Having scuttled our thermographic monitoring plans by insulating our hives we are left to rely on older indicators of winter hive condition. We have looked for mustard stains dotting the snow, indicating that bees have had a cleansing flight. But we have not had any lingering snow this year and any stains would be less apparent in the grass. We have looked in vain for dead bees in front of the hive, which would indicate that there were live bees who have brought our their dead. But we have scavenging scuttle-crunchers to further dispose of bee corpses before we might find them.

That left us looking for bees entering and exiting the hive on warmer days. We did get this reassurance a few weeks ago spotting a few bees flying near Clarissa and Beatrix. None were seen near Dorcas but a few sound thumps on the roof produced guard bees at the entrance. The next day the cold returned bearing a little snow. We still had all three colonies.

But we could not tell how much honey they still had. Some beekeepers ‘heft’ their hives to get a sense of the weight but that is more difficult with our horizontal hives and we had not been keeping track. If we wanted to know the state of the pantries we would have to open the hives to look. Since then, although winter storm Jonas did not reach us, the temperatures dropped again and we returned to dithering over opening the hives to check their honey supplies or keeping the propolis seals intact and fretting with crossed fingers. On the last day of January, with temperatures rising to just below 50°F(10°C), we finally gathered our courage.

Beginning with Beatrix, we removed the roof and eke, and then ran our hands over the tops of the top bars. We felt a distinct warmth where we expected the cluster to be concentrated. Repeating the procedure with Clarissa we found the bars to be uniformly cool. Likewise with Dorcas. Oh, woe.

Sad Tenth Doctor in the rainWe removed the bars from Clarissa’s unoccupied section. The pillow of wool within was a little damp, indicating that it had done its dehumidifying duty. Moving through the occupied section we found bar after bar of ample honey and a floor carpeted with dead bees with neither dampness nor mold. And then we were surprised to find a live cluster, but what a small one, fist-sized. We looked for the queen at the center but, as usual, could not spot her. Dorcas told the same story except that her cluster was slightly larger and the bees at the center had an attitude of clustering with intent, so we were more certain that there was a queen within.

In both hives the cluster would need to move near the cold walls to reach the next combs. Even though Clarissa had left passages through her comb while Dorcas had only the bee space at the edges, the passages were near the wall and far from the huddled bees. In an attempt to assist we punctured the combs close to the bees with a Phillips screwdriver, making tunnels nearer to them. They simply continued milling about as we reassembled the hives but perhaps the honey our work exposed will draw them and give them strength to carry on.

At the last we turned to Beatrix, expecting to find the same situation but with an even larger cluster since we had detected some warmth. But as soon as we cracked the follower board loose a great buzzing went up with little dark faces crowding the opening and a few bees taking to the air. Yet the warm spot we felt was many bars away. What were the bees doing here? Proceeding along through the bars we found the entire hive crowded with bees and yet holding ample honey stores. Beatrix, ever the laggard runt of the apiary, was wintering beautifully. If her luck holds we shall have to make a split early to avoid her swarming.

Consulting Dr. Meghan Milbrath, it is likely that our October mite treatment was too late to be as effective as it could have been. Even if we reduced the mite numbers devastatingly, they may have already spread a lethal load of viruses among the bees.

In summary, one yet-thriving hive and two nearly dwindled away. Clarissa is almost certainly doomed. Dorcas has a chance of bouncing back. Beatrix with her huge population may exhaust her stores before Spring but in that event we can transfer comb from Clarissa.

Science blogger Chad Orzel, author of the entertaining How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, received one of these little thermal cameras and had great fun. Available for Android or Apple devices it attaches to the smart phone or tablet via the micro-usb port used for charging. Thinking ahead to bee hives in winter, we had to get one of our own.

Unfortunately on our devices the plug orientation causes the camera to face back at the user. Useful for thermal selfies but otherwise inconvenient. We had to bodge things with a suitable USB cable as short as we could get.USBshortcableBodgedAdaptor Although solving the immediate problem, with one hand occupied in pointing the wee camera it was awkward for the other hand to hold the tablet and thumb at the controls. This problem we solved with a craft stick cut down to a few inches and a pair of twist-ties. We will try something less fragile someday but for now this serves.

And here is an older image of autumnal Clarissa in nocturnal thermal. The bright glow from her left indicates the occupied part of the hive. Dorcas and Beatrix had similar appearance with respectively a larger and smaller glowing area, consistent with our observations of their relative populations. This is a much more convenient way to see hive temperatures than scanning with a non-contact infrared thermometer as we did previously. We were almost looking forward to winter cold so we could easily observe the cluster sizes, watching them shrink slowly with the inevitable deaths, ready to intervene should decline seem too rapid.

But before the cold weather came we had put in place the insulating barriers, drawing the blinds upon our thermal windows into the hives. We see that a bundled-up Clarissa in freezing cold reveals little. The shot was taken from behind lest we be measuring the effects of sun on the dark surface. We can talk ourselves into the image being brighter on the right, occupied side of the hive but not with any conviction.

In summary, our plan for easily monitoring the cluster was scuttled by our protecting it from cold. When we presented at a recent meeting of the Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers someone suggested that with a longer USB cable and stick we might try taking pictures from under the hives since the floors are not insulated. We have not yet tried this experiment.

The greatest folly is perhaps our persisting in this recent tradition of trying to find amusing or unusual search terms that led to our blog in the previous year. With Google nobly protecting the privacy of the searchers from those dastardly websites that have not signed up for Ad-Words, fully 74% of the searches are “Unknown Search Terms”. With only a quarter of the hits to a low traffic blog through which to search we again have rather poor sport. Nevertheless we begin with the usual top three search terms and general observations.

  • Dr. Meghan MilbrathFirst place, with 16% of the searches, were queries about Dr. Meghan Milbrath, whose name we often drop.

    Her business has been rebranded as The Sandhill and will be offering nucs, queens, classes, mentoring, and other support for the local beekeeping community.

  • Second place goes to searches for “prospectofbees”, our very own blog, at 15% of the searches. Are we becoming famous? Admittedly there were some searches for things like “prospects of beekeeping” but we did not count those.
  • Third place goes to queries involving yellow jackets, which made up 8% of the searches.
  • While Boardman feeders have been entirely booted from the top three of search terms, the single most popular post of the year is again the one where we modify a follower board to fit such a feeder. Another reason to be suspicious of conclusions drawn from the redacted search terms.
  • Google text searches dominate the references to us with Google image searches a distant second. Even more distant is the crowd of Bing, Yahoo, and lesser-known search engines.
  • While our querents continue to demonstrate persistence in paging through many search engine results to find our blog, we are more often on the first page for some topics.

And now the paltry number of search terms that caught our notice.

adjustable legs wood hole wing nut – 2 views

HiveStand-08-AdjustableSomeone remembered our first hive stand, designed by Keith Steller.

top bar hive spinning – 1 view

First orientation flights of children of the new queenOh! Even Rumpelstiltskin would be hard pressed to spin a hive of any kind. Or was someone’s hive inexplicably dervishing?

drilling a 1inch hole in hive body good or bad – 1 view

AnnabelleIsAliveSounds like a teaser for a special report on some desperate nightly news show.

Hive tools! Specialized implements or jumped-up paint scrapers?

is honey from poison ivy safe – 1 view

Honeybee gathering poison ivy nectar Yes.

Our post regarding the wretched vine proved our third most popular of the year and makes us feel as if we have provided a genuine service to the worried beekeepers where this plant grows.

bees eat fungus – 1 view

Not mildew or athlete’s foot, no, but they have been known to consume some kinds of mushroom mycelium. It is gratifying to see someone ask again.

bees in deer feeder – 1 view

Trough deer feederTo our surprise this seems a not uncommon occurrence. While corn(maize) is naturally sweet, reports suggest it is the corn dust being foraged as a pollen substitute.

Even more surprising to find that a hanging dispenser style of feeder, as opposed to a simple trough, can be speedily emptied by bees to leave a pile of kernels on the ground.

hive eek – 2 views

EkesWithBattingNo, no, do not fear the hive.

Yes, it has come to this. We are trying to make jokes about typographical errors. The shame.

We had best stop here.

SeeItWasColdIn mid-November, like a pointed glance with tapping of wrist, the first snowfall reminded us that we were late in preparing the hives for winter. Now, the ekes atop our hives, holding several layers of moisture-absorbing wool batting and a crowning inch-thick insulating foam board, are kept in place year round and the wood of the hives is twice as thick as that usually used. So the hives themselves receive minimal attention, just covering the shiny rooves with something black and closing off extra entrances. The one major undertaking, due to the windiness of their location, has been the erection of a wall of bales to block the winds. This year we decided to try something different, insulating the sides with foam board and black tar paper.

So it was that the following weekend found us at the DIY store obtaining the needed materials.The last time we had purchased a sheet of foam board, we too late discovered that it would not fit into the car and had to send one of us back into the store to purchase a box cutter and long metal ruler, which we then used to break the sheet into pieces we could transport. This time we came prepared and broke the sheets into a stack of two-by-four-foot sections, a workable size even though we were uncertain what exact dimensions we required or exactly how we would apply them.

Serendipitously the horizontal boards girdling and holding together each hive stand provide a rest for the foam boards at the right height for a two-foot high section to come slightly below the roof bottom. Trimming the sections to size and cutting an entrance slot in each front section, we covered each in tar paper, and taped them together to encircle the hive. Because of cleats and shutters and so forth there is a bit of air space between the hive body and the insulation boards. Still even with the the loose fit our foam boards should still help retain heat and provide relief from freezing winds and be reusable year after year. And as extra protection from cold and humidity we stuffed wool batting into the unoccupied section of each hive.

HivesWrappedThe hives in their monogrammed winter black are shown at left, warded against winter’s attacks, the freezing temperatures and biting winds, and looking rather silly with no snow or ice to be seen. As we hurried to implement our plans to protect the hives the weather got warmer and the snow melted. But we assured ourselves that the cold weather would return soon. As it did. But only briefly before returning to atypically warmer temperatures, lately not even deigning to dip below freezing at night and during the day warm enough for shirtsleeves.

Warm enough for the girls to be flying most days, consuming the stores that were to last them through a cold inactive winter and returning without nectar. Since we can not stop them from being active we have set up a bench with four Boardman feeders about sixty feet away from the hives. The syrup is two parts sugar to one of water with a little lemony-smelling Pro Health to attract the foragers.

Our plan seems to be working as the buffet is enthusiastically attended by our girls but how well does it work? Are we sustaining them or have we only slowed the rate at which they deplete their stores? At least we have not seen them return with pollen, which would suggest inauspicious brood being reared. To be a beekeeper is to worry. And currently we worry that this kindly warm spell is treacherously crueler to the honeybees than an honest Fimbulwinter.

Considering that even non-beekeepers are somewhat aware of this particular beekeeping problem, the absence of any discussion in our blog has been rather conspicuous. Given its relevance to our last winter’s losses it is about time we wrote a few words about Varroa and our hives.

elephantInBeeHiveWhile beekeepers have always had to cope with pests and diseases in their hives the arrival of the Varroa mite was an unwanted watershed in bee management. In halcyon days of old, we are told, one could keep a more casual eye out for signs of trouble, confidently treat with medication or with manipulation, and otherwise leave the bees to themselves except when stealing their honey. Then came the Varroa and it remains a constant pre-occupation of beekeepers.

Beekeeper Emily Heath gives a comprehensive account of the pest and treatments for those who wish a more thorough coverage than our minimal summary:

  • The immediate harm of the pest is that it feeds by sucking the bee’s hemolyph, the fluid that serves it as blood, and so weakens it.
  • The worse harm is the various infections can now enter through the holes in the bee’s exoskeleton, many of which are carried by the mite itself.
  • And finally Varroa reproduces in brood cells, stunting and deforming the developing honeybee, and growing several new mites for each infested brood cell.

That last is what makes infestation so devastating. The mite out-reproduces the bees and can rapidly bring about the death of a colony. In ecological terms killing their hosts arguably makes them an unsuccessful parasite but that is little consolation for losing one’s bees to them.

In previous years we had been ignoring the mite, trusting the lore that a first-year colony rarely has a Varroa problem since it rarely rears enough brood to allow a large mite population to grow. Planning for a second year we dithered between remaining treatment-free and making splits of the survivors or monitoring and treating with something not too noxious. While the former plan may work for some it does require at least one colony to survive the winter, a result we have not been very good at achieving. And Dr. Milbrath did point to a significant number of varroa corpses when she inspected our dead hives. And our hives have grown populous indeed.

So this year, we have been monitoring with sugar rolls, and treating with ‘soft’ chemicals when the mite count is over threshold. All three hives got thymol(Apilife Var) in July. Clarissa and Dorcas got formic acid(MiteAway Quick Strips) in October while no mites at all were found in Beatrix!

We also tried a drone frame in each hive but they were never drawn out and so we have removed those. Bees are reluctant to use plastic foundation at the best of times and it was probably too late in the year for our girls to be very interested in wax building. We will try again earlier next year, with the same bees we hope.


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