Tag Archives: research

The day job

It’s no secret that I have both amateur and professional interests in bees, bee health and beekeeping.

During the weekend I sweat profusely in my beesuit, rushing between my apiaries in Central and Eastern Fife, checking my colonies – about 15 at the autumn census this year – averting swarms, setting up bait hives, queen rearing and carrying bulging supers back for extraction.

Actually, not so much of the latter in 2017¬† ūüôĀ ¬†I did get very wet though, much like all the other beekeepers in Fife.

The BSRC labs

The BSRC labs …

During the week I sit in front of a large computer screen running (or sometimes running to keep up with) a team of researchers studying the biology of viruses in the Biomedical Sciences Research Complex (BSRC) at the University of St. Andrews. Some of these researchers work on the biology and control of honey bee viruses.

During the winter the beekeeping stops, but the research continues unabated. The apiary visits are replaced with trips in the evenings and weekends to beekeeping associations and conventions to talk about our research … or sometimes to talk about beekeeping.

Or both.

This weekend I’m delighted to be speaking at the South Devon Beekeepers Convention in Totnes on the science that underpins rational and practical¬†Varroa¬†control.

Which came first?

I’ve been a virologist my entire academic career, but I’ve only worked on honey bee viruses for about 6 years. I’ve been a beekeeper for about a decade, so the beekeeping preceded working on the viruses of bees.

However, the two are inextricably entwined. Having a reasonable amount of beekeeping experience provides a unique insight into the problems and practicalities of controlling the virus diseases that bees get.

Being able to “talk beekeeping” with beekeepers has been very useful – both for the communication of our results to a wider audience and in influencing the way we approach our research.

Increasingly, the latter is important. Researchers need to address relevant questions, using their detailed understanding of the science to deliver practical solutions to problems1. There’s no point in coming up with a solution if there’s no way it’s implementation is compatible with beekeeping.

Deformed wing virus

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

The most important virus for most beekeepers in most years is deformed wing virus (DWV). This virus¬†“does what it says on the tin”¬†because, at high levels, it causes developmental defects in pupae that emerge with shrivelled, stunted wings. There are additional developmental defects which are slightly less obvious, but there are additional (largely invisible) changes which are of greater importance.

DWV reduces the lifespan of worker bees. This is probably not hugely significant in workers destined to live only a few weeks in midsummer. However, the winter bees that get the colony through from September through to March must live for months, not weeks. If these bees are heavily infected with DWV they die at a faster rate. Consequently, the colony dwindles and dies out in midwinter or early Spring. At best, it staggers through to March and then never builds up properly. It’s still effectively a winter loss.

Our research focuses on how¬†Varroa influences the virus population. There’s very good evidence now that DWV transmission by¬†Varroa leads to a significant increase in the¬†amount of virus, and a considerable¬†decrease in the diversity of the virus population.

So what?

Well, this is important because if we want to control the virus (i.e. to¬†reduce DWV-associated disease and colony losses)¬†it must help to know the proper identity of the virus we are trying to control. It will also help us¬†measure how well our control works. We know we’re measuring the right thing.

We’re working with researchers around the world to define the important characteristics of DWV strains that cause disease and, closer to home, with entire beekeeping associations to investigate practical strategies to improve colony health.

Chronic bee paralysis virus

CBPV symptoms

CBPV symptoms

We’re about to start a large collaborative project on the biology and control of chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). This virus is becoming a significant problem for many beekeepers and is increasing globally. It’s a particular problem for some bee farmers.

CBPV causes characteristic symptoms of dark, hairless, oily-looking bees that sometimes shiver, dying in large smelly piles at the hive entrance. It typically affects very strong colonies in the middle of the season. It can be devastating. Hives that should be the most productive ones in the apiary fail catastrophically.

Why is a virus we’ve known about for decades apparently increasing in the amount of disease it causes? Are there new virulent strains of the virus circulating? Are there particular beekeeping practices that facilitate it’s spread? We’re working with collaborators in the University of Newcastle to try and address these and related questions.

I’ll write more about CBPV over the next year or so. It won’t be a running dialogue on the research (which would be crushingly dull for most readers), but will provide some background information on what is a really fascinating virus.

At least to a virologist ūüėČ

And perhaps to beekeepers.

Grow your own

As virologists, we approach the disease by studying the virus. Although we maintain an excellent research apiary, we don’t do many experiments in ‘the field’. Almost all the work is done in test tubes in incubators in the laboratory … or in bees we rear in those incubators.

Grow your own

Grow your own …

We can harvest day-old larvae (or even eggs) from a colony and rear them to emergence as adult bees in small plastic dishes in the laboratory. We use an artificial diet of sugar and pollen to do this. It’s time consuming – they need very regular feeding – but it provides a tightly controllable environment in which to do experiments.

Since we can rear the bees, we can therefore easily test the ability of viruses to replicate in the bees. Do all strains of the virus replicate equally well? Do some strains outcompete others? Does the route by which the virus is acquired influence the location(s) in the bee in which the virus replicates? Or the strains it is susceptible to? Or the level of virus that accumulates?

And if our competitors are reading this, the answer to most of those questions is ‘yes’ ūüėČ

We can even ask questions about why and how DWV causes deformed wings.

Again, so what? We suspect that DWV causes deformed wings because it stops the expression of a gene in the bee that’s needed to make ‘good’ wings. If we can identify that gene we might be able to investigate different strains of honey bee for variation in the gene that would render them less susceptible to being ‘turned off’ by DWV. That might be the basis for a selective breeding project.

It’s a simplistic explanation, but it’s this type of molecular interaction that explains susceptibility to a wide range of human, animal and plant diseases.

Bee observant

Bee health is important, and not fundamentally difficult to achieve. There are some basics to attend to … strong hives, good forage, good apiary hygiene etc. However, it primarily requires good powers of observation – does something look odd? Are there lots of mites present? How does the brood look?

If things aren’t right – and often deducing this means comparisons must be made between hives – then many interventions are relatively straightforward.

Not long for this world ...

Not long for this world …

The most widespread problems (though, interestingly, this doesn’t apply to CBPV) are due to high levels of¬†Varroa infestation. There are effective and relatively inexpensive ways to treat these … if they’re used properly.

More correctly, they’re relatively inexpensive whether they’re used properly or not. However, they’re pretty ineffective if not used properly ūüėČ

Regular checks, good record keeping, comparisons between hives and informed observation are what is needed. Don’t just look, instead look for specific things. Can you see bees with overt symptoms of DWV? Are there bees with¬†Varroa riding around on their backs? The photo above has both of these in plain view. Are some hairless bees staggering around the top bars with glossy abdomens, or clinging to the side bars shaking and twitching?

Don’t wait, act

I’ve no doubt that scientists will be able to develop novel treatments to control or prevent virus infections of bees. I would say that … I’m a scientist ūüėČ ¬†However, I’m not sure beekeepers will be able to afford them, or perhaps even want to use them, or that they’d be compatible with honey production or of any use in Warr√© hives¬†etc.

I’m also not sure how soon these sorts of treatments might become available … so don’t wait.

If there are signs of obvious DWV infection you need to do something. ‘Obvious’ because DWV is always present, but it’s usually harmless or at least tolerated by the bees. My lab have looked at thousands of bees and have yet to find one without detectable levels of DWV. However, healthy bees have only about 1/10,000 the level of DWV present in sick bees … and these are the ones that have obvious symptoms.

I’ve discussed¬†Varroa control elsewhere, and will again.

Unfortunately, if your colony has signs of CBPV disease then Varroa control is not really relevant. The virus is transmitted from bee to bee by direct contact. This probably accounts for the appearance of the disease primarily in very strong colonies.

At the moment there’s little you can do to ‘cure’ a CBPV-afflicted colony. I hope, in 2-3 years we will have a better idea on what interventions might work. We have lots of ideas, but there are a lot of basic questions to be addressed before we can test them.

Field work

Field work

Business and pleasure

The half of my lab that don’t work on bee viruses study fundamental mechanisms of virus replication and evolution. They do this using human viruses, some of which are distant relatives of DWV. They work on human viruses as it’s only these that have excellent model systems to facilitate the types of elegant experiments we try to do. They’re also relatively easy to justify in funding applications, and it allows us to tap into a much bigger pot for funding opportunities (human health R&D costs probably total ¬£2 billion/annum, bees might be ¬£2 million/annum).

And no, my lab don’t get anything like that much per year for our research!

Importantly, the two activities on human and honey bee viruses are related. Our experience with the human viruses related to DWV made us well-qualified to tackle the bee virus. They replicate and evolve in very similar ways, we quantify them in the same way and there may be similarities in some ways we could approach to control them.

And with the bee viruses I can mix business with pleasure. If I’m going to the apiary I’ll get to see and handle bees, despite it being officially “work”. It doesn’t happen as much as I’d like as I’m usually sat behind the computer and all of the ‘bee team’ have been trained to work with bees by the ESBA.

However, at least when I talk to collaborators or to the beekeeping groups we’re fortunate to be working with we – inevitably – talk about bees.

And that’s fun¬† ūüėÄ


1¬†Several years ago I delivered an enthusiastic and rather science-heavy talk at a Bee Farmers Association meeting. I thought it had gone reasonably well and they were kind enough to say some nice things to me … and then I got the question from the back of the room which went something like¬†“That’s all very well young man … but what have you made NOW that I can put into my hives to make them healthy?”.

I’m sure my answer was a bit woolly. These days the presentation would have had a bit less science and bit more justification. We’ve also made some progress and it’s possible to now discuss practical strategies to rationally control viruses in the hive. It’s not rocket science … though some of the science it’s based on is reasonably fancy.

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The bee shed

Under construction ...

Under construction …

The bee shed is a new¬†development in my beekeeping. It was built to house the colonies we need for our work on deformed wing virus. This requires access to larvae and pupae for as long as possible during the year … it therefore seemed worthwhile trying to keep colonies in a sheltered environment in the hope that the queen would rear brood for longer. An additional benefit is that colonies can be opened in poor weather. Due to the timing of the development cycle of bees we almost always have to harvest larvae or brood on a Monday, irrespective of the weather. I’ve previously had to open colonies in the middle of a thunderstorms, getting drenched in the process.¬†The ‘operator protection’ offered by the bee shed will make this a much less unpleasant task in inclement weather (at least for the beekeeper ūüėČ ).

Location, location …

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The shed is situated in a sheltered corner of thin woodland, with the long¬†side facing approximately south-east to catch the morning sun. The spot is a real sun trap and well sheltered from prevailing winds. There is water nearby and a wide variety of forage available within flying distance. On a warm sunny morning it’s an idyllic spot. However, not everything is perfect. Access is a bit limited and there’s no electricity, so I’ll need to use my¬†Kelly Kettle for making a brew. The shed is built onto a solid slabbed foundation that is pretty-much level so I don’t need to worry about levelling the hives when¬†using foundationless frames¬†which must hang vertically. The shed was built by Gillies and Mackay of Errol and the exterior is ~19mm thick¬†T&G boards. They built¬†it with four¬†window openings all down one side … in retrospect I should have asked for¬†a couple of additional openings¬†on the opposite side as well and I may yet take a jigsaw to the wall if needed. Other than fitting metal edging all around the base to prevent little critters getting underneath, it’s a pretty-much ‘off the shelf’ (albeit custom-built if that isn’t a contradiction) 12′ x 8′ shed, liberally painted with something not particularly environmentally friendly (Sadolin Quick Dry woodstain I think). The fenced off apiary site has space for a further 6-8 colonies, with additional space for storage of spare nuc boxes, supers and all the other paraphernalia that beekeeping requires.

Hive stands

Feet through the floor ...

Feet through the floor …

I’ve already briefly described the hive stands. These are completely unexciting. There are two, end to end, down the long-side of the shed. The advantage of two separate stands is that there are¬†fewer colonies sharing the stand to get disturbed during inspections. I considered individual stands but realised that this would prevent the addition of ‘infill’ nucs should we need them. Actually, not really infill, but there’s space at either end for a 5/6 frame poly nuc. The only additional design feature of the hive stands is that the legs reach through the floor of the shed and stand directly on the slabbed foundations. This again reduces vibrations as I potter around in the shed opening other colonies … or brewing tea. This was a suggestion from an experienced bee shed user and contributor to the SBAi forums for which I’m very grateful. I slightly misjudged the height of the stands during design/installation … this has necessitated additional pieces of wood being added along the top runners. Without these the hive entrances were in line with the thinnest part of the wall (the T&G), rather than the thicker centre of the plank. D’oh! In due course I’ll add additional wood along the rails of the stand, incorporating Correx sheets¬†underneath the colonies to catch debris that would otherwise fall onto the floor. These won’t be proper Varroa trays as they’ll be well separated from the open mesh floors, but simply a way of keeping hive rubbish off the floor. The hive¬†floors¬†we use were built by Pete Little and have a particularly well designed¬†Varroa tray that is almost perfect for sealing off the bottom of the colony, both when counting mite drop and during oxalic acid¬†sublimation.

Entrances

Correx ...

Correx …

Many bee sheds I’ve seen have rather fancy entrances with sealable doors on the outside, the ability to add mouseguards and all sorts of entrance reducers. I decided that, a) I don’t know yet what features I need so can’t add¬†them from the start and b) I can cobble-together¬†almost anything from Correx if needed. I therefore opted for a simple hole through which I pushed some spare rectangular extractor hood ducting. This abuts the front entrance slot of the hive – I use standard floors on the hives in the shed, rather than my preferred Kewl floors. The ducting is a pretty tight fit through the side of the shed, so isn’t fixed in place. It rests on a small piece of softwood on the front of the hive floor, with the remainder of the hive entrance¬†i.e. “outside” the ducting, sealed off with a piece of Correx nailed in place to both the bottom of the brood box and the top of the hive floor. The Correx has a flap that lifts up to accommodate the ducting. When I move the hives I simply pull them away from the ducting and close the flap.

Ducting ...

Ducting …

The ducting is only about 12-14cm in length. I didn’t want rain to be driven into the hive, or for water to run down the smooth-walled ducting. The ducting is therefore inclined upwards towards the hive entrance at about a ~15¬į angle. Additionally, there’s a ~1cm ‘step’ between the floor of the ramp and the hive entrance. I reckoned that this arrangement wouldn’t interfere with removal of corpses, but would maximise protection from the elements. I sprayed the inside of the outer¬†end of the ducting with some gloss paint and liberally sprinkled it with sand to provide a good grip to bees landing. To seal off the exposed edges of the ducting from the outside I added an external entrance ‘archway’ (see picture) with the inevitable Correx landing board screwed on underneath it. I can add entrance reducers (Correx … no surprises there ūüėȬ†) as needed simply by pinning¬†them in place to the ‘archway’. The entrance was pretty-much bodged together (a speciality of mine) … we’ll see how they get on with them¬†over the course of the season, make running modifications as needed and/or design improvements for the the future.

Exits

Bee shed window ...

Bee shed window …

Opening a hive inevitably results in bees flying up and out. I’ve seen a variety of solutions to allow bees to exit bee sheds. These include:

  • clear roof vents so the bees are attracted up to the roof apex of the shed and can then escape through the vent – if built properly this also hugely increases the available light inside the shed, but does require major roof modifications. These were beyond the budget and I was concerned about maintaining a fully weathertight structure, so didn’t choose this option.
  • windows that are hinged along the bottom edge and that are left open a couple of inches during inspections. Bees attracted to the light (it’s always pretty dingy in the shed when compared to daylight) walk up the window and fly from the gap. Although the shed was pretty good value, the custom-built windows offered by Gillies and Mackay weren’t … so this option was abandoned as well.
Let there be light ...

Let there be light …

I wanted a no-moving-parts solution. Therefore, the windows consist of two sheets of Perspex with the outer sheet being 2cm short of the window frame height. This means that bees inside the shed that fly towards the light and crawl up the window eventually reach a gap from which they can fly out. To prevent ingress of rain and draughts the upper gap is overlapped by a short inner pane, perhaps 15cm in height, separated from the outer pane by about 20mm. This arrangement appears to work well. It means there are no moving parts to go wrong, no windows to forget to open (or close afterwards), no thick window frame to further reduce the lighting and yet still provides reasonable weather protection. The inner windows are screwed in place with the outers being secured with waterproof sealant.

Still to do

A combination of flooding, the¬†short day lengths, an arm injury, lethargy and lousy organisation (as a previous student of mine once said,¬†“He couldn’t run a bath”) mean that there are a number of tasks to finish before the season proper starts. These range from¬†adding guttering and storage racks¬†at the rear of the shed to¬†taking a couple of deckchairs over for warmer days. Most importantly I need to prepare additional entrance holes for some nucleus hives. My preferred poly nucs fit flush to the sidewall of the shed (with a bit of bodging) and so should¬†not need¬†the¬†same sort of entrance tunnel. I’m simply going to bore a wine-cork sized hole through the wall … this should be easy to defend and, if needed, seal with a cork. Note to self – drink wine.

But what about swarm control … ?

And all sorts of similar beekeeping questions. I’ve not¬†a Scooby. The classic ‘artificial swarm’ (Pagden¬†method) is out for obvious reasons … this isn’t an issue as it’s not a method I use very often. The two choices would be the¬†vertical Demaree method which I quite like (but which is better with an upper entrance that can’t be provided inside the shed) or simply removing the queen to a nucleus hive. It will be interesting to see what works best. However, since we harvest brood for research during the season these colonies may not get strong enough to swarm until the queen gets pretty old and tired.¬†In the same vein, I don’t expect these colonies to be bulging at the seams and piling in the nectar all season, but – just in case – there’s headroom for about 4 supers ūüôā .¬†It’s not likely that other standard beekeeping activities will be problematic … requeening, uniting, feeding,¬†Varroa treatments and standard inspections should all proceed as required (just out of the rain and wind). The installed colonies are currently in hives identical to those I’d use outside … however, this is likely to change as there’s little need for a roof and so I’m likely to replace the crownboard-insulation-roof with a simple sheet of thick polythene with a block of Kingspan insulation on top.

First impressions last

Perspex crownboard ...

Perspex crownboard …

The first hives were installed in October last year, so I have almost no experience yet in handling colonies ‘indoors’. On a sunny day the lighting is good enough to see eggs and larvae but I might have to consider installing¬†lighting for late-afternoon apiary sessions. We’ve had a reasonably¬†warm, wet winter¬†–¬†very wet¬†–¬†and¬†the colonies look strong at the time of writing (the image on the right is not representative as it was taken some time ago). Colonies within the shed are significantly more active than colonies headed by sister queens outside the shed in the same apiary. However, there may still be genetic differences between the colonies that account for this. This increased activity is twofold – more bees flying on warm days and more hive debris (presumably due to brood being reared and stores uncapped) on the¬†Varroa trays. Only once the hives¬†are opened will it become clear whether these apparent signs of increased activity really reflect stronger colonies that are rearing more brood.

What is clear though is that on days borderline for flying – the sort of day when only the odd bee ventures out – the colonies in the shed have no more bees flying than those outside. On these sorts of days a peek through the perspex crownboards shows that the clusters within the bee shed are ‘looser’, with more bees wandering about in the hive corners and with the bees spread across more frames. However, this increased activity inside the hive doesn’t appear to translate into more bees venturing out if the weather isn’t really good enough.

It’s going to be an interesting season …

Waiting for the season to start ...

Waiting for the season to start …