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Are Saskatraz bees an answer to colony collapse? (whathappensonthehomestead.com)
62 points by vezycash 47 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

My dad is a beekeeper and I've been with bees all my life. A bee colony is a wonderful, inspiring emergent organism.

When you know the bees, you can optimize for any dimension among many.

Depending on the needs around our farm, we'd optimize for honey production, for pollen, for pollination services, for bee or queen production among others.

Now, my dad optimizes for joy. A bit of honey to give the grandkids, friends and neighbours. Pollination services for the berry farms (those farmers are his buddies) in that critical time when blossoms must be pollinated or there will be no berries, nukes (what we call fresh new bees with a queen, the nucleus 'nuke' of a colony) for other beekeepers that need more bees, teaching at the local community college.

Sometimes, we go into the bees with no protective gear. If you know the bees, you can do that. There is a sense of calm/zen/awe you get when among the bees that is hard to describe.

All this is to say, it is misleading to think of colony collapse as a problem. Rather, it is a choice some beekeepers increasingly make to optimize other things. Death rates under 10% are quite possible with a different set of choices. We get single digit death rates, even near zero, but getting there gives up a lot of other dimensions.

Bee production itself is so effective that it often makes economic sense to, in effect, stress a colony to death and replace it with a fresh one, rather than give the colony the space or attention needed to make it through.

The economics is clearer if you have dozens or hundreds of colonies. Then, you have to handle them en mass and accept higher losses as a result.

If you are going to hit peak pollination time in Florida, then truck your colonies across the continent to catch the sweet pollination money from California, you are going to stress your colonies far beyond what they can handle and lose a lot as a result. But, the oranges and the almonds will be pollinated and what you make will more than cover the cost of buying fresh new colonies.

Running the bees to burn through them is not a choice I'd make, but I understand the math even as I don't need the bees to support my family.

Appreciate this point of view, but it isn't just about over-stress. Varroa mites are a real problem. As a hobby apiarist myself, the influx of varroa mites has wreaked havoc on my bee colonies. Having read much of what is being done at the University of Sasketchwan, I am excited about a varroa mite-resistant breed. http://www.saskatraz.com/articles/New/The%20Saskatraz%20hybr...

Chemicals work great against varroa, of course. I'd go with chemicals, ideally as a preventative but also if you catch them fast enough.

That said, the bees themselves, if not stressed, also do a pretty good job against varroa. You just have to avoid stacking the deck against what they'd do naturally.

We've had good results replacing solid hive bottoms with mesh. It turns out that bees hate varroa even more than beekeepers and will spot varroa mites on their colleagues and pop them off. If you have mesh bottoms on your hives, the bees walk across the mesh no problem, but the mites fall through the mesh to the ground. With a solid bottom, the mites just climb up from the hive bottom onto the next bee that passes by.

In a natural hive, there would have been no hive bottom for the mite to land on.

I've always wondered why these bees get shipped all over the place, instead of just keeping local colonies. Is it just the pure economics of having "idle" bees in the offseason vs. keeping them employed all year?

The sheer number of bees being shipped means that at best you would ship them shorter distances, as there is no way you could sustain enough bees around monoculture crops that flower once a year.

Transportation is not that expensive, and I personally believe it grew out of the Combine culture of the plains farmers since so many bees come out of North Dakota. Bee keeping expertise is not a common skill.

A bit off topic; but is it possible to help home bees with basically no "beekeeping"?

I'm planting native local pollinator friendly plants but I'd like to "do more".. within reason. I don't plan on buying bee keeping gear, but I'd happily stick a box in the corner of my property and let them go to town. Is that possible without maintenance?

My concern would be that a "real" kept hive would have someone monitoring for colony health. I merely want to toss up some homes/food/etc for the bees, in the same way that I do for birds.


Find out what you can do to create habitats for native bees. Keeping non-native bees (honeybees) would add competition for resources with local bees; that's not what you want.

Colony collapse is mostly related to agricultural bees (honeybees,) a non-native species keeps for agricultural purposes.

In my area, creating habitats for Mason bees is preferable.

Actually I had already planned habitats for Masons and Cutters :D

Those non-colony bees seem super friendly to the "bird home" style donations, so I was mostly referring to if colonies could be helped in a similar manner. Specifically I am in the Pacific Northwest (US), if that helps at all.

But yea, I planned on heavily supporting cutters and masons. They also pollinate extremely well.

Mason bee homes are super easy to put up! I highly recommend it.

Just wanted to add another kudos for making habitat for mason bees available. They're great little pollinators, and are native to north america. (Assuming you're in North America)

> All this is to say, it is misleading to think of colony collapse as a problem

It is not a problem from your point of view, or your dad's.

However, it is a big problem for the ecosystem in general. Bees are an important mechanism and colony collapse is going to have long lasting effects on many other things.

Now I really want to play a beekeeping simulator.

Taking your comment at face value, it seems like the bee industry is no different than any other hyper-optimized corporate approach to optimizing for the bottom line at all (externalized) costs.

I am a beekeeper and I have not had a colony collapse since I started treating the varroa mites with oxalic acid solution. Colony collapse is a generic term for hive failure and not a specific disease. Varroa is the main reason why my hives failed. The oxalic acid seems to fix this. I treat them after I harvest the honey in the fall. The varroa infestation dies down and the bees do well. The crisis in beekeeping is largely a misrepresentation of the facts by the press. Bees are doing well and the count of total hives is increasing each year in the US. I am going to order some Saskatraz queens, but mainly because they sound like an interesting hack.

I've read (and experienced with my Carnolians) that oxalic acid treatments can sometimes take more toll than the mites themselves. Any thoughts about this? Have you had any causalities with its use?

Oxalic acid is not very toxic. I've read it slows down the bees for a few days, but I've not seen any impact on population. You get oxalic acid in a rhubarb pie and it is harmless. Bees get a very weak solution dribbled on the top of the frames for tens of thousands of bees. They don't get much at all.

As far as pesticides, I am sure they harm bees, but CCD has pretty much gone since the aggressive treatment of varroa started. Russian bees are thought to have brought varroa with them. Before that there were pesticides and most were much more toxic including DDT but the bees were just fine.

Maybe some of the beekeepers in this thread can help me understand this. I live in the PNW, I've got a garden that I love to tend, and I make sure that I've always got something flowering.

I've been really curious about maintaining a beehive for honey (and as an interesting project), but the amount of conflicting information online about raising bees in a suburban environment is unreal. Everything from, "You are doomed and also the honey will poison you because there's a rhododendron within 10 miles" to "Everyone should raise honeybees in their backyard! Totally maintenance free infinite honey!"

A lot of the sites are super, for lack of a better term, "woo-woo".

I wish there were more sites that focused on the mechanical elements, broke down the costs and what to expect, and really took you through the bootstrapping process. (Maybe these sites exist and I just haven't found them yet.)

I keep bees in Seattle, I’d be happy to anwser questions. It’s not that hard but kind of pricy to start budget $600-1000. Some years you will get honey some years you won’t but so far I haven’t gotten crazy amounts as that’s where the skill comes in. Treat for mites twice a year and make nice with your neighbors for the inevitable times that half of the bees swarm and fly off into your neighbors tree. Also bee boxes are heavy so don’t have back problems

I highly recommend reading the Saskatraz bee project report which has a lot more information and research on the bees:


Varroa mites are a big issue with bees. They weaken the hive and introduce other disease.

The article content does not match the title. The title should have been about the answer to varroa mites, not colony collapse.

As per the article:

> Infestation of varroa mites and tracheal mites have resulted in the declining health and death of many honey bee colonies. It is also considered to be a factor in the increase of colony collapse disorder that’s plaguing many areas of the world.

It's always cool to see my province on HN for this or that.

It seems that beekeeping has exploded in popularity around here in the last, say, decade or so. Driving around, there's a huge number of tents set up in canola and alfalfa fields to support colonies of Leafcutter Bees.

I just spent two weeks in central Europe and was blown away by how many bees I saw. In the DC area, I might see one or two individual bees a week. But in one park in Prague, I saw several dozen buzzing among the flowers at once. And there were plenty more in every other location I visited, both urban and rural.

This is just my anecdotal experience and it may mean nothing, but I was truly shocked by the differences in what I see.

Plant milkweed and other plants they like, and you will see bees. I won't say that I've seen dozens at once in our front yard (in Washington, DC), but certainly a half dozen. And they visit our birdbath for water.

The answer to colony collapse is medicinal mushrooms.


Extracts from certain medicinal mushrooms have been shown to have surprising efficacy against the leading viruses responsible for colony collapse disorder. You can participate in the solution by purchasing and using a simple bee feeder in your own backyard. Thanks to Paul Stamets for figuring this out and providing the means for all of us to participate in the restoration of bee populations.

Save the bees, secure the food supply, and all of us will benefit.

This is great as long as they don't require a license fee or are engineered to have a limited life span thus requiring beekeepers to buy more every year from Monsanto.

Happened to listen to a podcast about bee keeping and colony collapse just this past weekend. Thought it was pretty interesting and worth a listen.


99% Invisible did a podcast on bees recently


I ran two Saskatrqz colonies this year and one of my clients (I run a city-wide apiary network) was two more.

We also capture around 50 'wild' swarms around town or year - some of these are from backyard hives but many are from well known, well established wild colonies living in trees or houses.

In all cases the wild swarms outperformed Saskatrqz in terms of growth during the summer. But this is almost always the case that swarms outperform packages. We will do mite counts headed into fall and then will have a little bit of information.

Colony loss from mites is over 50% yearly in town so it's #1 cause of death and a big concern for backyard keepers (in all the USA #1 cause of death is winter for backyard keepers, but here we don't have much winter). Varroa is #1 cause of death in industry as well. This is largely a human-made problem at this point.

A local expert (UC Davis) told me that if industry quit treating for mites, 95% of hives would die which would be catastrophic for food. However the resulting stock would bounce back with strong Varroa resistance. I understand that in South Africa they undertook a practical application of the let nature run her course strategy and it worked.

However in the USA at the heart of the big commercial AG industry, it's all treatment, all the time. That mentality bleeds into the backyard culture - the extension program which trains backyard beekeepers statewide teaches that if you don't treat for Varroa then you are a nuisance - the model says that when a hive dies from Varroa it's infected bees don't so die, they abandon colony and move into nearby colonies. I attended a conference once where they compared an untreated have to an atom bomb - the speaker had a huge screen behind him and there was an atom bomb video on loop. After his presentation they were giving away mite treatment strips from a major brand - this was an academic speaker, not an industry rep.

The trouble with treating heavily for mites follow similar models which are well documented and fail: the rather pest gets resistance, the host gets weaker. Here in an small city in AG land where we are surrounded by commercial keepers, we have zero chance of developing local mite resistance. Our good survivor queens mate with drones from treated colonies where the is no selective pressure on bees to grow tolerance and higenic behavior. Likewise those commercial drones are a death sentence for wild bees.

Even so, we continue to have colonies that persist year after year, generation after generation in town, and although most colonies for each year we end up with as many swarms as lost colonies, so break even. Many of my colonies across town count fewer mites than they did a few years ago. I think that in spite of industry, the small pocket of organic keeping going on here in town is having an event. I think as well industry is buying hiegenic queens.

That's all speculation, although more informed than average. Mite resistant queens have been on the market for a decade - Russians, Carniolans, even a breed of blond Italian that was billed as varroa resistant was being sold in this neck of the woods. I tried all of them and lost them all to mites eventually. Before these breeds because available a local professor and breeder had developed an all black bee with reported excellent resistance. Saskatraz are only the lastest and the greatest. Maybe they will be the magic bullet.

What's important is that the hiegenic genes remain in the population. To that end marketing like this when it's backed up by evidence is a positive thing. However what remains the most effective response to varroa is to do little and let nature run her course: let it bee.

The site content is kind of weak, they had this bee strain for all of a year on how many hives? Not exactly convincing numbers

I agree, I'd be interested in a followup in the second summer. How did they fare through the winter on how much honey? Were they interested in swarming, or how vigorously did swarm management / splits take place? And moreover ( assuming the queen was mated previously ) how did the real progeny workers do compared to the Italians?

The original article includes a link at the bottom to a part 2 posted 6 months later that addresses many of your questions. https://whathappensonthehomestead.com/an-update-about-our-sa...

I highly recommend the project report of the Saskatraz honeybee project rather than this individual's observations: http://www.saskatraz.com/pages/review.htm

native bees > honey bees

With the large scale agriculture in America that native bees aren't well adapted for, we do need honeybees to pollinate the various plants. Especially if we want to reduce our consumption of beef and other animal products.

The answer is to stop the overuse of pesticides.

Yeah. And Varroa destructor mites. We should definitely stop overusing those too.

Varroa destructor mites are a scapegoat, an issue in some areas with some hives. Corporations like to point to this in an attempt to shift blame.

They literally eradicated feral honeybees.

Thomas Seeley's written extensively on feral honeybees. According to him they are thriving, and he's done a whole lot of fieldwork looking into this topic.


Weird. I'm not a beekeeper, nor a biologist, but Seeley's one of the top authorities on both - he picked up Karl von Frisch's work and extended it further translating bee language/communications.

His accounts of site analyses across the country don't exactly agree with the claim of feral bees dying off. He does agree in a sense, but he's presented a lot of very compelling evidence that wild/feral bee colonies are evolving and adapting to survive Varroa mites through natural selection.

We don't have to agree completely; all that we have to agree on is that Varroa mites have in fact been a very big deal both to feral and controlled honey bee hives, and that they are not a smokescreen put up by pesticide companies.

Varroa mites in the wild are a big deal. They are very troublesome with European honeybees, esp. those kept in Langstroth hives. In the wild, bees swarm regularly, and any time they swarm and form a new hive, the new hive not only rids itself of parasites but increases the genetic diversity that is needed to deal with pest resistance. The methods of modern beekeeping work diligently to prevent this. In the 20 years since the article you first linked to was written, more careful/extensive study of wild/feral bee populations has shown how they are better adapted to deal with this pest, which is a very important development in our knowledge of the issue. They aren't a smokescreen put up by pesticide companies, but they are a greater problem as a result of modern practices that limit natural behaviors and natural evolutionary responses that reduce the impact of the mites in wild and feral populations.

I've got no trouble believing any of that, though I'll observe that the honey bees don't "belong" in North America to begin with --- they're an invasive species.

I think we agree, but I'd mention that they're non-native, but they're really not classified as invasive. I think those labels are worth being careful about when discussing ecology. Issues with honeybees aren't ecological issues, so much as human issues tied to agriculture, where if humans want to manage issues with parasites, we can turn to nature to find answers.

This all makes sense. Thanks!

The article is indeed weak in detail and appears as a PR piece.

It talks about a hybrid bee (Apis melifera) that has resistance to varroa mites. It does not explain how they achieve this resistance and just hints that maybe it is due to the longer legs of this hybrid. Or, they produce more propolis than other bees.

While the article is titled about colony collapse, it talks about a hybrid that is somehow less susceptible to mites. Does not mention neonicotinoids, which mainly cause the colony collapse.

This article is just a PR piece not for the type of bees, but this individual's blog. The research behind the bee is very sound in terms of varroa resistance.

Looks like a subjective hobby farmer blog. Not meant to be an expert. I can appreciate the piece, but would rather see more research, and less anecdotal or subjective information.

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