Fort needs those, who need Fort

In the year 2020 another season of our "Fort Knox" Project began. In many ways it is not as we had counted and hoped for. But that last season proved for one more time that those who decided to cooperate closely can count on supplementing their losses and enjoying the bees that have not been treated against varroa for years. Although Fort has lost many bee colonies along the way, it has also developed those lines of bees that were treated against varroasis in autumn 2014 for the last time.

Maybe I'll start with what didn't proved to work very well. Whoever will look for arguments against cooperation will probably stop here, convinced that it is not worth it. I hope, however, that not everyone will end up reading with the arguments "against".

Our project has a number of weaknesses. One would like to say that it is overcome by "reality" above all. This reality is all the time among us: many people do not want to join the cooperation, sometimes something else does not fit. Sometimes there are moments of ups and downs. Despite all these problems, I still try to convince myself that it can be different. Can it? I'm sure it "can be", but "is it”?

Fort Knox began as a small project run by an even smaller group of amateurs acting on the basis of full mutual trust, passion, energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, years of cooperation so far have reduced much of that energy and enthusiasm and in some ways have also damaged mutual trust. For various reasons, which are not a place to talk about in public here, our group has divided over the last few years, new threads of camaraderie or friendship have been formed, but also some of the old ones have been torn apart – and sometimes it seems to be almost irreversible. Each side probably has its arguments. Suffice it to say that some of the words spoken cannot be "unspoken", and some of the deeds cannot be "undone". Regardless of everything, it seems that the only thing that probably survived in all of us relatively intact is love and passion for beekeeping and bees. This optimistic thought remains to be held and it keeps us doing what is to be done.

Fort Knox grew steadily, albeit slowly, during the first years. New people joined in and the number of bee colonies grew systematically. We hoped for this tendency to uphold. With the separation of the project from the "Free Bees" Association, although one of the arguments was to open the project to non-associated people, we achieved the opposite effect and two previous participants left. Last season, Łukasz also decided to leave. In the first phase of our activity, he saved us from having to start the selection from the beginning (which was emphasized in earlier articles). We would like to thank Łukasz for his cooperation so far!

However, the cooperation of the other participants goes on – actually with all the problems that may occur. First of all the project is based on untreated bees. Although this is what it is about, it is also our first and main problem. Well, untreated bees will always be much more susceptible to all the negative factors they face. They may develop nice and thrive, but suddenly they may also collapse and fall down in 2 weeks. As an example I will describe my situation this year. Last year my bees in the project were in crisis. The season was difficult, as beekeepers from all over the country say. In the southern part of Poland, where I live and where I keep bees, there were apiaries that did not produce even a kilo of honey, but had to be fed hundreds of kilos of sugar. My "Fort" apiary also had exceptional bad luck, because all the colonies that stood on it (also those that are not in the project) had a huge crisis and while bees on other apiaries developed relatively well (to the extent of a poor season and untreated bees), coming to the "fort" apiary I had a sense of defeat and the need to fight for survival. This, like probably nothing else, showed me how much beekeeping can be local. Out of my 5 colonies submitted for the project, three survived the previous winter, one of them being two frames of bees without a queen. I knew from early spring that this "colony" would not be able to reach the strength to use it for making splits. Out of the other two, I was supposed to create 5 splits for others. The problem was that the "mother" colonies, due to the exceptionally rainy May, barely reached reasonable strength to do the splits, and immediately after making nucs all started to have huge problems. Nucs were shrinking, and from the five in the first round, only one queen hatched and was inseminated. So it was necessary to start the queen rearing again - which again contributed to the further weakening of these already miserable splits. As a result, nucs I made for others from Fort's bee pool were among the weakest that I made not only in the history of my participation in the project, but also in my entire apiary in the 2019 season... I did not do so either in bad faith or because of disregard for cooperation. The malice of fate caused that in other apiaries, despite the bad, rainy start of the season, the bees were developing quite well, the young queens hatched and started to lay eggs – and so the colonies were keeping their reasonable vigor... That's the first problem of the Fort: you won't jump over what you have in the apiaries. From shrinking colonies with problems, you won't make beautiful splits.

Another problem is the lack of local bees in the form of cooperation that the Fort offers today. Why? Because we have only seven participants for the whole country today. After so many years it is not enough to be satisfying number - especially since there were more. As a result, a few project colonies may be somewhere "an island" surrounded by a sea of unselected genes. Not only does this increase the logistical problems, but with the transport of the colonies, it also significantly changes their living environment. For example, colonies that are fairly adapted locally to the climate of the hilly regions do not necessarily have to cope with problems on the plains (or other way round), if only because of other strains of pathogenic microorganisms. The transport of bees does not always serve them, and honeybee mortality is not always directly correlated with the degree of varroa infestation. Colonies with 200 - 300 mites and capable of keeping their numbers at this level can survive in some conditions but fail to survive in others, for example due to climate change and the resulting change in bacterial and pathogenic microflora (see for example Torben Schiffer's work on the climate of bee habitats).

In the history of the cooperation many colonies developed nicely, but transported to new conditions did not survive the winter - as it would seem sometimes for no reason at all. Colonies from the "J" line, for example, were for two seasons one of the prettiest developing in my apiary, but then all died without an heir. Moving bees certainly does not serve them well, and the further they travel, the less chance they seem to have to survive. So the project will be the more efficient, with the more local bees in it – and so with more local participatns.

Another weakness of the project is that it is directed to amateurs and it is being created and carried out by amateurs - with all the consequences of this. As amateurs we have difficulties in providing properly prepared transport boxes, ensuring a good start for the young bee nucs, creating properly splits, and finally keeping the bees alive and in good condition. I am writing „we have” because I think we all have these problems - I certainly have at least a few of them.

Fort is not a perfect tool. Especially from a selection point of view. Although colonies can survive in one location, we don't know if they can survive in another. For example, there is a colony in my apiary, marked as B5, which originates directly from the line of the bee that survived the catastropic winter of 2016/2017. Although the colony continues in my apiary until today (at least to my knowledge - it was still alive at the end of January 2020), every year I try to make splits out of it for others and there is probably no place for them to survive anywhere. Is it "the fault" of the bees or mine? I don't know. Or maybe there is no "fault" here?

But "Fort Knox" doesn't just have flaws. The project was not made to be a perfect selection tool. There are probably much better methods for that. But they can be practiced mainly by experienced beekeepers who want to observe bees, look after them constantly and above all develop their apiaries. Our experience show that it is difficult to carry out one's own selection without an absolute minimum of 40 - 70 colonies. In our Polish conditions below this number, it is a lottery, and above that there are no guarantees anyway. Those who want to minimize interference with bee colonies and just enjoy a few hives in the garden have practically no chance foe success. They can keep treatment free bees – yes, of course they can. After a few years of practice they will certainly gain some knowledge and experience. But probably every year, two or three, they will have to start over again. Unless they are lucky - because it is important too! Fort is primarily a project that should encourage cooperation and give a guarantee in Your own selection. Fort „says”: „don't count on others – do selection by yourself! But have it in Your mind: if the bees die, we won't let you start from the start!”. This is the Fort's highest value - at least for me.

I've been trying to encourage people to join "Fort Knox" for years. Despite this, the project is not growing as I would expect, given its undoubted advantages. Well, because of all events mentioned in the introduction, after the first period of promising growth, it basically shrank a little. I would like to believe that it is not the case that by encouraging I achieve the opposite effect, because such voices are also raised. With the division of our natural beekeepers' group, probably some people have gained reserves for cooperation. They probably see that apart from its undoubted advantages, by cooperating you can also „bump” Your head. So why to do it, if bees and beekeeping should be passion and pleasure? It's true. To those who think that, I don't know what to say. I have no argument for them...

But I know there are others. Those who would like to cooperate for dozens of reasons, participate in our discussions, so they do not shy away from exchanging opinions and contacts. Whether they work with us in the Fort Knox Project or not, they are with us anyway, they discuss, they want to come to our meetings, they want to meet us. They are often a mystery to me. I wonder why they do not want to "sacrifice" two or three colonies to be with us and contribute to the growth of treatment free beekeeping, to make our common voice louder, and above all to show outside that it is possible and necessary to try to improve the living conditions of bees and their adaptation to the local environment. The voice will not be heard by beekeepers if there is none. Many beekeepers use toxins in apiaries, because they do not even know that there is an alternative. Even if our alternative is no guarantee for surviving bees at all, the beekeeping methods offered otherwise don't give any hope at all for any change! To this day beekeepers still hear at beekeeping conferences that by "treating" they save the species from extinction. But even if the truth is bitter, it is certainly not as bitter as it is presented.

So there are people who declare their willingness to give up the usage of chemical treatments. They see that they harm bees and their environmental adaptation in the long term. Despite this, I sometimes feel they try to "reinvent the wheel" themselves. They do not join the project. They try for a year, two, three. They often turn to chemical treatments again afterwards, although they don't want to. They lose hope for sucess, and even if some of it remain, they sometimes give up in their actions because of the reality of bees dying in their apiaries. Or they try over and over again on their little apiaries, still buying bees from "commercial lines". Why? I don't always understand that. I understand they know that a nuc out of the Fort bee lines should not be considered as a guarantee in being successful in selection. Yes, we say that ourselves. After all, many of the colonies are dying, even in the same season they were created. But does buying a colony from a commercial breeder or trying to find „the one colony” within a group of five or ten splits give better chances? It is at least doubtful to me. Some of these beekeepers, when asked directly why they do not join the Fort, claim that they have been thinking about this for a year or two, but they also think that they have nothing interesting to offer the project from their part. They wait until they have worked out "something" for a year, two or three and then they can be valuable members of the community. I have met with this opinion at least a few times myself. What can I say except that... it's not about that at all! If you've achieved something, you don't need Fort for your own apiary! If only those who have already achieved something are to join the Fort, they won't need much from you, even if something positive is already happening at your apiary. The Fort needs those who need the Fort. Thanks to this we can build a community that can break through to the beekeeping consciousness.

Before joining the Fort, many people ask if there is anyone near their location that they could work more closely with. This is a reasonable question. One of the weaknesses of the Fort is that there is not enough development to create local subgroups of cooperation where the exchange of bees would not weaken their local adaptations. But on the other hand, if a negative answer to this question discourages you from cooperating, you must be aware that in a year's time, when someone else asks the same question from a neighboring community or county, they, too, may resign for exactly the same reason. If you act locally, perhaps you have someone you already work with? Maybe you should consider joining together? Project coordinator will then be able to share your own bees between You, but if you both fail, you will be helped from outside. This way, the "genetics" we are all working on can help further and further.

In my opinion, nothing better has been developed for amateurs who want to give up using chemical toxins in their apiaries than the "Fort Knox" Project. But we all need in this project even those bees that have no great chances to survive without a treatment. Because they can bring us together in a common goal.

Another season is behind us. At the moment there are seven beekeepers in the Project and 26 bee colonies. By the end of the 2019 season all losses - as probably every year - have been made up. As of today, already five of these colonies have been reported as losses to be made up for the year 2020. Probably there will be more of them coming. Will it be easy? It has never been! But we've always managed to do it together!

Bartłomiej Maleta / Bee Brotherhood