Minutes from the 2014 Geneva Bee Conference

Ellie Andrews (Secretary) attended the Geneva Bee Conference at took copious notes. Here is a link to the document online, or you can scroll through the information below.

Geneva bee conference

March 22, 2014


Dick Rogers (Bayer Bee Care Center): “Healthy bees and healthy crops”

Katie Lee (Bee Informed): “Tech-Transfer teams”

Chris Harp: Why Natural Beekeeping Matters

Dick Rogers, Bayer Bee Care Center: “Healthy bees and healthy crops”

Keeping bees since ‘73

Diversity of climates in North America, extremes that bees are able to live in

Over 4 years of inspections, 50-60% of the hives he saw (’05-08) were dead/dying or had serious issues.  Good management prevents many of those hives from dying.

Main factors in hives that were less than healthy: management-related, environment-related, in-hive related.

  • Inspections
  • Apiary suitability?  Beekeepers need to assess the bee yard – its air drainage, etc.
  • During inspections, estimate area of brood (capped, open), pollen, and honey in the comb.
  • Use tools, e.g., dead bee trap.  Dead bee count over 24h or 1 week.  Look for what stage they’re in, are they drones, do they have deformed wings, etc.  12 categories of dead bees.
  • Deformed wing virus (DWV) – spread by Varroa.  Affects queens.
  • Queen issues in general can result from viruses.
  • Sampling bees (pollen, honey, wax, too) for pesticides, etc.  Can check for 200 diff products all in the same analysis – but very expensive.
  • Highest residues from stuff beekeepers use in their hives.  Neonics are at the lowest levels or don’t show up at all.
  • Levels of concern (with different thresholds): dead/dying, very sick, not well, excellent
  • To evaluate a hive’s health, look for: percentage of the frame covered by bees, honey, pollen, etc.; whether the queen is present/absent; diseases like AFB, EFB, Varroa, HBTM, nosema, deformed wing, CPV, K-W, SHB, snotty brood, etc.
  • Health usually gets worse as season progresses.
  • Hobby, sideliners hives usually better condition – they’re not moving around; they’re getting more attention.
  • Multiple stressors – parasites, etc. (long list)
  • 6 P’s: parasites, predators, pesticides…
  • Enemy #1, vampire of the bee world: Varroa.  There are no ‘healthy’ colonies since it’s in nearly every one.  It’ll get into ones that are mite-free.

FAO stat website – numbers/charts of managed colonies worldwide.  Increased by 45% since 1965.  Big increases in Asia, Africa.  Decreases in Europe (in the 80s because of mites), North America (dip but slow increases now).  By far most are in Asia, then Africa and Europe a distant second.  US dropping since ’45 (although Peter pointed out at the end of the day that WWII was the highest numbers of managed colonies ever in the US, because they were producing wax for the war effort – need to compare numbers to a longer timeline).  “People losing interest in bees, beekeeping”.  Blip in the late 70s then trachea mites and Varroa mite, continue steady decline until 2005, then an increase.


~5.5 million hives in 1950, closer to 1 or 2 today.


Very different picture in Canada.  Numbers increasing for many years, peaked in 80s, then border closed to US because of tracheal mites, Varroa.  Interest dropped. Decline then stabilization in 80s and numbers start going back up.  Wobbly line.


In the 70s, it was hippies keeping honey bees (and apple trees and snow white doves) – that’s how he got started.


Florida – 2006-07 lowest they’ve ever been (150,000 hives).  More than doubled since, because of better management.


38% increase in registered beekeepers in Indiana.


Europe – 2005-2010, 7% increase


“Goes against the ‘bees are going to disappear from the earth’ theory”

  • Carrying capacity of land – 1 colony per acre (continuous blooming acre)
  • 2km radius from the hive equals >3000 acres
  • Competition for foraging among hives, even in good zones, in times of dearth
  • Important to assess the bee forage in your area, especially if you have multiple hives.  In January-March, there may not be enough bee pasture.  Of course, the carrying capacity shoots up in the summer, but in July, August, it may fall below the threshold again.  You’ll have to feed.  Think geographically, taking into account the number of hives you have and the number that are nearby.

  • Apiculture is in transition and has been for almost 3 decades; we have to understand that.  If we don’t acknowledge and respond to that, then the bee industry is at risk.
  • Apiculture is agriculture, too.
  • Beekeeping used to be more for honey production – tremendous yields.  Not as much anymore.
  • Things changed in the mid 80s – significant, dramatic change.  Two species of parasitic mites, new gut parasite introduced, new viruses appeared, increased transmission of those viruses, shift from hobby/small scale to larger operations, reductions in forage land, increased demand of pollination services, shift from honey to pollination as the primary income generator.
  • Almonds – in the mid 80s, there were 300,000 acres of almonds, now more than 800,000.
  • Low bush blueberries dramatically increased, too.
  • Almonds require 2 hives per acre.  1.6 out of the 2.6 million hives in US go to the almonds in CA every year, which produces 80% of the world’s almonds.
  • Problems from mass overstocking for pollination, mechanization, moving bees in daytime, bumping hives together.

Primer on pesticides

  • 3% of land on earth is arable.  Population is growing, but arable land is not. Now we have 0.16 hectares per person, to grow food.  We need to increase yields on the same amount of land.
  • Risk is a function of the innate hazard of the material and the amount of exposure an organism gets, or (in mathematical terms), f (haz, exp).  If a high hazard is contained (no exposure), the risk is low.
  • Pesticides have lots of safety testing – when used according to the label, they are reasonably safe.  Science of testing continues to improve.  Testing and monitoring continues after registration, periodic regulatory reviews.
  • Seed treatment – get polymer coating with product (fungicide or insecticide) then another polymer coating with colorant to protect it.  Keeps everything on the seed, so there’s no exposure until it’s in the ground germinating.
  • Seeds with that treatment have their effect below ground, not like foliar sprays.  Control of soil pests during germination and early season, when sprouts are young – damage at that stage is worst.
  • Skipped over planter dust issue.

Cycle of crisis: normal/familiar à foreign element (e.g., crops, mites) à chaos (denial, frustration, anger, blame) à reflection (coping self assessment) à decision to change à rebuilding (adapting, continual improvement, collaboration, partnerships) à new normal (new vitality, BMPs) (above original normal – optimistic!)

“New normal”

Reached the low plateau in Florida – now on the path of recovery.

We want our new normal to be a point where beekeeping is a pleasure again.


  • Improved monitoring and diagnoses
  • IPM for Varroa, other pests
  • Integrated bee management and BMPs.  Fitting apiary into its surrounding environment.
  • Supportive agricultural policies
  • Willingness to work together: everyone’s a stakeholder.
  • Communication (open, honest, informative)
  • Collaboration and partnerships
  • 3 M’s: monitoring, management, mite control

Bayer Bee Care Program

  • Started last few years – they’ve always been doing it (25 years) but formalized now
  • Program coordinates diverse internal efforts
  • Coumaphos saved the industry at one point
  • New varroacides being screened now.  Working on a Varroa gate.
  • Natural and synthetic products.  Tools, techniques.
  • Bee Care Center is in Research Triangle Park, NC – grand opening in April.  Will be open to the public.
  • Another Bee Care Center is in Germany, open since 2012
  • Field stations – Clayton, NC (“Beesboro”); Fresno, CA; Ontario
  • LOTS of projects
  • Cooperative partnerships w universities.
  • Novel treatments for AFB, EFB
  • Bee health investigations for commercial apiaries – if they suffer losses and especially if they think it’s because of a Bayer product, Bayer will send a full investigation team.  Sometimes it is a product misuse or accidental exposure.

We need commercial pollination services: not to belittle hobbyists, but they don’t pollinate the crops we need to feed the world.

We need new beekeepers.

We need to know more, not only about biology of bees, but also mites and other pests.

Bees aren’t going extinct anytime soon, but commercial apiculture is at risk.

Without commercial pollination, certain foods will be more expensive, scarce.

Without crop protection, we can’t produce enough food efficiently enough to feed 10 billion by 2050.

Apiculture and agriculture can must coexist


  • Interactions among chemicals such as fungicides, pesticides, other crop sprays and bee treatments – some we do understand, e.g., fungicides become more toxic in some cases.  Neonics not synergized by those fungicides.  So many combos, hard to understand them all.  Compatibility tables (for charting reactions between different products) dropped because competitor products.  There aren’t enough people doing that work.  Room for more research for sure.  If it’s obvious and really bad, we’ll find it quickly.
  • Educating commercial applicators, but what about educating lay consumers?  It’s hard to interpret labels and more (e.g., more fertilizer) is not better.
  • Neonics: literature gives a range of values based on lab studies.  Field studies are different.  Imidacloprid.  5ppb in the field, well below the lab studies’ limits.  No lethality until 100ppb.  Huge safety margin.  Negative press from lab studies, based on studies that used high doses, unrealistic levels, confinement of bees that stresses them out.  The public has to distinguish between lab, semi-field, and field studies.

Katie Lee, Bee Informed, “Tech-Transfer teams”

  • Beekeeping class in 2005 – turned into a Masters in entomology, and now a PhD with Marla Spivak.
  • Sampling plan for Varroa – now used in a survey
  • 6 months in New Zealand, working for different apiaries.
  • Works with the Bee Informed Partnership, headed by Dennis Van Engelsdorp.  5-year grant from the USDA.  Goal to reduce colony losses across the US.
  • Trying to understand differences between the groups who lose few or no bees versus those who lose a lot, through surveys, on the ground diagnostic testing, national historical and ongoing diagnostic data — > database.
  • Honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov
  • Looking for mite that isn’t here yet (Tropilaelaps)
  • Losses higher in N, NE; lowest in SW.  Beekeepers who managed bees in more than one region are excluded from the survey.
  • Highest losses by backyard beekeepers, then sideliners, then commercial operators.  Partly it’s because hobbyists are still learning how to keep bees.  Commercial operators are probably culling weak hives before winter, so their losses look smaller.
  • Survey participants are 93% backyarders/hobbyists (commercial defined as >500 hives).

  • On the ground diagnostic testing – tech-transfer teams (TTT).  Started by Marla Spivak (her work is on bee breeding).
  • Service for beekeepers, modeled after crop consultants, extension service.  Bridge between research/academy and beekeepers.  Short term goal is to provide individual beekeepers with useful information about their colonies; longer term goal is to use data to develop BMPs.
  • Inspired by Medhat Nasr and the Tech-Transfer Program in the early 90s in Ontario.
  • Costco donating 2% of their honey sales back to bees — $400,000!
  • Spread across US – north CA, OR, TX, HI, MN, FL (different regions, different foci for beekeepers: honey production, pollination, and queen breeding).  Most bee breeders in US based in North CA, although CA has all three (honey production, pollination, queen breeding).  Hawaii mostly breeders.  Florida, Oregon mostly pollination.
  • North Dakota #1 honey producing state, over 600,000 registered hives in the summer (more unregistered)
  • Inspections at different times in the year, e.g., right after they treat for Varroa, when honey supers are stripped, etc.
  • TTT monitors colonies, evaluates stock selection for traits for bee health and diversity, performs small scale experiments, conducts cooperative research.
  • Track colony pest loads and health over time.


  • Advice: take notes when you monitor colonies!
  • The notes serve as a memory aid, allow you to compare year to year and with other beekeepers, and understand what’s happening at different times of the year.  You can make a checklist.
  • Keep a notebook in a Ziploc bag on the cover
  • Colony assessment – look at the colony configuration (e.g., types of boxes and number), temperament, color, queen status (seen? — queenright, queen cells present, drone layer, laying worker), brood pattern (scale of 1-5, missing cells, consistency of brood age, amount, time of year), nutrition (enough honey/nectar in storage?), colonies’ strength (in frames of bees), proteins?, lipids?, hygienic behavior?  Look for diseases: parasitic mite syndrome, sacbrood virus (SBV), entombed pollen (pollen contaminated with pesticides (e.g., the fungicide chlorothalonil) capped with propolis and wax, brick red color – there’s a paper by van Engelsdorp that suggests it could be a sign of poor health).  Look for mite signs – bees opening cells because they know the pupae inside has mites – you can look for mite poop on the ceiling of the cell, frass.  Weigh the hive – although it can be hard to measure the weight, and because commercial beekeepers feed so much, it might be meaningless.
  • Take samples to quantify pests, pesticides, etc.  Send samples to MD, where 10% of the samples are saved so that someday, if necessary, researchers can go back and look.


  • Varroa sampling methods: alcohol wash best – sample in a jar. Or double bee jar – shake with alcohol, strain out mites.  Powdered sugar doesn’t get as many.  But you don’t kill your bees.  Katie does not recommend an ether roll.  Bees vomit after you spray them with starting fluid.  Counting mites on the bottom board is variable, inconsistent.
  • Bee Informed samples for viruses too.  Dry ice, liquid nitrogen.  Have to be preserved as fast as possible.  Cold or live.

Dave Tarpy’s queen clinic: processes a queen’s spermatheca, to find out numbers of live sperm, etc.  Get a queen quality report

  • Hygienic behavior – detection and removal of mite infested brood usually after mite has started egg laying – good for AFB and chalkbrood (capped diseases), and Varroa.  Two traits – uncapping AND removing.
  • To test for hygienic behavior, she kills (with liquid nitrogen) 3” round of brood.  She comes back in 24h to see how many of the brood they’ve removed.  The more they remove, the more hygienic they are.

Varroa peaked in October last year.

NY Bee Wellness workshops

Target beekeepers with fewer than 10 years of experience.  Train the trainers, like extension.  Mirroring the tech transfer teams.  There’s a spring survey.  The board has reps from bee clubs around the state.

Chris Harp, on natural beekeeping

  • Honeybeelives.org
  • Hudson Valley, NYC
  • “Sounding the alarm”
  • Honey bees are 100 million years old
  • A Spring without Bees (book)
  • Bees can do (human) facial recognition – and perhaps they know when you squish their sisters.
  • Super-organism – includes ants, coral reefs
  • They build honeycomb as fast or faster without foundation (compared to using foundation)
  • Wax is a hydrocarbon, the “liver” of the hive.  Every 3-5 years replace or rotate comb – it’s contaminated when it’s dark.  Egg/larvae etc. absorbs those toxins.
  • The honeycomb transmits vibrations from waggle dance.  The bees can’t see the waggle dance – it’s too dark.  Also, the wax transmits heat – plastic foundation inhibits that.
  • Housel positioning – some comb has different structural capability than other comb.  For example, comb with honey will be 5-10x heavier than brood comb when each is full.  So they build the comb for honey knowing it’ll hold weight, structurally different.
  • Do they plan ahead, knowing how they’ll move through the hive – 9 months ahead of time, building drone comb for future use?
  • 1910 – foundation cell sizes made bigger (5.35mm comb in the wild).  Small cell size doesn’t necessarily reduce mite level.
  • In foundation, there’s usually no drone comb.  Disrupts natural cycles.  Always more drone cells in natural comb, wild colonies.  2-4’ of just brood, with honey cells for the winter pantry in short blocks all around it.
  • There’s more propolis in wild hives.
  • Standardizing the frame size made things easier for the beekeeper, but it’s not good for the health of bee.
  • Two inches of nothing (between the bottom of one super and the top of another) reduces efficiency in producing brood.
  • Let them build comb to meet their needs.
  • Hives with extended frames (deep + medium frame combined) provide lots of space for the queen and a more efficiency nursery.  They’re always my strongest hives.
  • Monocrops – just a single source of food for baby bees.  Compare to humans just eating the same thing for 9 months.
  • Using antibiotics may be detrimental, but may be needed sometimes.
  • Fungicides are worse for hives than pesticides.
  • Bees take care of themselves with propolis.  It’s anti-bacterial.  Greek: “before/gate of the city,” pro-polis.  I coat the inside and outside of hives with a propolis-based alcohol solvent.  Keeps them healthy, since they start healthy.
  • Effects of Apilife Var and Coumaphos (Bayer) on sperm viability in drones and queens, sperm production (?) in drones
  • Natural tools against Varroa
  • Genetics – monitoring mite drop – break in brood cycle (happens naturally through swarms, breaks for 40-45 days) – drone culling – organic acid treatments, e.g., oxalic acid vapor (less than the ‘drench’ method).
  • Thymol – in Apiguard – shuts the queen down, gets into the honey. I prefer formic or oxalic acid (although formic has serious mortality rate on bees, depends on the mite load).
  • Staggering weaker treatments to keep loads down (rather than fewer, stronger treatments).
  • Mites can’t develop resistance to oxalic acid.  Not a miticide or pesticide. Oxalic acid in rhubarb leaves.  That’s why they’re poisonous – they cause gallstones.
  • Don’t play with formic acid – will blind you, sear your lungs.  You can use half the recommended amount.
  • Small hive beetle (SHB) – can tell the larvae because the larvae are indestructible even if you squeeze them; not like wax moths, which pop.  The bees imprison them. And feed them, since they emit the scent of a drone.  Little circle of guards around a clump of SHB.  SHB attracted to scent of honey bee distress.  Keep your hives strong and the beetles won’t be as attracted.  Use diatomaceous earth under the bottom board.  When the beetles, end up there, it kills them.
  • Beneficial microbes function as a part of a hive’s immune system.  Don’t pre-treat, with strong antibiotics, before there’s a problem.

Nosema – microsporidian, small unicellular parasite. Fumagillin used prophylactically.  But often end up with higher spore count a few months later, and is detrimental to health of the hive.


Lifespans of queens dropping to a year or less.

Let the bees swarm if they want to – they know if there’s a problem, and what it is.

Nosema infection leads to increase in queen mandibular pheromone.  Queens with lower levels are more attractive, groomed by more workers.

“Bee tea”

Sugar syrup with cane sugar, sea salt, thyme, dandelion tea, and chamomile tea. Homeopathic.  Seems to help with chalkbrood, etc.

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