As usual, our beekeeping activities have been at the mercy of weather and life’s other demands so the exact dates of the various events we now report are a bit vague. We should have taken better notes but see “life’s other demands”, mentioned just now. Anyway, after our last sugar roll we had applied Mite Away Quick Strips to the hives. When we finally returned to remove the strips, we decided to check the efficacy with another sugar roll. We began with Dorcas and to our horror discovered a count of 9 mites per hundred bees! We did not proceed to the other hives but hastened to consult Dr. Meghan Milbrath, who must be rather accustomed to our panics by now.

After determining that we had seen no signs of deformed wings or other symptoms of varroa-carried viruses or any indications of ill health but that we had observed there was very little brood, she opined that the mite count may have jumped because mites that had been hiding from treatment within the brood were now phoretic. She also said that she had seen nearly treble our mite counts in untreated hives this time of year and suggested we could treat with oxalic acid using Randy Oliver’s specifications for a medium strength syrup as she does at the Sand Hill.

Syringe 60mlSomewhat reassured we mixed a batch of such syrup for three hives and went to apply with our trusty syringe, once more beginning with Dorcas. We had planned to start from the follower and spread all the bars apart, then squirt the recommended five milliliters(5 ml) along each seam, deliberately wetting the bees. Unfortunately, we found that Dorcas had at some time suffered a comb collapse and we did not wish to deal with trying to fix things, spilling honey, and asking to be stung. We expected to already make ourselves unwelcome with the treatment.

We merely pried bars apart a wee bit, cutting and undoing much propolyzing, without shaking the hive or breaking free any possible attachments. Then we wielded the syringe along each crack and pushed the bars back together. To our surprise the bees did not seem to mind being dribbled with the syrup at all. At least they expended their energies in cleaning each other rather than stinging us.

Repeat for Clarissa and Beatrix, both of whom were also mellow and unbothered by our ministrations, without any more sad discoveries of fallen comb. And so we can do no more except wrap the hives for winter once this latest warm spell ends and worry and hope. We are so weary of deadouts come springtime.

Quince tree with fruitOur dwarf fruit trees have been rather disappointing. We knew it would take a few seasons before they began to bear but in the four years since planting they have been reluctant to so much as flower, except for the quince. That tree has consistently delighted us with a multitude of pink blooms that then crushingly disappointed us as they fruitlessly dropped away. The local pollinators, including the very local honeybees, seemingly had better places to work and could not be bothered with our favorite fruit.

Raw, even when fully ripe, it is hard and has a somewhat astringent taste, not entirely unpleasant but definitely one that needs acquiring. But after being cut, cored, and slowly oven-poached in simple syrup for hours upon hours the hard white flesh turns soft and rosy and acquires an aroma hinting at all manner of added spices. But it is just fruit and sugar and low heat working the miracle. Caterpillar becoming butterfly is a less impressive transformation.

quinceThis year some garage archaeology had uncovered a thirty-year old bottle of some kind of commercial bee attractant left over from gardening at a previous residence. It had not been opened for decades but surely the seal could not be that tight? We found that it still smelled vaguely lemony so when the quince blossoms opened this spring, we mixed a diluted solution and sprayed them. And, lo, when the blossoms dropped away a handful left behind some little swellings that grew into fruits like the one at left. We had successfully cozened our reluctant pollinators.

Plum curculioUnfortunately the other side of that lovely fruit looks rather like this other, higher in the tree. quincewithholesIndeed all of our half a dozen fruits show this kind of insect damage, the dastardly work of the plum curculio. There is nothing to do this year except hope that some fruits will have enough unruined parts to be worth processing. Next year we should spray against this fiend once the blossoms fall but we are not entirely comfortable doing so, especially with the hives so near. We have the winter to fret over a solution.

NightInTheLonesomeOctoberHow to describe without excessive spoilers this odd little gem, a favorite of ours and a favorite of its own author?

The tale is narrated by Snuff, a dog of unnatural intelligence, helping his master, Jack, to make arcane preparations for some imminent great event. Soon we meet other animal companions to odd and oddly familiar people likewise making preparations. We have met them or their like before, including the Good Doctor animating his Experiment Man with lightning, the no longer entirely human Count, the mad Russian Monk, and more. And Jack is preternaturally good with a knife. But what they are about is a mystery, which they do not need to explain to each other and do not deign to explain to the reader. As a further complication all the murder and mayhem attracts the attentions of the Great Detective from London.

If you wish to fully enjoy the unfolding of the central puzzle then skip the next paragraph.

As the animals talk among themselves, hinting, probing, trading secrets and favors, we slowly learn that on the coming Halloween night the fate of the world, indeed its very nature, will be be decided, as on certain previous Halloweens, by a rule-bound magical conflict, part ceremony and part duel, between two teams of players. All the collecting of artifacts, grisly meddling with corpses, occult calculating, and casting of spells throughout the month is each player arming for the event, trying to gain most advantage for his or her side while keeping team allegiance secret for as long as possible.

That is an accurate description of the plot but it makes the book sound far too serious. While there are seriously dramatic and even frightening parts, the overall tone is light with ample Zelaznyesque humour. Even though the fate of the world is ultimately at stake and their own lives at risk in the interim, the players generally go about their eldritch business with the stolid air of the competent tradesman putting in another dull day of work and demonstrating by their interactions with each other that opposition need not mean enmity any more than alliance must mean friendship. And puns when least expected, even puns to save the day.

Being a kind of diary for Snuff, this delightful book has chapters of greatly varying length, one for each day of October until the grand conclusion at Halloween. This has inspired some fen (plural of “fan”) to celebrate the month by ceremonially reading a single chapter each night of the month. We joined their ranks last year as Mr. read to Mrs. at bedtime, in a variety of voices with much more than his normal inflection. Even so, his vocal range is not great and he grew dismayed at the increasing number of falsettos required. And each one slightly different. Be warned. The Mrs. mercifully suggested he might try a variety of accents instead but he soldiered on as he had begun and will likely do so again this year. It seems more natural and easily remembered to make the squeaky squirrel talk faster than the squeaky bat rather than arbitrarily make one of them Italian or Swedish. Perhaps some vocal exercises while yet September may be wise.

Do give this book a try, even if you decide to read it entirely in one sitting. But if you can stand the suspense then pace yourself with the ritual chapter per night.

Happy Halloween to come!

Spoiler for Oct 23rd should any reader or young listener require comfort in getting through this tense chapter.

Snuff is rescued in time.

DevilAngelIt does not do to anthropomorphize the inhuman but at times certain comparisons seem unavoidable. We have already likened the stinging Clarissans1 to ungrateful, petulant children biting the hand that cleans their teeth. Now we can liken them to delinquent hellspawn who torment their parents but behave angelically for non-family.

Last Tuesday Dr. Meghan Milbrath took time from her busy schedule to inspect Clarissa for us, hoping to diagnose her ill temper. She insisted that, apart from our removing roof and eke, she should be the only one to handle the hive so she could get unsullied feedback from her actions. And the little wretches were good as gold. A few times she pointed out a few bees engaged in guarding behavior, that is, paying her attention. She demonstrated how they tracked the movements of her finger and how the merest puff of smoke made them decide there was more urgent business within the hive. Upon reaching the frames of brood she very deftly and gently filled a scoop of bees for a sugar roll directly from the comb rather than dumping its occupants into the bucket and scooping from that. Results in the last column below.

Mites per Hundred Bees
Hive Jun 29 Aug 01 Aug 21 Aug 31
Beatrix 1.0 ? 1.2 ?
Clarissa 0.3 ? ? 0.3
Dorcas 0.0 2.0 ? ?


The mite count was definitely below our threshold of three mites per hundred bees so one could argue that there was no need to treat. On the other hand these thresholds are not rigorous and our part of Michigan tends to report high mite counts. Also we might find our own counts higher in a few weeks when it will be too late to treat. Dr. Milbrath told us that there is no one right answer in our situation. Were we breeders of bees then Clarissa might well be a colony to leave untreated but as we just wish to have a little more overwintering success treating was reasonable to knock the mites even further back. In the end we applied one MiteAway Quick Strip (formic acid) from our stash in the freezer. The packet was still cool when we applied it so the bees did not respond with the usual immediate displeasure and we had plenty of time get away before it warmed up. A new technique discovered! Beatrix and Dorcas will receive their medicine in a few days as we find time.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Dr. Milbrath found and pointed out the queen, still slightly marked after all this time and laying away. She also saw eggs. We ancients took her word for it.
  • We were dismayed to see a few wax moth larvae between the bars but Dr. Milbrath was undisturbed. Wherever there is wax out of reach of the bees the wax moth will be found. A strong hive will keep the pests out of its comb.
  • We saw a bee taking advantage of the open top to airlift a bee larva to exile and death. We had observed such hygienic behavior when the queen was in Beatrix.
  • Since it did not involve touching the hive we were allowed to handle the jar of sugar-coated bees and in our excitement nearly forgot the critical step of letting the jar sit in the shade for two minutes between being rolled and shaken. Dr. Milbrath caught us and we proceeded correctly.

    She then told us of a recent comparison of the sugar roll with the alcohol wash. The methods are similar but the wash kills the sampled bees although, as its fans point out, it produces a very accurate mite count. These fans also claim that sugar rolls undercount the mites. They are correct in their latter assertion only if one does not let the jar rest as we almost did not. Given that pause the sugar roll is just as accurate.

1Stinging Clarissans! A medieval order of flagellants who really hate being disturbed at their devotions? Or just a rock band name?

Weather and schedules allowed us another opportunity to sugar roll the bees last Sunday. We were particularly concerned about Beatrix, which we did not check last time. Bursting with bees, we feared that her mite count had been above treatment threshold and would surely be even worse now. But we counted a mere four mites in the sample. Suspicious of such good results, we tried again from another brood comb and the second sample yielded only three mites. So seven mites per six hundred bees.

noSugarRollMoving on to Clarissa, recalling the many stings collected last time by her spouse, the Mrs. charitably decided to be the intruder this time and almost immediately got a sting on her hand through the leather of her glove. She would have borne it elsewhere but her work requires unswollen hands. The Mr. dismissed her1 to tend to her wound while he closed up the hive and tidied tools away. So we still do not know what Clarissa’s mite load might be. Nor do we know why she was so cranky this time. Weather was pleasant. Foragers should have been out. We have had quite a bit of rain to encourage nectar in the goldenrod starting to bloom. And this queen did not produce such ill-tempered offspring when she reigned in Beatrix before we made our split. Perhaps she resents changing thrones?

Hive MpHB2 – Jun 29 MpHB – Aug 01 MpHB – Aug 21
Beatrix 1.0 ? 1.2
Clarissa 0.3 ? ?
Dorcas 0.0 2.0 ?


1Try saying that thrice rapidly.

2MpHB = Mites per Hundred Bees or Mites per Hectabee in metric