Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Graduation Day, May 18th

We began the final morning of training with a lecture on common bee diseases, parasites, and how to treat them. The most common issues are easily remedied. Nosema is the greatest threat and can easily be treated by the introduction of screened bottom boards and top vents to facilitate the removal of the warm moist air which encourages the development of this disease. In the US, where these screened bottom boards are in common use, Nosema is a weakening disease, one which hurts our honey harvest and the mood of our bees. In Ethiopia, where many beekeepers have never heard of a screened bottom board, the disease can very often be fatal to the commonly found small traditional hives.

These screened bottom boards are also useful for ameliorating the symptoms of chalkbrood, which is caused by a fungus which thrives in overly damp hives, and varroa mite infestation.

Oh, varroa, what a can of worms you are! There are many opinions regarding the impact of the varroa mite in Africa, where it was first introduced in 1997 (South Africa). Research, such as this note produced by the Penn State Department of Entomology, indicates that the varroa mite can be found throughout Africa, and was specifically found to infest approximately %87 of the hives tested. The bloodsuckers (well, haemolymph-suckers, but who wants to be THAT technical) are here to stay, and everyone wants to know what is going to happen next.

And the answer is:

We are not sure.

Most studies have shown that African bees, regardless of breed or race, tend to be highly resistant to varroa destructor. Why this is so is the subject of most debate. Some people feel that it is because with their quick swarming behavior and small hive size breaks the brood cycle so often that varroa cannot get a decent foothold. Others believe that their resistance is due to their highly aggressive hygienic behavior; quickly ripping out and destroying any brood with a mother mite under the capping. A final theory holds that because the African worker bee matures as many as 2 days earlier than its American or European counterpart due to the minuscule cell size, the mites do not have time (or room) to reproduce efficiently in the worker comb. This forces most of the population onto the developing drones, as in their original host, Apis cerana, the Asiatic or Eastern honey bee.

Most likely, it is a combination of all three, but regardless of the reason, the result is the same. In Africa, the varroa mite has been reduced to an incidental parasite. This has huge implications for beekeeping back in the States, and in the rest of the world. How can we bring this resistance to our bees?

Obviously, we do not want to breed our bees to swarm quickly and keep small colonies. That would destroy our wonderfully large honey crops. We don't want to make them too aggressive either, although the development and distribution of hygienic lines such as the VSH carniolans and the Minnesota Hygienic italians have made huge strides in natural varroa tolerance/resistance. Still, these lines cannot compare to the natural hygienic tendencies commonly found in African hives, where up to 95% of dead or diseased brood is removed within 24 hours. These bees have developed hygienic behavior without complicated breeding programs or investment by individual beekeepers or large organizations. They have also developed highly defensive characteristics, and have been known to sting animals to death. Many believe that aggressive hygienic behavior and defensiveness are closely linked in these bees. It seems to be hard to have one without the other in Africa. Obviously crossing African and European/American bees is not the answer; the bees commonly known as "Africanized" may be hygienic, but they send the media into apoplexy.

This leaves us with the final (and most controversial!) theory: small cell regression. Many American beekeepers (including myself) have found that by forcing (or encouraging) our bees to build smaller and smaller worker comb, producing smaller and smaller workers. The research regarding the effectiveness of this practice has been mixed. Some research has concluded that it might help, while other papers have stated that the mite population is not reduced at all. That said, there is only a small (but bitter) minority of beekeepers who believe that the practice does any harm. Many beekeepers (including myself!) who give it a try, find that they can forgo any varroa treatment whatsoever, relying on the naturally hygienic behavior of the bees and the quicker maturation time of the worker brood to control the mite population. This practice does not seem to eliminate mites from the hive, even though it has reduced the varroa population to manageable levels. If you do a mite count of my hives in the summer you will find mites, but you will find very few (if any) sick, dwarfed, or k-winged workers. If you do a mite count in the late fall, you will find almost no mites.

Why could this be? I believe it is because the combination of quicker maturation time of the small cell workers encourages the mites to focus on developing drone brood, which takes much longer to develop in much roomier cells. When the drones are kicked out in the fall dearth, most of the breeding mite population is culled as well. I left my varroa card in under the screened bottom board of two of my small cell hives for a couple months starting in early February when the bees were first starting to stir. In a month and a half, I collected maybe 30-40 mites. For the record, that's over the entire card. Not so bad, considering I've never treated them for varroa. It seems to work in America, as well as in Africa, and I struggle to see the downside of giving it a try.


Back to Africa.

After my lecture, Desalegn started giving away some of the equipment and books donated by the Walter T. Kelley Company and Maxant Industries. In Nekemte, we shared a set of protective gear from Kelley, several beekeeping books and hive tools (also from Kelley), and a couple of Maxant-style hive tools from (duh) Maxant! I also shared a bunch of paint filters I had purchased before I left. They're great for filtering both honey and wax, and can be reused indefinitely. Local beekeepers can use them to process high quality honey without having to invest in expensive equipment. The people here seem to love a game of chance, and there were no hard feelings from the people who did not win the best prizes, and cheering for those who did.

Lottery in progress, hive tools in hand.

The luckiest winner.  Beekeeping Principles, leather gloves, and a new veil, all from Kelley.

Hive tool from Kelley, and filters from me.

Hive tool from Maxant, and filter from me.

Hive tool and copy of 'How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey' from Kelley, filter from me.

Maxant hive tool and a fresh new filter!

'How to Keep Bees & Sell Honey' from Kelley and another filter!  Glad I brought a lot!

Once we had distributed the goodies, we presented each of the 42 trainees with a certificate indicating their new education and deeming them "Trainers of Trainers". The goal of this program is to spread the knowledge of modern apiculture techniques throughout the country, and it is my hope that the information I shared will be of use both immediately and in the future.

The first graduate!

This dude asked a lot of good questions through the translator.  I liked him.

Graduation was followed by the reading of a poem written by one of the government Ministry of Agriculture employees who attended the training. It was about the art, love, and tradition of beekeeping in Ethiopia and was well received by the audience. After some closing remarks and thanks from myself and Desalegn, we parted ways.

Bees, the poem.  I really wish I had a translation.

On the way out of the conference hall, I discovered a feral hive in the eaves of the hotel. When I got closer to investigate, one of the workers immediately came out and stung me on the forehead. ZAP! My first direct hit in Africa! Awesome!

Free bees!

They did not appreciate my intrusion.

I kept the dying worker in my hand, and over a lunch of tibs, berbere and injera, I measured it against a dime that I had in my bag. As you can see, the bees here are significantly smaller than the ones we keep Stateside, even most of the small cell ones. They're fast too! I dream of bees like these, but not of them stinging me.

Tibs, berbere, and injera.  Nom, nom nom.

Itty bitty bee!  She is average sized for the local population, from what I have seen.

After lunch, I departed for the market to buy some honey, coffee beans (buna) and etan, or frankincense, all produced locally. I found many interesting products in the stores, but I found what I was looking for soon enough.

O Captain! my Captain! our oatmeal now is done;
The pot has weathered every stove, the food we sought is won;
The bowl is near, the spoons I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the bowl of cream, the sugar brown and sharing:

I love the smell of Ostrich in the morning!

Authentic Wazeline!  Only the finest hair tonic for me!

Yes, YES, YES!

Of all the things to put in my hair, garlic and placenta are at the top of the list.

The face of a trustworthy man.

In the back of one small shop was a large plastic trash can full of crystallized white spring honey. I purchased a small water jug to transport it in and the proprietor measured out 3.5 kilos in the back room while I took pictures. I also bought a kilogram of fresh unroasted local coffee beans for approximately $4. Hmmm....

Measuring out the honey, trying to leave the bee heads behind.

Next door, I got a kilogram of the local frankincense for another 4 dollars. We tried some of it in the shop and it is fine stuff.

Fresh local frankincense.  There are over 30 different kinds!

She wanted some too, so I shared.

A frankincense in the hand is worth two in the tree?

Following my orgy of shopping, we headed to Ebisa's house one last time for a late lunch or early dinner of roast potatoes in berbere, homemade yogurt, and injera. We had a dessert of roasted and spiced barley seeds and some of the fresh honey we had harvested together earlier in the week. I pulled out a small, white piece of comb full of honey that tasted remarkably like fresh maple syrup. I've never tasted honey like it. Coffee was served at the same time, and I treated myself to a small cup of the REALLY good stuff.




Small children!  And Desalegn!

Maple syrup honey?  Or a stroke.

Bellies full and taste buds happy, we departed for the last time to spend a final night in the hotel before we headed back to Addis Ababa.

Goodbye, for now.

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