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

One keeps the teeth of the little ones healthy and clean to avoid caries, dentures, and even heart disease but the little ingrates bite one’s finger.

Good Intentions Having learned in our first year that poking about a top-bar hive in 90°F(32°C) weather risks comb collapse we thought to take advantage of a slightly cooler morning on Monday of last week to again sugar roll the bees and see whether they yet required treatment. In addition we could try to do a little comb surgery. Our sharply peaked top-bars had until now successfully encouraged straight, well behaved comb. This year we have had one occurrence of comb drifting to the next bar and several overthick combs where rather than build new comb on an empty bar the bees simply expanded adjacent comb into the space. When they did build new comb it sometimes merged with such expanded comb. We suspect that a particularly strong nectar flow is to blame.

The sugar roll results are:

Hive MpHB1 – Jun 29 MpHB – Aug 01
Beatrix 1.0 Unknown
Clarissa 0.3 No more than they deserve
Dorcas 0.0 2.0

The Paved Road We only tested Dorcas, tried but gave up on Clarissa, and did not even attempt Beatrix. Sugar rolling Dorcas went smoothly enough but she managed to land a few stings on the Mr. as he cut apart and reformed wayward comb, dripping honey in the process. Stingers in bee jacketClarissa was even more upset with him right from the beginning and undeterred by smoke but he soldiered on until the unattacked Mrs. bade him to just walk off a ways while she closed up the hive. We also had a persistent pair of escorts back to the house. When we counted, the Mr. had acquired a dozen stings, only one of which was much swollen, and his bee jacket had trapped stingers from another half dozen attempts. See the specks in the picture at left? Close-up of one in the picture at right.

Lessons LearnedClose-up of stinger in bee jacket Bees will not follow into a dark space like the back of a barn away from any windows. But they will stubbornly wait by the door. This is valuable.

Other things we knew but received pointed and venomous reminders.

  • One is that there are more bees in the hive in the morning. All the foragers have not left yet and have nothing to do so why not sting the beekeeper?
  • Another is that bees get cranky during a nectar dearth, such as the current one provided by our lack of adequate rain.
  • Yet another is that a long opened hive may invite robbing, especially if there is any honey spilled, and resulting defensiveness. We kept our eye out and did not see the canonical frenzy but there may have been just enough sly robbers to upset the residents.
  • And stings put out some pheromone to urge more stinging. We tried countermeasures but without success.

In brief we chose the worst time of day at a bad time of year to irritate the bees. In our defense the weather has been denying us windows in which to do anything.

Future Plans Dorcas has gone from immeasurable to measurable mite load. We expect the others to also have increased and all to increase further before the cold sets in, probably to treatable levels. Booming Beatrix may already be there. While we would prefer to treat based on data rather than guesswork, we are tempted to just apply a dose of formic acid(MiteAway Quick Strips) to all but temperatures are too high for that as well. So we wait fretting until the weather cools or we snap.


1MpHB = Mites per Hundred Bees or Mites per Hectabee in metric

Mite Kit ContentsFrom an initially skeptical reception1 the sugar roll or sugar shake (instructions in the later picture) seems to have become the standard method of assaying a colony’s varroa mite load for backyard beekeepers. While most beekeepers improvise their sugar roll equipment (easily done2), the Michigan Pollinator Initiative sells this handy kit, which provides all the properly-sized needful things in a compact carrying bucket that doubles as the mite-counting receptacle. It even comes with the powdered sugar although you must add your own water.

Mite Kit InstructionsIt also contains an instruction sheet just in case you can not quite recall the procedure. (Clicking on the thumbnail will show a larger, more easily read image.) As usual, the bees refuse to read the instructions and cooperate. They insist on impatiently crawling and flying out of the bucket, scoop, or jar so it is quite useful to have a helper.

While we intend no criticism, for it is an admirably constructed kit, we have made a few alterations and addenda.

Mite Kit Addenda
  • We found it easier to scoop the sugar from a hard plastic container than the bag. A suitably sized one still fits in the bucket.
  • Even though the time to roll and shake (rattling optional) is not precise we found ourselves clumsily trying to read a watch while suited up. A small plastic one minute sand-timer simplifies this and fits into the bucket.
  • If checking more than one hive the bucket needs to be wiped dry between tests. Otherwise the sugar will clump on the next jarful of bees. So a roll of paper towels is needed even though it sadly will not fit in the bucket.

1Inaccurate results were being obtained because of user error. Bees not taken from the brood area. Not enough bees sampled. Bees not shaken long enough. etc.
2The hardest part seems to be finding the #8 hardware cloth to replace the metal disc of a mason jar. For some reason most stores carry coarser mesh, so that the bees fall out, and finer, so that the mites do not.

Back in mid-March we attended the Michigan Beekeepers Association spring conference and fully intended to make a few follow-up posts about what we learned, even as we knew it unlikely that we would follow through on the follow-up. Yet here we are, goaded into action by the discovery of this delightful graphic summary of Dr. Meghan Milbrath‘s talk on keeping bees healthyGraphic summarizing Dr. Milbrath's talk from Water Street Academy1. As you can see (if you zoom in) Dr. Milbrath covered more than just varroa.

Yet varroa remains the foremost concern of beekeepers in most parts of the world and it has been interesting seeing the consensus expert opinion on varroa change over the years at conferences. At one of our first the keynote speaker practically scolded the audience that they would have to seriously treat for varroa and that breeding bees to be resistant to varroa was as foolish as breeding sheep to be resistant to wolves. The audience meanwhile had a number of members sullenly unwilling to put miticides (the only treatments then available) in their hives, particularly when the mites kept developing resistance.

A few years later there was much talk of the Bond method or Live-and-Let-Die. Non-professional beekeepers were encouraged to let susceptible hives die and make splits of their surviving colonies. Slowly the number of surviving colonies would increase and one’s beeyard would become full of hives requiring no treatment. This worked for some although the same bees introduced to other beeyards proved as vulnerable as before. And the very many colonies that failed died a cruel death and could become “varroa bombs”, spreading hordes of mites by hitching a ride on robbers from the surrounding colonies. Nowadays this draconian approach is seen as being a poor steward to the bees and a poor neighbor to the surrounding beekeepers.

The current prevailing opinion is to monitor mite load and only treat when it gets too high2, rotating through treatments to prevent development of immunity in the mites and noting which colonies seem to maintain low levels without help. If some colony requires constant treatment to avoid succumbing to varroa then requeen it from resistant stock. This can be from your own hives or commercially available lines such as the Purdue ankle-biters3 or Minnesota hygienic bees.

Monthly checking is recommended and, of course, after any treatment to check its efficacy, but at the very least in spring before brood-rearing begins in earnest and in late summer or early fall, when varroa population tends to peak just as the fat, long-lived “winter bees” are being laid. A heavy mite load will decrease the longevity of these bees intended to last until spring, risking a dead colony for the next year.

We conclude with the results of our own sugar roll of yesterday.

Hive Mites per Hundred Bees
Beatrix 1.0
Clarissa 0.3
Dorcas 0.0

Happily these are low enough that we need not worry about treatment yet.


1Proofreader can not resist pointing out that it should be whose tools and varroa.
2The recommended threshold for treatment has varied over the years. We use three mites per one hundred bees.
3The official name seems to have become the humorless “mite-biters”.

Picture from thermosolarhive.com

Picture from thermosolarhive.com

The fundraising effort for this new hive technology is not flooding the internet as the FlowHive did, perhaps because there is no dramatic visual like the infamous pancake video. Just claims of dead varroa and live bees without chemicals. Or perhaps the internet does not wish to rouse those grouchy, skeptical beekeepers again?

The hive is basically an insulated version of the familiar vertical hive of stacking, frame-holding boxes with solar heating built in. When treatment is required, the beekeeper removes the outer cover exposing a "thermosolar ceiling" to the sun. When the built-in thermometer indicates 117°F(47°C) the cover is restored and this elevated temperature is maintained, causing mites to fall off and die while not harming bees or brood. Such is the claim anyway. What is our take?

  • It is true that bees tolerate elevated temperatures much better than varroa mites and so hive heating treatments have been attempted before, usually requiring the hive body or some frames to be moved to an incubator and back. The promise of treating in situ is appealing.

  • This hive has the advantage of using solar radiation for the heating so no batteries to charge, no fuel tanks to fill, and nothing to transport to the hives.

  • This hive also has the disadvantage of using solar radiation for the heating so the time required to reach therapeutic temperature is unpredictable. In our area sunlight is a tremendously variable resource.

  • There seems a bit of marketing with avarice aforethought being perpetrated as they list all the nasty miticides not needed. Better chemicals are more commonly used these days. Still this uses none.

  • They also list in passing a number of bee diseases (including European and American foulbrood) implying that this hive prevents or treats all those as well. There seems little reason to expect this.2016-06-24 Per a reply from one of the developers this was a misunderstanding on our part and the diseases were listed without intention to imply efficacy against them but merely to indicate how many problems beset honeybees.

  • Naturally the beeks of the internet are already bickering over whether the recommended temperatures may harm brood or melt wax or weaken drone sperm. Just as naturally the makers claim none of these are a problem.

In conclusion there is a germ of scientific truth at the bottom of the claims. Whether that has been effectively exploited in a product that will reliably work wherever varroa is found is another question. Our interest is piqued but we will once more leave it to others to find out first.


2016-06-24 Not everyone reads the comments to a post so we will draw attention to this Bad Beekeeping Blog post about a bee sauna, which links to fifteen-year-old USDA report on applying heat to remove varroa from bees. That report states that such application of heat had been in use for twenty years in parts of eastern Europe. This kind of treatment seems to have a long history yet the report concludes that "Overall, heat treatment is a risky procedure. Even 40°C, the lowest temperature that can remove all the mites is perilously close to temperatures that kill bees."

Meanwhile the developers express understanding of skepticism but stand behind the product and invite interested parties to a public treatment in August held in the Czech Republic.

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