- gp (188.8.131.52) --- 10. 12. 2010
John Kefuss: Keeping Bees That Keep Themselves
M. E.A. McNeil
John Kefuss began experimenting with the possibility of breeding resistant bees before it was known it could be done. He promotes his "Bond Method" of selection as both more healthy and economical than chemical treatment for both bees and their keepers. He now proposes a more gradual approach to weaning an apiary.
A winding dirt road thickly lined with blackberries and oak leads to a French apiary that has been sought out by researchers from around the world. The guest book in the ancient brick honey house reads like a Who’s Who in the world of bee scientists, and they came to find John Kefuss, breeder of survivor stock.
Some, bumping up the brambly drive, 24 kilometers north of Toulouse, may well have wondered if they were going to a great deal of trouble to visit a huckster – the 007 Bond Method beekeeper. He is in fact some kind of reverse snake-oil salesman, peddling the rewards of giving up remedies with a side of good humored showmanship.
A kindly bear of a man, Kefuss warmly welcomed visitors one day last fall to his Rucher d’Oc (which means Apiary of the Oc, a region in the South of France). He sat down beneath an enormous oak tree to tell his story, surrounded by the pilgrims — some Polish and American beekeepers. He dubbed one, Krzysztof Loc who breeds 12,000 queens a year, “The Henry Ford of Polish Queen Insemination.” And then he was off into the story of the tree — planted some 400 years ago to commemorate a visit of King Henry IV of France to the hunting grounds there. The story of the storyteller himself seemed remarkable, too.
Kefuss is an American who arrived some forty years ago to these lightly wooded rolling hills, which are native to his French wife, Josette. He came by his own circuitous route, a life journey that has somehow repeatedly landed him in the right place at the right time. Looking back from under his oak tree, he says, “Sometimes you have luck.
You don’t realize until later just how lucky you have been.” He started beekeeping at 11 years old. He worked his way through Ohio State University with a job at the bee lab of the legendary researcher Walter Rothenbuhler, who Kefuss calls “a kind and good person, a very good bee geneticist, a world class scientist.” In the lab, Kefuss counted American foulbrood in bee cells. Kefuss saw that some strains of bees were killed by a couple of scales, and some strains tolerated a full comb filled with dried scales. Rothenbuhler told him, “John, you have to test against the actual disease.”
When he finished his B.S. in entomology, with a minor in chemistry, he decided to join the Marines. Rothenbuhler, a World War II veteran, turned him instead to a job at the USDA lab in Logan, Utah. There he ran a study on photoperiods in bees under William P. Nye and, at 24, wrote the resulting paper that was published in the Journal of Apicultural Research. He remembers hitchhiking back to Ohio for a family visit with a quarter in his pocket.
Rothenbuhler was known as a systematic, careful researcher, and he admired those characteristics in the work of Frederick Ruttner in Frankfurt, Germany. He convinced his young protégée to enter a doctoral program under Ruttner. Not only did Kefuss speak no German, but he had been pronounced irredeemably language-challenged by his high school French teacher Mme Cory. Whether it says more about him or Mme Cory, he completed a PhD from the J. W. Goethe Universitat in zoology with work in biochemistry.
While he was a graduate student, Kefuss traveled to Apimondia in Maryland in 1967. He counts this story as the best of his good fortune: The first day of the congress he met a young French woman and had Ruttner translate for them both, including, on the last day, his proposal of marriage, which she accepted. “Like choosing queens, you have an idea what’s a good queen,” he said.
The newly titled Dr. Kefuss moved with his wife to her native Toulouse, where he established a commercial apiary. His education not withstanding, he insists he is not a scientist but a beekeeper (a fine line once you see what he is up to). “If you want to conduct an experiment, bring a scientist. I have the bees.” And so it was that he supplied bees to Wolfgang Ritter in Germany and Jacques Ducos de Lahitte in France, who were testing chemical treatments used in hives. From 1983 through 1991, such treatments as Folbex, Apitol, Perizin, Amitraz, Apistan and Bayvarol were evaluated. “We did not work with the chemicals ourselves. But we saw the results.” It was a turning point for Kefuss, who concluded that “Using chemicals is caveman beekeeping.”
Now it is known that bees can be bred for resistant behavior, so it is hard to imagine that it was at most a guess and a hope only 17 years ago when Kefuss began to experiment with the idea. His respected doctoral mentor, Ruttner, opined that bees could not be bred against mites, saying, “Sheep can’t be bred against wolves.” Kefuss saw, though, that in a project by Ritter in Tunisia with farmers too poor to treat their hives, survivor bees resulted. Was it a local effect, or was it genetic? In 1993, at Rucher d’Oc, Kefuss crossed the black Tunisian bees, A.m. intermissa, with yellow Dadant Starline A.m. ligustica, and it seemed that the resistant characteristic was genetic. The aggressive progeny could be selected for gentleness as well. He went to Tunisia, looking for hygienic bees: “I was asked, What will you do if you find none? I said, I’ll go to the mosque and pray.” He did find resistant bees; both he (in Toulouse) and Ritter (in Freiburg) tested them from 1993 to 2004.
It was a heady time. In 1993, promising Urguayan stock was tested at Toulouse as well as at the Oberursel Bee Research Institute in Germany and the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, Poland. At the same time, Kefuss began testing European stock by withdrawing all treatment.
“By 1996 we knew we could select for Varroa resistance,” he said. In 1999 he stopped all treatment of his hives in France. From 1999 to 2005, Ralph Buchler tested 13 lines of bees from different areas in Europe on the island of Unije in Croatia for resistance to Varroa without treatment. Kefuss’ bees from Toulouse were the last to die out. “Ruttner told me that it turns out that sheep can be bred against wolves.”
Was Kefuss first? It’s not his kind of question. “I don’t think about that. Danny Weaver was doing selection tests about the same time, ’93. I learned queen rearing with the Weavers in Texas — Father Binford and Uncle Stanford Weaver. What’s important is that you can develop bees through selection.”
What sub-family of bees is best? That’s not his kind of question either. “I don’t know if it is very relevant to list the different races we have worked with (Carniolans, Caucasians, Chinese Italians, K-Stars, from our old Starline lines, intermissa). What is important is that all races can be selected for better tolerance to Varroa. What we are trying to do is develop bees with as many different types of alleles as possible because there are many types of resistance.”
Perhaps one reason Kefuss eschews being called a scientist is that he is more practical than analytical. “It’s not important to know” just why a particular strain is surviving (although he is assiduous in recording how). “You flew here to Europe and didn’t know the mechanics of the plane, but you got here.”
The term “Bond Test” was first coined at a meeting of the German Bee Research Institutes at Bremen “to describe our principle of ‘Live and let Die’ for the testing we had been doing since 1993. You don’t do any treatments and wait until the non-resistant lines die out through natural infestations.” Kefuss subsequently intensified the process with the Bond Accelerated Test — “Survive or Die Now” (BAT). “In the BAT test we give frames of brood with large quantities of Varroa (40 per 100 cells) to accelerate the elimination of non-resistant lines. That way instead of taking three to four years we can do the job in about six months. The Bond test is slow but you probably end up selecting for more different types of resistance.
The BAT test is fast and probably will not take into account mechanisms of resistance that require a long period for the effects to be observed.” Either way, he has found that most beekeepers see the choice between treating or withdrawing treatment from their apiaries as a catch-22. Kefuss said, “It took me three years to decide to stop because I knew there was a good chance I would lose my shirt, or even more.” To convince reluctant beekeepers, he now teaches a more gradual approach, which he calls The Soft Bond Method.
He now keeps his commercial apiaries without treatments and cites 15% loss – the same or less than beekeepers who treat. To answer the skepticism his results have produced, he has announced “The World Varroa Challenge,” inviting beekeepers to Rucher d’Oc to count mites in his apiary, offering one euro cent for every mite found.
The assembled beekeepers that fall day followed Kefuss from beneath the old oak to a tour of his bee house, stacked with homemade boxes. He makes or adapts all his own equipment, including frames, queen cells made of German hair curlers, and ice cream boxes used for emerging queens. His hybrid Cloake boards, a blend of Brazilian and New Zealand methods, have a fiveframe nuc above; he explained that they produce heavier queens, and he finishes no more than 20 at a time.
Then he suited up the group and took off down a dusty side road, trailed by a carload of beekeepers, to an apiary of some 35 hives. There, the foreigners pulled and ogled frames, resorting to opening cells to earn some change – after all, it was high mite season. Amid the placid bees, they soon shed their suits and then their veils. At la