Darwinian Beekeeping

This is a document summarising Thomas D Seeley's article in the American Bee Journal

                If you are inclined, the original is at https://www.naturalbeekeepingtrust.org/darwinian-beekeeping
                Those interested might like the BIBBA website at https://bibba.com/


An evolutionary perspective on beekeeping may lead to better understanding of the maladies of our bees. Honey bees have a stunningly long evolutionary history. But conventional beekeeping disrupts and endangers the lives of colonies.


There are 27 subspecies of Apis mellifera. Within the geographical range of each subspecies natural selection produced ecotypes, which are fine-tuned, locally adapted populations.  For example, one ecotype of the subspecies Apis mellifera mellifera evolved in the Landes region of southwest France, with its biology tightly linked to the massive bloom of heather in August and September.  Colonies native to this region have a second strong peak of brood rearing in August that helps them exploit this heather bloom. 


Bee hunting began to be superseded by beekeeping some 10,000 years ago. Today there are considerable differences between the environment of evolutionary adaptation that shaped the biology of wild honey bee colonies and the current circumstances of managed honey bee colonies.  Wild and managed live under different conditions because we beekeepers, like all farmers, modify the environments in which our livestock live to boost their productivity. Unfortunately, these changes in the living conditions of agricultural animals often make them more prone to pests and pathogens.


Ways in which the living conditions of honey bees differ between wild and managed colonies:


1: Genetic adaption to locations: Wild bees are adapted to the climate and flora of their geographic ranges and adapted to a particular environment. Managed bees may be living where they are be poorly suited.


2: Spacing of colonies: Crowded managed colonies experience greater competition for forage, greater risk of being robbed, and greater problems reproducing (e.g., swarms combining and queens entering wrong hives after mating). This boosts pathogen and parasite transmission. This keeps alive the virulent strains of the bees' disease agents.


3: Hive size: In the wild in relatively small nest cavities. In managed colonies, larger hives. This changes the ecology of honey bees.  In larger hives more honey can be stored but they swarm less which weakens natural selection for the strong and healthy. Colonies in large hives suffer greater problems with brood parasites such as Varroa.


4: Nest envelope of antimicrobial plant resin: Wild colonies add an envelope of propolis to the rough walls of their hive. Managed colonies do not add this resulting in an increased cost of colony defense against pathogens because they have to invest in more costly immune system activity (i.e., synthesis of antimicrobial peptides).


5: Thickness of hive walls: Wild hives have thick walls, managed colonies often have thin walls. The rate of heat loss for a wild colony living in a typical tree cavity is 4-7 times lower than for a managed colony living in a standard wooden hive.


6: Entrance size and position: Wild colonies often have high and small entrances, managed low and large. This makes managed colonies more vulnerable to robbing and predation, and it may lower their winter survival (low entrances blocked by snow).


7: Amount of drone comb: Managed colonies often have little or no space for drone cells, which hampers natural selection for colony health.


8: Stable nest organisation: Wild bees organize their nests with a precise 3-D organization: compact broodnest surrounded by pollen stores and honey stored above. Managed beekeeping practices, such as inserting empty combs to reduce congestion in the broodnest, hamper thermoregulation and may disrupt egg laying and pollen storage.


9: Hive relocations: Managed, migratory beekeeping forces foragers to relearn the landmarks and to find new sources of nectar, pollen, and water. One study found this reduces weight gains compared with colonies already in that location.


10: Disturbance: Wild colonies experience fewer disturbances (eg bear attacks); managed hives are often cracked open, smoked, and manipulated. One study found disturbed colonies gained 20-30% less weight than undisturbed ones during a honey flow.


11: Dealing with new diseases: Historically, colonies dealt only with the parasites and pathogens that they had living with for a long time, having evolved means of surviving with their agents of disease. Modern human activity has triggered the spread of Varroa, Small Hive Beetle, Chalkbrood and Acarine mite.


12: Range of food sources: Some managed colonies experience low diversity pollen diets and poorer nutrition. One study showed that bees fed the polyfloral pollen lived longer than those fed the monofloral pollens.


13: Diets: Some colonies are fed protein supplements to stimulate colony growth. This is thoght to result in workers of poorer quality.


14: Exposure to toxins: Insecticides and fungicides are new toxins of honey bees. The bees have not had time to evolve detoxification mechanisms. Honey bees are now exposed to an ever increasing list of pesticides and fungicides that can synergise to cause harm to bees.


15: Treatment for diseases: When colonies are treated the host-parasite balance is disturbed and the natural selection for disease resistance is weakened. Most managed colonies in North America and Europe possess little resistance to Varroa mites, but there are wild colonies on both continents that have evolved strong resistance to these mites. Treating colonies with acaracides and antibiotics may also interfere with the microbiomes of a colony's bees.


16: Management as sources of pollen and honey. Managed bees are housed in large hives, so they are less apt to reproduce (swarm) and there is less scope for natural selection for healthy colonies.  Also, the vast quantity of brood in large-hive colonies renders them vulnerable to population explosions of Varroa mites and other disease agents.


17: Loss of beeswax: Removing beeswax imposes a serious energetic burden.  The weight-to-weight efficiency of beeswax synthesis from sugar is at best about 0.1, so every pound of wax taken from a colony costs it some 10 pounds of honey.


18: Queen rearing selection: When we graft day-old larvae into artificial queen cups during queen rearing, we prevent the bees from choosing which larvae will develop into queens.  When bees have to undertake emergency queen rearing they do not choose larvae at random and instead favor those of certain patrilines.


19: Competition for mating. In breeding programs that use artificial insemination, the drones that provide sperm do not have to prove their vigor by competing amongst other drones for mating.  This weakens the sexual selection.


20: Drone brood removal: Removing drone brood to control Varroa interferes with natural selection for colonies that are healthy enough to invest heavily in drone production.


Ten Suggestions for Darwinian Beekeeping


1. Work with bees adapted to your location: Buy queens and nucs produced nearby or use bait hives to capture swarms from the wild colonies living in your area. Such swarms will build new comb which will retire old comb with heavy loads of pesticide residues and pathogens.


2. Space hives as widely as possible: In woodland the natural spacing is roughly a half mile apart. In more urban areas just 30-50 yards apart in an apiary greatly reduces drifting and thus the spread of disease.


3. House your bees in small hives: Consider just one deep hive body for a broodnest and one medium-depth super over a queen excluder for honey.  You won't harvest as much honey, but you will likely have reduced disease and pest problems. there will be more swarming, but swarming is natural and promotes colony health by breaking Varroa reproduction cycles.


4. Roughen the inner walls of your hives, or build them of rough-sawn lumber: This will stimulate your colonies to coat the interior surfaces of their hives with propolis, thereby creating antimicrobial envelopes around their nests.


5. Use hives whose walls provide good insulation: either built of thick lumber, or made of plastic foam.


6. Position hives as high off the ground as possible: On top of a porch or on a roof, perhaps.


7. Let 10-20% of the comb in your hives be drone comb: This can help improve the genetics in your area.  Drones are costly, so it is only the strongest and healthiest colonies that can afford to produce large numbers of drones which means that most of the drones then come from large and healthy colonies.


8. Minimize disturbances of nest organization: When working a colony, replace each frame in its original position and orientation. Also, avoid inserting empty frames in the broodnest to inhibit swarming.


9. Minimize relocations of hives: Move colonies as rarely as possible. If you must do so, then do so when there is little forage available.


10.  Refrain from treating colonies for Varroa.  WARNING:  This last suggestion should only be adopted if you can do so carefully, as part of a program of extremely diligent beekeeping.  If you pursue treatment-free beekeeping without close attention to your colonies, then you will create a situation in your apiary in which natural selection is favoring virulent Varroa mites, not Varroa-resistant bees.  To help natural selection favor Varroa-resistant bees, you will need to monitor closely the mite levels in all your colonies and kill those whose mite populations are skyrocketing long before these colonies can collapse. By preemptively killing your Varroa-susceptible colonies, you will accomplish two important things:  1) you will eliminate your colonies that lack Varroa resistance and 2) you will prevent the "mite bomb" phenomenon of mites spreading en masse to your other colonies.  If you don't perform these preemptive killings, then even your most resistant colonies could become overrun with mites and die, which means that there will be no natural selection for mite resistance in your apiary.  Failure to perform preemptive killings can also spread virulent mites to your neighbors' colonies and even to the wild colonies in your area that are slowly evolving resistance on their own. If you are not willing to kill your mite-susceptible colonies, then you will need to treat them and requeen them with a queen of mite-resistant stock.

[NB The Natural Beekeeping Trust does not endorse pre-emptive killing of colonies. Experience in a variety of geographical regions with established large-scale treatment-free honeybee populations indicates that such practice deserves the utmost consideration. Not only has it been shown in many localities that it is unnecessary, it also prevents the exposure of the population concerned to the true pressures of natural selection.]


If you are interested in pursuing beekeeping in a way that is centered less on treating a bee colony as a honey factory, and more on nurturing the lives of honey bees, then Tom Seeley encourages you to consider what he calls Darwinian Beekeeping.  Others call it Natural Beekeeping, Apicentric Beekeeping, and Bee-friendly Beekeeping.  Whatever the name, its practitioners view a honey bee colony as a complex bundle of adaptations shaped by natural selection to maximize a colony's survival and reproduction in competition with other colonies and other organisms (predators, parasites, and pathogens).  It seeks to foster colony health by letting the bees live as naturally as possible, so they can make full use of the toolkit of adaptations that they have acquired over the last 30 million years.

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