Your Source For Beekeeping News, Information and Entertainment
Feb. 7, 2022

Scientific Beekeeping with Randy Oliver (S4, E34)

Scientific Beekeeping with Randy Oliver (S4, E34)

On today’s episode, we are joined by Randy Oliver. If you don’t read Randy’s ABJ column and don’t check in on his  you’ve been missing some of the most up to date news on breeding mite resistant bees, and the newest, best mite treatment...


Randy OliverOn today’s episode, we are joined by Randy Oliver. If you don’t read Randy’s ABJ column and don’t check in on his Scientific Beekeeping website, you’ve been missing some of the most up to date news on breeding mite resistant bees, and the newest, best mite treatment discovered so far.

Randy discusses his breeding program producing honey bees that are totally resistant to varroa, mostly, but he’s not quite ready to say they are completely resistant, but feels he will soon. 

Regarding his tests using controls for varroa, he has an organic product, that is easy on bees, tough on mites and you can use it with honey supers on. Only hitch – it’s not registered. And that’s his goal right now - you can help. Listen in on some of the best news on varroa we’ve had in 30 years. 

If you liked today's episode, subscribe/follow to keep up to date with the latest releases!

Links and websites mentioned in this podcast:

Honey Bee Obscura

______________

We welcome Betterbee as sponsor of today's episode. BetterBee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, BetterBee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at www.betterbee.com

Thanks to Strong Microbials for their support of Beekeeping TodayStrong Microbials Podcast. Find out more about heir line of probiotics in our Season 3, Episode 12 episode and from their website: https://www.strongmicrobials.com

This episode is brought to you by Global Patties! Global Patties is a family business that manufactures protein supplement patties for honey bees. Feeding your hives protein supplement patties will help Global Pattiesensure that they produce strong and health colonies by increasing brood production and overall honey flow. Global offers a variety of standard patties, as well as custom patties to meet your specific needs. Visit them today at http://globalpatties.com and let them know you appreciate them sponsoring this episode! 

Thanks for Northern Bee Books for their sponsorship of Bee Books: Old & New with Kim Flottum. Northern Bee Books is the publisher of bee books available worldwide from their website or from Amazon and bookstores everywhere. They are also the publishers of The Beekeepers Quarterly and Natural Bee Husbandry. Check them out today!

We want to also thank 2 Million Blossoms as a sponsor of the podcast. 2 Million Blossoms is a regular podcast featuring interviews with leading bee and insect researchers in the world of pollination, hosted by Dr. Kirsten Traynor.

_______________

We hope you enjoy this podcast and welcome your questions and comments: questions@beekeepingtodaypodcast.com

Thanks to Bee Culture, the Magazine of American Beekeeping, for their support of The Beekeeping Today Podcast. Available in print and digital at www.beeculture.com

Bee Culture Magazine

Thank you for listening! 

Podcast music: Be Strong by Young Presidents; Epilogue by Musicalman; Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus; Original guitar background instrumental by Jeff Ott

Beekeeping Today Podcast is an audio production of Growing Planet Media, LLC

Growing Planet Media, LLC

Transcript

S4, E34 – Scientific Beekeeping with Randy Oliver

[music]

Jeff Ott: Welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast presented by Bee Culture. Beekeeping Today Podcast is your source for beekeeping news, information, and entertainment. I'm Jeff Ott.

Kim Flottum: I'm Kim Flottum.

Introduction: Hey Jeff and Kim. Today's sponsor is Global Patties. They're a family-operated business that manufactures protein supplement patties for honeybees. It's a good time to think about honeybee nutrition. Feeding your hives protein supplement patties will ensure that they produce strong and healthy colonies by increasing brood production and overall honey flow. Now is a great time to consider what type of patty is right for your area and your honeybees. Global offers a variety of standard patties as well as custom patties to meet your needs. No matter where you are, Global is ready to serve you out of their manufacturing plants in Airdrie, Alberta, and in Butte, Montana, or from distribution depots across the continent. Visit them today at www.globalpatties.com.

Jeff: Thanks, Sherry, and thank you Global Patties. You know, everybody, each week we get to talk about how much we appreciate our sponsor support and we know you'd rather we get right to talk about beekeeping. However, our great sponsors are critical to making all of this happen. From the transcripts, the hosting fees, the software, the hardware, microphones, recorders, they enable each episode. With that, thanks to Bee Culture Magazine for continuing their presenting sponsorship of this podcast. Bee Culture has been the magazine for American beekeeping since 1873. We want to thank 2 Million Blossoms sponsor this episode. 2 Million Blossoms is dedicated to protecting all pollinators. Listen to 2 Million Blossoms the podcast at www.2millionblossoms.com. Hey, everybody. Thanks for joining us. We're really, really happy you're here. Hey, Kim. Are you dug out from all that snow yet?

Kim: No, I haven't.

[chuckles]

Jeff: I was ready for that, buddy.

[laughter]

Kim: It's been winter here and it doesn't look like it's going to stop. That darn groundhog came up and screwed everything up.

Jeff: You saw that email from Hannah the Hornet from the Washington State Department of Agriculture, didn't you?

Kim: Yes, I did. [chuckles]

Jeff: Hannah, the Asian giant Hornet newsletter.

Kim: Six more weeks.

Jeff: Six more weeks. I was able to get out to my bees last weekend. We had a spot of warmer-ish weather. Anyways, I was able to count up the dead outs and I cleaned out a couple of them, that's always such a nasty, dirty job.

Kim: It is. Yes.

Jeff: I don't enjoy that at all.

Kim: Jim too, and I were talking about that on Honey Bee Obscura, and one of the questions that came up was about those colonies that lived about should they be requeened? There's a lot to think about there.

Jeff: Yes. It was important to me to get them cleaned out before they got nasty. At least at springtime, it'll be a little bit easier to put bees in, the ones that I wanted to bring in. Also, take out the really black comb and without fighting bees for it. It's not a happy job, but one that all beekeepers have to do at some point.

Kim: There is no doubt. I have yet to look forward to that. I can't see my colonies from here, they're under 18 inches of snow.

Jeff: Get the snowblower out just to get to them. All right. Kim, we've had some changes or some additions to the podcast. We'll just bring them to our listener's attention. First of all, last week, we introduced the brand new feature that you do with our new sponsor, Northern Bee Books. Bee Books, old and new.

Kim: Yes. We've started working with Jeremy Burbidge there and what we're looking at is Bee Books old and new, and reviewing new Bee Books. Some that he's published, some that others have published that are brand new, and then taking a look at some of the classics. We did one from Pellett and the history of American beekeeping, and then looking at CC Miller and some of the classic beekeeping writers and if you can find those books, and they're still around. You can find those books. Like I said, they're classics and you should get one and then enjoy it and then share it.

Jeff: That is a hobby. I won't say it's a hobby, but that's one of the things I like to do going past old bookstore or secondhand bookstore is go find the Bee Book section to see if I can find an early edition or first edition of any Bee Book, and especially something from the early 1900s. That's fun.

Kim: I think used bookstores are more rare than used books anymore.

Jeff: The used Amazon store. [chuckles] Second, we've enabled a new feature on our podcast, on Beekeeping Today Podcast, and also on our other podcast, Honey Bee Obscura, the blog page.

Kim: Just started one. It's been up for just a little bit, yet it's across the top of the page, you'll see the blog link, and that'll take you there and we're talking about some of the things on climate change. Jim has got one on Honeybee Obscura, and he's looking at observation hives I think, was it?

Jeff: Yes. His is on building an observation hive, a small observation hive.

Kim: Take a look at those. When you're fishing around the webpage, looking for something new.

Jeff: I'm going to write something for the blog about my winter cleanouts, or the dead outs, the cleaning up of the dead outs with some pictures. That's more self-therapy than it is anything else, but maybe our listeners too can--

Kim: [laughs] Share the grief.

Jeff: Misery loves company. All right. Hey, I'm looking forward today's show to have in Randy Oliver on the Beekeeping Today Podcast for a long time. We finally been able to mesh up schedules and make it happen. You've known Randy for quite a while, haven't you?

Kim: I think the whole time I've been here. I've been to his place a couple of times and visited with him. I've been to a lot of meetings with him. If you've heard Randy talk, you know what to expect. If you haven't, get a seat belt because it's a ride and a half.

Jeff: If you're needing coffee, pause the podcast right now, go get your coffee, come back, and start it up again, because you'll need to have your ears up to speed to catch everything Randy has to say. In fact, this is going to be a good time to review those transcripts of the show.

Kim: Yes. Good. Good idea.

Jeff: All right. Let's get right to the interview with Randy Oliver of Scientific Beekeeping, but first, a quick word from our friends at Strong Microbials.

[music]

Strong Microbial: Hello beekeepers, your honeybees face a lot of challenges out there, Unbalanced food sources for monoculture crops, holding yards, drought, food shortages, antibiotics, pesticides, and pathogens like chalkbrood. To overcome these challenges, your bees need the multiple bacteria that are in all nectars, pollens, and the environment. These bacteria aid honeybees' digestion and improve your honeybees' response and resilience to pesticides. Now you can help improve your honey colony health with a quick, easy, and safe to use product. Strong Microbials super DFM honeybee uses naturally occurring bacteria to restore the healthy gut biome of your honeybees. Check them out today at www.strongmicrobials.com

Jeff: Hey, while you're at the Strong Microbial site, make sure you click on and subscribe to The Hive, their regular newsletter full of product information and beekeeping facts. Hey, everybody. Welcome back. Sitting across the virtual Zoom table right now is Randy Oliver. Randy Oliver, finally, welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Randy Oliver: Thanks, Jeff.

Kim: Good to see you again, Randy.

Randy: You too, Kim.

Jeff: Hey, Randy, before we get going because there's so much to cover, but for our listeners, can you just give us a little brief bio of who you are and your background in beekeeping?

Randy: Sure. I've always been a naturalist since I was a young child, grew up just out in the marshes and the streams. Then in high school, a swarm of bees landed in the neighbor's yard. I hide it not knowing at all what I was doing. Then needed to learn something and found out that one of my classmate's fathers was a sideline beekeeper with a couple of hundred colonies and he could use a strong back. I learned beekeeping traditional way by apprenticing to somebody making their living at keeping bees.

I went on then to get degrees in entomology and running an insectary. Setting my insectary at the University of California, and then moved up to Northern California, took my bees with me, ran a farm store for a while. Then decided to go back to grad school, got a degree in fish culture, fisheries biology. Then went to get a PhD at UC Davis, but prior to applying, I interviewed and I found out that there were no jobs out there for anybody with a PhD in apiculture at that time, and I had a family by that time. I said, "Okay," and I went in, and I had put myself through college doing construction, building houses. I continued contracting and built my bee business at the same time until it was large enough. It hit 400 hives. Learning by myself, and that was enough for me to quit construction and doing okay until varroa arrived.

Then, when varroa arrived, I lost firstly, every single colony and just was devastated. I said, "I've got degrees in entomology. Why am I letting some damn parasite kick my butt?" I decided, "Well, I'm going to go back and start hitting the books," and self-educated, read bee literature. Then, I started sharing what I knew with other beekeepers and found out that there was a big hole as far as extension services. There were a few Eric Mussens out there and a few other good extension agents, but not like they had in other agriculture. Somebody who could translate the science into practical application for the beekeepers.

I stepped into this hole and just slid right in, got sucked in by this. Initially, I didn't realize it was there but, boy, as soon as I stepped into it, it just swallowed me up. Beekeepers are hungry for extension people who could explain the science behind beekeeping. Scientific Beekeeping has nothing to do with test tubes or that kind of stuff. It has to do with doing practical, applied beekeeping, instead of doing basing it upon old wives' tales and what your uncle did, do it, actually, based upon the biology and chemistry and physics of what's actually happening in the hive and understanding that.

Jeff: Very good. That brings us up today. You said you're based there in Northern California.

Randy: Yes.

Jeff: Right in the middle of all the almond fields.

Randy: Well, no. We're actually up in the mountains, about 3,000-foot elevation. If we could see them, we could look down over the almond orchards, which are down in the bottom of the valley. Actually, our bloom starts up here before it does at the valley floor, just as the cold air settles down in the valley, but it's not as cold so we don't get snow down there. We don't get normally hard freezes. The snow just melted up here and we do get hard freezes up here. Interestingly, because of that cool air pulling down there, the almond trees actually start blooming up here before they do down there. Although they can't.

They don't rarely set nuts up here because we get our frost that kill the nutlets, that they don't get down in the valley. Anyways, the problem we have right now is all the trees have already started blooming, and that's typical the second week of January. They all start blooming and bees start gathering that pollen like crazy. We have another shrub here that starts to put out a little bit of nectar. Normally, not this early, but it's starting to bloom now. Our colonies are actually on a nectar and pollen slope right now. It's just warm enough for them to forge. It's hitting the 60s during the day. They're like crazy and rooting up, and we've got to load them on trucks because of the chill factor.

The almond growers are suspecting it's going to be an early bloom. The trees got enough chill factor and it's warm weather down there. The growers are freaking out and making sure that beekeepers actually can fill the contracts and get the bees sitting on the grounds in the orchards, which means we're picking colonies up that are on build-up mode on a nectar and pollen slope, and moving down to where there is zero forage whatsoever, into a desert. It's going to be that way until the trees actually start blooming around the second week of February, so because of this, the logistics of having to move a lot of loads, and satisfying the growers, guarantee they want us to actually see the hives sitting there.

We'll pull them off of the nectar and pollen slope, move them down there, and then, put pollen-sub patties into all the hives and maybe sugar syrup just to continue the build-up while they're sitting there in the desert until the trees start blooming.

Kim: Does it look like there's going to be enough bees this year for the almonds? Have you got a feel for that?

Randy: Everybody asks that question every single year at this time, and anybody who answers that question is talking out of their behind. In California, there's plenty to forage during the rest of the year for about a quarter of the number of hives that are necessary for almond pollination. That means about three-quarters of the hives destined for pollination come in from out of state, many of them from up in the Dakotas.

I have one friend right now, he just texted me and said, "Oh my God, my H-2A workers who normally help drive the trucks, the semis, to take my hives out of the cold storage," barns that he has in the Dakotas to California, they couldn't do it. He only has him and his sons, and their wives and girlfriends that can possibly drive trucks, and they have 40 semi-loads of hives in North Dakota. 20 days to get them into California and only a crew, a total of seven to do it, and they're just freaking out.

Kim: It sounds like there may be enough bees somewhere.

Randy: There may be. The question is, with the trucking shortage and all that, getting them in-- What happens this time, Kim, everybody at the national conventions, usually on early January, ask the same question. Many of the bees are still in cold storage or haven't really been checked by the beekeepers yet, so it's just a wild guess. You hear horror stories, "Oh yes, so and so had 30% losses, so and so had 40% or 70% losses." You hear that every year, and then, you go, "Oh my gosh." Then, as it starts to get here to the end of January, you start getting more of a reality check.

You can tell that by how many bee brokers are phoning you saying, "Hey, you got any extra hives?" Or you have beekeepers saying, "Hey, I've got a few extra hives if you know of anything." There's a lot of talk, cell phones, and email going around and we get a feeling right now. I'm not hearing total desperation. I'm not hearing about a glut, otherwise. Then, there will always be some beekeepers-- Most of us try to run, hold back maybe 10% of our hives to cover our bases.

One other thing about that, that last 10%, if there is a shortage at the end, it's an inelastic demand which means that the almond growers to get crop insurance, they need to have evidence that they rented two hives per acre to pollinate the crop. If they don't have two hives per acre, paperwork showing that they rented that, and the crop fails due to weather or something, they cannot collect their insurance. This makes it an inelastic demand. They are going to have to rent beehives. Towards the end, if there's a shortage, they start bidding against each other and the price goes up.

Those beekeepers who still have their 10% that they weren't going to bring out, maybe they were too weak, maybe they're actually a whole bunch of coasted dead-outs, with one frame of bees, because nobody inspects those crop-insurance hives. If there's even any bees flying in or out the entrance, those growers will pay through the nose to get them there. There are beekeepers who gamble on holding out until the end and trying to get that premium price.

Kim: I can see that. I want to get to your varroa work here in a minute, but I got one more almond question. Of course, that has to do with the self-fertile almonds that are coming up. Do you see a future for lots and lots and lots of those? I know the ones that they came up with a few years ago were self-fertile and they set a better crop with bees. I'm hearing now that there's a new one out there that doesn't need bees really at all. Am I close, sir?

Randy: There's been recent research since then. It doesn't need bees, but you make a better crop. When I've done the math, the addition of what the grower would make by having these in there more than pays for the cost of pollination.

Kim: Well, that makes sense then if they're going to keep bees going.

Randy: As a beekeeper, I'll tell you right now. We're all stretched to the max trying to supply enough bees for the almond orchards, because we're running out of forage in the rest of the United States for that. We ran out of forage in California a long time ago, especially with our droughts, again, to supply enough bees. To take the pressure off a bit would be nice, and people say, "Well, beekeepers set the price for almond pollen." That's absolutely untrue. The growers set the price. We, beekeepers, are totally at the mercy of the growers. It's the growers that are bidding against each other for the supply. It's supply and demand. Bidding. The price is set by what price makes it worthwhile for a beekeeper to dump the money into the hives to supply those extra hives.

The marginal cost of investing to-- If a grower says, "Well, I need 1,000 hives this year but I've got another orchard coming into bloom. Next year, 1,000 hives."

Well, the beekeeper, I say, "Well, it's going cost me a lot of money to produce 1,000 hives, and then keep them alive for a year. Then feed them prior to pollination to build them up, and then turck them down there. I can't do it for less than $250 or $200 and that's reality, a price of what it would take to even make it worthwhile, increasing your number of hives. Otherwise, you're going to be losing money to growers.

What it is, is supply and demand of what the almond growers are willing to produce. If they didn't keep planting more and more acres of trees every year, the price would be a lower price, because it'd be easier to supply the bees, but they keep planting them because there's a good demand for almonds still. We're in this situation because the groundwater is running out in certain areas in the San Joaquin Valley, and a lot of orchards are going to come out of the ground and maybe move to Northern California, maybe move to Idaho.

They're looking for other places that they can grow almond trees where there's more water. Climate change is really hitting California hard, very, very hard, and it's a whole different world. There's no more normal here at all. That's going to affect the almond growers.

[music]

Better Bee: BetterBee is pleased to sponsor today's episode of Beekeeping Today Podcast. For over 40 years, BetterBee has supplied beekeepers across the country with the tools, equipment, and knowledge needed to succeed. Because many BetterBee employees are beekeepers themselves, they understand your needs and challenges and are better prepared to answer your beekeeping questions. From their colorful catalog to their supportive beekeeper educational activities including this podcast, BetterBee truly lives up to their tagline of "Beekeepers serving beekeepers." See for yourself at betterbee.com.

[music]

Kim: You just mentioned keeping those bees alive essentially, between almond crops and the biggest part of that is dealing with varroa. I know you've done a lot of work on that. What are you doing with your varroa program now? Where are you headed, do you think?

Randy: Well, it's really two things, Kim. It's nutrition and varroa. Nutrition is the bottom line, and then, varroa is what-- If bees get good nutrition, that also means good nutrition for varroa, because varroa cannot grow unless the bees are rearing brood. If the colony is getting good nutrition and growing large enough to go to almonds, that means it's also growing varroa mites. The big problem is dealing with the mites. What happened when we first got varroa-- It's really not varroa that's the problem. The problem are the viruses, mainly deformed-wing virus. Varroa is the vector of the virus, so controlling varroa is really like trying to control malaria by controlling the vector.

If you can keep the mosquito population down, then malaria is not a problem, but if you don't control the mosquitoes, the vector, then they transmit malaria. Varroa control is the same thing. What you're doing, you're controlling the vector of the disease that actually takes the bees down, which is viruses.

Starting off, the first few years we had varroa, you could get a sky-high population of mites in your colony, and it's harmful for the colony, but it doesn't kill the colony. Once a year, you can put in a synthetic miticide treatment, kill all the mites in fall, and just cover the bottom board with a layer of mites, and the bees would survive and take off the next year. Once a year, you could do a treatment that way.

Unfortunately, that kind of strong selective pressure means that you're doing directed evolution for the mites to evolve resistance to that specific pesticide. The synthetic pesticides or miticides have very specific targets usually in them, sodium gated ion channels, or something like that, in the mite's nervous system. It's a very small change in genetics in order to get resistance, and there's often not a great big cost to the mites to build resistance. The first major miticide, fluvalinate. In six years, we started seeing mite populations that were completely resistant.

The second thing was, those resistant populations were not as vigorous mites at reproducing, so it actually made varroa control fairly easy, because the mites didn't grow very well. Then, when resistance got enough, we needed a new chemical, and they came out with coumaphos. They actually registered that, an organophosphate which they'd been trying to phase out, and said, "Oh, you can put it right into your beehives." [laughs] Organophosphate. What beekeeper would have ever thought we'd be putting in organophosphate into our hives? We did. Well, it was even easier for the mites to develop resistance to the coumaphos. In three years, it completely, absolutely, failed everywhere.

There was one other miticide left, and that was amitraz. That was first showing the use by researchers by using an off-the-shelf product called Taktic. It was a cattle tick dip. They showed that you could mix it with vegetable oil and put it on a stick or a towel, or something, go in your hive and it controlled varroa well. The problem was it wasn't registered for that use. Nonetheless, commercial beekeepers, pretty quick, all shifted over to-- Most of them, all using Taktic, amitraz, for mite management. It worked for quite a few years and finding an EPA is tough because all we beekeepers, we complain about pesticide misuse by the growers while the EPA says, "Well, how about you guys? Talk about being pesticide scofflaws, your whole damn industry is using illegal miticides."

Then, Toyo-- I can't even remember his last name. He approached me a number of years ago and said, "Hey, Randy, we manufacture amitraz. Would it be worthwhile for us to put it in a formulated product in a strip and sell it to the US?" The problem was that the EPA has what's called a risk cup of how much of any pesticide they'll allow the human population to be exposed to.

With amitraz, the risk cup was pretty full because it was now being used for flea and tick collars for dogs and cats, which means-- The housewives, if they pet their dog or their cat with a tick collar on, they're going to be exposed to a certain amount of amitraz, so that raises the risk cup. EPA said, "Well, if you want to come out with a miticide in a strip to put into the beehives, you're going to have to take other one off the market. The trade-off was he had to take Taktic, the cattle dip, off the market in order to be allowed to make the beekeeping product.

He told me about it, a year ahead of time, that was going to happen, and he said, "But you can't tell anybody, Randy [laughs] because that's a secret right now, now that I've shared that information." For a year, I knew in advance that Taktic was going to be removed from the US market. Then, it came about, it was removed. What happened now is the Chinese have taken advantage of that, and beekeepers just go online and order it, shipped illegally from China, and apply it. This has been a big issue. Especially, with the state enforcement agents and the apiary inspectors. They have to keep turning a blind eye to this illegal use of amitraz by the commercial beekeepers.

Now, on top of that, the mites are starting to finally show resistance. This has been 20-some years. It's been amazing. There's apparently a very high cost to the mites to be resistant because otherwise, that strain of mites, that bloodline would have completely outcompeted all the other mites in the commercial operations. When it used to take maybe one treatment a year with amitraz, now many beekeepers, they're putting on 5 to 10 treatments a year to obtain the same degree of mite control with that product. The whole industry is shaking in its boots right now saying, "What's to come after amitraz, after it starts to fail?"

For me, after seeing coumaphos fail in 2001, I said, "That's it. I'm getting off of this treadmill. No more synthetic miticides." I said, "I'm going to see if we can keep bees alive using nothing but the natural treatments," which happen to be also organically approved. They are thymol, from the thyme plant, it's synthetic but it comes from the thyme plant. Formic acid, which is the smell of ants that they put out. Then, oxalic acid, which is what makes spinach and chard taste astringent in your mouth so it's part of the human diet. It's also naturally a part in the honey.

Those three products, it was a learning curve starting in 2001 to try to keep our colonies alive and healthy using nothing but those natural products, but we were able to do it. You're not successful immediately. It's a lot to learn but by this time now, we've been doing it since the year 2001 so we're 20 years now without having to ever use synthetic miticide in our operation. The commercial beekeepers have started to pay attention to that because the easy escape with amitraz, they know it's not going to last much longer as the mites develop more and more resistance to this.

There's two things. The end result, Kim, that's going to solve the problem is having mite-resistant honeybee stocks that you can buy bees that exhibit strong mite resistance. Six or so years ago, I said, "I will walk the walk for you commercial queen producers, and see if I can, by doing an inexpensive, such a breeding program." I kept track of the hours per year of what it costs. I can tell them exactly how many dollars it's going to cost them to do this, to dedicate 1,000 hives, or so to such a breeding program. Then I said I'll walk the walk and see what kind of success we'll get. We started off, we're running about 1,500 hives in this breeding program each year, replacing all the queens every year, only from selected breeders.

Typically around 25 out of 1,500 every year. Very strong genetic selection of that, bottlenecking of the genome. We started out with a fraction of 1% of our colonies exhibiting mite resistance. We test this by doing mite washes in late June, and any colony in which the mite population is increasing, we take out of the program and we treat them and get the mites down, but if they still have mite counts of zero or only one mite-- We get concerned at a mite count of about six or higher.

If they can keep it down to the one to two mite level, then we put a tag on them to say don't treat the type.

Jeff: When you say a mite count of one to three or one to six, you're saying per 300 bees?

Randy: Yes, per half of the bees. We standardize this. We take it at the same type of frame out of every hive. A frame, not from the brood nest itself, but from a frame adjacent to the brood nest, because your mite infestation rate varies on the bees from frame to frame, you can't just go take any frame out of a hive. You want to standardize that. We have a very standardized method.

What changed everything is I've developed and built mechanical agitators and I'm hoping to be able to just publish some plans for generation for right now. Without testing generation for this week, I've got thousands of hours into going through prototype after prototype after prototype thinking how to make one inexpensive for us and we have these cute little-- Actually, I have a bunch of them now, that are battery powered, rechargeable and they'll recharge right off your cigarette lighter in your car. Handle on the top and you pick them up and you push a button and it does the entire agitation, 300 revolutions, and it shuts itself off, and you're ready to do it.

We can now do these mite washes incredibly fast. Me and two of my crew, we did 55 mite washes in 45 minutes on a yard. We do a mite wash on all 1,500 hives in a few days, every late June, and that's how we started our breeding program every year. We've started all of our nucs in the springtime. We give them a dribble with oxalic acid to reduce the mites and then we let the mites grow, I call the varroa race. We're seeing which hives keep the varroa from getting ahead.

They get a tag on them, they write down the date and the mite count. A month later, we come back and check them again. If the mites count has gone up, we pull the tag off, and we give them a treatment and everybody stays in the same yard. After several of those, we have colonies by the end of the year that our best ones are zero, zero, zero, zero, zero. Mites absolutely cannot grow in those colonies. They are often the most productive colony in the yard, honey production.

As gentle as pussycats, we don't see any correlation between defensiveness and mite resistance, and no correlation with having to give up on honey-producing protection and mite resistance. The problem is lack of heritability. Like I said, the first year, we had a fraction of 1% of our colonies that passed the test. Then we went up to, we got maybe 2%, 3%, 7%. The last two years, we pushed maybe 8% to 10%, and right now, this year, it's looking like we're hitting the 17%. I get goosebumps saying that, because it's like this is maybe a breakthrough.

The other really important thing is, I've been looking, you do what's called progeny testing. What I'm saying as a colony, I'm hypothesizing, can exhibit complete resistance if only one or two of the haplogroup sisters in that colony exhibit a certain behavioral trait. When a queen mates with say 25 drones, that means there's 25 families of half-sisters in that colony.

If even one of those families has the behavior of sniffing for a pupa that is infested by a mite and then uncapping that pupa, that may be all there has to be added there. The other bees will take over from there. What apparently was happening is our resistant colonies may have just been picking up that genetics from a drone the queen mated with rather than the queen herself. Then grafting off that queen doesn't do you any good. All these years, we'll find these queens of colonies that are completely absolutely resistant.

They'll go two years without ever letting the mite population build-up, but their daughters of those queens, because they mate with different drones, may not exhibit that. We're finally starting to look like we're getting trashed. The big thing is this year, we had two yards where 50% of the colonies exhibited resistance. One yard last few days just amazed me. That is an indication that possibly we finally locked it, fixed it into a female bloodline.

I went out, I got these metal tags, painted them fluorescent green, and stapled them on the tops and landing boards of all the resistant hives in that yard, because my sons need to take them to almonds because they need to make the money down there. I kept a few of the best ones not to go just in case, but the rest are going. I said, "Boys, I want all these green tag, the flashy green tag ones coming back. We're going to put them in one mating yard and then we're going to graft daughters off of them, mate the nucs from the workers of those hives and the drones of those hives and mate them out right there. We're going to see if this is our breakthrough year of fixing mite resistance into a bloodline."

Progress has been slow, but an answer to Kim's question, that's the end result.

Now, the second answer to Kim's question, is what can we do in the meantime before we can sell mite-resistant queens? Right now I don't make any claim for mites resistance at all. We sell lots of queens and nucs every year, and people love them, but I'm not saying that they're going to be resistant, although a lot of them are. What do we do in the meantime?

The problem is there's not a whole lot of good promising miticides out there that anybody's going to be willing to bring to market, but the beekeepers have trained the manufacturers is that if they take a miticide that is used commercially on other crops and that manufacturers spends a whole lot of money to develop, register it for use in beehives, the beekeepers are going to ignore that, they're going to buy the cheap product off the shelf and make their own treatment.

We've trained the manufacturers, beekeepers are going to screw you if you spend the money to develop that product. That means that we're stuck with having to either come up with something, a miticide that is not used and registered for any other application and then that somebody can make a profit doing that. Or we shift to the natural treatments that the biologicals they're called, the same ones that I'm using, the thymol, the formic acid, and the oxalic acid. We use all three of those in rotation in our operation.

The problem is, we have a fairly short honey flow in California here. By July, our honey flow is usually pretty much over, which means we can hop on drone management at that time. In other areas in the United States, they're still making honey for a long period of time. There's no easy miticide to put in the hive to suppress varroa build up during that period of time.

What I have discovered based upon some research by the Magi group out of Argentina, is if you take oxalic acid and dissolve it into glycerin, and put it on a cellulose matrix like a sponge or something like that, put it in the hive, it gives an extended-release of oxalic acid. It does not contaminate the honey, it doesn't have adverse effects on the bees. You should be able to put it on during the honey slow if we can get it registered by the EPA to do that.

I've got an experimental use permit from the state of California every year to run experiments to collect hard data on this, I've been publishing that. I just sent off update from this year. I've quantified the dose, I've quantified what works, how to make it. We've worked with USDA on this.

We tested the honey to make sure it doesn't get into the honey and it doesn't have adverse effects on the bees during the summer. I've just yesterday collected the data of a winter trial to put it in there and it didn't show any adverse effects on the bees over winter. This is going to be a major game-changer. I'll tell you right now, the commercial beekeepers are following this very closely and sending me donations to support this research. The question is getting it registered. Right now the USDA who was the registrant for oxalic acid for use with beehives decided to give that up. They are now working with another registrant to take over it. The question is whether that registrant is going to take the money to pursue this additional application method to make it legal to use.

I had a meeting with EPA Office of Pesticide Programs last week, and I asked them would they be willing to consider New Zealand's model. New Zealand said, "Hey, we just really give an own use exemption, and the beekeeper is free to use oxalic acid in the hives anywhere they want." That would have made it totally legal.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way with the EPA. They don't make laws, so they can't make that law.

I have a few beekeepers I'm working with now. We're going to see if we can find a legislator to see if they can push that law through which would solve the problem. Incredibly, it would just revolutionize beekeeping. In lieu of that, we're thinking about setting up a nonprofit, just to register it ourselves if the other group chooses not to do that so that we supply both oxalic acid at a reasonable price to beekeepers.

The thing is they can buy it, anybody can buy oxalic acid right now very cheaply and make their own product to put in the beehives but you're breaking the law. If we register it, and then they buy it from a registered seller, and what we would do is just do it on a non-profit basis, then they would not be breaking the law. It'd make all these commercial guys who are right now scofflaws forcing all the inspectors to turn a blind eye to what they're doing, they can be legal. That's the short answer to your question.

[laughter]

Kim: The quick next question then, of course, is if I want to see this happen, if I want to see a legal oxalic acid application technique developed and made legal, and I want to support that, where do I spend my money?

Randy: God, I wish I had an easy answer because right now, I don't know why, but the USDA is working in semi secrecy about who the new registrant is. We don't know who it is or we can't even approach them. We have an idea, we're trying to go around channels to ask them are they going to pursue this registration or not? I've already got the routing for it, it'll be very simple to do. We also talked to IR-4 which is university and research, which I've already spoken to them. They will help us to do it.

I talked to OECD pesticide programs, and they said it's not going to cost that much money. I've got three other beekeepers right now who maybe we're going to pull our money and try to do this. I can't guarantee this exactly what's going to happen. I don't self-promote at all. I can say, "Just send me money and we'll put it towards that." Which would likely happen, but we're still right in the middle of this conversation right now, figuring out just what we're going to do.

If anybody has a connection with a legislator who might be willing to put forward a law for the United States saying, "Hey, how about an own use exemption for beekeepers?" Then the EPA would be happy to follow that if we come up with a law. Anybody with connections, do that. Otherwise, yes, donations to Scientific Beekeeping, everything doesn't go to me, it goes into research or something like that.

At this point, I'll put out a call if we get to the point where we're actually in the process of registration and have a fixed amount of what we need, I will notify the industry and say, "Hey, now you can send the money here."

Kim: I guess the people who want to do this are going to follow this by going to Scientific Beekeeping, your webpage, which has more than tons of information on it. It's a go-to place certainly for any beekeeper.

Randy: Right. It's poorly organized right now. I keep trying to find time to organize it properly and better search functions. Right now, essentially, it's a list of all the articles I published since 2006 in order by date. There is a search function for a word or phrase at the top so you can look in there, but mainly, if you just look at the articles by publication date, look at the titles, that'll give you a good idea. Go for the most recent ones, I'm continuing updating now.

I publish mainly in the American Bee Journal, but I update my articles. I go to the website because I can then go and keep updating. I'm updating them all the time so if I missed something in the past, and I find that it needs to be corrected or added to, I'm always updating those. I hope someday to be putting them all into a book, putting it all together, but I'm already at work 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I'm having trouble finding extra seconds to take on any more projects.

Kim: I can believe that. We've covered the almond situation and you've brought me up to date, like today on your breeding program. We're running the clock here, but what have we missed that you want to get out, what message?

Randy: How about on varroa management? The message is, I have a mite model out there called Randy's Varroa Model. You can Google it, it'll bring it right up. If you have Excel on your computer, it works best. It allows you to plan a management strategy for varroa. Now, a couple of years ago, I put out the message, "Some beekeepers don't have Excel available, how about an online model?" A beekeeper named Trish Harness stepped up to the plate, she was in a class doing programming. She said, "Okay, we're going to make it. It's my project." She's worked on this for two years, and she just now has an online model up.

If you go to the website Chickabuzz, C-H-I-C-K-A-B-U-Z-Z, like a girl, chickabuzz.com. Right on the front webpage to the left, it says Randy's Varroa Model. It will work on your cell phone. It's an app and it's free. By all means, send Trish some money, she spent two years working on this out of the goodness of her heart to make this out there. It's a simplified version of the Excel model. What you can do then is you can adapt it, the model can go as deep as you want to go into varroa build up and varroa management.

You can adapt it for any place you live in on planet Earth to what your seasons are, what your management is, and then you an option and 15-day intervals entering any mite treatment. The percentage of mite reduction from that treatment, and it tells you how to do that. It plots out, it shows you how that will affect the varroa treatment. What are your varroa population in the hive and what your infestation rate will do. It's very easy then to make a plan, a custom plan for your own management looking at your windows of opportunity when you have a break when you don't have honey supers on, what your timing is.

I'll tell you the short version is for any place you live, you want to control varroa very early in the spring, as early in the spring as possible. You want to get that level down to close to zero, especially before you put your honey supers on. Then you generally would want to get mites back down close to zero in the middle of August depending on if you're in an area with the winter, so that your last rounds of brood, which are going to become your winter bees are not exposed to the deforming virus, because that's what causes much of the winter collapses these days. You have to get your mite level down by the middle of September so that the virus infestation rate in the colony is low enough that the last rounds of brood can be reared. When you have bees that are not infected by the virus emerging and those will be your healthy winter bees to take your colony through the winter.

Kim: Jeff, you're going to have that webpage link on our webpage so that people can go and take a look.

Jeff: Absolutely.

Kim: It's early spring now so now is when people are going to need to be thinking about getting started. As I'm looking at 18 degrees of snow today so I've got a little bit of a window here yet but not much time.

Randy: Springtime to the bees is not about dates, it's about temperature and pollen availability. Springtime is when they first are looking at starting to ramp up brood rearing. You nip it in the bud right then when they are in their first rounds, get throw it down at that time. We're going to have to see where this extended-release oxalic acid will fit into this rotation strategy. One mistake that beekeepers make, it's the first thing any beekeeper asks me is, "Oh, you got this great new treatment? Can I just leave it in the hive all year long?" I hear that over and over again.

Kim: Yes, I think, Jeff, that's the piece of advice that we've been looking for is get started as early in the spring as you can and monitor it to make sure that it's working. I'll add this because I always need it. Good luck. I hope it works. Randy, thank you for all of this. This has been amazing.

Randy: You bet.

Kim: People tuned into his webpage, look for his most recent articles. If you don't get ABJ, you can find him on the webpage and keep up with what he's doing, how the breeding program's going, and how the scheduling is going. Randy, thank you.

Randy: You bet.

Jeff: Randy, it's been a great pleasure having you on the show. I feel like we've barely touched the surface, so look forward to having you back at a future date.

Randy: You guys nailed it, right?

Jeff: Yes.

Randy: This is the skin of the surface.

Jeff: We just introduced you. Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy day, especially this time of year to join us on Beekeeping Today Podcast. Thanks a lot.

Kim: Good luck with almonds.

Randy: Good luck, everybody, with your bees.

Jeff: I forgot to strap in on that interview with Randy. He goes a mile a minute, but there's so much information that he gave us.

Kim: Yes, that's typical Randy. If you know that going in, you're ready for it, but if you haven't heard him before or you haven't heard him in a long time, it's a lot of information. It's coming in at you bullet speed, and you better be paying attention. The nice thing about this, Jeff, is that there'll be a transcript of it.

Jeff: Yes. Everybody, feel free to look at transcripts. If you've never looked at a transcript, I'm sure you'll want to look at them for this episode, because Randy was really nice and shared a lot of valuable information with us. Check it out.

Kim: Up to date. Sounds promising and keep your fingers crossed, it works.

Jeff: Yes. I'd really like to get on top of those varroa. Before we go, I want to encourage our listeners to rate us five stars on Apple podcast wherever you download and stream the show. Your vote helps other beekeepers find us even quicker. Even better, write a review and let other beekeepers looking for a new podcast know what you like.

You can get there directly from our website by clicking on reviews along the top of any webpage. As always, we thank Bee Culture, the magazine for American beekeeping for their continued support of Beekeeping Today Podcast. We want to thank our regular episode sponsor Global Patties. Check them out, www.globalpatties.com. We want to thank Strong Microbials for the support of the podcast. Check out their probiotic line at www.strongmicrobials.com. We want to thank Better Bee for joining us as our supporter. Check out all the great beekeeping supplies this spring at www.betterbee.com. Finally, we want to thank you the Beekeeping Today Podcast listener for joining us on this show.

Feel free to send us questions and comments at questions@beekeepingtodaypodcast.com. We'd love to hear from you. Anything else, Kim?

Kim: Just one thing like I always say, Jeff. If our listeners think that the show was good and worth listening to, share it with a friend who didn't get to listen to it, because there's a lot of good information and maybe your bees will be alive next spring.

Jeff: Thanks a lot, Kim. Thanks, everybody.

[00:53:21] [END OF AUDIO]

Randy Oliver Profile Photo

Randy Oliver

Beekeeper, Researcher, Writer

Randy Oliver sees beekeeping through the eyes of a biologist, building a small commercial beekeeping enterprise in the foothills of Northern California. His sons now manage around 1500 colonies for migratory pollination, and produce queens, nucs, and honey, freeing Randy to engage full-time in beekeeper-funded research projects.

Randy analyzes and digests the scientific research, and is in touch with beekeepers and researchers from all over the world. This not only broadens his own depth of knowledge, it helps him to figure out best management practices for beekeepers everywhere. Randy then happily shares his observations and learned information through his various articles in bee magazines, his speaking engagements, and on his website.