During the brutal heat and humidity that preceded our last intervention each of our colonies was consistently sporting a layer of bees spread over much of her face, the behavior called bearding whereby bees leave the interior of the hive to make it easier for those remaining to regulate the environment. But such bearding bees are stationary while our very brief video shows wee Angharad’s bees very much in motion, the specific motion of a more mysterious behavior called washboarding. More such videos by other beekeepers may be found. The individual washboarder orients herself head-downwards and rocks back and forth on her four hindmost legs while the front two engage in a vigorous scrubbing/sweeping action. She may also seem to lick the surface or rub it with her mandibles. Entire rows can form like line-dancers. No one knows why they do this although most suspect it is some kind of cleaning activity.

It is described as a group activity although we have at times seen an individual bee start washboarding only to stop after some minutes when she can not get other bees to join her. Such bees do not seem to point as strictly downwards as washboarders in a group. Perhaps a few bumps early on encourage realignment and coordination.

What little is known seems to be due to Katie Bohrer and Jeffrey Pettis of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab who, in their words, “investigated the frequency of washboarding behavior in relation to worker age, time of day, and surface texture” with results:

  • Washboarding behavior appears to be age dependent with bees most likely to washboard between 15-25 days of age
  • Washboarding increases during the day and peaks through the afternoon.
  • Workers may respond to rough texture and washboard more on those surfaces as we found an increase in the behavior from bees on glass, wood, and slate but further testing is needed to confirm this.
  • The function of this behavior remains to be elucidated.

James Tew offers some of his observations in an article from Bee Culture:

  • Only during warm weather.
  • Only near an exterior entrance.
  • Bees washboard on the hive inside.
  • Mostly on an open area on the hive.
  • Not all colonies get involved in the procedure.
  • Other bees carry on working and ignoring the washboarders.
  • He does not know why they do this.

We quibble with the second assertion that it only occurs near an entrance. Our brief video shows the side of wee Angharad totally covered in washboarders. The opposite side and her front were likewise covered. Alas, we did not think to sneak a peek at her back. She clearly has an exaggerated sense of nearness. The third observation, washboarding inside the hive, is one we have never seen but then we stay out of the hives on hot days when serious washboarding is likely to occur. His other observations are consistent with ours.

And yet with all the observations informal and scientific, still no one knows why bees washboard.


After a few cooler if still too hot days her bees had ceased covering wee Angharad. Monday morning as temperatures again rose they once more began washboarding. There were a few rows just above the entrance and one row on one side along the seam between nuc body and bottom board. On the other side was a lone washboarder half way up and a third of the way back. A few other bees were crawling around her. As we watched, one eventually bumped her and she ceased washboarding and went off.

So while it seems an overstatement to say washboarding only occurs near an entrance it does appear that serious line dancing begins there and spreads thence. It was too hot for us to linger and verify by observing the growth of the dancing crowd.

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Actually she was surprisingly calm, considering our destruction, but the alliterative title was irresistable.

A while ago we noticed that wee Angharad had rather swiftly built out the frames in her first story and we saw burr comb reaching up through the hole of the inner cover. We were in a bit of a panic as the only additional assembled frames we had were in the empty nuc we were reserving in case of another swarm. So we impulsively decided to raid the Frankenhive (now called “Frankie“) for five top-bars, intending to replace them with actual frames as soon as we made some more.

Of course, more time passed than we wished and when we finally had frames, time, and good weather we found her second story completely full of labyrinthine crazy comb. Our suspicion is that while some of the bees were building good comb down from the top-bars some others were misled into expanding the burr comb remnants (we had scraped it off) up from the frames. Where they met chaos came to dance.

We felt like vandals cutting away all the beautiful, white comb but it was needful and we consoled ourselves that it contained neither brood nor honey but just some ripening nectar. Brushing off the bees and cutting off the combs we collected the top bars to be returned to Frankie. Then we replaced wee Angharad’s second story with a new box and fresh frames. The old one we took aside to properly scrape clean before re-use.

All that work undone. And we are probably in a dearth, best blooms being done and not much rain for weeks. We added a third story housing a feeder of syrup to help. Let us hope wee Angharad does not bear grudges.


Meanwhile Frankie has been building nicely straight comb on her top-bars but likewise devoid of food or brood. Nor did we spot the queen but we did not look very hard. Frankie seems quite small and will need help building up. We drilled a hole in her follower board and put a jar feeder in her unoccupied half.

And we finally sugar-rolled Dorcas to find 2 mites per 300 bees, not high enough to require treatment. Actually, since our sample was a bit generous the mite level should be even lower.

 

Somehow we have not yet published a single post from this year’s Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring Conference back in March. And there are only eight months left until the next one, which our past reporting performance indicates is not much time at all. Let us then hastily commence.


Dr. Milbrath of the Sandhill reprised her Plan for Varroa talk from last year to a large and interested audience. Having already written about last year’s version of this talk we need not repeat ourselves but we shall post a few useful links.

We have dawdled enough that a revised version of the talk is available for viewing along with other recordings of webinars from Michigan State University’s Pollinator Initiative.

And there is an education section on her apiary website with links to articles on many aspects of beekeeping. The most relevant to varroa are:

We hardly need write anything further but we shall anyway.

Having heard the talk before we were better able to note smaller points that were overshadowed by the main message in the first hearing.

Some of the beekeepers who avoid treating their bees do so out of an attempt to stay “organic” and avoid “chemicals”. However organic farming standards do not allow the farmer to withhold treatment from a sick animal even if that treatment is not organic. Do honey bees under our care deserve less than cows or sheep?

Suddenly high mite levels can occur to anyone at any time. If you have been monitoring and treating responsibly then it is not your fault. You can not control hitch-hiking varroa from other colonies.

Although unnecessary treatments are to be avoided, allowances can be made for overwhelmed first-year beekeepers, who have so much to learn. Such a beek may simply treat by the calendar to keep varroa levels low while acquiring the skills to monitor in the next year.

Mite levels do tend to spike in the fall. Bees are reducing their population while the mites continue to increase theirs so the measure of mites per bee rises quickly. If you have observed this in previous seasons then using your local knowledge to treat in anticipation is permissible.

In a similar vein if you have lost colonies to varroa in previous years then treating by calendar to keep levels down is not “treatment”. It is “control”.

Let us end with a few words about our own monitoring. Wee Angharad has not yet suffered the indignity of a sugar roll. Dorcas a month ago scored zero mites in the sample. We shall be retesting her soon. Beatrix and Clarissa were tested just last week and also scored zero mites. We can hardly believe the low scores but it is yet early and they have each had a brood break for one reason or another. We shall remain vigilant.

We have remarkable news towards the end of this post but, first, some background is required. A few years ago the late Roger Sutherland decided to become less active in SEMBA. For his years of service the organization decided that a horizontal top-bar hive would be a suitable gift, allowing beekeeping without heavy lifting. Winn Harliss, another well known and generous local beekeeper, volunteered to construct it. Researching the unfamiliar style of hive, he dutifully provided what seemed the necessary features but could never quite embrace the novelty and forget long-entrenched, Langstroth habits. The design began as a Kenyan hive with sides sloping at sixty degrees, entrance slot at one end, strongly peaked bars, and an observation window1. But then, questions arose. How would one populate such a hive with a nucleus2? Why, make the top of the sides vertical to accommodate medium Langstroth frames. And how would one super such a hive3? Clearly make the top bars thinner in the middle to allow the bees passage upwards, not forgetting an inner cover and telescoping outer cover. Yes, and choose the length of the hive to fit two Langstroth ten-frames placed atop it. The resulting platypus was very well built but chimerical. We naughtily but affectionately dubbed it Frankenhive.

Some time in last September, Roger let us know that he was downsizing. Having received the Frankenhive as a gift, he would feel bad selling it but would we, as top bar beekeepers, be interested in minding it for him? It is a queer thing, both fish and fowl, incompatible with anything else we possess or have seen or might want to work. Still it deserves a good home so we accepted and stored it in the barn until this spring we put it next to Dorcas with only vague ideas of how we would eventually populate it.

Last Friday our daily observations showed that a swarm had spontaneously occupied it!

We saw bees fanning above the entrance slot and steady traffic. In disbelief we risked a quick unsuited peek as we lifted her covers. There were a lot of bees within. The hive was decidedly occupied. We have heard of such incidents but never expected to have such rare luck ourselves. Except for working out a way to feed her we ought now to leave her in peace for a while as she settles in.


1We can still hear an unconvinced Winn reporting in mild puzzlement, “They said you need a window so I put one in”. Someone asked to install a skylight in a submarine might sound the same.
2A good question. We solved it by going full Tanzanian, with straight sides.
3Generally such hives are not supered.

Monday afternoon when we braved the brutal heat (96°F/35°C) of these last few days to perambulate the backyard we noticed that Clarissa was not bearding as heavily as she had been while the other hives were as shaggy as the day before. Also the light bee traffic circling her seemed somehow different. Puzzled we continued our walk towards the dwarf fruit trees and spied a swarm in cluster high in the quince with a significant cloud of bees orbiting it. Were they coming or going? Either way we, now being swarm catchers of experience1, immediately ran back to the house, suited up, and returned with a five-frame nuc, a sheet, and a ladder only to find them gone already. This is why the accompanying picture is of a boring tree top with scattered out-of-focus orange blurs.

As we have written previously, there is never any way of telling how long a swarm will stay in its bivouac location. From an earlier trip to the backyard we know the swarm was not there in the late morning. They could have been hanging there for at most a few hours and chose to depart in the ten or so minutes it took us to collect our equipment, leaving a small cloud of bees flying and crawling around their former location in the tree.

Dejectedly we glanced back at the hives and saw a large swirling of bees in flight around Clarissa. Returning to her we observed her face heavily covered with bees in motion. There did not seem to be any fighting, just jostling for entrances. On the ground in front of her was a patch of bees in which, to our confusion, a few waggle dancers were seen. And then slowly the swirling and crawling bees grew fewer and fewer until Clarissa again resembled herself of the previous day.

Might she have tried to throw a swarm but the swarm changed its mind and returned? Something like this may have happened to us one August. Swarming is generally a lengthy process requiring preparations such as starving the queen to get her down to flying weight. But some conditions may cause an impulsive decision to swarm which is then reversed when the queen is not among those departing.

We generally stay out of the hives in these temperatures to avoid triggering comb collapse but we risked peeking into the unoccupied part of Clarissa and found it full of bees trying to stay cool. While we have been otherwise occupied our tiny split has been quite fruitful. While we did not dare examine any comb in the occupied area we did risk moving two empty bars to the front of the follower board to make the living quarters seem more spacious. Until cooler temperatures that is the best we can do.

Since then she seems to still be bearding less heavily in spite of being very full of bees. Did our intervention let them keep the living quarters cooler or did some bees actually swarm off and the swirling re-entry we saw was those bees who decided to stay? Needless to say, we are now on high alert for more swarming shenanigans.


1Yes, we have only caught one swarm but it still counts as experience.