A Curious Beekeeper reads a Study

Studies are potential land mines. You never know ahead of time if you’ve got good science or someone trying to prove a predecided point. College PR departments are especially good at twisting a study’s findings to be something sexy they can sell.

Links to the study I’m talking about today were sent to me by several people. “RNA virus spillover from managed honeybees (Apis mellifera) to wild bumblebees (Bombus spp.)” is by Samantha A. Alger, et al, and out of the University of Vermont. The study was published in the on-line, peer reviewed journal, PLoS ONE on June 26, 2019. (PLoS is short for Public Library of Science)

So far, the study looks well done. I like studies with lots of references that I can check (this one has 45) and it fits with something I have been thinking about which is how many colonies of Honey bees can you have in a given area before negatively impacting wild bees. I have some more reading ahead of me before I’m fully satisfied. My state’s Apiarist sent me some papers & articles on Carrying Capacity. I’m making my way through those as well.

(I was taught that studies should be considered skeptically, and when examining, you ought to skip the abstract/authors’ conclusions and start with the data and methods. Confession: I read the abstract first, to see if the study interested me.)

In this study, seven sites near commercial apiaries were studied over about 8 weeks in 2015, looking to see what viruses, if any, the native Bumbles picked up from the Honey bees. Bumbles not near managed colonies were sampled too.

The study reports that the bumbles near the managed colonies had significantly higher levels of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) and Black Queen Cell Virus (BQCV). The study was focusing on viruses that jumped species to develop, not just exposure that really doesn’t do anything.

There is some evidence that the virus transfer took place at flowers visited by both groups. Virus transfer from Honey bee waste products was also considered.

The study raises lots of questions about where this information leads us and how beekeepers should proceed. First, and I’m not ready to tackle this one, is what kind of responsibility do beekeepers have to keep infections in their kept bees from transferring to wild bees?

Also, the data was gathered several years ago (summer 2015) and beekeepers have learned a great deal about managing Varroa, and minimizing viruses within managed hives. What effect does this have?

I think most would agree that spreading viruses to wild bees is not something that should be done. I wonder then what quantity of kept Honey bees it takes to impact the natives? The Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) counts as commercial those with 100 colonies or more. We have a bunch of side liners in this group, running as many as 50 colonies. I am running about 14 colonies right now, down substantially from prior years, and I’m wondering, how are my bees impacting the local wild bee population?

In terms of honey production, I maxed out at about 8 colonies. More than that means I feed more and make less honey per colony. So, I’m guessing I should be considering forage availability/quality as well as number of colonies. If I want more colonies, I’m guessing I need to improve forage opportunities for both my managed bees and the natives.

That is easier said than done.

This all started by reading one study. Good science is reproducible, though there is not much glory and profit in confirming others research.

Then too I need to remember my motivation for keeping Honey bees is not making tons of honey to sell, but to maintain a teaching apiary, for club Open Hives and the classes that I teach.

So, who’s up for proving or disproving this study? I’d like to see the study confirmed or refuted, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time or the inclination to do it myself.

Andrew Dewey