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I began this blog to chronicle my beekeeping experiences. I have read lots of beekeeping books, but nothing takes the place of either hands-on experience with an experienced beekeeper or good pictures of the process. I want people to have a clearer picture of what to expect in their beekeeping so I post pictures and write about my beekeeping saga here. Along the way, I've passed a number of certification levels and am now a
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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tom Seeley on Bees and Mites in the Forest

At Young Harris, Dr. Tom Seeley gave a fascinating talk on bees and mites in the forest.

The first part of his talk was about how he finds bee trees in the forest.  He risks life and limb to find these bees with only his dog to rescue him should he fall in the woods or off of a tree!  He learned how to beeline with Edgell's book, The Bee Hunter.

He built a small box for putting a bee in and giving her sugar syrup.  After the bee has recognized the box as a source of food, she returns to her hive and recruits her sisters to come join her at the nectar source.  When a number of bees are feeding at the box, he closes the box up and moves it along the direction of the flight path they take when they leave.  Then he stops and opens the box and keeps on in this manner until he is really close to the bee tree.  Then his job is to look around and find where they are flying to.

He found wild bee trees in the Arnot Forest, owned by Cornell where he works.  He had found 11 colonies in 1978.  In 2002 there were 8 bee trees.  In 2003 he put up bait hives (this is where he climbs trees with no spotter other than his dog) to catch swarms thrown by the eight bee trees.  These bait hives had low mite counts.

He began to theorize about the low mite counts - what was it due to?

  • The bee trees were much farther apart than we typically keep hives in apiaries
  • This should cut down on drifting (one way to convey diseases between hives)
  • This should cut down on robbing
  • Hives not contaminated by other hives might develop Varroa mites that were not virulent
With our hive boxes, close together in apiaries, we subject our bees to drifting.  We also have low and large entrances, promoting more robbing.  We don't allow swarming, if we can help it.  More Varroa may be directly due to large brood nests and less swarming. 

In trees, bees coat the inside of the hollow tree with propolis.  With our smooth sided hives, there isn't a need for propolizing the walls.  Propolis may protect the health of the bees in trees.

Since honey bees live differently, Seeley concluded that increasing colony spacing might reduce horizontal disease transmission.  Smaller hives and smaller colonies might result in less honey and more swarming but the pay-off would be better health.  If tall hives are used this will increase winter survival in cold areas.  Perhaps we should leave the inside walls of our hives rough to encourage the use of propolis to coat the hive interior, promoting better colony health.  Finally more drone comb (in the wild bees build 15% of their comb for the raising of drone) might result in better queen mating although might increase the Varroa.

There is more Varroa in crowded colonies because the drift of bees helps spread the mites from colonies that have fast-reproducing mites.  

His take-home messages were:

As beekeepers we help the survival of the Varroa mite by:
  • Sustaining susceptible bees by using miticides (stop using miticides!)
  • Fostering virulent mites by having apiaries (have colonies in isolation)
  • Fostering mites by preventing swarming (let colonies swarm)
There are feral bees and they are good for pollination, good for drone production, and through natural selection, resistance will arise in bees in the wild.

It was a great talk and I loved seeing photos of Seeley and his dog standing next to very tall bee trees.  Wish you were there!


  1. Max F9:18 AM

    I was under the impression that there were very few (non africanized) feral bees left which suggests that they are not handling mite well. Does he have any numbers showing that these bees have fewer mites? Does the low density of bee trees suggest low survivorship or are they at maximum carrying capacity for the habitat?

  2. While I do not have enough land or the time to visit it to run my colonies in isolation, I agree with Dr. Seeley that our present treatment based approach to Varroa has only succeeded in making better Varroa mites. We have to get off the treatment treadmill. On the swarming question, did he feel artificial swarming and brood breaks would achieve comparable positive effects in keeping Varroa populations down? As an urban beekeeper I cannot have the bees swarming as they like, and I do not want to lose half my colony every year. But I would gladly trade a high reproductive rate and high honey production for a bee that was winter hardy and Varroa tolerant.

  3. Max F7:14 PM

    Another thought I had: Do you ever wonder why in the U.S. we have over 4,000 native species of bee and not one of them forms a colony that persists over winter. Makes you wonder if the an Apis spp or relative tried to make it here before the white man brought them and then blimped out. I understand our reliance on the euro honey bee but maybe we're expecting too much to think they should survive on their own here.

    1. Eropean bee have what would seem comparable climate as the USA at least the part in the northern hempspere. Mite came from Asia.

    2. Mite cause the bee to now need our help. Until they adjust to this symbiotic relationship with the mite. I remember as boy find bee tree all old house hives that last for many years without dieing out. The m

  4. Max F7:17 PM

    Sorry should edit befor posting. "blipped out" "if an Apis spp." etc.

  5. Dr. Seeley was quite clear that there are definitely feral bees - that they are all gone is an unfounded rumor. Because he continues to find bee trees in that forest, he sees it as proof that there are indeed feral bees. These colonies were about 1/4 mile from each other, I believe. I don't think anyone asked him the artificial swarming/brood break question, Western Wilson, but he encouraged people to write him at Cornell with questions, so why don't you and then let us know what he says? He's a very approachable guy.

  6. Ok, thanks. I think many of the "feral colonies" are actually more recent swarms (1-2 years) that establish on old comb.


    "Statistics vary depending on the organization that did the survey, but current estimates put the number of wild colonies at around 2-5% of all colonies in the United States. Furthermore, investigators agree that of all those “wild” colonies, the overwhelming majority have swarmed from managed colonies within the last two years. In the age of Varroa mites, the chance of a colony surviving on its own for more than two winters is virtually zero."

    1. I know of a hive that lives in the side of an old house been living in house for many years and are still there this year

  7. Nevermind, I found his paper and read how he determined that these were not recolonized.

  8. That was a great lecture and so was yours Linda, we just put craft sticks into our frames and we will see if our bees will produce as much comb as yours.

  9. thanks, Colleen. Good for you for experimenting with the craft sticks!

  10. I will email Dr. Seeley, Linda! As for feral colonies, perhaps they exist in the USA...here in Canada the bee scientists I have consulted feel they are all gone from the cold winter areas and the jury is out on whether the small pockets of warm winter areas have truly feral colonies or just are restocked from swarms off apiaries. I think there may be ferals in our locale, although no one has checked carefully...I was given a box of bees that successfully survived an entire calendar year in a single deep with no beekeeping at all. The original queen was still there, to my surprise. They came through the winter very strong, indicating that **some** bees must have the ability to survive mites.


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