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A DESERT STORM
Bee Culture - June, 2002
by Allen Dick
Ed and Dee Lusby of Tucson, Arizona, are at
the center of both a growing controversy and a new philosophy of
keeping bees in the U.S.
The emphasis Ed and Dee place on feral bees, their ideas about the
effect of honey bee worker cell size on bee health and vigor, and
their promotion of a 'natural' 4.9 millimeter cell size run contrary
to conventional wisdom in the beekeeping industry and seemingly seek
to undo a century of progress in North American and European bee
The apparent success of their bee operation without any use of
chemical treatments is truly remarkable at this time when many
beekeepers feel that the experts are running out of answers and that
we need to escape the pesticide treadmill. Therefore, when Dee
invited us to visit and see for ourselves, my neighbor, Joe, and I
jumped at the chance; we stopped by Lusbys' when we were in Arizona
for the American Honey Producer's convention in January, 2002.
When we arrived at their gate in a Tucson industrial area, Joe and I
expected to spend a few hours and go on our way, but, as it turned
out, we spent three very full days with the Lusbys and their bees.
During those three days, we helped make foundation by hand, visited
seven of their yards in the remote Sonora Desert west of Tucson,
opened over 100 hives, closely inspected about 30 of those hives,
and had a chance to hear many of Lusbys' ideas explained in detail -
and to debate some of the fine points.
We had a wonderful time. We discussed bees from morning to night,
and learned how quickly Dee can pull out tapes and documents from
their extensive library when they are needed to support her ideas.
On our first day, we examined the bees at their yard in town and
made foundation with Dee using a manual dipping technique and a hand
mill. On the second day, the Lusby's, Lee (a beekeeper friend of
Lusbys from New Mexico who also uses 4.9 foundation), Joe and I
headed west towards the mountains in their rugged, desert-customized
Chevy van to see how the bees in the distant yards were doing.
Although Lusbys keep a few hives in their
Tucson work yard, most of their hives are located on remote desert
ranches over forty miles from the city, measured as the crow flies.
By road, the journey is more like 60 miles to the nearest yard, and
after the first fifty or so miles, the last few are rough miles,
requiring a tough, high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle.
Since it was Winter, Ed and Dee had not been to some of their yards
for a while and they found our visit a good excuse to make sure
everything was okay in the distant locations. Periodic visits are
necessary since animals such as coatimundi, a raccoon-like high
desert animal, or hunters from the city sometimes overturn or damage
a few hives. Sure enough we did find a few hives down, several from
animals and several from two legged varmints. We also observed the
scratching at hive entrances that is characteristic of skunks or
coati, and bullet holes and four-wheeler tracks that are
characteristic of some kinds of hunters.
Most hives were okay when set up again, but one or two had been
robbed out. In spite of that, the bees in most yards were not
especially cross. Dee placed small, sharp rocks around the entrances
boards of the hives the animals had singled out and said that
usually stops the scratching by making the ground too uncomfortable
for the coati. Not much can be done about humans, although the gates
are locked and the area patrolled by ranchers and by the Border
We spent two full days looking through Lusbys' yards, and in that
time we saw lots of good-looking bees and brood, one small swarm
which left for parts unknown while we watched, no significant brood
disease, and very few Varroa mites. With Ed and Dee's encouragement
and assistance, we opened hives more or less at random, both in
their home yard and in their desert yards. If Joe or I saw a hive
that we thought might be in some way different or interesting, we
We were in Tucson in mid-January, and the weather was mostly in the
70s. Some nights got down close to freezing, and the chill lasted
well into the morning. Tucson had snow not long after we left.
Since January is Winter in Tucson, the hives were not at full
strength. At times we found the bees clustered, depending on time of
day and the location. In most yards, there was a light flow coming
in and flight was usually underway by noon.
The clusters varied from a couple of frames up to a couple of boxes
of bees, with about five frames of bees and several good frames of
sealed brood being the median size. We made note of some hives that
need splitting soon, and saw one small swarm on a low bush when we
entered the yard. It was obvious by the surface bee activity on the
swarm that they were about to leave, and sure enough, we were unable
to hive them. They left, headed west.
All Lusbys' hives are well maintained and on individual floors in
two rows in each yard. With few exceptions, each hive, no matter how
small or large, is kept in four standard boxes. This keeps the
supers safe from moths and allows room for the bees' normal
explosive Spring growth. Having lots of room means there will be no
Spring rush to get boxes to the field (the roads could be washed
out), and no danger of triggering swarming by overcrowding the
better hives. In the desert near Tucson, the climate is mild enough
that the bees don't mind the extra room. Most hives were raising
brood in the second box when we examined them, leaving the bottom
and top two boxes less occupied. In many cases, the top boxes were
On average, each hive we examined had only a frame or two of feed,
and very little nectar around the brood compared to what Joe and I
are used to maintaining in our colonies in Western Canada. Joe
commented that the hives were a bit short on feed by our standards,
but we are from the north and in the Tucson area, unlike Alberta,
flows come and go all year. Moreover, Lusbys deliberately breed for
bees that can support themselves and do not care to encourage
uneconomical queens. Although they gave occasional frames of honey
to hives that were getting established, they don't feed whole yards
as a routine practice the way we do up north.
Although the bees were not as tame as some Caucasians I have owned,
the Lusby bees seemed quite docile to me compared to the Australian
and New Zealand imports and Hawaiian offspring we manage in Canada,
and I teased Dee about having 'wimpy Killer Bees', since the
authorities claim that Arizona is 'Africanized'. Dee has other
theories about the origin of their bees and the dominant genetics of
the bees they manage. Maybe Lusbys' bees are worse when they build
up for Summer, but in terms of temper, I found them pretty much
exactly what I have come to expect when visiting yards through
Alberta during 30 years as a commercial beekeeper and, years ago, as
a bee inspector.
Although the Lusby bees were not particularly defensive, and did not
run on the combs or attack en masse, they seemed quite quick-moving
and hardworking. With few exceptions, they stayed nicely on the comb
when we worked them and did not seem much disturbed by our
examination. We did, however use smoke constantly to ensure that we
did not need to suit up completely and the bees responded very
nicely to the smoke. The fuel was bits of wood from desert shrubs
that we found and chopped up into small bits. Although the wood
seemed quite hard, it smoldered well, made good smoke, and did not
The brood patterns we encountered were, almost without exception,
very solid and well laid. Adjacent pupae and larvae were always the
same age, a sign of fertile and active young queens. Any queens we
saw tended to be mostly black.
Dee raises queens from their favorite stock, which is kept at some
of their most remote yards. When raising queens, she hatches the
virgins in an incubator, examines them, mates or introduces those
she thinks are good, and makes up a swarm lure mixture by crushing
the ones she does not like. She selects queens by looking for color,
shape, and particular markings that mean to her that the queen
carries the characteristics she seeks. She says that she likes the
queens she calls 'Tootsie Roll queens', and calls them that due to
their unique brown markings.
When installing virgin queens, she just smokes the hive so that
smoke is coming out all over, then runs the virgin in. Some types of
bees will kill queens introduced this way, but Dee says the strain
they have accepts the virgin if it is done right, and the virgin
will mate and lay alongside the original queen in most cases.
In addition to this tolerance of extra queens, Dee claims their
stock has other unique characteristics. She and Ed have observed
that thelytoky is a distinct trait in their bees. Reportedly,
previous generations of the Lusby family were also aware of this
characteristic in their bees and have always regarded it favorably.
Thelytoky is the characteristic that allows unmated worker bees to
lay fertile eggs that develop into females, not drones as one would
expect. Thelytoky permits hives that would normally be hopelessly
queenless to requeen themselves using worker eggs, and Lusbys claim
their bees often do just that.
As we worked through the hives together, Dee pointed out that she
considers it important to have at least one sub-family of small
black bees in each hive. We looked, and, yes, there seemed to be a
correlation between the better hives and the presence of at least a
few small black bees.
She said that a black contingent is necessary in each hive to have
the hive exhibit the Varroa and disease resistance they seek. I
gathered that it is not just any black bee she wants, but she is
looking for particular characteristics that are apparent to her. In
one particular hive at a distant location and a higher altitude
(3,470 feet), I saw remarkable little black bees with wings longer
than the bees - to the extent that the wings actually stuck out
behind the bees. My camera was not available and I regret not having
taken a picture. I guess I'll have to go back sometime.
Joe and I were particularly interested in seeing for ourselves the
Varroa and tracheal control without chemicals that Lusbys attribute
to the use of 4.9 mm foundation, and we were not disappointed. We
were unable to evaluate the tracheal resistance, other than deduce
success from the fact that the bees were thriving. Tracheal mite
load analysis requires dissection of bees, but Varroa is easier to
see, and normally the results of untreated hives being exposed to
Varroa are predictably sad. Hives that have not been treated for
Varroafor years - if ever - should be dead. These hives definitely
were not dead.
You had to look hard to find
Varroa, and then it would only be one/cell.
Although, by careful searching, we did find a few Varroa, not one of
the 20 or so Varroa we found in that whole time was phoretic (on an
adult bee). Moreover, not one mite in any cell we examined appeared
to be reproductive and every mite we saw had already been located by
the bees and made obvious to us by the fact that the bees had
uncapped the cell.
In some hives, the bees had uncapped a few cells here and there on
patches of capped brood. The only mites we found were in uncapped
cells, and those cells appeared to be at some stage of being cleaned
out by the bees. In those few uncapped cells, we would almost
invariably find a single foundress mite all by herself on the pupa,
usually at the colored-eye stage.
Some of these cells were just uncapped and others were partially
emptied. Where the cell was only uncapped, Dee said that the mite
had been on the head of the pupa. Where the pupa was chewed down,
the mite was assumed to be further down. When we pulled out such
pupae, we always found the mite.
We never saw more than three or four of these opened cells on a
frame. Out of curiosity, wondering if the bees were smart - or just
lucky - we opened the capped cells around some of these cells with
uncapped pupae where we found a mite. We never found a mite in a
surrounding capped cell, or any capped cell for that matter. We also
observed that as we withdrew the contents of cells on a straw,
nearby bees would immediately investigate what we had on our probe.
Since it was Winter, there was no noticeable drone brood at the time
of our visit, although Lusbys deliberately encourage up to 10% drone
cells on a frame by having the foundation stop about three eighths
of an inch above the solid bottom bar. Therefore, we were unable to
examine drone brood for mites, but I doubt we would find many.
Lusbys' claim their foundation is the key to their success, since it
allows the bees to make cells smaller than the cells made by bees
housed on most commercial North American or European foundations.
Their foundation is made by hand from chemical-free wax in their own
shop using a hand mill, and Joe and I helped Dee make about 65
sheets from scratch in two hours or so. (We'll be detailing the
process in a future issue.)
The cell bases impressed on the midrib of Lusbys' style of
foundation measure slightly less than 4.9 mm across on average.
Lusbys prefer a foundation with no cell wall, but a fairly thick
base, and they say the bees use the wax from the midrib to make the
first third of the cell. Lusbys use no vertical wires, but do use
four horizontal wires, which are strung tight and which they crimp
with a European-style hand crimper.
The frames we saw them converting to 4.9 were mostly recycled from
their previous combs. After moving from conventional 5.3 and 5.4 mm
combs down to 5mm, they decided that the larger comb - even 5 mm -
was just not working for them, and have melted almost all their
larger caliber comb down to refit the frames with 4.9 foundation
that is made from the melted combs.
The used frames have been tightened and rewired if necessary and are
as good as new. To install the wax sheet, they lay the wired frame
flat and connect to the ends of the wire with electrical contacts.
An old iron element functioning as a resistor drops the line voltage
and limits the current to what is needed to heat the wires. They
settle the wax onto the wires and press the wax to the correct depth
onto the hot wire with a deft motion of the hand. The result is a
tight, flat sheet of well-embedded homemade 4.9 foundation. I saw
these sheets on the hives both drawn and being drawn, and was
impressed at how well it is drawn and how flat the combs stayed. The
homemade foundation is very good.
The Lusby family has been in bees for generations, and Dee has
worked with bees since she was a girl. The family takes their
beekeeping seriously. It seems that almost all activity in their
home revolves around the bees and bee books. Over the last decade,
Lusbys suffered twice through high bee losses, once from tracheal
mites and once again from Varroa. These losses were exacerbated by
serious droughts in their area. Through all this, they have
maintained their belief that with the correct management and
selection, bees can survive and thrive without chemical aids or use
of expensive and fussy proprietary purebred queens, if they are
selected and managed properly. It seems they now have succeeded in
finding a system that works for them.
Since the days of heavy losses, Lusbys have steadily built their
hive numbers back up and are now at a point where Dee and Ed dream
of sharing their success, their stock and their ideas with as many
other beekeepers as they can. While they don't want to see their
stock patented or exploited, they would like to sell nucs when they
have surplus bees, and that could be soon.
They are producing honey again and are able to offer their product
market as totally chemical-free. I think we all would like to be
able to do the same.
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