Back to the future Ė to common beekeeping (almost)

 Marianne and Sven-Olof Ohlsson, Osterbotten, Finland 2005-2006 

Marianne and Sven-Olof Ohlsson, Munsala, ÷sterbotten, Finland 2002-2004

The season of 2005 was a good one with a lot of honey. The bees developed normally and behaved as expected. No problem with mites or any other disease. No treatement actions were done except what Iím going to describe a little further down. I watched for signs of abnormal development or behaviour, but couldnít see any in any bee colony.


The drugpath is death

My conviction is that drugs should be used as little as possible, with the norm being nothing at all. I think drugs of any kind (treatment substance) have bad influence (more or less) not only on the target bug but also on the bees and make them weaker. But most of all itís a waste of time and money if there are other durable strategies available. Selection of resistant bees and management methods helping the bees to fight enemies are important. To use a lot of drugs is counterproductive in these strategies.

In the beginning of a selection and management strategy you may loose some bees. I did, but in just a few years losses were back to what they were before the arrival of the Varroa mite.

Looking back on whatís happened in drug strategies during the years the mites have been in our beehives no other conclusion can be made than itís a bigger risk loosing a lot of hives over a longer period of years (which doesnít have to be that very long at all) than it is with breeding and management. The problems have not decreased during more than 30 years of struggle with drugs, on the contrary. The drugpath is dead. Itís breeding and management that show us the way. 

Other bees than Elgon

Wintering the bees in autumn 2005 went almost as smooth as in old days when the varroa mite wasnít present. As Iím curious I have tested also some other types of bees than Elgons. Elgons  are bees that both I and others have  contributed in breeding for resistance to the varroa mite.

In Finland we can buy mated queens in May from south of Europe. So I have tried some Slovenian Carniolans and Italian Italians. Nucs that are made with such queens in May give a crop the same year they are made, even in our short season. I though must say I donít feel satisfied with these other bees than my own (thatís always the case with us beekeepers isnít it?:-)), so Iím going to quit using them.

The Italian Italians (not Italians bred in Finland I want to point out) are unfortunately very aggressive, at least those I have tried. The Carniolans Iíve tried are too uneven in different respects. But some of the Slovenian queens are very good. I even think that it would be possible to breed a good varroa resistant strain out of them if you have many enough. I would say if you keep them on smaller cell sizes, at least down on 5.1 mm cell size, preferably on 4.9 mm. Some of the Carniolan colonies could draw foundation properly with that cell size.


As I have a mold for wax foundation with 5.1 mm cell size I havnít been so keen in going down to 4.9 mm cell size. But most of my bee colonies have at least a couple of 4.9 cell sized combs in the middle of the broodnest when I winter them.

The abnormally large cell size that has been use for quite some years in Finland is 5.4-5.5 mm. You can even find foundation molds giving cell size 5.7 mm. But more and more of us beekeepers are realizing that history has played a trick on us, as the first wax foundations made had 5 cells per inch (American inch), which is just below 5.1 mm cell size.

The combs with 5.45 mm cellsize I still have I use above the queen excluder in the honey supers and not for brood. 

Thymol the autumn of 2005

When I harvest the crop I notify if the colonies havenít developed as expected, if they are weaker than the others, also taken in consideration of course how strong they were in spring. I also check how clean they keep the bottom boards. Iíve seen a connection between varroa resistance and clean bottom boards. It seems hygienic behaviour affects mites too.

Those hives that make me suspicious regarding the mites due to the above I give a piece of thin cloth usually used in the kitchen cleaning the sink and kitchen table. In Finland itís called Wettex cloth. Pieces of 2.5 cm x 10 cm drenched with thymol solution can be bought in plastic bags with ten pieces in them. The recommendation is one piece on the top bars during four weeks just after the main harvest. At my place thatís in the beginning of August. I did this in those hives I suspected might be affected by mites and checked the downfall of mites after three days.

Those that dropped 200-300 mites (which was on the higher side) kept the piece for three weeks. Those that dropped 10-20 or so had the pieces removed.

The colonies that were tested in this way with a piece of thymol cloth were all the Italians, 5 in number, all the Carniolans, 13 in number, and about 32 Elgons and Elgon crosses. Totally about 50 colonies were tested of my 129 colonies. Many Elgon apiaries though havnít tasted any drug for many years now and many Elgon colonies have never tasted any drug of any kind.

30 of these 50 colonies had the thymol cloth for three weeks due to the number of mites dropped during the first three days. It was the 5 Italians and 10 of the 13 Carniolans. The other 15 were mainly Elgons Iíve crossed with Buckfast drones.

 Varroa and virus

Actually I donít know if this treatment was needed to get the colonies to survive. Also I can easily have missed other colonies which I didnít test, that might have had quite some mites. But there were no colonies with wintering problems. But survivability is not due to the amount of mites in first place. Colonies can sometimes have quite high amounts of mites and still survive well. Itís said virus is killing colonies in the end, maybe in cooperation with for example nosema. But at least I think I have spotted the most probable colonies of being affected by mites and viruses. And I help the mite pressure down, that is taking away possible mites that might increase the mite population in other colonies nearby. 

No dronebrood cutouts

Elgons are on the mother side going back to Monticola in East African mountains or Sahariensis from a Marockoan oasis. I have though some colonies which have Buckfast on the mother side (Macedonian line) which have been crossed with Elgon drones three times. Colonies of that constitution I didnít give any thymol treatment either.

I should also mention that I stopped many years from now cutting drone brood in fighting the mite. Instead I let the bees keep some drone comb here and there. They need some drones too, for the mating of the virgin queens for example. 

Spring 2006

The wintering till spring 2006 went well. Only 6 colonies didnít make it through winter. They died due to starvation and not due to the mites or virus. Development  was normal in spring, in fact the colonies looked so healthy and strong they hadnít been doing in years. You can say that beekeeping is back to normal as it was before the arrival of the mite, at least almost.

 Studies at the entrances

I study the bees at the entrance when given the time, often when I take a tour in the apiary at home. Itís interesting. You can see different things happen. This spring in 2006 I saw some colonies where the guard bees at the entrance  were very active checking every bee approaching. I would have liked to test again on these colonies to put mites on bees close to the entrance. But I have problems finding mites now. Maybe I have to advertise for a frame of brood with a lot of mites?:-)

The summer of 2006

The summer of 2006 was warm with little of rain. The crop has anyhow been big. I donít see or worry much about mites. Some of the Carniolan colonies which shifted their queens themselves developed a very bad temper. The Italian colonies had a too bad temper too. The queens in all these colonies will be shifted to Elgons.

 A test

From another beekeeper  here in Finland I got some virgin queens in 2005 from his stock for testing. Itís a stock which is a mix between bees of Sahariensis origin and Italian bees. The virgins was mated with Elgon drones in my area. The test was mainly aimed at checking their degree of resistance against the Varroa mite. The resulting colonies had a very good temper and easy to handle in 2006. In the same apiary I also had Elgons. Unfortunately the test colonies developed quite high amounts of mites and showed symptoms of virus in late summer. They were treated with thymol and will get new Elgon queens next season. They gave average kind of crop. My Elgons in the same apiary gave quite some more honey (without thymol or any other treament).

 The autumn of 2006

160 colonies are wintered, strong and healthy looking. 

Elgon bees in Finland

I appreciate that more and more beekeepers are trying Elgon bees in Finland. These bees are also discussed on discussion sites on Internet. Another beekeeper that has Elgons is Pauli Nevala. He who won gold medal in javelin-throwing in the Olympic games in Japan 1964.  


Pauli has mentioned to me that his Elgon colonies smelled strongly like of cat pee last autumn. That smell I could sense myself several years ago now when I had Buckfast colonies with a lot of mites in my apiaries. Also others have mentioned they have smelled similar kind of smells from Elgon colonies, especially in autumns. Some of them even called the bee inspector to have the bees checked for American foulbrood, which they hadnít. Of course itís difficult to know if this smell have anything to do with the bees fighting the mite, but it seems anyway the bees might smell like this when they are fighting a mite population that is a little bigger than just small.

 Some lines of heritage

Another beekeeper working with Elgon is the bee scientist Seppo Korpela. Heís counting mites a lot more than I do and is trying to select a strain that keeps the mite level very low. That line he has with this characteristic is derived from the colony that could be seen on a video sequence that can be downloaded from from another place at this site (Introductionary Study for Breeding Varroa Resistant Bees). It shows a bee that is dancing for 20 minutes trying to rid of a mite and trying to get help from other bees. The mother line of that colony is from Poul-Erik Karlsen on Bornholm, Denmark. It should be mentioned also that Sepppo Korpela is not using small cellsize.

Many of my Elgon colonies comes from the colony that is called 439 (with somewhat different heritage) on a picture on this site. The motherline is Sahariensis, but it has a lot of Monticola heritage, at least theoretically. That colony is still around, but the bees have shifted the queen themselves.

 No diseases

Now I havnít really been worrying for parasites and diseases in several years. I hope it will continue that way. My honey is tested for spores of American foulbrood and none were found. I donít see chalkbrood nowadays. You donít know for sure what will happen in the future, but the experiences up till now give me nothing but good feelings.

 Breeding and small cellsize

I donít know if good situation oof today is due to the breed and the breeding of the bees or the small cell size. Maybe both. Nothing of this is at least harmful. Thatís for sure.

 Do not rely on inbreeding

Well, if you donít use too much inbreeding of course. Iím convinced that will weaken the bees. Mating stations and insemination are good tools if used moderately, but to keep the genetic variation big enough I think itís important that virgin queens can mate in an area with a big amount of colonies that are not too closely related but still of the same origin. That is the situation for my bees here in Munsala where I live.

Sven-Olof Ohlsson

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