April is the cruellest month, beeking.
Sisters on the dead floor, lying.
Wax comb and honey, molding.
Dead hive with spring winds.

And there we shall stop mauling T.S. Eliot to report that Clarissa is dead. A mere few weeks ago all three hives were flying on a brief warm day, bracketed by weather too cool to be out, leaving the bees cowering and clustering inside. Then last week there came a few days of greater cold, freezing nights, and fierce, blustery, undying wind causing much disarray including the removal of Clarissa’s front insulating panel. We do not know how long it lay unnoticed with the wind striking full on her unprotected face. We taped it back up in haste but it would not stay. It was pulled off again. We again reattached it more securely and the wind eventually died down.

Then Wednesday was a very warm day and two hives were flying. Not Clarissa. Thursday was even warmer but she still showed no signs of life. We opened her up and found a half inch deep layer of moldy bees over the entire floor. As further insult even the plentiful honeycomb was moldy, depriving us of the one consolation previous deadouts gave us.

So what killed them? The mold comes afterwards when there are not enough bees to circulate the air and control humidity. In the past we have readily blamed cold when varroa was the actual culprit. And it is true that we were unable to give Clarissa the usual, late-year oxalic treatment. But those previous colonies had received no treatment at all, died in February if not earlier, and did not leave so many bodies. This time perhaps it really was the cold? So many bees, so much honey, and yet not enough warmth could be generated? Disheartened we bagged the dead bees and moldy comb for trash and closed the hive for a proper cleaning later.

She is survived (so far) by Dorcas and Beatrix, who is still booming with more bees than seems possible.


Yesterday we attended a memorial service for Roger Sutherland, who was for decades the face of Southeastern Michigan beekeeping to the general public. Any article on beekeeping in any local newspaper or magazine was sure to contain some informative and humorous quotations from him.

Beekeepers were requested to wear clean bee veils/jackets/suits to the service. Those who could complied happily but the rest wondered whoever had a clean bee suit?  No one wants to leave bits of honey, wax, and propolis on soft furnishings. 

Memories were shared by family members, former students and colleagues, and, of course, beekeepers whom he had mentored. Every speaker told of his energy, kind helpfulness, and quick-witted sense of humor. While most of the tales evoked laughter the merriment only increased the appreciation of what a loss his absence would be.

We were fortunate enough to live the correct distance away from Roger. Near enough to be a convenient drive for him and distant enough to force reorientation for the bees in a freshly prepared demonstration hive whenever he would leave one with us for a few days before taking it off to show the public. On such occasions we would usually spend some time sitting on the deck and enjoy  listening to stories from his many careers.

Here follows the text from the memorial booklet.

Roger Allen Sutherland (an avid beekeeper and perpetually energetic soul) often quipped, “Don’t tell me to stop burning the candle at both ends; just give me more beeswax.” This philosophy, along with his good humor, virtuous nature, and ability to find great joy and satisfaction in hard work remained with him and inspired all around him throughout his 88 years of vibrant and productive life.

Roger was born on January 8, 1930 in Toledo, Ohio to Farley Allen Sutherland and Estella Marie Dewey. He spent his childhood in Trilby, Ohio, where he began work at a very young age harvesting fruit, delivering newspapers on foot by age 10, and starting his first real job as a straw boss at Brock Farm at age 12. He attended Whitmer High School where he was often the jokester in the classroom. On one occasion, in biology class, he was clowning around. His teacher marched him back to the rear of the room and sat him down in the vacant chair next to Mary Ellis (his future wife) and said, “You sit here and maybe some of the good from her will rub off on you.” It certainly did. Roger and Mary Folger Ellis married April 5, 1952 in Toledo, Ohio and enjoyed nearly 66 years of marriage together.

Roger was always a steadfast and supportive rock for his family. In his life and career, he had an unwavering ability to lead by example. His family and friends admired his drive to be an active lifelong learner and teacher and appreciated his innate ability to practice humility and bring people together. Roger’s captivating storytelling skills, humility and humor put everyone at ease and not only made him an effective leader, but also an impactful citizen, and an all-around wonderful human being. Even in death, his dedication to the betterment of society continued as he donated his body to the University of Michigan Anatomical Donations Program.

Education and service were a theme throughout Roger’s life. He studied at Bowling Green State University (1948-1952), continued his education through the Frank E. Bunts Educational Institute, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, served during the Korean War as a physical therapist for the army at Army-Navy Hospital in Hot Springs, Ark., and Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Penn. (19531955), and earned two master’s degrees (Education and Biology) from the University of Michigan. He had a 34-year career as a biology educator, beginning at Allen Park High School in 1957. In 1964, he became the first biology and botany teacher and chairperson of the biology department at Schoolcraft College. During his 27 years at Schoolcraft, teaching anatomy and physiology to nursing students was his primary focus, he started the nation’s first human cadaver program at a community college, was twice named “Educator of the Year,” began what would become a 51-year passion for beekeeping, and left a wonderful legacy of generosity.

He was the ultimate volunteer, and gave freely of his gifts and time as leader for the Boy Scouts (Troop 30 Dixboro), 4-H, SE Michigan Beekeepers Association (34 years, including roles as vice president and president), Michigan Beekeepers Association (30+ years as a board member), Michigan and Washtenaw Audubon Society leader (23+ years, including service as president and receipt of a lifetime achievement award from the Washtenaw chapter in 2003), Michigan Botanical Society, Naturalist Camera Club of Toledo (15+ years), and Huron Valley Michigan Botanical Club (7 years). Roger also served as a frequent nature program presenter for large numbers of classrooms, clubs, and church groups. He and Mary conducted countless classes on wildflowers, maple syrup, beekeeping and led many nature walks and excursions for various organizations over the years. Outside of advocacy for nature, Roger also made time to pause and enjoy the natural environment with family and friends as a fishing and canoeing enthusiast.

A notable example of Roger’s unbelievable energy was his dedication to walking 3 miles every day since he experienced a heart attack in February 1992. For the past 22 years, Roger has consistently continued this ritual (with several forced breaks due to medical issues over the years), all the while collecting recyclables along the side of the road. He collected an awe inspiring $10,712.40 worth of can deposits during this time.

Roger and Mary have been influential members of their local community since moving to Warren Road in 1967. Roger was instrumental in advocating for Warren Road to become a designated Natural Beauty Road. He also expressed his ingenuity on his property and in his workshop over the years by creating and cultivating an incredible flower and vegetable garden year after year, breaking custom nature trails for each of his 12 grandchildren, building and maintaining a coop honey house, and creating an elaborate sunken garden and a custom greenhouse, among many other interesting projects, including what he refers to as his “25-year woodworking project” of creating 12 sets of keepsake train cars for each of his grandchildren (132 total train cars).

Roger’s legacy and passion for family, science, and creativity lives on in his wife Mary, their five children and their spouses, Marie Powers, Stephen Sutherland (Christie), Ellen Neal (Mike), Anne Curtis (Barry), and Peter Sutherland (Mary Caplon), 12 grandchildren, Jeffrey and Forrest Powers, Kenneth, Daniel, and Jacob Neal, Laurel Truax, Lindsay Sutherland Gvakharia, David Sutherland, Kayla and Jessica Curtis, Whitney and Laura Sutherland, one great grandson, Asa Neal, and countless other beloved friends and family members. He is preceded in death by his parents, Farley and Estella, and his siblings Jeanette Eloise Sutherland and Charles Albert Sutherland.


And now our final report from last year’s MBA talks.

Ugandan flagGiven by Sarah Scott of the Michigan State University Department of Integrative Biology, currently conducting field research for the United States Geological Survey, this talk is from her time studying honeybee health in Uganda.

Uganda is one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries. Beekeeping has allowed some of its rural poor to earn a steady, decent income. Ms. Scott described, as we in our haste shall not, much about Ugandan honey production.

Meanwhile the sugar cane farmers have been struggling, having neither sufficient demand nor high enough price for their raw product. However, that same product fermented is in much more demand and fetches a higher price. Illegality is thus little deterrent against surreptitiously digging an open pit fermenter among the canes.

Unfortunately bees in great numbers are attracted to the sweet cane juice in the pits and drown, as seen in the video Enjoki Zahwaho, causing beekeepers to lose hive after hive. It is a sad situation of poor folks trying their best and yet harming their fellow poor.

To lift the mood a bit. While we often curse the groundhogs that devastate our gardens, sufficiently thorough fencing can deter them. But what of the unfortunate Ugandans, who must cope with elephants! How hopeless is it to deal with such unstoppable giants? Well, it happens that they really hate getting stung and will give a beehive a broad berth. So the Ugandans will suspend a series of horizontal hives to guide the pachyderms away from their crops, not unlike an electric fence. If only that worked for groundhogs.

Next on our race to finish reviewing last year’s MBA talks is Dr. Meghan Milbrath‘s Planning for Varroa. Oh, how we have dithered over this review. After all, the link we just gave takes you to an online version that is pretty much the same as what we heard minus a few pictures we are not going to try recreating. What could we add to simply pointing our visitors to it and encouraging them to read it? And yet most visitors seem not to follow links. Since Dr. Milbrath begins by pointing out that we are in the midst of a varroa epidemic it seems important that we at least try to provide a summary of sorts.

Here then is the rede as we understand it.

  • Monitor your mite load.
    • Alcohol wash or sugar roll.
    • At least monthly but especially when winter bees are being made.
  • Know the “safe” level of mites.
    • General consensus as of 2017 is 3% or 9 mites per standard 1/2 cup(100 ml) sample.
    • At levels above 5% illness is usually seen.
    • At levels above 10% the colony is a danger to those around it.
  • Know the tools for managing mite levels and be ready with a plan to treat.
    • Management methods to keep low mite levels low. Used all season to slow mite reproduction.
    • Intervention methods to drive high mite levels low. Used when mite levels are above threshold.
      • It is too late for non-chemical management techniques if the mite load is very high.
      • Vary chemical treatments to discourage development of immunity in the mites.
  • Make slow progress towards treatment-freedom.
    • Make splits of your colonies that require the least treatment.
    • Requeen your colonies that require excessive treatment with queens from resistant lineage, commercial or your own.

But I am hardcore treatment-free and my plan is to just let them die. Why should I monitor?

Please do not do that.

For one, these are useful creatures in our care to whom we owe better than an unpleasant, lingering death.

For another, they may have other useful genes which would be lost if varroa resistance were the only criterion considered.

Finally there may be colonies in the area successfully resisting low levels of varroa who, upon robbing your deadout, will acquire a number of hitch-hiking mites and may now succumb to the heavier mite load, losing good resistance genes for not being perfect. You will have made a varroa bomb.

But my bees seem fine. I do not see any mites. Why should I monitor?

Varroa is very hard to see on bees until it is too late. You will not know if you do not monitor.

But my bees have been surviving without interference for years. Why should I monitor?

Congratulations on your good fortune but conditions change. Dr. Milbrath had a bee-yard where a mere annual split was sufficient to keep mite loads low. The bees did the rest. Then one year the mite levels suddenly jumped. A neighbor had abandoned four hives which then died and became varroa bombs. Her own hives would have done likewise had she not caught the change and treated to push levels back to previous values. You will not know if you do not monitor.

But I got my bees from a treatment-free, resistant source. Why should I monitor?

Your conditions are not the conditions of your supplier. Mite pressure in their area may be lower than in yours. They may be able to manage them simply by all the making increase needed to have bees to sell. For whatever reasons, treatment-free success does not always transfer. You will not know if you do not monitor.

But this is a package’s first year. I need not worry until the second year, right?

One, wrong. We have made that mistake. Two, you know the refrain. You will not know if you do not monitor.

OK. My bees died over winter but it was the cold and damp, not mites.

Did you know what to look for when you inspected the deadout? We have used this excuse ourselves. We were wrong.

Fine. I will monitor. I’ll worry about a treatment when I need it. Which I won’t. Because I have good bees.

May your bees never need treatment but if they do, as with many an unexpected misfortune, it is better to have considered options and decided upon a plan well in advance rather than be forced into hasty decisions under pressure.

Oh, my. We did not finish all our reports from the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring 2017 Conference before the year ended and now the Spring 2018 Conference is soon upon us. As part of a desperate sprint, we now cover Dr. Thomas Seeley‘s talk The Bee Colony as an Information Center, based upon information in his book The Wisdom of the Hive.

The landscape around a honeybee colony is dotted with patches of fluctuating resources to be gathered. The resource may be water, pollen, resins for propolis, or nectar for honey but for the rest of this text we shall focus on nectar. Now consider all the variables. Each kind of flower blooms for a different part of the year, provides its nectar at a different time of the day, and its nectar has a different amount of sugariness. All of these are affected by weather. And the patches of flowers can vary in size and distance from the hive. The problem facing the colony is how to efficiently allocate foragers to each useful patch and reallocate as the patch dries up.

The key to the allocation problem is that each forager has a sense of the energetic profitability of a given patch, i.e. the metabolic energy obtainable from the sugar in the gathered nectar compared with the energy expended in gathering it. So a patch of flowers with sugar-rich nectar is preferable to an equidistant patch of sugar-poor flowers. And a patch of flowers nearer the hive is preferable to an identical patch much further away.

We already know how a forager recruits additional foragers and directs them to her patch by waggle-dancing the distance and direction. She also reflects the profitability by the number of circuits she performs.1 If an uncommitted forager heading out to search for a source encounters a waggling forager on the dance floor near the entrance, she may follow the dancer for five to ten figure-eight circuits, and then proceed to the source being indicated. When there are multiple foragers waggling for different sources, the particular waggler which a recruit first encounters is entirely random but because more circuits are made for better sources, more additional foragers are likely to encounter those wagglers and be recruited for those sources. The result is therefore the desired one that better sources get more foragers.

Furthermore a source that stays constantly profitable for a long part of the day will acquire more foragers than a transient source since a returning forager is likelier to waggle on each return to the hive. Foragers can thus be acquired in a flash or slowly and steadily.

An uncommitted forager who does not encounter a dancer or is not in a following mood will head out to possibly find her own patch. This is how newly blooming patches are discovered and by the process described above they will acquire their appropriate quantity of foragers from the uncommitted. Very few foragers will switch from one patch to another, even if that one is more profitable than the one they are currently working. But once a patch becomes unprofitable its foragers will quit although it takes a few days of unprofitability for them to entirely abandon the patch.

Dr. Seeley learned all this by direct observation of the bees during his experiments at the Cranberry Lake Bio Station in Adirondack Park, where the nearest natural forage is twelve miles away. The only honeybees in the park were therefore the ones he brought in his two-frame observation hive and their only forage was whatever he provided. After tediously labeling all four thousand bees (a two day job for four people) in his observation hive, he and his assistants would set out sugar syrup feeders, systematically varying sugar concentrations, locations, etc. while logging which particular individually numbered bees arrived at which feeder and which ones danced. The straightforward tedium to which much of science owes it advances. We are still gobsmacked at the thought of labeling four thousand bees. The Wisdom of the Hive describes the experiments in detail and clarifies (perhaps even corrects) the processes we have described.

1The most enthusiastic dancer Dr. Seeley observed was a water forager who danced for fifteen minutes making 346 circuits. She clearly thought the source was profitable although not a source of energy as we have been discussing.