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Isle of Wight (IoW) Disease

Was it really as we are led to believe?

As a teacher of beekeeping I regularly encourage beekeepers to challenge what they are told and not to blindly accept what is spoken or written. With experience and knowledge you can often spot things that don't add up. Over the years I have seen many reports of events I have been involved in that haven't always conveyed the truth. Often two reports can be very different. This may be because they have been distorted or some critical information omitted. This could be for a number of reasons including editing, the person doing the writing not having much knowledge of the subject, them having an interest or due to writers copying others and putting a different slant on it by using different words.

There is a "standard" account, with a few variations, of the Isle of Wight disease and it goes something like this........It was variously referred to as a disease, epidemic or malady of honey bees that appeared to have several different symptoms. This often resulted in the death of the colony, both summer and winter. Depending on the source, it appears to have first been noticed in about 1902 in Derbyshire, but in 1904 in the Isle of Wight and lasted for about 20 years. It was described by many writers as "highly infectious" and was said to have caused the extinction of the "Old British Black" bees (Amm).

When I started beekeeping as a teenager in 1963 there were references to the Isle of Wight disease in all the books and there were still many beekeepers who had kept bees at the time. Although some were adamant it killed a lot of bees and was due to acarine, there were many who said it didn't affect them very much, if at all.

For several years I believed that the cause was acarine, simply because it was in print. We were deluged with warnings about acarine and nosema (N apis) and told to treat with Frow mixture and FumidilB. George Wakeford, the person who largely taught me in my early years had kept bees at the time of the IoW disease and wasn't affected. He didn't treat, so I copied him. With more experience and maturity I began to question things and realised I had never had a problem with acarine and nosema only once, when I bought 19 colonies that were derived from US package bees. It simply didn't add up to me. Why weren't my bees dying of acarine?

When I started beekeeping I knew a local farmer who had 3 empty WBC hives in a barn. He had kept bees, but they had died out several years previously. He wouldn't let me have them, even though he never intended to use them again, because he said they had died of IoW disease and I would lose any bees I put in them! That man was probably born in the late 1920s, so his bees couldn't have had IoW disease. This shows how little ordinary beekeepers knew of the situation, how frightened they were and how myths are perpetuated.

Since the early days the standard account has been challenged by many in beekeeping, not least by Leslie Bailey and Brenda Ball of Rothamstead in the early 1960s. Bailey in particular has examined the evidence and suggests there were possibly several causes, indeed he wrote ".......I suspect that the IoW disease was assumed to be the cause of all the losses for which there was no obvious explanation at the time". He gave a lecture to the Central Association of Bee-Keepers (CABK) in March 1963, the text of which is here. Also see this page for references.

My own thinking is at a more basic level, but is based on over 50 years of dealing with a fairly large number of colonies and visiting other areas with different kinds of bees and different beekeeping methods. I now tend to question and analyse most things I read and hear and apply a bit of "Patterson's Logic".

After keeping bees for some time unmedicated and without the signs of IoW disease, I started to think about it and do a bit more reading. There seemed to be several symptoms reported that suggested there may be more than one cause. In most accounts only acarine was mentioned and still is! In others nosema was mentioned. They have different symptoms and weren't supposed to be major problems during the summer when IoW often showed. What I can't understand is why there is little or no reference to wild colonies dying.

I failed to understand why there was a major problem for 20 years that required Government assistance to replace colony losses when I and other beekeepers hadn't experienced it when not treating. I recalled that the older beekeepers who said they had no problem with IoW disease tended to be better beekeepers than those who said they lost a lot of bees.

Despite all the warnings about acarine and nosema, I have only seen less than a handful of colonies die from acarine, none of them mine. Nosema apis has similarly been little problem. It is my strongly held view that both of them are problems of colonies headed by recently imported queens, mainly Italians, not native bees or mongrels. This is based on what I have observed and the fact that when I started beekeeping it was soon after the vary hard 1962/63 winter. Many beekeepers bought imported queens, mainly Italians to introduce to nucs made by splitting surviving colonies. Our West Sussex County Beekeeping Instructor said he had never seen so much acarine and nosema as there was in colonies headed by these imported queens. This influx of imports was very similar to what happened during the IoW epidemic. Did history repeat itself?

Those who said that the "Old British Black" (Amm) bees were susceptible to the IoW disease or had become extinct were often those with an interest in doing so, such as bee breeders and/or queen importers. What better way to promote your own products than to discredit what was already here? These people were often the big names in beekeeping at the time, so they were respected and believed. They certainly wouldn't get away with it nowadays.

We must remember this happened when many beekeepers worked on the land, often six and a half days a week, with much longer days than we are used to. After a day of hard physical work they probably did an hour or so in their vegetable gardens in the evenings, possibly until dusk. Many were still skeppists, or were in the process of converting to moveable frame hives. This change was happening at about the same time as IoW, but meant a much different approach from what they were used to. They had to learn a lot about the workings of a colony and how to manage it in a different way. With the rapid changes in colony management the beekeepers had to learn about simple things like feeding that are commonplace today, but was fresh ground to them. They may have been short of money to buy sugar and not aware that feeding had to be done early.

Around the time of the first world war things must have been very hard with many beekeepers being killed in action. Their bees may have died through neglect and starvation. I suspect that many hadn't been inspected for several years, so probably in a poor condition anyway. Certainly in the early 1960s few beekeepers used mouse guards, so it's reasonable to assume they weren't used 50 years earlier. If so, I wonder what state the hives were in after being left for several years.

If imports were used to make up for losses, it may be they were the bees that were susceptible to any acarine and nosema, not the native bees. We know that Italians (Aml) are especially prone to these diseases.

It seems to me there was much more to the IoW disease than was written about at the time. Few people are likely to admit to neglecting their bees or not feeding them, so perhaps the IoW disease was a convenient way of explaining their losses.

This is not a deliberate attempt to rewrite history, but quite frankly I think the earlier accounts may be very inaccurate and I am simply questioning them, but based on discussions with beekeepers who had bees at the time, logic and over 50 years of not treating for the diseases that were supposed to have caused the problem. I feel I am justified in highlighting this, especially as others keep recycling the earlier accounts without giving much thought to it and overlooking Bailey.

Roger Patterson.

Page created 10/03/2015

Page updated 02/12/2018