My Varroa-free Apis mellifera Honeybee Experiment in the Philippines (2003)
Raphael “Raffy” C. Andrada
My Journey in Apiculture Begins
I started my journey in Apiculture by way of a pocketbook entitled “Beekeeping” written by Frank Vernon that I bought and read in 1982. I supplemented my reading with visits to agricultural fairs where honeybees were on exhibit and got to meet beekeepers. Later, I bought additional books, like “The Hive and the Honeybee” by Dadant and Sons.
However, my hands-on experience did not come until January 1983, when I decided to go back home to my hometown of Mati, Davao Oriental to pursue an entrepreneurial career. I bought 2 colonies of Apis mellifera from Dr. Felipe Sese, a beekeeper I befriended. Dr. Sese is also an original incorporator of the first commercial beekeeping operations in the Philippines, Royal Bee Corporation. The bees I got were combination strain of Apis mellifera Ligustica and of Apis mellifera Carnica. I planned to work on them initially as a hobby, and build them up slowly to a commercial number as I gain the experience.
It wasn’t long after starting out that I found out that becoming a commercial beekeeper was easier said than done. The Italian bee or Apis mellifera Ligustica (and its Balkan cousins, Carnica) is imported and very costly. There weren’t very many beekeepers in the Davao provinces in 1983, or in the whole of the Philippines, for that matter. Bees and beekeeping supplies were only available in the Metro Manila area, some 500 kilometers northwest of my hometown, at very considerable expense.
Still, I persevered and was able to increase my colony from 2 to 5 a year after I started. Within this period, my most significant learning was the negative effect on growth and expansion of the bees by the Varroa mite, and the importance of having a variety of bees from different strains or heritage so as to avoid inbreeding. This learning formed a “dream” of seeing a Varroa-resistant Apis mellifera strain of honeybee in the wild of the Philippines. In other words, I “dreamed” to see an Apis mellifera strain flourish (survive and live well) on its own without the manipulative help of a beekeeper and despite the presence of mites and disease agents, just like the common Apis cerana. This “dream” has been buried in my subconscious since then.
It is perhaps noteworthy to state that way back in 1983, the Varroa mite was either inexistent or insignificantly existent in the US. Thus, most of the miticides available in the Philippine market were mostly from Varroa infested areas in Asia, particularly Korea. I recall using the Korean-made Dong Hwa fumigation paper to control mites back then. I did not encounter other “homegrown” mite control remedies like the Sulfur-Napthalene and the known US brand of Apistan®.
New direction, same Dream
I took a break from beekeeping in 1984 up to 1988. Family, security concerns as a result of the communist insurgency, and career issues led me to leave my hometown, and hold residence in Manila. This included a work stint in Saudi Arabia in 1985 to 1986, where I saw beehives kept in some agricultural oases like Hofuf and Rastanura in the eastern province.
In 1989, the lure of bees and beekeeping just would not go away. I went back to beekeeping as a hobbyist. I just intended to keep bees purely for enjoyment, a means to dwell on my passion for nature, and as therapy from the stresses of work. I bought a couple of colonies from a beekeeper I had newly befriended, Mr. Mike Harpst. Mike was actually responsible for training up many of the hobbyist beekeepers in Metro Manila and for being a reliable supplier of beekeeping supplies. More importantly, Mike and I shared the same dream of seeing Varroa-resistant Apis mellifera strains flourish in the wild of the Philippines, able to live and survive on its own without manipulative help of a beekeeper and despite the presence of mites and disease agents.
It was therefore very easy for me to accept Mike’s invitation to join a club he was forming in 1995, together with a group of 15 hobbyists. The club was called Filipinas Beekeepers, or FILBEE. His vision was for the members of the club to assist one another and exchange notes on their beekeeping endeavors and to encourage more people to go into beekeeping. For many years even after Mike emigrated to the United States of America in 1997, the members of this club got together an average of once every 2 months. I mention this because it was the exchange of information and of reading materials, and the intellectual calisthenics that sustained and nurtured my dream.
I begin to see hope
It was in one of the last few regular meetings of FILBEE that I got hold of an issue of the American Bee Journal with an article by a Swedish Beekeeper and Honeybee Breeder, Mr. Erik Österlund. He wrote about the indicative successful results in mite resistance of the bees he bred, which he calls the ELGON, in many parts of Europe, South America, Israel, etc...
Mr. Erik Österlund introduced himself as the editor of the Swedish beekeeping journal "Bitidningen", published by the Swedish Beekeeping Association, with a circulation of 12,000 copies each month. He has been a beekeeper for about 30 years, and visited Buckfast Abbey and Brother Adam the first time in 1983, with a number of visits following. A number of his articles have been published in the American Bee Journal. In 1989 he took part in an expedition to Kenya and has since been involved in breeding a bee more tolerant to the Varroa mite, leading a group cooperating on this issue.
In his article in the July 1993 issue of the American Bee Journal (ABJ), Erik described the Elgon as a bee bred according to the Buckfast system saying it is a combination between a Buckfast bee and the African strains Apis mellifera monticola from the mountains of East Africa (Mt. Elgon in West Kenya), and the Apis mellifera saharensis from the Moroccan desert oases.
In his ABJ article in the May 1998 issue, Erik said that Elgon has evolved into a breed that theoretically contains, on average, about 20-25% African heritage, mostly Monticola. That corresponds roughly to a second cross, but due to a lot of selection in the breeding, maybe a comparison to a third cross or even a fourth cross is more accurate. The rest are of Buckfast heritage.
Making the dream come true
With the end in view of importing Elgon Queens, I started communicating with Erik via email in June of 1999. Other than addressing the mite problem through breeding, Erik is also a firm believer that bee management is an integral part of breeding a mite resistant bee. Early in our communication, he regularly mentioned various bee management techniques such as the screened bottom board and the small cell-size, or smaller bees, as a promising direction. However, I was just too pre-occupied with importing the Elgon to the Philippines so that I failed to see the significance of these, especially the small cell size.
To summarize my experience, below is a short chronology of events from August 1999:
Aug- Nov 1999
With the arrival of two (2) Elgon Queens, my colonies increased from 4 to 6; Initial visible observations are that the Elgon combs are shiny, as if they are buffed. The bodies of the bees are also shiny which is indicative of the Elgons’ grooming traits. Furthermore, they bring in pollen and propolis of different color and in more quantity than those brought in by my regular Italian bee colonies.
September 1999 – November 1999
My colonies were afflicted by disease, which by its look and smell, I suspected to be AFB. However, my colonies managed to survive the episode by November. The most affected were the regular Italian bees. It is again observed that Elgons are better at housekeeping and grooming.
Lost one (1) Elgon queen but was able to produce four (4) daughters from the emergency queen cells made by the bees. Two (2) of the four (4) were eventually mated and their offspring’s’ heritage remain to this date.
February to June 2000: Good to excellent honey flow. Produced five (5) daughters from the remaining original Elgon queen, sold two (2) of the five (5). From those who bought the queens, I get feedback about the Elgons’ housekeeping ability, and also about the different color of pollen and propolis they gather.
From two (2) daughters of the lost queen, produced one (1) daughter. I bought 6-way hives to produce more Elgons and slowly eliminate the regular Italian bee colonies. My apiary reached 14 colonies, but very small colony sizes. Of the 4 biggest colonies, I had a maximum of 7-8 frames.
August to December 2000: Brought in two (2) more Elgon queens. No miticide treatment since February and for the rest of 2000- 11 months, a first for me. I am ecstatic and make plans to further expand my queen rearing operation, and to begin testing the Elgon for production.
In my previous experience it does not take long for a colony to survive when untreated for mites. Any one of the following observations occurs:
- Mite infestation, in combination with a secondary disease like chalk brood, on a weak colony will cause the colony to die, unless the bees abscond first, within 6 months;
- Strong colonies untreated for mites, and infected by a secondary diseases, will last a year; and
- A strong mite-infested colony that is uninfected by a secondary disease on the first year is useless the second honey season. On the second year, the colony strength is diminished and cannot take advantage of the honey flow. They are also more easily susceptible to secondary disease infection and predisposed to absconding, and if the queen is superceded, it is of very poor quality and dies off easily.
January to June 2001
produced 14 queens of different Elgon strains, and reached a total of 21 colonies, but most turn out to be poorly mated. Sold one (1) queen and gave away another. Could not take advantage of honey flow due to equipment lack. Elgon test for production not done, but the colonies are holding well against mites.
2001: I have eleven (11) colonies after all poorly mated queens are lost, and have not treated for mite infestation for 2nd year. Mite infestation was obviously very heavy with most colonies having health problems and their strength/numbers visibly diminished. Nevertheless, the colonies were holding ground, with 2-3 colonies remaining relatively healthy and strong.
It is perhaps important to note that my colonies share the mite infestation with one another. Mites that are reproduced in one untreated colony will eventually infect the others, and hence the infestation gets worse.
Pesticide losses due to mosquito fogging in my area hit me. Losses are staggering! Lost best queen – a daughter of one of the queens I imported in 2000. Other colonies succumb to secondary diseases especially chalk brood. Only 3 colonies left.
Sigh! My darkest and most depressing moment and I feel like giving up beekeeping altogether. I see my dream slipping away.
I waited for all my bees to die off, but lo and behold, the three (3) surviving colonies flourish. I take a positive view on this development and consider their survival as a success in the selective process. These three (3) colonies survived mites, secondary diseases, and pesticide poisoning, which make them of sterner stuff. This also reinforces the belief that these are not only pure-breed Elgons, but that they have adjusted to the Philippine environment.
February to August 2002
- I treat the remaining colonies with miticide, but at one-fourth (¼) the prescribed doze. I also bought a total of 6 frames of bees and brood from two (2) FILBEE club mates. Thanks to the very excellent honey flow, I successfully revived the colonies and produced a total of ten (10) new queens. I sell three (3) queens. I receive excellent feedback from the buyers. Hope renewed once more!!!
- Erik has also recommended that I regress my bees to small cell size and sends me reading materials about successes by Ed and Dee Lusby of Arizona, USA.
- To cross back my queens with other Elgon strains, I buy two (2) Elgon queens from Erik that both arrive in August 2002. One is a strain crossed with a Primorsky (Russian or Caucasian bee raised in Eastern or Asian part of Russia). I produce a queen each from them and gave these away as breeders to a FILBEE Club mate.
- I also bought twenty (20) pieces of 5.1 mm comb foundation from Erik and plan out my regression to small cell size. With the help of the extended honey flow, I start placing the foundation for the bees to build on.
I initially placed full sheets of the 5.1 mm foundation on two (2) colonies of NUC size. To economize on the twenty (20) pieces of foundation sheets that I bought, I divided the remaining sheets into three (3), and then to four (4), and introduced these sections to the 5.1 mm-regressed colonies. With this procedure, I was able to gradually regress my colonies to 5.1 mm combs.
November 2002: I order twenty (20) pieces 4.9 mm foundation from Dadant through my mother in law in Los Angeles, California. In January 1, 2003, I start regressing my bees to the 4.9 mm foundation using the same procedure I used in regressing them to the 5.1 mm foundation.
January to June 2003
Excellent honey flow. I have fully regressed 5 of my colonies to 5.1 mm foundation and produced six (6) queens. I have also started regressing some colonies and NUCs to 4.9 mm foundation. From an average of four (4) honey-producing colonies, I harvest a total of 204 kg of honey. This is very high, especially considering that the bees consumed a lot of honey while building the 5.1 mm and the 4.9 mm foundation combs from the average 1/3 sheets of foundation.
I give two (2) 3-frame Nucs of Elgons that are fully regressed to 4.9 mm foundation to Dr. Cleofas Cervancia, PhD, of the University of the Philippines. She is one of the recognized honeybee biologists and is an authority in beekeeping in the Philippines. The objective is to have her observe and study the Elgons in small cell size combs for their ability to survive Varroa mite infestation enough to survive in the wild. Otherwise stated, to see an Apis mellifera strain flourish (survive and live well) on its own without manipulative help of a beekeeper and despite the presence of mites and disease agents, just like the endemic Apis cerana.
I am very confident that it will be very soon. It is October 2003 right now, and the Elgons are flourishing without miticide treatment for 14 months now. This despite the very heavy mite infestation during this time of the year, and they aren’t fully regressed to 4.9 mm foundation yet.
For those that are fully regressed to 4.9 mm combs, there is much more significant evidence that they can survive in the wild, such as: the Elgons’ housekeeping and grooming abilities; during dearth periods they visit more flora than regular Italian bees thus increasing their supply of nectar and pollen; and they gather types of propolis that are different in quality to those gathered by regular Italian bees which may mean that they have better protection against diseases.
About the Author
Raphael “Raffy” C. Andrada is married to the former Maria Victoria Yenko, and has three (3) children: Philip Gabriel, Cara Denise, and Beatrice Kathryn. They currently reside in Piñahan, Diliman, Quezon City, Metro Manila.
Raffy is a native of Mati, Davao Oriental in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where he fondly recalls growing up around forests and coconut plantations as far as the eye could see. Mati is also situated in picturesque Pujada Bay. His parents, Arturo and Lydia, were engaged in coconut farming and the retail business for their livelihood and to raise their brood of six (6) children. The combination of the environment and the family’s source of livelihood nourished Raffy’s deep interest in nature and agricultural activities. It was not surprising for him to develop a deep passion for beekeeping when he encountered it.
His passion for agriculture was not meant to be. Forced by circumstances to live and work in the metropolis, he instead indulges in beekeeping as a hobby - purely for enjoyment, a means to dwell on his love for nature, and as therapy from the stresses of work.
Still, he finds a lot of use for the principles of beekeeping to his work. He likens bee management to managing human resources, of which he has been a practitioner for the past 19 years. He previously worked as Country Human Resources Director for Unisys Philippines and for Oracle Philippines.
On the spiritual nature of beekeeping, Raffy shares Erik Österlund’s view that an appreciation of God’s wisdom can be gleaned in the symbiosis of insects, plants, and animals, and these are more clearly seen by those engaged in beekeeping. It may also be God’s handiwork to bridge the distance between Africa where the Elgon heritage comes from, Sweden where Erik lives, and that of the Philippines where the Elgon now seems to be thriving. Perhaps the Elgon is earning a place in the Philippines in answer to a prayer.
Raphael “Raffy” C. Andrada