Picture from boingboing.net

Picture from boingboing.net

In a long-ago post about observation windows in hives we dryly observed that "transparent wood is unobtainable" before going on to discuss the use of glass or plexiglass. Never our wittiest quip, the remark is now not even true.

A team of researchers in Sweden has recently succeeded in rendering wood transparent. And soon thereafter another team in Maryland made it stronger than glass.

Currently only small pieces (around five inches square) can be processed but at this rate of progress how soon may we expect transparent dimensional lumber or even transparent plywood to be available in our local big box stores?

To the tune of Makin Whoopee with the usual apologies:

Another hive, another May

Another sunny, warm Tuesday

Another season, another reason

For making increase1

Tuesday of last week, with warmth and sun at last, under the expert guidance of Dr. Meghan Milbrath and the curious eyes of our beekeeping niece, we split a colony for the first time.

Working from the brood end of Beatrix we lifted each comb, deciding whether to keep it or transfer it to the empty and waiting Clarissa. The bees were exceptionally mellow, ignoring us and dutifully driving the cycle of life in a hive. Young bees were hatching, cracking away at their cappings. Undertaker bees took advantage of the absence of roof to awkwardly carry off the dead. Dr. Milbrath spotted some exposed larvae in the red-eyed stage, evidence of hygienic behavior.

In the end Clarissa received two combs of brood, on one of which rode the still-marked queen, some empty bars, and three full honeycomb. She will not starve even though she lacks foragers. Her biggest problem is a lack of space to lay eggs. Having the empty bars between the brood and food along with the syrup we are feeding her should address that by encouraging the bees to fill the space with comb. The immigrant nurse bees will become foragers and their current charges will hatch to take up house duties until it is their turn to forage. And the queen shall lay and lay. We have assisted in starting another cycle of life.

But we have also interrupted the cycle for Beatrix, now queenless but retaining ample food and brood including the all-important eggs. Within hours she would discover the royal kidnapping and begin taking steps to raise a new queen. We, meanwhile, have been told to stay out of the hive for the three weeks it should take to raise a queen and get her mated. But we can still peek through the window in the hopes of seeing queen cells.

And that leaves Dorcas awaiting delivery of her new nuc. With luck we shall soon be back to three colonies.

1An archaic-sounding term of art for dividing colonies into a greater number of colonies.


We have been having warm spring days, but while nights were yet falling below freezing we kept our hives in winter black. Now with warmer nights finally upon us and a sunny weekend we could finally put away the insulating panels, clean up the late Clarissa and Dorcas, and give our surviving Beatrix her first sugar roll of the season.

Saturday, we went through the bars of each deadout, cutting and saving any large enough chunk of honeycomb for future extraction. The other comb, empty or with uncapped liquid, was scraped off into a different container for eventual wax melting. The bars were dumped into a bucket to be inspected for re-use later.

The hive bodies, after scooping out what dead bees and detritus we found, were scraped clean of irregularities like the wee waxy remnants of once-attached comb or the thick propolis lines indicating a follower board having been glued in place. We do not wish to remove all the propolis and return to bare wood but merely to remove temptation from the new residents. Finally, a light scrubbing of the floor with a dilute oxalic acid solution to remove some mold.

After a spell drying in the sun the two hives were placed upside down on their stands, perpendicular to their usual orientation. (See the picture above.) This will let them further air out while keeping out any rain. The rooves are atop them although the ekes are being stored in the barn for now.

ReadyFor2016BeatrixAnd on Sunday we tended to Beatrix, who would prove still full of bees from one end to the other. We uncorked two more entrance holes, which were put into use instantly, and started our inspection from the follower board as usual. We were only a few bars in when we began seeing capped brood and, remarkably for us, spotted the queen. That we did not see any eggs is no surprise but there should have been some larvae somewhere large enough to get our attention if the queen has been laying steadily. Beatrix has always been a confusing hive.

Soon finding a brood frame covered with nurse bees we peformed the sugar roll to find thirteen mites in our half cup sample of bees. The suggested threshold for treatment is nine, so we have Api Life Var, a thymol based remedy1 on the way.

We carried on inspecting the other combs, finding some capped drone cells as well as some drones wandering about but not a lot of either. We found no queen cells or cups at all2, so threat of swarming is not as imminent as we feared. They still have several combs of honey left and are busily making more. We ended up removing the follower board entirely and arranging empty bars to fill the gaps.

As we headed back to the house, we marked how surprisingly smoothly the inspection had gone. Oh, we did have to return to the house or barn to fetch the odd forgotten or unanticipated item. But we readily fired up the smoker and wielded it without kippering ourselves. The sugar roll seemed like returning to bicycle riding. No one got stung. Are we finally getting the hang of this beekeeping lark?

1Not to be confused with ApiVar, which contains the acaricide amitraz.

2On the other hand, Clarissa had a comb with nine queen cups. Her bees must have liked to stay in practice.

Crocus clumpThis busy weekend Spring seems to have finally settled in to stay a while. Our struggling patches of crocus bloomed and appear to finally be spreading. The red maple near the house is covered with bright buds although not yet open for pollinators. Beatrix is bringing in some pale, yellow pollen, which we are guessing is an earlier blooming maple we have yet to locate. TrafficJamAnd we spent most of the weekend attending the Michigan Beekeepers Association spring conference, acquiring material for several posts. Whether they actually get written is another matter. Given our track record, we had best provide a quick update now.

The high points were the two microscopy courses, one on bee anatomy with Dr. Zachary Huang and the other on bee post-mortems with Dr. Meghan Milbrath. One of us found that laboratory skills return much as bicycle-riding does while the other, who had never had a biology course, suffered some frustrations but we both had fun pulling dead bees apart with forceps and examining fascinating structures under high magnification.

The keynote speaker was Gary Reuter, who works with Dr. Marla Spivak, who is best known for developing the Minnesota hygienic bees. His talk on the first day was about varroa management and on the second about current pollinator projects at the University of Minnesota.

We skipped a number of elementary sessions, valuable for the beginner but a rehash for us, as well as the several sessions on rearing queens. We are still trying to reliably overwinter our bees. We are ready to try making splits or nucs but not to attempt producing large numbers of queens.

Instead, we attended a session on the Cape honey bee with no application to beekeeping in Michigan but interesting nonetheless and an opportunity to see vacation pictures of African nature. The bees themselves boringly resembled Carniolans to the inexpert eye but are otherwise unique among eusocial insects.

And we heard more from the delightful Dr. Milbrath about keeping colonies healthy. Earlier versions of this talk focused on pests and pathogens but after seeing faces in the audience getting sadder and sadder with each revelation of a new danger she switched the emphasis from illness to health. The main message was that beekeepers need a management strategy and neither ignoring the bees while hoping for things to work out nor panicking at every hint of trouble qualifies as a strategy. Of course this was accompanied by more detail and humor.

The title is a favorite saying of a friend’s aikido teacher. With all its talk of calm non-resistance and entrusting oneself to the natural flow of things and enveloping adversaries with love and so on, Aikido is one of those martial arts that can appeal to the pacifist. Its name has even been translated as “the way of unifying with life energy”. If you question the consistency of all this with the fundamental interest in splatting an attacker against the ground, you now know the teacher’s response.

Relevance to beekeeping? We were reminded of this saying by this article from the ever amusing Atlas Obscura describing the cooperation of human and bird to obtain honey, the Hadza and the honeyguide. The Hadza are able with a particular tune and a bit of luck to summon a honeyguide to lead them to a bee tree. The humans then break the tree open to get at the combs and obtain honey for themselves, whereupon we, innocent viewers of many a nature documentary, expect the bird to receive its share of sweet honey and nutritious brood in a beautiful display of harmonious mutualism, as long as we ignore the death, destruction, and robbery visited upon the unfortunate bees.

No such luck. Although other people with similar honeyguide partnership do feel an obligation to give the bird a fair share as finder’s fee, the Hadza burn, bury, or otherwise destroy most of the comb they do not take for their own use. It strikes the average westerner as mean-spirited. So offensive does this ingratitude seem that when Brian Wood, an assistant professor of biological anthropology at Yale, who had firsthand observed and interviewed the Hadza, published his observations he was greeted with outraged disbelief. The difference is that while everyone enjoys honey as a treat the Hadza diet obtains a significant part of its calories from honey. If the bird were left to eat its fill then it would be disinclined to respond if summoned soon after. It is in the best interests of the Hadza to keep the honeyguide hungry. And so another romantic view of nature is demolished by hard economics.


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