10 Rules: Rule #3 Part 3

Russian Bees Get It Right

A handsome Russian Queen

A noted honey bee scientist in the U.S. said some time ago he was weary of dealing with Varroa. That he wanted to move on to some real science. The cause of his frustration was that neither he, not any of the scientists were getting anywhere with solving the Varroa problem. Science kept finding more and more things Varroa was responsible for, but was making few contributions on advancing the cause of ridding the world of this problem. Plus, once they started looking, all manner of things started showing up that contributed to the stresses our colonies were going through.

The situation has not changed much…in 25 years. When Monsanto sponsored the Honey Bee Health Summit last summer they invited in many of the scientists dealing with this…and we heard more and more about less and less…science has found out zillions of things about honey bee biology and unhealthy honey bees that would not have been discovered had Varroa not surfaced, but controlling Varroa remains as elusive as ever. The best choice is finding a line of bees that has some tolerance or some resistance to this demon. And then selecting and selecting and selecting for those traits that contribute to that tolerance or resistance. Some have managed to do this…beekeepers mostly…and are on the road to living with the mite and staying in business. Few of them are in the U. S.

But of course there is the Russian program. Russian bees that is, not science from that country. This is, so far, the only bright spot in this dismal pursuit on this continent. The concept was good, the science, led by Dr. Tom Rinderer at the USDA Baton Rouge Bee Lab has been good, it has been adopted by the industry and not the companies selling the poisons we must use otherwise, and most of all…it works. Russian bees show a high tolerance to the presence of Varroa mites in their hives. Not perfect. But better than anything else that is an organized, repeatable product. There are, absolutely, other bees available in the U. S. tolerant or resistant to Varroa. Some are under the influence of African heritage certainly. But the efforts are, for the most part, random, variable and unpredictable. They work, but it’s hard to reproduce the results. And sometimes you don’t want the results repeated.

Russians are repeatable, predictable and in fact constantly improving. Their magic isn’t magic though. It is much based on incorporating, and increasing their hygienic behaviors…there are several I’m told…plus their propensity to reduce brood production to near zero when local resources shut down, eliminating breeding opportunities for the mite.  Russians do well in cold climates, selections have proven very effective in making them productive honey producers, good pollinators, earlier than normal brood producers, incredibly good at conserving food all year round, gentle enough, and probably the most desirable aspect…developed by people who keep bees for a living. When bees put food on your table, you have a vested interest in make them work the best they can, but you take the best care of them that you can also.

So here’s what I can’t figure out. Why hasn’t anybody else in the world repeated this experiment? Bees resistant to the worst scourge that can befall bees…and nobody is paying attention! It makes no sense to me whatsoever. Why do the beekeepers of the world keep putting poison in their hives when they can avoid all the grief it causes, the stress it puts on their bees, the cost in bees and simple money for the poison…when you don’t have to Why?

I’ll give you two reasons. Pride is one. If I didn’t develop it, I’m not going to admit that someone else is smarter than me. And the second is that if Varroa suddenly wasn’t an issue, what would all those scientists do for a living? If the answer remains elusive, the grant money will keep coming in.


  • There are others paying attention. I am a queen breeder myself and have had great improvements in my stock on my own. But last year I joined a group at vshbreeders.org that are conducting a very important breeding program. This group is more or less led by Adam, a successful bee biologist at vpqueenbees.com Adam has an interesting connection with the Baton Rouge Bee Lab, I beleive it’s his wife who works, or worked there, for many years.

    The USDA has been developing highly VSH stocks of Italian and Carniolan bees for several years now, much like they did the initial Russian stocks, before working with queen producers to create the Russian breeders program. russianbreeder.org

    The Russian Breeder program has been VERY successful, as you have noted. The USDA Baton Rouge lab was initially releasing queens and genetic materials for the non-Russian breeds to Glenn Apiaries, glenn-apiaries.com , but they have recently retired from the business. Now the USDA has reached out last year and shared these materials with Adam and the VSH Breeders program.

    The program is still in early stages, but the idea is to cross the hygenic USDA stock out into our local stocks. This happened last year. This year we will take virgin daughters from the survivors (there’s a checklist of things we are watching and testing for) and send back to the program to have them artificially inseminated with USDA VSH genetics. The results of this will be sent back to us for another round of cross breeding with our local stocks. So the program, at this stage, varies from the Russian Breeders template, but at some point when it is further down the road, may come to resemble something like so that the proper VSH genetics are expressed and selected for, while keeping the stocks from becoming inbred. Unlike the Russian program, is intended to be a communal program, not necessarily a commercial program.

    The good news about VSH is that it’s additive. Almost all bees have it to one degree or another and crossing the right ones together can really make it express itself. It’s taken a long time for science to get here, but it’s understood well enough now to make it practicable.