Renewing Brain Cells with BCHPA beekeeping speakers

Close-up photo of a female varroa mite. Credit Gilles San Martin

Spring always brings the promise of new opportunities and discoveries. Our winter months are consumed with cleaning and rebuilding equipment, expanding capacity and ordering supplies for the coming year.

But as the snow recedes up into the mountains, it also brings us closer to one of our favourite events. I am talking about the B.C. Honey Producers Association’s semi-annual education days.

This is one of the places to which we go for renewal of our brain cells. The COVID pandemic has turned in-person gatherings into virtual affairs online, but the infusion of ideas still takes place.

So was it this last weekend with two power-packed days at the BCHPA event. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham’s announcement of funding for the BCHPA’s Tech Transfer Program started the ball rolling. Then came a panoply of lectures from engaging and energetic beekeepers and researchers.

Close-up photo of a female varroa mite. Credit Gilles San Martin

Female Varroa destructor on the head of a bee nymph by Gilles San Martin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Sam Ramsey

Ramseyis a brilliant young scientist whose curiosity about seemingly settled science has upended our knowledge of the varroa mite. His groundbreaking research published in the Proceedings of theNational Academy of Sciences shows that varroa feed on bees’ fat bodies, not hemolymph or blood.  \ This radically alters our knowledge of this seminal enemy of the bee. It frankly gives me hope that we may find better ways to combat our enemy. He’s now turned his mind to another exceedingly mite dangerous to honey bees, Tropilaelaps. 

Sam Ramsey’s groundbreaking research was published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ellen Tophitzhofer

Another brilliant young scientist is Ellen Topitzhofer, a researcher with Oregon State University. Her  work on mites’ resistance to treatments is key to understanding how we need to change our field practices. Her second talk was on research about overwintering queen bees in mass storage. It  complements work already being done in British Columbia. I know Tophitzhofer’s findings in both areas already have altered how Amanda and I here in Creston look after our bees.

Ellen Topitzhofer – Credit OSU

Carolyn Essaunce

I am deeply impressed with  Carolyn, a Lower Mainland commercial beekeeper whose passion for and defence of bees challenges us to look at the societal concepts of our practices. She questions why beekeepers continue to support spray-happy fruit growers whose cavalier disregard for our bees has increasingly poisoned both our bees and many beekeepers’ desire to assist in pollination.  She also argues, in the face of growing annual colony losses, that governments and beekeepers aren’t doing enough to find realistic solutions. The BCHPA executive is considering her points.

Carolyn Essaunce – Credit Honest To Goodness Farm Co.

Leonard Foster

We heard of Leonard Foster’s new project to add to the growing effort to combat fraudulent “honey” by fingerprinting true honeys through mass spectometry. His work will complement research already being done by B.C.’s Peter Awram, whose True Honey Buzz, and Worker Bee Honey companies  are using Bruker’s proprietary (and so far, fraud-defeating) nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) process to create a database of known true honeys. Two different scientific approaches to identify true honey from cheap concoctions made with rice, corn and other syrups. Foster’s work is funded in part by the BCHPA. Our companies, Honey Bee Zen Apiaries Ltd. and Swan Valley Honey Ltd, are supporters; our honey from the Creston Valley was fingerprinted in 2019 in Peter’s growing database, and we’ll be sending samples to Foster for inclusion in his own database.

Leonard Foster – Credit UBC

Dewey Caron

I’ve always liked Dewey for his  down-home way of teaching beekeepers. He is a lifelong researcher and author, whose Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping is a required text in many universities. He has an eminently sensible way of presenting his subjects. His past lectures on how to read a brood frame is an elegant way of understanding the health of a colony.  But this time he delved into how to solve a spring mystery: why did a hive die? His simple in-field investigative techniques allowed me to better understand that our major loss several years ago was likely caused by Parasitic Mite Brood Syndrome. This complex of problems was likely caused by an overload of mites and viruses,  compounded by our failure to recognize we had a growing problem.

Dewey Caron – Credit OSU

Stan Reist

Stan, who co-owns Flying Dutchman Honey on Vancouver Island with his wife Cheryl, has become one of the largest importers of package bees and queens to B.C.  He’s also a significant exporter of B.C.-made nucleus colonies to Alberta beekeepers every spring. He delved into the exceedingly complex issues of import regulations and compliance for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps. Stan is also the BCHPA’s provincial representative on the Canadian Honey Council.

Alison McAfee

McAfee is one of Leonard’s former UBC students. She reviewed some research she conducted with others on why queens may fail early, especially when they are subject to variations in temperature. Her research was also funded in part by the BCHPA and its Boone Hodgson Wilkinson Trust Fund. She also raised questions about the efficacy of heat treatment processes to combat mites, pointing out that such processes may not only damage the sperm viability of queens, but also brood and drones.

Why Ramsey’s research is a stunner

I’m particularly excited about Ramsey’s research findings. For decades scientists have told us that varroa feed on the hemolymph or blood of bees. We’ve based our treatment of this pest and management of our colonies on that idea.  But Ramsey, then a PhD candidate in Dennis van Englesdorp’s University of Maryland bee lab, questioned that theory. Instead, his research has  shown conclusively that varroa mites feed on the fat bodies of bees. He uncovered how mites suck out the “liver” proteins of both adult and juvenile bees, thus irreparably damaging the bees. This overtakes the more common theory that bees are able to manufacture more hemolymph. This discovery may mean we can or have to change the way we treat for mites. But that is work for another scientist.

Sam Ramsey – Credit drsammy.online

For me his work has raised more questions.  If we’ve mistakenly thought varroa feed on hemolymph, and have fashioned treatments based on that thought, I wonder if  we have then missed opportunities for a better response. Could we have developed more targeted treatments if we had known the true way varroa feed? It’s as if we were treating a bruise with a topical agent, only to find out it is instead a cancer.

Will we get better at helping our bees with a foe they’ve never been accustomed to? Yes. It is scientists like Ramsey, Topitzhofer, Foster and others who will lead that charge.

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