Dr. SeeleyLast weekend, we attended the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring 2017 Conference. The main attraction this year was Dr. Thomas Seeley, famous for research into honey bee behavior, who gave four talks over the two days.

Will we be able to post a report on each of them before the year is up? Probably just barely.

The Bee Colony as an Information Center This talk described how a colony efficiently deploys and redistributes foragers to nectar sources in numbers related to the changing quality of the source. We serendipitously discovered that the material is also in his book The Wisdom of the Hive, which we bought at the conference. The diagrams are so much better than our hastily scrawled sketches.

Plastic Foundation: Good for Beekeepers? Good for Bees? We attended in spite of using no foundation of any kind, certain that we would learn something interesting about the bees. We did but you will have to wait.

The Bee Colony as a Honey Factory This was a repeat of the talk from a SEMBA conference in 2013 and we have already written about it. So we need report on only three talks before the year ends. We may just make it.

Capturing Swarms with Bait Hives After describing his experiments to determine what kind of home the bees themselves prefer, also found in the popular HoneyBee Democracy, he presented the results, rather well-known by now, and gave practical advice on exploiting those results to successfully catch swarms.

We also attended some non-Seeley presentations, which may or may not result in blog posts.

Plan for Mites by Dr. Meghan Milbrath. The message, that we are in a varroa epidemic and whistling past the beeyard will not be helpful, is much the same as her previous talks but the tone has gotten firmer. If one will not be a responsible bee-keeper then one will not be merely a bee-haver but a bee-serial-killer. She has thoughtfully provided the text of her talk on this Michigan Pollinator Initiative web page.

Beekeeping in Uganda by Sarah Scott. Currently conducting field research for the United States Geological Survey this talk is from her time studying honeybee health in Uganda. The saddest thing we learned was that as the illegal distillers of sugarcane attempt to improve their fortunes they are inadvertantly ruining that of beekeepers. Bees drown in the open fermenters full of sweet sugarcane liquid.

Essential BeekeepER First Aid by Dr. Tyler Andre. The capitalized ER is deliberate to nod at the speaker being an Emergency Room resident.

The Benefits of Splits and How to Make Them by Nathan Snyder. This presentation contrasted methods used in his own hobby apiary and in the larger commercial apiaries for which he has worked.

And so to start writing.

Sassafras Bee Farm Blog PictureThe Sassafras Bee Farm has impressively been blogging daily for the last two months, finding wonderful bits of beekeeping lore to report. We were excited by a particular recent post, which we shall cover after some introductory verbiage for the sake of non-beekeeping readers or just plain pedantry.

Swarming is the method by which honeybee colonies reproduce. When a colony grows large enough some bees will depart the hive with the reigning queen to find a new home while the remainder raise a new queen and carry on. Under favorable circumstances it is possible for a booming hive to cast several swarms in a season. As satisfying as this may be to the bees it is a loss for the beekeeper unless the swarm can be recaptured. This is why there are so many techniques to try to prevent swarming1.

When a swarm leaves its former home it does not proceed directly to a new one. Instead it clusters in a bivouac location until, based upon reports from scouts, it chooses its new habitation2 and flies thither. This provides an opportunity for the beekeeper whose hive has swarmed to collect and re-house the bees before they can choose to leave the apiary altogether. Unfortunately the bivouac location can be out of sight3, leaving the beekeeper unaware that swarming is occurring, or inaccessible as up a tree beyond the reach of the longest available ladder, swarm catching pole, or the beekeeper’s foolhardiness.

As a fallback the beekeeper can hang swarm traps, also called bait hives, in likely locations away from the apiary. These are suitably sized and scented boxes made to entice the scouts to convince their swarm to take up residence after which the beekeeper takes the box to the apiary and moves the bees to a proper hive. Of course, it may be someone else’s swarm that is caught.

Now from Sassafras Bee Farm we learn of another way to keep one’s own swarms, the Russian scion. This technique essentially applies the principle of the bait hive to the bivouac location. A tallish pole (perhaps ten feet high) is placed not very far in front of the hives. Larger beeyards may have more than one. Atop the pole is hung the scion. While there are more elaborate designs involving covered mesh baskets, it need only be a simple roof about a foot square to provide a bit of shelter to the lure beneath it. The lure can be a short, vertical length of wood covered in propolyzed burlap. Or just the propolized burlap itself hanging beneath. Or even an old frame. The bait may also be perfumed by some of the usual lemony essential oils. While the presence of this bait will not cause swarming it provides a convenient place for a swarm to bivouac which is easily seen and reached by the beekeeper.

Should Beatrix survive the remainder of winter she will surely cast a swarm if we are not timely in splitting her. Considering how often life and weather prevent us from timely care of our bees, a scion would be reassuring. We shall see if we are timely in constructing one.


1It is as easy as preventing teens from having sex.
2As described in Dr. Thomas Seeley’s HoneyBee Democracy
3 Ours was.

2017janthreehivesalive

For now.

An unusual day in a warmish winter, Saturday’s temperature had risen to bee-flying values by early afternoon so we visited the hives to check for signs of life. To our joy we saw and heard a cloud of buzzing bees in front of each hive jockeying to re-enter through the single, left-open hole. A very large cloud was in front of Beatrix, who seems to remain our most populous colony. By the time we calmed enough to take the picture above with our phone most had already returned within. Bees are still evident on the face of Beatrix but you must zoom in quite a bit to see a blurry few near the entrance for Clarissa and Dorcas. We seem to have chosen the optimal time to spot them flying.

Temperatures will yet drop to freezing again and there is still time for our bees to starve before there is ought for foragers to find. But for now our hearts are gladdened.

Oh, woe. This year’s follies have, alas, been effectively cancelled. Alackaday. You may also imagine us muttering other phrases, favorites featuring fricatives, in irritated disappointment.

For new readers, this is the annual post where we look for entertainment at the search terms that bring people to our blog, a blog that focuses almost entirely on beekeeping with very few off-topic posts. Likewise, the overwhelming number of queries are plainly looking for information about bees and beekeeping. But some very few are clearly looking for information on completely unrelated topics indeed and have been comically misled by their search engine. Other very few search terms readily lend themselves to deliberate misinterpretation in a mildly humorous way. If not comedy gold then, at least, a little holiday tinsel and glitter.

But a few years ago, Google began, in the name of privacy, to hide such terms from the target website with the result that almost all searches to our site would be logged as “Unknown Search Terms”. For our little, low-traffic blog that leaves this year a mere one hundred and fifty-six searches to mine for the rare ore from which we can smelt a few shiny flecks of amusement. This year we found not even pyrite.

Ah, well. Let us at least take a look for trends among the search terms which we can see, remaining cognizant of the problems with small sample sizes. In other words, conclusions drawn from these results are worthless but here we go anyway.

Mites with legs bitten off.

In first place (5.8%) were searches for the “ankle biter” bees developed by Greg Hunt of Purdue. None of our searchers seemed aware that the official name has been changed to the humorless “mite biter”.

Second place (5.1%) went to searches for plans for a long Langstroth hive. But for the use of top bars rather than frames our Tanzanian hives are dimensioned to qualify. And we once again feel that twinge of guilt over never having posted any hive-construction articles.

Third place (3.8%) went to a favorite of every autumn, searches about yellowjackets and the eradication thereof.

Bee foraging poison ivy

Fourth place (2.6%) was taken by searches for bees and poison ivy. Our post on this topic remains a popular one although it is second in Google results to the more widely-read Honeybee Suite. Still we are pleased at the number of people we have reassured that they need not fear poison ivy honey since the toxic urushiol is not present in the nectar.

Finally, in fifth place(1.9%) were searches for Dr. Meghan Milbrath of The Sandhill. Her business will not be providing nucs this year but will focus on raising queens as the most efficient way of supplying beekeepers with good quality, locally adapted genes for their colonies. Her bees are Michigan survivor stock with contributions from the afore-mentioned Indiana ankle-biters.

In addition, the education part of the business will continue with classes on various aspects of beekeeping, both basic and advanced. She is an engaging and informative speaker, well worth hearing whenever one can.

The remainder of the searches were one-offs of no particular interest. Sigh. If we want humor, we may have to resort to knock-knock jokes.

Knock, Knock.
Who’s there?
Wherefore means.
Wherefore means who?

No, “wherefore” means “why!” How many times do we have to go over this?

Our first intended follow-up post to our brief report in March on the MBA conference was published months afterward. Now even more months have passed and with the year almost done we hurry to finally finish the second, about Steve Tilmann’s presentation on the Cape Bee, apis capensis1.

Floral Kingdoms of the WorldThe map at left shows six floral kingdoms of the world, areas with broadly uniform composition of plant species. Five of the six are large continent-sweeping regions, as one might expect. The sixth is just the tip of Africa, isolated from the rest by mountains and subject to high winds from the three oceans.

The winds result in a high rate of virgin queens failing to return from the mating flight, having been blown to Madagascar. In response the Cape bees2 have developed a capacity for thelytoky, a kind of parthenogenesis. A female worker with the right genes can lay eggs which will develop, not into the expected drones, but into clones of herself. A colony without a queen will thus not decay into a frat house and die but carry on producing workers as well.

While it keeps the colony alive, this is a not a perfectly happy situation. Just as in a usual laying worker situation, there is not only one worker who tries to seize the throne but many, each cloning away. Also as usual, workers will give preferential treatment to brood that is more closely related to them, i.e. whose genes more resemble theirs. Such resemblance gets no closer than identical and preferential treatment here turns into actively destroying brood from other laying workers. As a result the colony will likely be split into several cohabiting and competing subcolonies. Such a colony at war with itself is not at all as productive as a queenright colony.

Unfortunately the Cape bees have somehow crossed the mountains and parasitized the hives of European bees. Compared to a cancer, the parasites rapidly outbreed the non-Cape bees, as offspring of laying workers become laying workers themselves, but are useless foragers away from their natural region. The colony eventually dwindles, leaving some surviving Cape bees to move on to infect another hive.

Regarded as a bigger problem than varroa, may they never reach our shores.


1 There is one caveat if you get a chance to see his talk. It was a hunting safari that brought him to South Africa and there are pictures of kills with some gore among the slides.
2They look like Carniolans.