A survivor hive, an evolutionary hope and a motley crew.
By Andrew Burnett - 5 Min Read
Eureka is Greek for "I've got it." According to lore, as Archimedes got into his bath, he noticed the water rose equal to the amount of his body he submerged. He was so excited by his unexpected solution to the intractable problem of measuring the volume of an irregular object that he shouted “Eureka, eureka!” So excited, apparently, he logged an early notable entry in the annals of streaking.
The Thursday before last I got a phone call. A jovial gentleman told me he had a beehive in his barn and he needed a beekeeper. I receive these calls at least once a month in warmer weather. In nearly all cases people mistake hornets or wasps for honeybees. You see, there are very few long-surviving feral honeybee colonies in the Northeast. Mites and the pathogens they transmit, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, and declining volume and variety of blooming plants imperil honeybees. These factors led to the nearly complete eradication of feral honeybees in the northeastern U.S. The gentleman lived in Wethersfield, Connecticut. I was going to be in a nearby town the next day, so I agreed to stop by, fully expecting to see a wasp or hornet nest.
I arrived at his home the next day and we chatted. He shared with me his business card–one of the more formidable business cards ever. He told me the hive had been in the side of his barn at least ten years, which further led me to believe that it was not a hive at all, but a nest of hornets or wasps. For the hive to have been in the barn for ten years, this colony would have had to survive the years following Colony Collapse–when thirty to sixty percent of honeybee hives died annually, despite beekeepers' utmost effort to keep their bees, and livelihoods, from perishing. These bees would have had no beekeeper intervention to manage mite levels or keep them away from pesticide applications. He took me to the barn and, well, I’ll be… it was a bustling colony. Not only that but the hive confirmed his claim of being long established–the comb was dark from the tiny honeybee feet traversing it.
This is a substantial find. I had never seen a long-established, feral honeybee hive. Most beekeepers I talked to thought long-established, feral colonies were rare, if not gone. Sure, a swarm may establish itself over in spring or summer and perhaps even survive a winter. However, the conventional wisdom held that the hive would soon succumb to mites, pathogens, agribusiness chemicals and limited forage.
Apparently, this wisdom has a small asterisk, and it resides in a nondescript barn in Wethersfield, CT. These bees have the genetic makeup to survive on their own, which is what beekeepers have been seeking since the dreaded Varroa destructor parasitic mite jumped from the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) to the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) decades ago. Beekeepers regularly monitor and treat their hives to cull Varroa populations. Even if the miticides used are natural and do not build up in honey or wax–the most common miticide is a nerve agent–their application is still disruptive to the hive and a considerable expense of beekeeper resources and time.
So, what to do? As it was mid-fall with too little time for the bees to establish themselves in another hive before the long winter, I asked if we could leave the bees untouched till spring. Moving them to a hive would disrupt their winter preparations, and they might not recover before the cold. The owner of the barn agreed. As much as I want this queen and her genetics in my apiaries, I offered her to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, where a team under Dr. Richard Cowles runs a program breeding survivor bees.
This May, I assisted in the transfer of the hive from the barn to a capable breeder. Although I’m comfortable with bees, I’m not much with a hammer. Dr. Richard Cowles of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station referred me to a beekeeper who is—Jon Nelson of B.B. Nelson Apiaries in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Mr. Nelson is an accomplished beekeeper and licensed contractor, just the man to remove a large hive from a barn.
Mr. Nelson is a bit of a Renaissance man. Besides being a contractor, beekeeper and breeder, he is an inventor. During the removal, John used his no-kill bee vacuum that he designed and created to collect the bees off the comb and safely store them for transportation. It’s just what it sounds like–a vacuum to gently collect and move tens of thousands of stinging insects. For those in the back that’s like herding well, little dragons.
We started early with how beekeepers commence most jobs—a few puffs of smoke. John, ten feet off the ground on a ladder, began removing the boards of the outer wall. It was uneventful until John reached the hive. Each plank he removed unveiled a portion of a large, long-established hive. Rescuing honeybees from a structure is painstaking work. In addition to maintaining structural integrity, you cut the comb to size and fit it into a frame. All the while you keep your eye out for the queen. Her reproductive system is round and delicate. It is preferable to capture her and not have her tumble into the vacuum. Late in the process, as John removed some of the last bits of the comb, he found her, putting her in a clip for safekeeping.
When we finished the removal, the sun was falling in the sky. We still had to reassemble the side of the barn. I passed the boards to John. He adeptly reassembled the wall and hammered the nails true. At dusk, I finally had to put on my protective bee suit, but not due to honeybees–unrelenting mosquitoes had left me itchy and raw.
But I digress–why would a beekeeper be frozen in awe at any hive? Seeing hives is the course of our days, right? Well, this was not any hive. This is a survivor. Something in this hive–likely heritable genetic makeup–enabled it to coexist with Varroa destructor. The species–destructor–is not an idle name. It is a pestilential destroyer. This hive may be the beginnings of an evolutionary response. Destructor has laid waste. Millions of hives have succumbed to its virulent filth. Honeybees, through random mutations in sexual reproduction, differ in their ability to survive in their environment–an environment indelibly altered by destructor and compounded by rapidly changing climate and land use. The genetics of this queen’s daughters allow them to thrive amid all of it. In ‘survival of the fittest,’ you are looking at the fittest–the organisms that reproduce most successfully with young bearing traits making their survival–and successful reproduction–more likely.