Last Thursday we managed to steal an hour between other responsibilities to attend to Beatrix. She had come out of winter brimming with bees putting us in a state of continual fret, awaiting weather and time to split her before she swarmed. Although our old eyes can not see eggs at all easily we expected to find easily seen, peanut-shaped queen cells in preparation for swarming and anticipated no problems with swiftly populating a nuc during our allotted sunny hour.

Instead we found far fewer bees than we expected and not much capped brood. There were empty cells as well as cells with larvae of various ages. Of course we can not see eggs and, as usual, failed to see the queen. Nor did we see any queen cells but only a few queen cups. The difference is that a cup is shorter, open at the bottom, and most importantly unoccupied. It may be in the process of becoming a queen cell or not. Some bees, especially Russians, build and tear down queen cups nearly constantly whether to just keep in practice or to be pessimistically prepared for loss of a queen, probably at the hands of those Пчеловоды идиоты1.

Bewilderedly continuing to work through the combs we found that Beatrix had also followed this season’s fashion for ill-behaved comb. Fortunately none had fallen but all remained attached to the top bar. Unfortunately some were attached to each other and a few to the floor as well. Once again we performed comb surgery and again escaped without stings. The operation was generally successful although a few combs were so attached that we could not free them without breaking them off their top bars. If this remains a regular occurrence we shall have to prepare some means of reattaching comb. Having used up our hour we then simply closed up.

The following Tuesday we were fortunate to have our guardian angel Dr. Meghan Milbrath inspect our hives. She found and marked for us the queen in Beatrix, who seemed to be laying as she should although the brood pattern was not the best, perhaps due to the signs of European foulbrood which Dr. Milbrath pointed out. We were aghast but she calmly comforted us, saying that outbreaks are not uncommon in the spring and although some beekeepers immediately reach for antibiotics it often simply clears up, so a watch-and-wait attitude was not unreasonable. Or we could discard the current, not-too-populous brood comb and transfer some capped brood from a donor hive. Choosing that option, we carried off the brood combs, brushing the bees2 back into the hive, and went to inspect the enthusiastically bearding Dorcas.

With all the comb we had removed, Dorcas was crowded, combs dripping with bees as we had expected from Beatrix, and enthusiastically backfilling brood nest with nectar. Dr. Milbrath found the queen, still marked, and we found a queen cell, whereupon we got ambitious when Dr. Milbrath agreed there were bees enough to make a small nuc as well as transfer to Beatrix. Unfortunately we discovered that our hives are unintentionally a little deeper than a Langstroth deep and the comb would not fit in the cardboard nuc. As we dithered over giving up or attempting some kind of kludge the decision was made for us by the accidental crushing of the queen cell. Oops. There is non-standard nuc construction in our future.

With that distraction dismissed, Dr. Milbrath selected three bars of capped brood, covered with nurse bees3, which we carried over and placed into the waiting Beatrix. Then we added half a dozen empty top bars to Dorcas to replace the bars taken and further expand her available space, staving off the threat of her swarming. After closing both hives we proceeded to inspect Clarissa, for the sake of completeness, and found a well populated thriving hive. Dr. Milbrath again found and marked her queen and rode off into the sunset4 with our gratitude.

So what did happen to Beatrix? The timing seems a bit tight but the likely scenario is that she impatiently and unwisely swarmed while we were ill and the nights were yet near freezing. The remaining colony was then too small to stay adequately warm, allowing the foulbrood to take hold. Then as old bees died, they were not being replaced since the infected brood died before reaching adulthood. The transplanted healthy capped brood will soon hatch, building up the population and leaving open healthy cells for the queen to lay in. She ought to recover and thrive although it will be a while before she is again bursting with bees.


1Beekeeping idiots
2Dr. Milbrath finds that bees tend to get stuck in the bristles of bee brushes so she just grabbed a handful of tall grass to use.
3Unlike invading foragers, nurse bees are accepted without violence by any hive.
4Okay, drove her car off into the general direction of the eventual sunset.

Dr. SeeleyLast weekend, we attended the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring 2017 Conference. The main attraction this year was Dr. Thomas Seeley, famous for research into honey bee behavior, who gave four talks over the two days.

Will we be able to post a report on each of them before the year is up? Probably just barely.

The Bee Colony as an Information Center This talk described how a colony efficiently deploys and redistributes foragers to nectar sources in numbers related to the changing quality of the source. We serendipitously discovered that the material is also in his book The Wisdom of the Hive, which we bought at the conference. The diagrams are so much better than our hastily scrawled sketches.

Plastic Foundation: Good for Beekeepers? Good for Bees? We attended in spite of using no foundation of any kind, certain that we would learn something interesting about the bees. We did but you will have to wait.

The Bee Colony as a Honey Factory This was a repeat of the talk from a SEMBA conference in 2013 and we have already written about it. So we need report on only three talks before the year ends. We may just make it.

Capturing Swarms with Bait Hives After describing his experiments to determine what kind of home the bees themselves prefer, also found in the popular HoneyBee Democracy, he presented the results, rather well-known by now, and gave practical advice on exploiting those results to successfully catch swarms.

We also attended some non-Seeley presentations, which may or may not result in blog posts.

Plan for Mites by Dr. Meghan Milbrath. The message, that we are in a varroa epidemic and whistling past the beeyard will not be helpful, is much the same as her previous talks but the tone has gotten firmer. If one will not be a responsible bee-keeper then one will not be merely a bee-haver but a bee-serial-killer. She has thoughtfully provided the text of her talk on this Michigan Pollinator Initiative web page.

Beekeeping in Uganda by Sarah Scott. Currently conducting field research for the United States Geological Survey this talk is from her time studying honeybee health in Uganda. The saddest thing we learned was that as the illegal distillers of sugarcane attempt to improve their fortunes they are inadvertantly ruining that of beekeepers. Bees drown in the open fermenters full of sweet sugarcane liquid.

Essential BeekeepER First Aid by Dr. Tyler Andre. The capitalized ER is deliberate to nod at the speaker being an Emergency Room resident.

The Benefits of Splits and How to Make Them by Nathan Snyder. This presentation contrasted methods used in his own hobby apiary and in the larger commercial apiaries for which he has worked.

And so to start writing.

As usual, our beekeeping activities have been at the mercy of weather and life’s other demands so the exact dates of the various events we now report are a bit vague. We should have taken better notes but see “life’s other demands”, mentioned just now. Anyway, after our last sugar roll we had applied Mite Away Quick Strips to the hives. When we finally returned to remove the strips, we decided to check the efficacy with another sugar roll. We began with Dorcas and to our horror discovered a count of 9 mites per hundred bees! We did not proceed to the other hives but hastened to consult Dr. Meghan Milbrath, who must be rather accustomed to our panics by now.

After determining that we had seen no signs of deformed wings or other symptoms of varroa-carried viruses or any indications of ill health but that we had observed there was very little brood, she opined that the mite count may have jumped because mites that had been hiding from treatment within the brood were now phoretic. She also said that she had seen nearly treble our mite counts in untreated hives this time of year and suggested we could treat with oxalic acid using Randy Oliver’s specifications for a medium strength syrup as she does at the Sand Hill.

Syringe 60mlSomewhat reassured we mixed a batch of such syrup for three hives and went to apply with our trusty syringe, once more beginning with Dorcas. We had planned to start from the follower and spread all the bars apart, then squirt the recommended five milliliters(5 ml) along each seam, deliberately wetting the bees. Unfortunately, we found that Dorcas had at some time suffered a comb collapse and we did not wish to deal with trying to fix things, spilling honey, and asking to be stung. We expected to already make ourselves unwelcome with the treatment.

We merely pried bars apart a wee bit, cutting and undoing much propolyzing, without shaking the hive or breaking free any possible attachments. Then we wielded the syringe along each crack and pushed the bars back together. To our surprise the bees did not seem to mind being dribbled with the syrup at all. At least they expended their energies in cleaning each other rather than stinging us.

Repeat for Clarissa and Beatrix, both of whom were also mellow and unbothered by our ministrations, without any more sad discoveries of fallen comb. And so we can do no more except wrap the hives for winter once this latest warm spell ends and worry and hope. We are so weary of deadouts come springtime.

DevilAngelIt does not do to anthropomorphize the inhuman but at times certain comparisons seem unavoidable. We have already likened the stinging Clarissans1 to ungrateful, petulant children biting the hand that cleans their teeth. Now we can liken them to delinquent hellspawn who torment their parents but behave angelically for non-family.

Last Tuesday Dr. Meghan Milbrath took time from her busy schedule to inspect Clarissa for us, hoping to diagnose her ill temper. She insisted that, apart from our removing roof and eke, she should be the only one to handle the hive so she could get unsullied feedback from her actions. And the little wretches were good as gold. A few times she pointed out a few bees engaged in guarding behavior, that is, paying her attention. She demonstrated how they tracked the movements of her finger and how the merest puff of smoke made them decide there was more urgent business within the hive. Upon reaching the frames of brood she very deftly and gently filled a scoop of bees for a sugar roll directly from the comb rather than dumping its occupants into the bucket and scooping from that. Results in the last column below.

Mites per Hundred Bees
Hive Jun 29 Aug 01 Aug 21 Aug 31
Beatrix 1.0 ? 1.2 ?
Clarissa 0.3 ? ? 0.3
Dorcas 0.0 2.0 ? ?

 

The mite count was definitely below our threshold of three mites per hundred bees so one could argue that there was no need to treat. On the other hand these thresholds are not rigorous and our part of Michigan tends to report high mite counts. Also we might find our own counts higher in a few weeks when it will be too late to treat. Dr. Milbrath told us that there is no one right answer in our situation. Were we breeders of bees then Clarissa might well be a colony to leave untreated but as we just wish to have a little more overwintering success treating was reasonable to knock the mites even further back. In the end we applied one MiteAway Quick Strip (formic acid) from our stash in the freezer. The packet was still cool when we applied it so the bees did not respond with the usual immediate displeasure and we had plenty of time get away before it warmed up. A new technique discovered! Beatrix and Dorcas will receive their medicine in a few days as we find time.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Dr. Milbrath found and pointed out the queen, still slightly marked after all this time and laying away. She also saw eggs. We ancients took her word for it.
  • We were dismayed to see a few wax moth larvae between the bars but Dr. Milbrath was undisturbed. Wherever there is wax out of reach of the bees the wax moth will be found. A strong hive will keep the pests out of its comb.
  • We saw a bee taking advantage of the open top to airlift a bee larva to exile and death. We had observed such hygienic behavior when the queen was in Beatrix.
  • Since it did not involve touching the hive we were allowed to handle the jar of sugar-coated bees and in our excitement nearly forgot the critical step of letting the jar sit in the shade for two minutes between being rolled and shaken. Dr. Milbrath caught us and we proceeded correctly.

    She then told us of a recent comparison of the sugar roll with the alcohol wash. The methods are similar but the wash kills the sampled bees although, as its fans point out, it produces a very accurate mite count. These fans also claim that sugar rolls undercount the mites. They are correct in their latter assertion only if one does not let the jar rest as we almost did not. Given that pause the sugar roll is just as accurate.


1Stinging Clarissans! A medieval order of flagellants who really hate being disturbed at their devotions? Or just a rock band name?

Yesterday, five weeks to the day since she guided us in splitting our surviving colony, Beatrix, Dr. Meghan Milbrath returned at our worried request to inspect the two resulting colonies.

We had obeyed her charge to not disturb the queenless bees for at least three weeks and indeed waited until four weeks had elapsed to inspect, whereupon we saw a hive still full of bees but neither brood nor queen nor even queen cell. How long could this go on before Beatrix would be infested with laying workers?

racingStripeQueenWith the season’s nucs coming ready, Dr. Milbrath took advantage of her house call to deliver the one we had ordered. So we began by installing it into the long-empty Dorcas. The white-marked queen is in the picture at left. While beekeepers should value in their bees temperament, productivity, and other good practical qualities over the vanity of cosmetic appearance, damn, she looks cool or wicked or whatever is the current adjective of admiration among the young. Purest black with racing stripes. Of course, she is also showing a lovely laying pattern.

Next we inspected Clarissa, who had received the queen in the split, and found that comb construction and egg laying had continued steadily. The amount of sealed brood promises a population jump in a few weeks. Not surprising but good to see.

Finally with trepidation we came to Beatrix, which we had rendered queenless. Although the queen eluded us all her presence was indicated by several frames of capped brood that were not present a week ago. We both remembered those frames quite clearly. A queen has been hard at work. Dr. Milbrath even pointed out the cell from which she had likely emerged. It was smaller than we would have expected and under a carpet of bees. Easy for old eyes squinting after brood to miss.

In conclusion, we once again have the satisfaction of a full beeyard. Our split was successful. We can return to our regularly scheduled worries of varroa, weather, and the rest. For all the reassurances we request from our guardian angel Dr. Milbrath, we are actually feeling like real beekeepers.