Getting granular: bees, microbiology and soil

Recently I had a case of foul brood in my apiary. Watching the strongest and most productive hive in my yard suffer inspired me to research down and better understand where this disease came from. My initial feeling was that there were too many colonies of bees to close to this apiary which I suspect are not getting the care they really need these days, what  I learned partially supported this idea but also made me realize my original drive to provide more food for bees through the Flower Power Sowing Bee project was actually a very accurate response to the stressors bees are dealing with.

This spring, many beekeepers reported the sudden disappearance of Queens in the hive, learning the cause of this got my inquiry up and running. In the beginning I was looking at larger beings such as a mites and protozoa, and now I am looking at the smallest of virus’. I can imagine the next inquiry will probably go into the chemistry of the soil itself.

I didn’t realize what had caused the death of my Queens in early May was probably something called Nosema because I didn’t see the usual symptoms. It was only when I discovered the book Parasites of Social Insects by Paul Schmid-Hempell, that I understood the loss of the spring  Queen bees. So, starting from micro-macro to micro-micro, this is what I learned:

Nosema is protozoa, it eats the fat bodies in the bees, causes the Queen to stop laying and often dying, outside of the hive. There are two strains of Nosema, one is a winter strain which causes those early spring death of Queens and the other one is the summer strain when bees leave the spatter all over the front of the hives and is caused by overcrowding in the hive. Nosema also accelerates aging and listen and halts the collection of pollen. Adding pollen patties helps hive survival. The protozoa is passed as bees feed each other..

Nosema apis[honeybees] and Nosema bombi[[bumblebees] are two different forms of Nosema but they are transferable, often at the flower.

Chalk brood is a fungus, as is yeast [candida], both are acerbated by cool and damp weather and over- crowding. Applied antifungals, whether targeted or environmentally encountered, weaken the immunity of the colony.

Foul brood is a bacteria called paenibacillus larvae larvae . Foul brood can be transferred by beekeeper, housecleaning bees, inbred drones and by pollen previously visited by sick bees on shared flowers, .

Now, the very smallest critter is something called a phage. Phages are viruses that live in the soil, but they don’t live in every soil. As soil is depleted by agricultural practice, it seems to lose these phages and allows the spread and persistence of foul brood in an agricultural area. In the early days of California beekeeping, huge foul brood epidemics moved agriculture northward in the state, forcing farmers to move pollinated crops into areas where pollinators could live.

It seems that bacteria, fungus, and some mites all live in some kind of balance in beehives, they hold each other in check until food starvation, food quality and others bee stressors shake the hive out of balance.

Once again, we need to return to the soil and to build and restore the soil. Additionally, we need to contribute to an abundance floral presence for all bees, wild and honey bees to have adequate feeding sources for both pollen and nectar.

Rather than start another beehive, it may be easier and just as important to plant bee and pollinator friendly plants in wide swathes across the urban environment, planting them in organic compost simultaneously stimulating carbon soil sequestration and soil regeneration.

If it is good for the bees, it is good for thee and me!


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