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.

BuckwheatPrairie 001A few more hyssop and zinnia have bloomed while the first have faded and black-eyed susan has reluctantly joined the party, yet our attempt at prairie remains a disappointment. What then are those transverse stretches of white blossoms on either side of our attempted prairie and further up the hill? The slightly sweeter fruits of another decidedly less than completely successful experiment.

In spite of the poor showing thus far, we remain determined to cover the hill in flowers but it is hard to work up enthusiasm for breaking more sod with the tiller. So we decided to try a sod-cutter. This self-propelled device has an oscillating horizontal blade that saws away under turf as the machine goes forward. The result should be a strip of sod that can be rolled up and removed. We had some concern that it would not work well on slopes or uneven ground but when research on the net turned up a few reassurances and no warnings, we decided to risk a few hours rental.

Sadly our conclusion is that, no, it does not work on slopes or uneven ground. On a gently sloping or slightly uneven suburban lawn, perhaps, but not on our rural hill. And the best way to use one is to let some other fool operate it.

The machine was both top-heavy and just plain heavy as well as unsteerable. In spite of all this, when we tried our first strip it actually cut rather well. We had started furthest from the current prairie area just in case the machine were to run amuck and lay waste to the few plants there. The first strip went sufficiently easily that we expected no troubles working our boustrophedonic way towards the rear edge of the prairie. Then we discovered how difficult it was to position for an adjacent strip. After a bit of wrestling we tried again only to have the engine insist on frequently stalling. Having stuttered out a second strip, we moved down the hill to try again in a different, less cursed area. Once more we managed one strip, although with difficulty, but not a second. Deciding that if things were to be this hard we should expand the existing prairie rather than working to reach it, we moved right behind the existing prairie to try again and wrested another few strips from the ground.

At this point we were quite prepared to throw in the towel and have the rental people come to remove their feckless, demon contraption, but we gave it one last try, this time in front of the prairie, on one of the most flat and level stretches of ground we have. Here the infernal thing happily removed strip after strip of sod although shifting it from a completed strip to the adjacent one was still a trial. We removed enough sod to feel that we had gotten our money’s worth out of the rental fee and quit.

The pieces of cut sod we carted down to an area that floods in spring to build up and extend the raised path through the vernal muck, another ongoing project, and the strips of bare ground we seeded with buckwheat. It was rather late in the year so we were unsure what to expect but within a few days they sprouted and after a week, as if hearing Time’s wingèd chariot, hastily bloomed before reaching the usual height to make the strips of white in the picture above and to briefly elate us with pollinator activity. Sadly it was not our honeybees but some kind of wasp.

Anyone with sense would give up at this point but we are beekeepers so clearly we shall keep trying.

We waited and waited, impatiently expecting a vast sea of bright colors.DudPrairie003 Then later we more modestly hoped for a lake of limned vegetation. But we would settle for just a puddle of pastels since it is the first year. Oh, surely at least a few drops of hue?

Indeed that last, as the mid-August picture at left shows, is our meager reward for all our tilling and sowing and mulching. Having succeeded at this sort of project once before, we have no idea what went wrong this time. Reputable seed source? Check. Directions followed? Check. Results? Piddly squared. The few plants we added have done adequately but of the seeds sown only a few have made an appearance and that a cameo. The remainder of the occupants consists of volunteers of morning glory, buckwheat, Queen Anne’s lace, and many of the weeds we had tried to cleared away.

In a thousand square feet we find one, count it, one lance coreopsis. Clicking and zooming on the earlier picture will show it as the only bright color in the area. LanceCoreopsis005
Unseen among the green is a small, pale blue Ohio spiderwort. Just one. It is rather pretty. Would that there were more. OhioSpiderwort 007
And three hyssop. They may be lavender hyssop from the seed mix or they may be some other hyssop volunteering from around the corner. We shall give the seed mix the benefit of the doubt. MaybeHyssop 006

So three kinds of plants; five specimens in toto. Where is the nodding pink onion, butterflyweed, sky blue aster, smooth aster, new jersey tea, canada milk vetch, white prairie clover, purple prairie clover, shootingstar, pale purple coneflower, purple coneflower, rattlesnake master, roundhead bushclover, rough blazingstar, prairie blazingstar, wild quinine, smooth penstemon, great solomon’s seal, black eyed susan, brown eyed susan, or stiff goldenrod?

Meanwhile the plants not from seed are likewise few but that is to be expected as we planted but a few plants and not handfuls of seed.


In the left corner is the Russian sage we planted. It is blooming nicely but the bright blue is hard to see from a distance. Perhaps when it is larger?

In the right corner the shrubby St. John’s wort has provided a less orange kind of yellow but is not blooming now.


Most popular with the bees (see picture) have been the two calamints, gifts from a friend, which we planted on either side of the large rain gauge midway along the front edge.

Almost as popular is the one of two mountain mint (not shown), which troubled itself to bloom. The other is doing less well but has not died.

Overall a disappointment. We shall not be reseeding this area but will add plants directly. There is butterfly weed and coneflower available in other beds for transplanting. And Native Plant Nursery can supply many of the others. We shall yet have a feast for our eyes and for our bees.


The bees came back. We thought that they were swarmers.

But the bees came back on the very same day.

The bees came back. We thought that they were gone-ers.

But the bees came back and we want them to stay.

This dreg of poetastry is set to the tune used in this film about a fellow with a feline although our sentiments towards our pets differ as much as possible, of course. ’twas inspired by the following event.

On Monday of last week a loud buzzing moved one of us to step outside and be surprised by a large cloud of bees near the front of the barn. In the few seconds it took to get the other of us, the bees had vanished.

We were in a state of shock at the thought that one of our hives may have just swarmed. Weeks ago we noticed that Clarissa and Dorcas were looking rather crowded so we gave them several empty top bars. Then as we observed a very slow rate of comb construction we feared that they would not be much drawn before winter. So, thinking fewer, more complete combs better than many, small combs, we removed most of what we had given them. Had that recrowding triggered a swarm?

We went to look at the hives. Except for a much larger-than-normal number of bees orienting in front of Clarissa, nothing seemed unusual. Peering in the windows showed the typical crowd of bees. Had the colony decided to swarm and changed its mind? The observer’s last impression of the cloud was that it had started moving towards rather than away from the hives. That would be good news. We thought it too late for a swarm to overwinter and for the remnant to raise and mate a queen. Rather than open the hives to our ignorant gaze we called Dr. Milbrath for advice.

She was able to come the next day to open the hives for inspection. In Clarissa she found properly laid eggs indicating that a queen was present as well as very many newly hatched bees. Likewise in Dorcas. Beatrix, uncrowded, was left unbothered. Dr. Milbrath‘s hypothesis was that indeed one of the hives was triggered into swarming by a very large hatching of young bees. The sudden population increase with insufficient time for queen pheromone to be passed around at a time when the lighting resembles springtime all combined to trigger an attempt at swarming. But when the swarm paused for assessment before proceeding to seek its fortune, it realized that it was queenless and simply returned to the hive. For the queen had not been prepared; not trimmed down to flying weight and prevented from laying. So she could not accompany the swarm.

All we can say is that we hope the girls have gotten it out of their system.

FlowFrameIf you are a beekeeper then, of course, you have. Ad nauseam. One weekend last February you could not swing a LOLcat without hitting an enthusiastic article about the apparatus at left, part of a system to drain honey from a hive without opening it. The articles were mostly the same few news reports being repeated along with excited blog posts by non-beekeepers with many links to the marketing video. Beekeeper opinions seemed harder to find except for a few surprising testimonials on the company site. Perhaps, as we were, the beeks were getting emails from friends and family asking for an opinion.

Before we could finish researching and mulling for our readership the energetic Emily Scott scooped us with a detailed report including a link to the the patent and a poll of her readership. Other bee bloggers slowly and thoughtfully chimed in, such as Rusty at Honey Bee Suite or globe-trotting beekeeper Kris Fricke or this beekeeping vlogger or vlogging beekeeper whose work we shall be watching.

That left little for our inexperienced selves to add to the discussion and the furor seemed to die down. No doubt there will be more once the early adopters start using the devices but until then it is beekeeping as usual.

But then the flow hive was brought up during a question and answer session at the SEMBA conference in March. We ourselves were asked about it at the April meeting of Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers. A co-worker emailed us in early June. A friend asked our niece the week after. Someone asked our beekeeping host at a party near June’s end. A week ago a store-owner brought it up to us as we were chatting at the register. It appears with such regularity that we went looking fruitlessly for a widget to add to our layout that would show "Days since anyone mentioned that flow-hive".

So for the sake of our non-beekeeping readership who does not regularly read all the bee blogs we do, we should at least point to a few references, which we have just done two paragraphs ago, and perhaps organize our own bullet-pointed summary after all if only to show off the cute little animated gif on which we spent so much time. The longer we delay this post the less of its dwindling relevance it will have and we will have completely wasted our time on the rough drafts. So here we go, succumbing to the sunk cost fallacy for any of our readers who still may care:

  • First of all, we give the inventors (in a warm, sunny part of varroa-free Australia) the benefit of doubt in believing their reported experiences. They are surely honest beekeepers but just as surely someone has committed marketing on their behalf.

  • Honey flowing into an open jar (or onto a stack of pancakes as in the video) seems to be asking for a robbing frenzy in the beeyard although the inventors claim their bees take no notice. The patent mentions the more credible draining into sealed containers.

  • Not all honey flows readily. Ivy and heather are notoriously difficult to harvest. Even more common clover or multifloral honey can be reluctant to flow in cooler temperatures.

  • How can the beekeeper decide if the frame is ready for harvest? Peeking in the device’s window just shows the edge of the comb. Hefting the box to judge by weight is not quite opening the hive but neither is it leaving the bees undisturbed.

  • It seems to be promoting the wrong-headed notion of a beehive as just a noisy honey jar with a tap like a beer keg. This is probably what provokes the most visceral negative reaction.

  • flowFrameIt is, one must admit, mechanically clever. There, we have said something nice about it.

  • The mechanism is expensive. If it catches on one would expect the price to drop but it is unlikely to become inexpensive. For a commercial beekeeper one per colony would be a significant investment.

  • Plastic mechanisms are prone to wear and breaking. How long before an expensive replacement is needed?

  • Bees have a well documented reluctance to use plastic foundation. How well will they take to these plastic cells? One could counter this pessimism by pointing out the success of some beeks at using entire polystyrene hives.

  • For a high price it seems to merely make more convenient the least difficult part of beekeeping. Honey harvest can admittedly be messy and sticky but becomes less so with practice.

As keepers of non-conventional beehives it is hard to see how we could retrofit this device. And, as the skepticism in our comments indicates, we are neither inclined to try nor tempted to go Langstroth for the sake of using it. Perhaps this will sweep the world and revolutionize beekeeping as the marketing claims but at risk of being old sticks-in-the-mud we only foresee a brief wave of badly kept bees before the idea is abandoned.

And you kids should get off our lawn.


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