219 - Labuschagne - Living through a Varroapocolypse


Andony Melathopoulos: [00:00:00] Late summer is a critical time for a lot of bees. This includes our native bees late season bees that need the nectar and pollen late in the season. Often under low moisture conditions to be able to have good reproductive success, but also for honey bees need that nectar and pollen as well to be able to prepare for winter.

But in addition, it's a critical and crucial time for the management of honeybee. Diseases and in particular parasitic mites, and that's where today's story comes in. As I was at the Southern Alberta beekeepers meeting earlier in the year, and I had the good fortune to drive with Dr. Ronada, LA Shane.

Many her as. Dr. Ranata BBA. She's with the Alberta beekeeper commission, she's been with the commission since 2019, previously, she was at the beaver lodge research station. She did her PhD at the university of Minnesota working with Dr. Mar spick. She knows a lot about VA mites and this last year beekeepers in the Canadian Prairie suffer.

Historically atrocious losses. It was a really difficult time for many of the [00:01:00] beekeepers a long winter combined with what looked like very high might levels going into winter. So in this episode, we're gonna talk with Renata about what those high might levels did to the colonies and. It affected the viruses later in the year, but she's also gonna talk about some innovative programs that they have in the province of Alberta.

We love to see here in Oregon where their tech transfer team actually goes into beekeeping operations, through training with their staff, really innovative approach, all sorts of things, very timely for this time of year for Oregon and Pacific Northwest beekeepers. So let's just jump right. In a car driving from Lethbridge to Calgary, Alberta this week with Dr.

Ronata lache on pollination.

Welcome to pollination Renata. Oh, my

Renata Labuschagne: pleasure.

Andony Melathopoulos: Donate. We had an episode just about a month ago with NUIA Mor the new British Columbia tech transfer [00:02:00] program, but there's a much. A more established program here in Alberta. We were just down at the Southern Alberta beekeepers association meeting and you presented on what I thought was really remarkable that there you had data on the health of colonies across Alberta.

And you had data from the spring. Can you tell us a little bit about the tech transfer programs monitoring of Alberta hives?

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah. So the tech transfer programs started in 2000. And this is an initiative from the Alberta beekeepers to have a an extension program for the beekeepers, for the commercial beekeepers and one of their main points is that they wanted more monitor.

Their colonies. And I'm not entirely sure, but I think that it had to do with a shift in the direction of the Alberta government, B team. And that is something they used to do before. And they were shifting [00:03:00] their priorities and that's something they were not going to do anymore. So the Alberta bee keepers really wanted to continue.

With that. So they decided that could be like the main the main focus of the tech transfer program. That's why when the tech transfer program started in 2019 my first priority was to design a monitoring program for the beekeepers. So we started in, I started in 2019, but the monitoring program didn't start until two.


Andony Melathopoulos: And so you go round to, and I, the thing we should add is I've, I've spoken about a bird on the podcast in the past, but I'm sure people quite recognize the distances, this industry spans. It goes all the way from, Manning the north piece to here in Alberta. That is a few thousand kilometers.

It's a, it's a long drive. So you have to get to to monitor this. I imagine you need to make sure that you have [00:04:00] samples from those different regions, those diverse, the diverse areas of Alberta beekeeping.

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah. So we divide Alberta into five regions and we travel all five regions to collect sample from these beekeepers.

So yes, we go to the piece which is way like Northern Alberta. And from the piece to Southern Alberta here in the prairies. And it's quite a long distance. It takes us about a month and a half to cover all the beekeepers that we, we are sampling from. And this year, and I guess I should say every year has been somewhat consistent.

The numbers this year is about 900 colonies. Oh my goodness. But. About so that we sample 10 colonies per apiary. So that's 90 apiaries. Wow. That we sample. Wow. And things like 27 beekeepers in total. Yeah.

Andony Melathopoulos: That's a [00:05:00] lot of colonies and I guess it gives you, we've got, is it 200 or 300,000 colonies in.

Yeah. Yeah.

Renata Labuschagne: About 300,000.

Andony Melathopoulos: Yes. So it's a good, it's a good proportion, for, especially in focusing on regional representation, with when it comes to regionally the beekeeping industry in Alberta is very, different with the Northern part of the province focusing on honey production.

And the Southern part producing, some pretty big hunting crops, but a big, the big reason for them is the pollination of hyper canola seed.

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah. And that's what also makes beekeeping in Alberta kind of unique is that we have these two different. I shouldn't say industry sectors, but maybe beekeeping operation focused that some beekeeping operations mostly the ones in the Southern Alberta, they have their primary focus sometimes is not honey production, but yeah, like you said, it will be pollination and.

And so that makes it the data quite interesting [00:06:00] as well when we are looking at pollinators versus non pollinators and that kind of thing,

Andony Melathopoulos: I suppose the other thing to keep in mind is unlike American beekeepers where colon replacements are painful, you have to, you lose colonies over winter, cost you money in Canada.

There are some real severe limitations of being able to replace colony. So the health of your colony is at a premium. You wanna make sure. Don't lose colonies almost doubly as important as in the us.

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah. Access. So access to those replacement colonies here in Canada is it's not as easy as I would say in the us.

So for beekeepers that if they lose. You call if their winter over wage mortality is fairly high it can be very difficult for them to make those numbers up again to what they were before. Cuz the Mar that market, it's not that [00:07:00] big in Canada. Most of. Those early replacement colonies. So in the early spring they will come from they're imported.

So they will come from New Zealand Australia. And it's just not as easy. And I guess with COVID it made. So much worse to impossible to get those replacement colonies, those new those packages, right? From imported stocks and in some way that was, beneficial to local suppliers.

So that kind of got that local market to improve and. I guess also increase. But it at the beginning was very hard and right now it's getting better, but yeah, it can be very complicated.

Andony Melathopoulos: I imagine it's, if you have a 300,000 colonies, a 10% loss, that which would be a very low exceptional year, that would be 30,000 [00:08:00] packages.

And Queens and divisions that you'd have to bring in, but when you have a larger loss, like 20,000 or 20%, 30%, and I hear in Alberta and across Canada, there was some very, very historically high losses. This past year, you just can't make it up.

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah, we're talking about 45, 50%. So that's let's say 50% just make it easy.

My math will be 150,000 colonies. That's huge. And that we will likely see a difference. Every time Alberta has a high over winter loss, we see. On the honey production data like Canada wide. So we'll likely see a decrease or maybe not maybe we'll have a really good year as well.

We'll see. But in the past historical data, when we look at it, every time Alberta has. High over winter loss, honey [00:09:00] production, Canada wide also goes now.

Andony Melathopoulos: I could just imagine in a year where input prices have just gone through the roof, this must be a really hard year to absorb and try to make up those losses.

And especially with honey prices being high people probably. Or, had hoped to be able to have good, productive colonies going into the honey flow.

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah. Hopefully the high honey prices will help also, a little bit offset the costs and things like that. But yeah, you would have been a really good year for them to have a low mortality.

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. So to give people a heads up and to get a sense of what's going on, you sample, I guess these 900 colonies. A year, but also in the pollination area, I understand you go three times you'll visit the same colonies three times get these snapshots in time.

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah. So that was, we tailored that part of the program to the pollinators.

That's something they requested. When we were discussing [00:10:00] how the program should look like for the pollinators they. For an additional sampling point. So we started doing a, another, a third sampling point for them. So that's during pollination. So when can, it's about I would say 50% bloom or something like that.

We come down to the last bridge area. And we sample those colonies during pollination. So we go to the pollination fields and we are sampling those colonies right there.

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. And so you've already finished the spring sampling, is that right? The first sampling of the year is complete.

What did, what were some of the highlights of what you found

Renata Labuschagne: the. So this is spring. We, because of last year issue we had with mites that it was fairly high. We thought maybe this is spring. We are going to have to fight hard with the VA as well. And we were surprised and happy to [00:11:00] see almost zero robot.

We're having a really hard time finding verite. Oh, great. In, in, in our samples.

Andony Melathopoulos: And what months would these

Renata Labuschagne: be? It would late. For it, I would say the average would be around 2% in a, because some beekeepers we go there quite early before they even put treatment on. Yeah. So we are sampling pre-treatment oh really?

So looking at might levels pre-treatment past, we would see maybe a 2% kind of thing. But right now it's zero point. Like we didn't find none of the regions had over 0.3% infestation

Andony Melathopoulos: level. Oh. So this sampling can help a beekeeper decide whether they're gonna treat or not.

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah. That's also the go.

So the goal of. The colony health monitoring for the beekeepers is to give them real time data so they can decide what to do. So if we [00:12:00] go there pre-treatment and the levels are 10, 15%, let's say the beekeeper will look at the data and say, okay, I cannot do a slow release on those colonies.

Because I have a 15%, I have to. Last treatment is just an example. But if the beekeeper has 2%, oh, I can do a slow release treatment on those columns because there's only 2% or something like that. So the goal for the beekeeper is to guide their I P M decisions. So they can say I would do this, or I do that.

Oh, I need, oh, that's cool. I need to have a plan for EFB or I need to have a plan for SAC BR or those kind of things. Yes.

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. What about other problems? ZEMA has always been historically a problem for beekeepers in Alberta. What's what's it look like this year?

Renata Labuschagne: It actually didn't look that bad.

I, if I remember correctly, our average overall or word average. So not by region was just above 2 million sports per B. So the recommendation, the threshold [00:13:00] it, the guidance for that. That Noma is a million scores per B. So yeah, it was just above 2 million. So it's not that bad, actually.

I have seen worse when the first year of the monitoring program there was a few regions with over 15 million kind of thing. So it's actually not that bad. And I guess that's a good example on how that guided their I P M. because those beekeepers, when they saw those numbers, they were like, oh, I had no idea.

I had these high OSMA. I will definitely treat with human gel now kind of thing. So it. It's nice to see that it, it can help them in that way. And

Andony Melathopoulos: I imagine, especially, you can reduce your antibiotic use in addition, FEMA's a very expensive treatment. And so it just to know that you're good and you can withhold the treatment that must really help the bottom

Renata Labuschagne: line.

Yeah, for [00:14:00] sure. They, if they don't have to treat that and labor as well, they have so many things going on at the time of the year that they're usually treating. So that definitely helps them.

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. So the last thing I imagine, everybody never, everybody, I, everybody's of confused about viruses up and down, but there are some viruses that are strongly associated with VA mites.

And I imagine having low verite must have meant those viruses must have been low. Is that what you saw?

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah, surprisingly not we, our viral level our might levels are very low rights. Like you said, you would expect to see viral levels also very low from what we know from the literature that if viral levels follow might levels and you have might levels, you have high viral levels.

And so on. This spring, I, it was different. We have very low might levels and our viral levels [00:15:00] are eight to 20 times higher than what they were last spring. Wow. So it was very shocking to, to me to see such high viral levels. And especially when the might levels were so low, but because of the issue we had last year with mights that the might population was so high throughout the year.

It's very likely, and that's why we're seeing high viral levels right now that viral population stayed. And this is carry over from last year's high viral levels.

Andony Melathopoulos: Oh, let get this straight. So what you think happened is because there was high Bromite last fall that even though the Bromite were effectively controlled, the viruses still, persisted in the bees and you're still seeing it.

Oh, that's interesting.

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah. So the virus, they can survive [00:16:00] without VA, right? They don't need VA to. To replicate or to jump from B to B, they can, they re they can replicate inside the B and they can jump from B to B using other ways. Instead of just the raw, it is less effective. Of course. Hopefully what we hope to see is that if mites are controlled this year and never go high, we might see this. Our hope is that we see these viral levels go down. Eventually because the, they won't have the mights to. Use it as a factor to replicate and to jump from B to B and then the bees will get a chance to deal with the viral levels and kill it and soon, get it really low.

And then hopefully we'll see those viral levels going down in the fall.

Andony Melathopoulos: One thing that I also learned at when we were at the Southern Alberta beekeepers meeting, we went, we visited Scania honey. And one of the things that the [00:17:00] tech transfer team did that I thought was really wonderful is host a training.

Some of these, some of these beekeeping operations. Our large employee, I think at scan, honey, I think we heard those 40 people, 40 employees. And so you did the tech transfer, helped those help their team cuz there's so many people looking at so many colonies helping train their eyes.

Tell us a little bit about those trainings.

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah. These I, we call it the onsite IPM training and it was, this was actually an idea from a commercial beekeeper. When I started I started to the 19 and my first the first thing I did was to travel around the province and just chat with beekeepers to.

Hey, my name is Renata. I'm the new tax program lead. And I want to know from you what you think the tax transfer program should be doing, and what is what is the need in [00:18:00] the industry? What is it missing that we could fill that gap? And the IPM onsite training came out of one of those meetings with a beekeeper.

He said, you know what? We really need. Is training. We need our workers, our seasonal workers. Trained, but I cannot drive to the CD with 2030 workers to a meeting like an an actual, like scientific meeting, because they will not understand. And it will make no sense to them will be a waste of my money, a.

Of their time. We need someone to come here and train them, playing language very hands on training course for my seasonal workers. So that's oh, that's how that got started. And yeah. And then the, this year we did two operations and Scania was one of them and I can see that it is. There's a huge need for that to get those [00:19:00] seasonal workers trained and beekeepers cannot just travel with yeah, like he scanned with 40, 35 40 workers for a

Andony Melathopoulos: beekeeping course.

I, I heard there was like a high impact deliver right off the bat. Somebody, took the course and then spotted a problem immediately that it was just like you could just see the tangible results of Of that kind of training hands on

Renata Labuschagne: training. Yeah. And sometimes are little things that that they're doing wrong.

And the way they're doing is no not effective at all. But it is just little things that you have to change. Once you change that, then you increase your, the chances of that treatment, really working kind of thing. So it's yeah, just those little things. And I think we learn, I learn every year new things science and things, we learn new things.

So I think it's, even if they [00:20:00] have had a training. For, I think it's very important to just give a refresh. Hey, there's we learn new things every year. So I think it's very important.

Andony Melathopoulos: Fantastic. Let's take a quick break. And we have a segment that we do with our guests. Really excited to hear what your answers are gonna be.

Okay. We are back. From Southern Alberta with Renata. And what is your what is the book that you want our listeners to know about?

Renata Labuschagne: The book is the boy who harnessed the wind. That's that, that I had, I read that book, I think. Oh, maybe five, 10 years ago. And I still remember he, I was, he was really good book.


Andony Melathopoulos: liked it. I don't, I've never heard of the book. What's it a vote it's fiction,

Renata Labuschagne: No, no true story. Yeah. And they actually have a movie, like if you're not into books. Yeah. You can . If you're not into books, you can watch the movie on Netflix, I think is Netflix. That has made a movie about this book.

It's a true story. It's a boy from [00:21:00] Africa and he, man, he created this windmill. Just junkyard parts and they had no electricity in his house, in his town. And that's how he generated electricity. He created that windmill with like bike wheels and things from a junk yard. And these boy was a self-taught guy at the boy.

Their parents didn't have money for him to go to school. So at some point he had to, to. School. And he just went to the library and asked the lady like just to, to use the books. He didn't have money for, to rent books, either Uhhuh, but this awesome lady just let him borrow those books. And so he self-taught he read those books and he built his own Mill.

And eventually he created like a, an off attentional [00:22:00] attention from big people and the whole town had electricity because of him. Oh, wow. It's it? It is an amazing story of determination. Someone that. Had no ways of learning like education, it should be available to every single human being.

And that one did not have that, but that didn't stop him from learning. And it was just an is amazing story.

Andony Melathopoulos: Amazing story. Some ways. It does remind me apart from, not having the resources, but Alberta beekeepers are very resourceful. And you often, you must have this experience where you roll into somebody's operation and they've got something invented and it's just, it blows your mind.


Renata Labuschagne: Yeah. And it's creative and it's this is a, can I take a photo? And it, yeah, like we we saw some at Scania, right? Like

Andony Melathopoulos: the forklift the. Was a amazing, an old Toyota truck. [00:23:00] And I think plots had this as well. They innovated, but they reversed it. Yeah. And then they made a forklift out of this old Ford truck and the engines were really available and it, yeah,

Renata Labuschagne: exactly.

And it's so smart. Yeah. It's just, it really smart people and it's just it is. Yeah. It's amazing.

Andony Melathopoulos: I guess the other thing about that, Minds me of the beekeepers is the sharing, the capacity to share as we were in Southern Alberta and that, that truck design, I remember came out of the fill pots operation.

You see it now taken on at Scania that people come up with these inventions and then they spread them around. Like they used to start to see them. Yeah. Fantastic. That's a great book. I won't link it in the show notes. The next question we have for you is, do you have a go-to tool for the kind of work that you do?

Renata Labuschagne: A veil, because I have forgotten my veil, not just once, but I a few times this I'm not going to embarrass myself by saying how many, but a few times and I was far away [00:24:00] enough, like to go back to I, I. Go back to the lab was, I was like an hour away. I didn't go back to the lab.

Andony Melathopoulos: So I, you had one tucked under your seat or something.

Renata Labuschagne: Oh man. No, I wish I had that. Oh no. I had a plastic bag. a see through plastic bag.

Andony Melathopoulos: Did you not see the warning on the plastic bag? I.

Renata Labuschagne: I, I avoid it. I'm an adult. It says children there.

and I made a few holes on the plastic bag. I'm like I will not go back for a day. It's like an one hour drive. yeah. So I used a plastic bag with small holes, like small enough that I wouldn't die and the be wouldn't go.

Man, I should have taken a photo.

Andony Melathopoulos: I've never thought of that. To be honest, I would be. I just,

Renata Labuschagne: when you were desperate, you think

Andony Melathopoulos: of things you do. That's right. And I guess that's the [00:25:00] thing about here in Southern Alberta is that the VRS are very far apart and it's, it's a lot of space out here and you can be hours from your office.

Yeah. There's a lot of back roads. It looks flat, the thing I always think about Southern Alberta, it looks flat and you think, oh, I know where to go, but when you're deep down in those county roads, like you can get lost. Yeah. Thank goodness for GPS. yeah. Okay. A veil. I, since we're in Southern Alberta, I do remember Sid ganas once saying Vail or smoker and he chose smoker.

And I thought that was a crazy thing. I would way rather have a veil.

Renata Labuschagne: I think I would rather have a smoker. Oh, you too. Yeah. Yeah. I think so. Because at least if I have, if I have to do just a quick check. Yeah. Maybe I can just use my plastic bank.


Andony Melathopoulos: good. Okay. The last question I have for you is a favorite pollinator species. [00:26:00] Ah, your favorite pollinator,

Renata Labuschagne: oh, I would have to say a is honeybee.

Andony Melathopoulos: Okay. Is there any honeybee, colony or honeybee we breathe that you that comes to your mind?

Renata Labuschagne: Any honeybee calling or any honeybee breathe?

I did enjoy working with Africanized bees when I lived in Brazil. And it, yeah, it was inter it was an interesting experience, I think com and it's very different compared to working with Europeans. So that, I guess that would be my pick

Andony Melathopoulos: ized going to Europe and Africa and just seeing.

The bees, because you it's so recognizable, there's something off with them. You look at it and it's I know this species, but there's something they're acting funny or they look funny and it's like this strange familiarity, but I don't know anything about this critter.

Renata Labuschagne: Yeah.

It's it. And the way you work with them and the way you set up your B is completely [00:27:00] different. Like with after nights, you cannot put four in a P don't know. Even those kind of things. You have to space them out. Yeah. Just space them out. Yes. And in a lot of those countries where Africanized fees are present, the, they have issues with S so you also need a different hive stand.

To keep the ends out and those kind of things. So it's very interesting just to see the setup and everything. They not, how they work with those colonies. It's very interesting. Yeah.

Andony Melathopoulos: Honeybees are also my favorite pollinator species. And part of it is I love the fact that you can go to practically any place in the world and talk bees with somebody.

You can, you don't even need to speak the language, but you just have this common. It's of APA culture, which, you don't have with Aphra yeah. Maybe with OSM there's, there's OSM people around the world, but there's something about APAs, Mora that you just especially if you're a travel bug like myself, you really get, you can [00:28:00] strike up a conversation in any small village just by or town just saying, Hey, I see you got bees.

Yeah. Good luck. I know it's gonna be a. For Alberta being keepers, but I know they're resilient and it's really great that they've got this technical support in the tech transfer team to help 'em solve some of their problems. So thanks for taking time to to let me interview you today.

Oh, my pleasure.

The Canadian prairie region is home to the bulk of that country’s colonies. Last year it suffered crippling losses to varroa mites. In this episode we see what we can learn from these periodic heavy varroa infestation years.

Dr. Renata Labuschagne joined the Alberta Beekeepers Commission (ABC) in 2019 as the Alberta Tech Transfer Program lead. Before joining the ABC team, Renata was a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Steve Pernal’s apiculture research lab at Beaverlodge Research Farm, Agriculture Agri-food Canada, studying the inter-correlation of several important pathogens and phenotypes, so as to better understand drivers of colony health and productivity. Renata received her Ph.D. in Entomology in 2015 from the University of Minnesota studying under Dr. Mara Spivak. Previously, she received her B.Sc. in Animal Science from the Universidade Federal of Ceara, Brazil. Renata’s doctoral research focused on evaluating: 1) the seasonal benefits of propolis (a bee-produced resinous material) on the health and immunity of honey bees; 2) the role that types of resins play as a defense against two highly infectious brood pathogens, Ascosphaera apis (a fungus causing chalkbrood disease) and Paenibacillus larvae (a bacterium causing American foulbrood disease); and 3) the effects of the propolis “envelope” within the hive as a natural defense against disease.

Links Mentioned:
The Alberta Tech Transfer Team

Renata’s book recommendation:
Kamkwamba, W. and Mealer, B., 2016. The boy who harnessed the wind. Penguin.

Renata’s go-to-tool for working with pollinators:
A beekeeping veil

Renata’s favorite pollinator:
Honey bee

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