It has not been a good season for our backyard projects.

Last season’s lone survivor, Dorcas, had made it through the winter. And there was much rejoicing as we planned splits to restore our apiary to its usual size.

In early May we treated her with a thymol preparation to knock down a not terribly high mite count. Whereupon we let busier-than-usual life distract us.

We never found time to visit the hive but merely looked on from a distance until one day the usual clouds of bees seemed suddenly smaller. And then one very hot day there was no bearding. We still could not find time.

Eventually, with trepidation, we finally made time and found Dorcas not overflowing with bees although with comb after comb full of brood. Unfortunately it was all drones. Not a single cell of worker brood. No queen to be found so laying workers. The hive was not yet dead but doomed.

Rather than let the drones hatch along with however many mites we scratched open every cell, cut loose the comb, and scattered the bits far from the hive for the wildlife to snack upon. We left Dorcas open to the elements, not knowing what else to do with the remaining bees. Somehow killing them quickly may have been the merciful option but we were ill equipped to do so.

Our hypothesis for what went awry this time is that Dorcas swarmed without our noticing and her new queen failed to begin her reign. Eaten on her mating flight by a bird is an oft-mentioned scenario. Had we been paying closer attention we may have obtained a new queen in time. But we did not.

We thought we were getting competent at this but here we are, beeless once more. We have been so for quite a while, late even reporting our loss due to distraction and sorrow. In spite of the wildlife that passes through and the singing birds flitting about and other pollinators to observe the place seems peculiarly empty without the bees diligently ignoring us watching them as they work the blooms. Next season we begin yet again.

On the other hand we are giving up on the wee orchard. The quince tree, our favorite, had succumbed to fireblight last year in spite of our best efforts so we cut it to the ground. Raccoons have ever consumed the apple crop, leaving us only broken branches. This year they also devoured the Asian pear. At least they denied the wasps a chance to hollow out the flesh and leave a deceptive, empty peel. Enough. All these will also be cut to the ground.

And the tomato crop this year? Let us simply say ‘crop’ has the wrong vowel.

After snow blanketing us on Monday April 18, 2022 we achieved sunny, summery weather last weekend and opened up our remaining hive, Dorcas, for general evaluation and a mite check.

Starting at the brood end we went past a comb of food and a comb of drone brood to a comb of worker brood. The next comb had even more worker brood. With indications that a queen was laying we went no deeper.

But we did perform a sugar roll check for varroa mites, which yielded a mere one mite per hundred bees. We usually regard that as below treatment threshold but it is so early in the season that we shall likely treat to knock the mites back anyway.

Restoring the brood end, we started looking from the other and found that the four frames of sugar candy were somewhat smaller and more polished. They may not have been needed but received some interest.

Unlike previous seasons we found that end of the hive dry. Usually we would find it somewhat damp and moldy in spite of whatever hygroscopic material we packed. We credit the sugar candy frames with collecting the moisture more effectively.

Most of the honey combs were only partially full so backfilling the brood nest ought not be imminent. Also only a few drones were seen and we still await the dandelions. So swarming is unlikely to be soon.

We have seen bees investigating our other hive, Clarissa, which sits empty but ready. It would be most convenient if a swarm from Dorcas just moved straight in but we should not expect that.

Not a bad start to the season.

Bee waterer…but away she flies to drink. When we first began beekeeping we conscientiously provided a water source near to the hive(s) as all the books recommended. Ours took the form of a chicken waterer with its tray filled with pebbles so the aquarian foragers would not drown. The bees ignored it in favor of more distant sources such as the birdbath, the moat around the hummingbird feeder, and puddles unknown. This kind of apian ingratitude for conveniently located water seems a common occurrence made more insulting by the often filthy condition of the water they prefer. Luckily none of the usual filth gets into the honey or makes the bees sick. We have since left the girls to their own devices and thought no more of it until a question from blogger Solarbeez reawoke our curiosity about this behavior. After some googling and noodling1 we formed some tentative impressions about a bee’s notion of the perfect watering hole and began collecting them into this blog post, which we soon lost and forgot and periodically rediscovered among the drafts only to forget again after some minor editing. Now, eight years later, we are finally sharing these long-delayed thoughts with our readers.

The source should be detectable by the bees. Clean water has no smell; dirty water does. And a large source like a pond or neighbor’s swimming pool, due to its effect on local humidity, is easier to find than a small one like our chicken waterer. Then consider that our discoverer may wish to recruit other foragers to help carry water. Her waggle dance provides range and heading but it can only direct the others to the general vicinity, while a round dance for nearby sources2 provides no directional information whatsoever. In either case the recruited foragers must rely on their own senses to discover what they seek. That is why when recruiting foragers for nectar the discoverer gives the others a taste of what awaits at the destination. That allows them to home in on their target after following her directions. But in the case of odorless water this would be no help. Imagine trying to follow a compass heading for some specified distance to locate a small invisible object.

The source should be safely accessible. The bee must be able to land somewhere or on something to reach the water without falling in. Pebbles poking above the water as in our chicken waterer or floating bits of wood in a bucket can work but consider things from a bee-sized perspective. For the wood, how high above the waterline is the top? Too high and a bee risks falling in; too low and a wind-raised ripple may knock her in. The bees seem to prefer shallow slopes that let them land near the still water’s edge and then walk up to it to drink. That happens to be the shape of many a birdbath.

The source should be reliable. The bees prefer to go where they can count on water being present. Our intentions were good but it was much easier to tell when the bird bath needed refilling than when the chicken waterer did. We may have been less than perfectly dependable but the whole point of a large waterer is to not require frequent refilling. And the bees had already shown signs of ignoring it.

The source should be near the hive. This is clearly a guideline rather than a rule else there would not be so many agitated beekeepers. Considering that foraging for water is more dangerous than for nectar, it seems that the bees would especially prefer a source near home. Yet this obviously does not override other concerns. In fact we wonder if a more distant source, just beyond round dance range, would not work better?

BeesWater 007If we were to again provide a water source specifically intended for the bees we would make sure the access was from a shallow slope. And we would flavor or scent the water somehow. But we will likely leave it to others to verify our guesses since we already keep a birdbath filled.

1If googles were a food to accompany noodles what would they be?
2References vary in specifying the distance that is a lower bound for waggle dancing or upper bound for round dancing. No doubt because the bees themselves do not agree. Nor do they reckon distance as we do. Nevertheless under twenty yards seems to certainly call for round rather waggle.

Dorcas Lane from “Larkrise to Candleford”

We entered winter, worrying over our remaining colony, Dorcas, and intending to make the occasional post about off-season beekeeping activities like cleaning the smoker or building new equipment. Unfortunately we did none of those things and so neither did we post. Now that an indecisive Spring at last is gathering her resolve to stay a while we should make a brief status report before the season truly begins.

When we tucked Dorcas away she was quite populous, having been merged with all our other colonies as they became queenless. On the odd warmer winter day we would look for a litter of dead bees or speckling of droppings but we had neither many such days nor much sign of the other. Just enough to give us a tiny bit of hope.

Last Saturday we attended the Michigan Beekeepers Association 2022 Spring Conference in person. While we had certainly enjoyed the ease of attending last year’s conferences virtually from the comfort of our couch, it was good to again have face-to-face conversations and wander the vendor room.

We felt embarrassed to admit to our plummeting colony count but our listeners were uniformly sympathetic and reassured us that waxing and waning of hive numbers is somewhat up to fortune. We still feel responsible but perhaps a little less guilty.

Then we were further heartened in a queen-rearing session when a large number of hands went up in reply to the question of who could not see eggs. Likewise to who could not find the queen. We are not alone in our handicap. In spite of last season, perhaps, we really are proper beekeepers after all. Of the hobbyist, bees-as-pets variety but still.

This warm Monday live bees were very much in evidence. Returning foragers hovered in a cloudlike holding pattern in front of the single open entrance hole, trickling into the hive in between departing bees. With just a glove and needle-nose pliers we cautiously opened the second entrance, which was immediately put into use. Neither maple nor crocus is yet in bloom so it was unsurprising if slightly disappointing that we saw no pollen being brought into the hive. In terms of forage the bees may have been wasting their time but it was cheering to imagine that they enjoy a flight after being long hivebound.

When the scene was repeated on the nearly summerlike Thursday we finally removed the black insulation from Dorcas to let her greet the coming season in her festive purple. We have hope.

Edited 2022-Mar-21 : Our first crocus bloomed yesterday and today we saw a bee working it. At the hive the bees were steadily bringing in pollen in small amounts from farther off.

The apiary is approaching winter in a far different state than we anticipated in the optimistic warmth of summer. One after another queens were somehow lost and not replaced and laying workers reared their ugly…abdomens. From a high of five colonies we are down to a single, worrying one. Brief logs follow.

[2021-Aug-16] Despite the new queen, we observed no brood anywhere in Beatrix and she seemed less booming than usual.

[2021-Sep-06] Sugar rolling reported that Dorcas had an unhappy 5% mites while Clarissa had a mere 1%. We natheless treated both with full doses of MAQS.

Beatrix finally had brood and lots of it but all drone. We performed the too familiar ceremony of transferring the honey to other colonies and dumping the bees to find a home.

[2021-Sep-19] Another sugar roll showed Dorcas and Clarissa each at 1% mites. Clarissa had several queen cups. We gave each hive a half-dose MAQS treatment.

[2021-Oct-10] In spite of treatments Dorcas was back up to 4% mites and Clarissa nearly 2%. We responded with full doses of MAQS. Clarissa had one queen cup left but no brood.

[2021-Oct-20] Clarissa’s queen cups were all gone but still no brood. Hoping to prevent another case of laying workers we performed a paper-combine to move her bees into Dorcas.

In a conventional, vertical-stack hive a few sheets of newspaper would be placed between hive bodies. In ours we removed the follower board and replaced it with thin paper held in place with painter’s tape. It did not stick perfectly to the propolized surfaces but well enough. Next we delicately made several slits in the taut paper with a fresh-bladed box cutter. Then we transferred the fullest honey frames and shook all the bees from Clarissa into Dorcas. And finally we restored the follower board and closed up both hives.

We closed all of Clarissa’s entrances and hauled her off to encourage any returning foragers to enter Dorcas.

[2021-Oct-21] Wanting to know how the combination was proceeding, we looked around Dorcas. There was no sign of paper scraps but no dead bees either. A peek through the window showed light traffic along a gap. No fighting.

[2021-Oct-31] The starter slits have been expanded to large holes in the paper divider. We removed the rest ourselves. The bees seemed less than grateful but the weather was a bit threatening. Also removed a few undrawn or very incompletely drawn frames, catching a glimpse of what may have been a queen in the process. The drawn-out frames yet have room for honey and we worry about their winter stores. They seem not plentiful for a hive as large as Dorclarissas has become. Other beekeepers have commented that our usual goldenrod flow did not occur this year. We finished up by putting the usual black-wrapped foam around the hive.

[2021-Nov-08] Since temperatures are spending more time in the range where syrup feeding is useless, we made up four no-cook candy boards (essentially sugar slabs) and rubber banded them into frames. That let us fill out Dorcas.

Oxalic fog to come and then uncomfortable waiting through winter as we figure out an emergency feeding strategy.