was much value in his presentations, especially for newer beekeepers or those who aren’t paying enough attention to varroa. Jamie started at a high level and attempted to help us understand both some misconceptions and the harsh realities regarding mites in the U.S. that he has tracked carefully since at least 2000.

I might distill down the key takeaways from my perspective as follows: 

  1.  Years of data since 2006 are showing that poor queens, nutrition, and most importantly, MITES are the major players year after year in killing our bees — not CCD, and not pesticides although chem is of course an important factor.
  2. Sample for mites. Sample for mites. Sample for mites.  Alchol wash is best. We should be sampling in Ohio probably every couple months, more in warmer climes. We should be careful to obtain before and after data to ensure our treatments were effective.
  3. As a general rule, treat when you hit 3 mites per 100 bees (3%) and you should sample 20% of your bees in small apiaries, spot checking in a large operation. Above that threshold and you can expect a collapse is coming. 
  4. All the data on treatment options to make educated decisions can be found at in incredible website Honey Bee Health Coalition and in particular their varroa page: Tools for Varroa Management
  5. The PDF found on that page is most helpful,  Tools for Varroa Management
  6. They are learning that varroa mites feed on bee fat, not on bee blood as commonly communicated (this has many implications for future treatment ideas)

Lots of good stuff as you can see! It was well worth the time driving to Wooster and back.

I’ve been thinking long the last 18 months about the OTS methodology (brood breaks, new queens, healthy bees) and if it alone was sufficient for managing mites. At a base level, I could say “yes” but with living with the reality over five years that the best I could expect for a winter survival rate with OTS alone was around 80% and sometimes only 60%. I’m not satisfied with 60% and started playing with oxalic acid knowing that is was more of an “organic” acid that doesn’t leave residue and can be used properly and not compromise honey consumption.

By this Spring my main idea and plan was this: continue doing OTS and take advantage of this break at 21 days to do my oxalic vapor treatment. The benefits are at least three-fold:

  1. All mites by then are phoretic (living on the bodies of bees and not under capping) and thus susceptible to oxalic contact, making the vapor treatment very effective
  2. With all mites phoretic, I only have to apply the treatment once, saving much time and making this quite scalable
  3. Much less colony exposure to oxalic with one treatment, instead of three over many days

During one of his presentations, Jamie pulled up the PDF mentioned above. I skipped ahead while he spoke and, much to my delight, this basic idea was outlined as an acceptable plan for treatment. At the end of the document, the major treatment methods are discussed including their pros and cons. Brood breaks happens to be one of these and is the main power in the OTS method. And, like I have personally experienced, it is sometimes just not enough. The PDF indicates that additional help is needed. Conversely, the information on the oxalic treatment discusses the pros and cons. It’s main issue? Non-phoretic mites within cells out of reach of oxalic! Can you see where we’re headed? :)   

With all that said, I’m confident now in my plan, which I experimented with this past year with 87% survival at this point with colonies expanding. The plan will be OTS brood breaks in April a week before swarm season and again at the end of June around summer solstice. At the 21+ day mark, I will do one treatment of oxalic vapor (with the Provap tool). And, I will up my game with alcohol wash sampling every other month, starting in April.

For those beekeepers wanting to be “treatment free” I think OTS offers one of the best methods, but I don’t think you can slide by without consistent and quality sampling for mites using an alcohol wash. You could be harming other beekeepers around you and, of course, your own bees if you get a mite problem in one or more of your hives. I personally think the responsible thing is to sample and know your mite rates. For those of you okay with oxalic as I am, I think the plan above is solid. 

7 Key Principles for Successful OTS ("On The Spot") Queen Rearing and Colony Increase

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Before We Begin, What Is "OTS" Again?

"OTS" stands for "On the spot queen rearing" as coined and discovered by Mel Disselkoen. You can buy his 2016 book on the subject here. Essentially, Mel discovered that you can easily direct the bees to raise queen cells on any frame with 36-hour or younger larvae by moving the queen to another hive and notching below said larvae. The original now-queenless colony will quickly raise high-quality queen cells you can use to requeen or increase your colony count.

And, Tell Me Again: Why Does OTS Work?

I've personally seen OTS prove itself time and again among beekeepers of all ages, experience-levels and skill. It just works. In fact, it's so simple, many beekeepers refuse to believe its merits and some even disparage the idea. But, for those of us "OTS-ers" who maintain and grow apiaries, sell bees and honey year after year... well, we KNOW it works!

Here's a few reasons why OTS works:

  • OTS is done right at the hive, in your apiary, when you're ready. 
  • It is very quick and simple, with the initial notching and splitting done in a few minutes per colony.
  • No tools or fancy equipment are needed to notch ― just bring your basic hive tool or use a small stick, for that matter!
  • OTS is so simple, in fact, anyone can do it with little training ― all that is required is a basic understanding of what a newly hatched larva looks like and how to notch just below the larva.
  • You are raising local bees in the process and are now no longer dependent upon shipping purchased queens and bees to your apiary from other regions
  • You are essentially raising your own local survivor stock ― as Mel likes to say, "The best bees are the bees you can raise in your own yard!"
  • OTS queen rearing means you will likely never touch the queen from egg to laying. Your queens will never be caged, handled or shipped.
  • OTS, done at the right time, will control swarming.
  • The process of raising queens with OTS requires a brood break which also breaks the mites breeding cycle ― your bees can then outbreed the mites and have healthier bees going into winter, less damaged by large mite populations and the diseases they vector.
  • Young overwintered queens you raise in the summer will explode the following spring when colonies begin to expand again.
  • With OTS, you will never need to buy bees again!

7 Key Principles To Remember for Successful "OTS" Queen Rearing and Colony Increase

I am blessed to have come across Mel's OTS methods back in 2012. Since then it has revolutionized my beekeeping. Here are seven principles that I've learned (often the hard way) that would be helpful for you to become really familiar with:

  1. Only healthy colonies with substantial resources can raise strong queens ― This applies to any queen-rearing method. Unless you have healthy bees to begin with, you can't expect success. Only work with strong healthy colonies that have plenty of resources and break up the weak  (the sooner the better). At a minimum, a strong colony in early Spring would need at least 5+ solid frames of capped brood, all covered with bees and 2-3 frames of honey and pollen. I would hesitate to raise queen cells on anything weaker than this.
  2. Strong hives must always do the work of building cells ― A key mistake I see often repeated among new beekeepers is asking small nucs to build cells. It just doesn't works. You end up with small, immature queens that often won't even get mated. When doing OTS properly, the original queen is removed along with a couple frames of brood and bees (that's it!) with a frame or two of honey and placed in it's own box. The original colony, now queenless, is the only colony strong enough to raise queen cells, having 4 or more frames of brood, lots of bees and resources. This original colony only is tasked with raising cells. Notch one or more frames with larva and then come back a week later and cull cells down to just the largest 2. If you are wanting to make splits, you would break this remaining colony further into 2 or 3 colonies, each with a frame that includes a queen cell, with the bees and resources evenly distributed amongst them.
  3. Getting the 2-step, 1-week process down: Notching one weekend and culling / splitting the next. ― Beekeeping has much to do with timing. Some things, like raising queens, you just can't forget or miss. I like doing OTS on Saturdays which makes things simple. On the first Saturday I remove the queen and notch frames. Exactly one week later, on Saturday, I come back and cull cells, leaving only 2-3 cells in any colony. I then do any splitting desired, with each split getting 1 frame with a couple cells. 
  4. Two key times to notch: Early spring to control swarming (vital!), early summer for increase, new queens and breaking mite cycle. ― The first notching time is vitally dependent on weather and your locale. Talk with at least 2-3 old-time beekeepers in your county and find out when they think swarming season is and ask them again when it's getting close. You want to notch ONE WEEK before swarming begins. Too soon and it might be too cold or not enough resources. Too late and your colonies may already be in swarm mode which is another blog post for another time. Bottom-line: you don't want to lose your dollars and time with swarming bees. The second notching time would be around solstice (June 21) give or take a week. At this time, all queens in my yard are replaced. That's right, all of them. This will force every colony in the yard to endure a 25-30 day brood break which has both pros and cons. The pros far outweigh the cons from my experience. I time this break to take advantage of the Basswood flow in my neighborhood. With no brood to raise, the colonies can fill a box in a good year. As well, this broodless period breaks the mites reproductive cycle and allows the bees to stay ahead of them. You will see about 10-15% mating failures which is the case for anyone raising queens. Those bees can be reincorporated back into your other colonies.
  5. Always cull notched frames down to 2 cells ― It's another common mistake to see folks letting a dozen queens fight it out in their colonies which can lead to dead or weakened queens. Do the work for them and cull the cells down to just 2-3 cells per colony that are raising queens. I personally select for the largest cells that appear to have the most royal jelly in them, and cut out any small, weaker-looking cells quickly with my hive tool. Let your queens expend their energy and time on maturing and mating flights, not duking it out.
  6. Be ruthless with weak or laying worker hives ― don't waste your time, instead make use of the resources. Many beekeepers spend countless hours and days trying to prop up weak or queenless colonies. With OTS, you'll have more colonies than you know what to do with, allowing you to be ruthless with under-performing, weak or laying worker hives. I have zero tolerance now for weak colonies and break them up, distributing the comb and resources to other colonies. It saves time, money, headache, and makes for more enjoyable beekeeping. As well, your investment will be in strong genetics and bees, rather than propping up weak genetics.
  7. Enough boxes and frames on hand in advance ― the problem with OTS is no longer losing bees, but having enough equipment prepped in advance. I find that I need to plan ahead and have more frames and boxes than I thought I might need. Think about it ― with OTS, you can reasonably expand every colony in your yard at least 5 times per season. That's right, five times. For example, this year (2017) in my home apiary, I took 11 overwintered colonies and expanded to over 60 colonies, selling 16, giving my son 10, and will over-winter 30+ colonies. I intentionally don't sell much honey because I like to raise and sell bees. But if I did, I would re-combine some of those splits into big honey hives at the right time to capture nectar flows in our neighborhood.

I trust this will be of help to some. Feel free to ask any questions on this pots or join the OTS Beekeeping group on Facebook and chat with the community anytime.

John Schwartz

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July 2017 update from Mel Disselkoen

A nice update from Mel Disselkoen today at his website. If you have any questions about the content or terms he uses, just let me know.

Mel with his spring starts stacked and separated by Snelgrove boards with each colony entrance facing a different direction

Mel with his spring starts stacked and separated by Snelgrove boards with each colony entrance facing a different direction

Mel writes:

In the fall of 2016 I went into winter with 13 July OTS-queen starts that were fed 24 pounds of sugar syrup from September 15th to October 1st. All 13 starts survived the winter on location. That is 100% survival.

On May 6th, 2017, I pulled the overwintered queen and 2 frames of brood (artificial swarm) from each of the 13 starts and moved them to a different yard. While I was working through each of those hives to find and pull the overwintered queen and brood frames, I notched the 36-hour-or-younger larvae on the brood frames that would remain, which resulted in 13 queen-less cell builders at that location.

Seven days later, 42 starts were made with the sealed queen cells from those cell builders. Because of the wet spring and low, 30F night-time temperatures, all of the starts were leT on the same location and stacked in towers with each colony start separated by Snelgrove boards and all colony entrances facing different directions to prevent drift (see photo). Most of these starts have been sold but I kept the bottom one to show at the July 1, 2017 field day to demonstrate how to properly divide starts. I am not going to bring back any of the artificial swarms that were moved on May 6th as they are too strong. These strong colonies will be used to rear July starts for next spring’s bees (see chart page 32 ). 

The July meeting went very well with beekeepers visiting from many states. I leT the hive at the far right intact but I killed all of the queens, notched one frame to run it as a honey hive, and removed all Snelgrove boards. This honey hive is now a powerhouse with over 20 frames of finishing brood. Since this colony cannot rear any new brood unGl the new queen is reared and mated, the full force of the colony is focused on harvesting the Michigan honey crop which should amount to over 300 pounds of honey. In the near future, I will have to remove frames of honey so that the hive won’t get too tall.

A subject that we revisited during the July meeting is the ongoing challenge of keeping bees near agrichemical applications. Always remember that before we had Varroa, we beekeepers oTen experienced bee kill from insecticides and pesticides. Just because Varroa came on the scene does not mean that we do not have insecticide and pesticide kills anymore. The abiding agrichemical hazards are as challenging and harmful to honeybees as ever so don’t let anyone program you into believing that all beekeeping problems are caused by Varroa. I have seen this messaging in the beekeeping journals and magazines and hope that you won’t be misguided by this “fake news.” I would like to thank everyone for their participation and I wish you all the best for a very successful season and happy, healthy honeybees colonies!

Mel