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Feelings aren’t facts. Uncapping and Recapping myths.

Typical with beekeeping myth, lore, and “teaching” much of what is said about the how’s, what’s, and who’s of beekeeping is seldom rooted in fact. What we get when we ask questions are often anecdotes and experientially based insights. The idea of taking things with a grain of salt is most apt here.

Personal insights have their place in beekeeping because necessity is truly the “mother of invention.” The beekeeper’s proclivity of adaptation to problems in the hive births situational fixes that have no  broader application across time, locale, and circumstance for the myriad of other beekeepers out there. There are those novel discoveries that arise from time to time that beekeepers can adhere and incorporate into practice – but those are rarer than the “this worked for me” scenarios that litter a social media thread when a beekeeper proclaims a victory, new finding, or asks a simple “how to” question.

A common myth this discussion finds relevance is that uncapping and recapping behaviors observed in a honeybee colony are the result of a brood disease, wax moth infestation, or some other malady that is anything BUT mite-resistant behavior. Honeybees bred for Varroa Sensitive Hygienic behavior (VSH) are commonly lumped into the camp of “uncap/recap” behaviors because it happens to be a characteristic associated with honeybees that perform this specialized adaptation.

The misconception that all uncap and recap behavior is disease related is wider spread than many of you may guess. While there are reasons honeybee colonies will engage in this type of behavior – it is not always to address some terminal illness or non-varroa incursion. ALL honeybees demonstrate a degree of hygienic behavior or uncapping and recapping of brood for many reasons.

Ironically we beekeepers will depend on the honeybees to do what bees do. They will say honeybees “know best” when it comes to bearding, honeymaking, or cooling/warming the colony. They will idolize the merits of the ingenuity of comb building and queen rearing whilst lauding the capacity of this magnanimous insect we all love, hate, revere, and loathe in one singular emotion during a colony inspection.

Beekeepers more frequently than not – will not allow the bees to be bees when it comes to the varroa mite. Is this attitude toward the latter changing? The SBGMI believes so. The mission of the Northern Queen Initiative believes so. While we will listen to the whispers of the bees in things like bearding and comb building will we listen to them when they tell us about mite suppression? The honeybees have long told us how to handle many things through beekeepers who have listened to those whispers and passed the triumphs on to the rest of us – but when it comes to living with the varroa mite, the ear plugs come out and we default to easy mode.

It is indeed easier to treat with acaricides than it is to evaluate mite resistance in our honeybee colonies. Many of you are willing to go the extra mile and have been. I applaud you for that! Until then, the biases, tropes, and irrelevant anecdotes will persist – but for now I implore you to lead by example. Seek out the data that drives reasonable expectations you can predict outcomes on. There will always be variance with the bees – but there are many things we can logically conclude when we consider what we DO know. As for the things we DON’T KNOW, well that breeds the novelty beekeepers love so much – and I am always looking forward to that next big discovery that moves us forward!

Evidence always speaks louder than anecdote. For more on this topic please see the research linked below:

1. What role do adult honeybees play in Varroa Sensitive Hygienic Behavior?

This study looked at how honey bees defend against Varroa mites by removing infested brood, known as Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) behavior. They identified specific chemical compounds that trigger this behavior and found that bees with VSH behavior have better memory recall abilities. By understanding these compounds, beekeepers can potentially breed bees more resistant to Varroa mites and improve pest management strategies. The study also showed that synthetic versions of these compounds can stimulate hygienic behavior in bees, offering practical applications for beekeepers in the field. 

The specific compounds identified through chemical analysis as being related to parasitized status in honey bees are tricosan-2-one (TrCO), pentacosan-2-one (PCO), tetracosyl acetate (TCA), heptacosan-2-one (HPCO), hexacosyl acetate (HCA), and nonacosan-2-one (NCO).

Adult bees in this research play a crucial role in demonstrating the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) behavior, which involves the removal of infested brood to defend against Varroa mites. The study showed that adult bees with VSH behavior have better memory recall abilities, indicating their active participation in the defense mechanism against Varroa mites.

2. Parallel evolution of Varroa resistance in honey bees: a common mechanism across continents? 

The papers discussed in the summaries of this review focus on the resistance traits of honeybee colonies to Varroa mites and Deformed Wing Virus, emphasizing the importance of natural bee-driven resistance for sustainable beekeeping practices. They explore how resistance traits develop in honeybee populations, the parallel evolution of Varroa resistance across continents, and the complex interactions between honeybees, mites, and viruses. The studies highlight the significance of traits such as increased mite detection, brood removal, and mite infertility in enhancing colony survival and reducing mite populations.

The key traits associated with Varroa resistance in honeybee populations, according to data from 60 papers, are increased recapping, brood removal, and mite infertility. These traits are common among resistant populations and are linked together in a potential framework to explain Varroa resistance. In the paper, behaviors associated with adult honeybees include hygienic behavior, recapping behavior, and detection of infested cells.

SBGMI Members can find information in this paper presented at the 2024 Virtual Winter Conference in the Conference Video Section.

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