We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Find out more.
Vita Bee Health Global Honeybee Health Experts

Blog – bees, beekeeping & other sticky subjects

Mystery of the ‘superbees’ solved

Honeybee with Deformed Wing Virus symptoms. Photo: Sandra Blackmore

Honeybee with Deformed Wing Virus symptoms (and Varroa!). Photo: Sandra Blackmore

The mystery of the apparently Varroa-resistant honeybees in a UK apiary has been solved, and the answer has been a real surprise.

Over the past few years there have been dramatic headlines about what seem to have been Varroa-resistant honeybees in the apiary of a beekeeper in Swindon, England (not far from Vita’s HQ).  Ron Hoskins’ bees have been dubbed “super bees” and it was thought that their hygienic behaviour was the reason for their success.

However, new research presented by Catherine Thompson of Salford University at the UK National Honey Show last Friday and now published in The ISME Journal has revealed the reasons for Hoskins’ bees’ success. A non-lethal form of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) is prevalent amongst his bees and is acting to exclude the more lethal form.

DWV is now well-known as a killer of honeybees and its virulence seems at least in part to have been caused by Varroa which, because it injects the virus straight into the bees’ bloodstream, has spread the virus with disastrous effects. Honeybees have long had DMV, but pre-Varroa spread by sex and other methods had not enabled it to spread so quickly and thoroughly throughout a colony.

For reasons that are not yet understood, Hoskins’ bees have been subject to a relatively benign version of DWV — Type B. In contrast DWV Type A is lethal. Type B has become dominant in Hoskins’ apiary and kept Type A out — or at least at very low levels. It is even thought that Varroa spreading Type B have in effect inoculated the bees against Type A!

Unfortunately, simply moving Hoskins’ bees to another apiary where DWV Type A is dominant is likely to be futile. The colony is likely to be swamped by the lethal Type A and face the disease threat common to most colonies.

Nonetheless, it is hoped that this exciting new finding may eventually help in some way to produce a break-through in helping honeybees.

At the UK National Honey Show

Judges putting their tasting skills to the test at the UK's national Honey Show.

Judges putting their tasting skills to the test at the UK’s national Honey Show.

On a fleeting visit to the UK’s National Honey Show today to hear a lecture on honeybee mating by Juliana Rangel of Texas A&M University, Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger learned some fascinating new things:

Firstly, he discovered he might be called a Drone Congregation Area Whisperer! There’s a certain buzz to that title.

Secondly, 50% of honeybee queens take just one mating flight; 45% take two flights and the remainder take three or more. A very few take lots and lots! I suspect there will be a name for them soon.

Thirdly, after the lecture talking to a beekeeper from the island of Jersey, there’s a Drone Congregation Area (DCA) above his friend’s house and it seems to offer great potential to find DCAs in a very well-defined territory.

Vita’s Blogger will be back tomorrow to learn lots more.





Hilltopping in search of drones

In the December 2015 issue of Bee Craft, Turlough’s article In Search of Drone Congregation Areas was published (pp 7-9). Here is an update on that article following email conversations with a world expert on insect mating.

Since it’s autumn here and drones have long since been kicked out of queen-right hives, it’s back to the books to find out what else is known about Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs), those special places where drones assemble in hope of mating with a honeybee queen.

I’ve come across the topic of hilltopping amongst other insects and which has resonance with my efforts to locate honeybee DCAs.

Hilltopping, as the name suggests, is a phenomenon observed amongst some male insects to gather on hill tops awaiting a female. John Alcock, of Arizona University and a world expert on insect mating,  has observed it with the little known crabronid wasp Tachysphex menkei and other insects. However, he believes that hill-topping by the crabronid wasp is a mating behaviour of last resort: “no female … has been observed visiting waiting males”! The successful males may get their action more quickly and elsewhere. Hill-topping might be most common amongst insects where they are thinly spread.

Professor Alcock has very kindly responded to some email queries from me and thinks that next year’s plan to study DCAs in an area where there are more honeybee colonies could be revealing.

Could hill-topping apply to honeybees and, if so, in what circumstances? I’m looking forward to next season to see if we can begin to answer that.

Here’s a reminder of what action in a DCA can look like.


And the story so far in case you’ve missed it:

1 July 2015 In search of a mate

2 July 2015 Drone Congregation Areas

7 July 2015 Another Drone Congregation Area

20 July 2015 Video of Life in a Drone Congregation Area

28 July 2015 Do drones assemble above prehistoric sites?

3 August 2015 Drone Goal?

10 August 2015 Rediscovering the first recorded Drone Congregation Area

8 September 2015 In search of a Drone Congregation Area SatNav

Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger


Nosema ceranae – emergence & hope

Near Vita Blogger's first experience of Nosema ceranae.

Near Vita Blogger’s first experience of Nosema ceranae.

This week Vita begins lab tests in Greece for a new treatment for Nosema ceranae, the second greatest threat to honeybees after Varroa in some countries.  Earlier tests have proved promising, so it’s time to go further and perhaps try it in the field later, at a time of year when the threat is greatest.

Coincidentally, I was reminded of my introduction to Nosema ceranae yesterday while walking across the Berkshire countryside in England and stumbled across an apiary I remembered from a few years back. (Public footpaths across agricultural land are common throughout England and Wales, so it is possible to explore the countryside and get into all sorts of nooks and crannies.)

It was 2009 and I was leading a group of local beekeepers in a spring apiary inspection of about a dozen hives. The apiary was beautifully situated in a clearing in front of a patch of woodland that faced onto a wide expanse of arable land. The bees were in a very poor state, but there were no obvious signs as to what was wrong.

We ‘ummed and ahhed’, but came to no firm conclusions on the day. Nosema apis (the older version) was considered, but since there was no evidence of dysentery on the front of the hives, it was discounted.  Similarly there were no signs of excessive Varroa populations or of either American or European Foulbrood. We left the apiary mystified. We didn’t then know much about the new version of Nosema ceranae that was emerging and proving to be a killer in other countries. On reflection, we now think the new variant was the culprit.

The elderly, experienced beekeeper was distraught. I offered him a spare colony from my own apiary to help him rebuild and he gladly accepted. But the problem was how to collect it. He was an agricultural worker and had a vehicle that because it used discounted agricultural (red) diesel was prohibited from travelling on public roads  except “on rare and very limited occurrences”. He tried plotting a route of 30 kms across English countryside avoiding public roads, but failed. I had visions of him churning up fields and gardens on his way to me. I was relieved when he eventually he turned up in a borrowed car using the public highways.

Since 2009, Nosema ceranae has gained a much higher profile and is now thought to have  been the cause of the deaths of huge numbers of colonies in Spain in 2001. It has probably been around for 20 years having jumped from the eastern honeybee (Apis cerana), but wasn’t identified as being distinct from Nosema apis until 2007. Whereas Nosema apis has seasonal peaks and falls and is relatively easy to identify and therefore control, Nosema ceranae is less obvious, can be virulent all season and reaches parts of the bee that Nosema apis cannot.

VitaFeed Gold has proven very effective in boosting honeybee immune systems, particularly in colonies affected by dysentery. The new potential treatment under test could provide a very effective tool in tackling Nosema ceranae directly. Vita will report back on progress.

Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger



The other Queen Bee at Downton Abbey

Heaven's Gate folly with Highclere Castle visible through the arch and a feral colony in residence to the top left of the arch.

Heaven’s Gate folly with Highclere Castle visible through the arch and a feral colony in residence to the top left of the arch.

The feral

The feral colony behind the bricks.

With the return of Downton Abbey to British television screens, viewers might be surprised to learn that Dame Maggie Smith (aka Dowager Countess of Grantham) is not the only Queen Bee on the estate.

The fictional Downton Abbey is set in the real-life Highclere Castle which is just 25 kilometres from Vita’s HQ.

Perched high above the Castle is a glorious folly, Heaven’s Gate, built in 1737 by Robert Herbert and restored in 1997 by George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Caernarvon.

And in a hollow in the  crumbling brickwork is a feral colony of honeybees, one of very few known in the  area. How long can it last in the face of the Varroa mite? Can the withering comments of that Queen Bee offer any defence?

Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

Member Login