ReadyFor2016ThreeHives

We have been having warm spring days, but while nights were yet falling below freezing we kept our hives in winter black. Now with warmer nights finally upon us and a sunny weekend we could finally put away the insulating panels, clean up the late Clarissa and Dorcas, and give our surviving Beatrix her first sugar roll of the season.

Saturday, we went through the bars of each deadout, cutting and saving any large enough chunk of honeycomb for future extraction. The other comb, empty or with uncapped liquid, was scraped off into a different container for eventual wax melting. The bars were dumped into a bucket to be inspected for re-use later.

The hive bodies, after scooping out what dead bees and detritus we found, were scraped clean of irregularities like the wee waxy remnants of once-attached comb or the thick propolis lines indicating a follower board having been glued in place. We do not wish to remove all the propolis and return to bare wood but merely to remove temptation from the new residents. Finally, a light scrubbing of the floor with a dilute oxalic acid solution to remove some mold.

After a spell drying in the sun the two hives were placed upside down on their stands, perpendicular to their usual orientation. (See the picture above.) This will let them further air out while keeping out any rain. The rooves are atop them although the ekes are being stored in the barn for now.

ReadyFor2016BeatrixAnd on Sunday we tended to Beatrix, who would prove still full of bees from one end to the other. We uncorked two more entrance holes, which were put into use instantly, and started our inspection from the follower board as usual. We were only a few bars in when we began seeing capped brood and, remarkably for us, spotted the queen. That we did not see any eggs is no surprise but there should have been some larvae somewhere large enough to get our attention if the queen has been laying steadily. Beatrix has always been a confusing hive.

Soon finding a brood frame covered with nurse bees we peformed the sugar roll to find thirteen mites in our half cup sample of bees. The suggested threshold for treatment is nine, so we have Api Life Var, a thymol based remedy1 on the way.

We carried on inspecting the other combs, finding some capped drone cells as well as some drones wandering about but not a lot of either. We found no queen cells or cups at all2, so threat of swarming is not as imminent as we feared. They still have several combs of honey left and are busily making more. We ended up removing the follower board entirely and arranging empty bars to fill the gaps.

As we headed back to the house, we marked how surprisingly smoothly the inspection had gone. Oh, we did have to return to the house or barn to fetch the odd forgotten or unanticipated item. But we readily fired up the smoker and wielded it without kippering ourselves. The sugar roll seemed like returning to bicycle riding. No one got stung. Are we finally getting the hang of this beekeeping lark?


1Not to be confused with ApiVar, which contains the acaricide amitraz.

2On the other hand, Clarissa had a comb with nine queen cups. Her bees must have liked to stay in practice.

Crocus clumpThis busy weekend Spring seems to have finally settled in to stay a while. Our struggling patches of crocus bloomed and appear to finally be spreading. The red maple near the house is covered with bright buds although not yet open for pollinators. Beatrix is bringing in some pale, yellow pollen, which we are guessing is an earlier blooming maple we have yet to locate. TrafficJamAnd we spent most of the weekend attending the Michigan Beekeepers Association spring conference, acquiring material for several posts. Whether they actually get written is another matter. Given our track record, we had best provide a quick update now.

The high points were the two microscopy courses, one on bee anatomy with Dr. Zachary Huang and the other on bee post-mortems with Dr. Meghan Milbrath. One of us found that laboratory skills return much as bicycle-riding does while the other, who had never had a biology course, suffered some frustrations but we both had fun pulling dead bees apart with forceps and examining fascinating structures under high magnification.

The keynote speaker was Gary Reuter, who works with Dr. Marla Spivak, who is best known for developing the Minnesota hygienic bees. His talk on the first day was about varroa management and on the second about current pollinator projects at the University of Minnesota.

We skipped a number of elementary sessions, valuable for the beginner but a rehash for us, as well as the several sessions on rearing queens. We are still trying to reliably overwinter our bees. We are ready to try making splits or nucs but not to attempt producing large numbers of queens.

Instead, we attended a session on the Cape honey bee with no application to beekeeping in Michigan but interesting nonetheless and an opportunity to see vacation pictures of African nature. The bees themselves boringly resembled Carniolans to the inexpert eye but are otherwise unique among eusocial insects.

And we heard more from the delightful Dr. Milbrath about keeping colonies healthy. Earlier versions of this talk focused on pests and pathogens but after seeing faces in the audience getting sadder and sadder with each revelation of a new danger she switched the emphasis from illness to health. The main message was that beekeepers need a management strategy and neither ignoring the bees while hoping for things to work out nor panicking at every hint of trouble qualifies as a strategy. Of course this was accompanied by more detail and humor.

The title is a favorite saying of a friend’s aikido teacher. With all its talk of calm non-resistance and entrusting oneself to the natural flow of things and enveloping adversaries with love and so on, Aikido is one of those martial arts that can appeal to the pacifist. Its name has even been translated as “the way of unifying with life energy”. If you question the consistency of all this with the fundamental interest in splatting an attacker against the ground, you now know the teacher’s response.

Relevance to beekeeping? We were reminded of this saying by this article from the ever amusing Atlas Obscura describing the cooperation of human and bird to obtain honey, the Hadza and the honeyguide. The Hadza are able with a particular tune and a bit of luck to summon a honeyguide to lead them to a bee tree. The humans then break the tree open to get at the combs and obtain honey for themselves, whereupon we, innocent viewers of many a nature documentary, expect the bird to receive its share of sweet honey and nutritious brood in a beautiful display of harmonious mutualism, as long as we ignore the death, destruction, and robbery visited upon the unfortunate bees.

No such luck. Although other people with similar honeyguide partnership do feel an obligation to give the bird a fair share as finder’s fee, the Hadza burn, bury, or otherwise destroy most of the comb they do not take for their own use. It strikes the average westerner as mean-spirited. So offensive does this ingratitude seem that when Brian Wood, an assistant professor of biological anthropology at Yale, who had firsthand observed and interviewed the Hadza, published his observations he was greeted with outraged disbelief. The difference is that while everyone enjoys honey as a treat the Hadza diet obtains a significant part of its calories from honey. If the bird were left to eat its fill then it would be disinclined to respond if summoned soon after. It is in the best interests of the Hadza to keep the honeyguide hungry. And so another romantic view of nature is demolished by hard economics.

BeatrixIsAliveLast Friday the weather turned pleasantly warm passing 60 °F (16 °C) but with unpleasant wind speeds of 31 mph, gusting to 43 mph. While no trees fell, our emptying, smaller firewood rack got blown over as it often does and Saturday morning we discovered that poor Beatrix had been stripped of her winter insulation.

Running out to retrieve the foam panels before they could visit the neighbors we were greeted by the happy sight of busy bees coming and going, enjoying cleansing flights, bringing out their dead, and going about whatever vital bee business we do not ken.

When we later in the day took advantage of the lingering warm, although still windier than ideal, weather to inspect the hives we found Beatrix still amazingly full of bees although, as we had feared, running low on honey.

In Clarissa, as expected, and Dorcas, not as hoped, we found the opposite, no live bees but a fair amount of honey left.

From the late sisters we transfered five heavy honeycombs to the survivor, scooped out most of the dead bees, and corked all the entrances until we can be bothered to process the remaining partially and fully empty combs and clean the hives. We hope this inheritance will last Beatrix until she can once more find forage. We mourn Clarissa and Dorcas but our overall mood remains one of elation over Beatrix.

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.

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