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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 that I have been involved in that haven't always conveyed the real truth. Very often two reports can be very different. This may be because it has 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 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 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 a number of beekeepers who had witnessed it. Although some were adamant it killed a lot of bees and was due to acarine, there were a number who said it didn't affect them very much.

At the time I believed what I read and was convinced of the causes for several years, 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. The person who largely taught me in my early years didn't treat, neither did I. With more experience and maturity I began to question things and realised I had never had a problem with acarine and only nosema once, when I bought 19 colonies that were derived from US package bees. It simply didn't add up to me.

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 kept going.

For some time now the standard account has been challenged, not least by Leslie Bailey and Brenda Ball of Rothamstead. Their research suggests there were possibly a number of causes, including viruses and has been widely publicised. 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 tend to question and analyse most things 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.

I failed to understand why there was a major problem for 20 years that required Government assistance to replace colony losses when I hadn't experienced it. I recalled that the older beekeepers who said they had no problem with IoW disease tended to be the 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, and our West Sussex County Beekeeping Instructor said he had never seen so much acarine and nosema. This influx of imports was very similar to what happened during the IoW epidemic. Did history repeat itself to a degree?

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, 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. Certainly in the early 1960s few beekeepers used mouseguards, 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 describing 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.

Roger Patterson.