Blackclad hives in the snowThree months without blogging! And still with a backlog of drafts from the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring Conference last March. We have been neglecting our readership almost as much as we have been neglecting our bees. By now we have had our first two snowfalls and while poor, empty Clarissa is by the barn, flipped roofless onto her stand lest mice occupy her before we can once again fill her with bees, the occupied hives are in a row, dressed in their winter black. We also have several one-pound bags of silica gel in their unoccupied halves to absorb moisture. They should work as well as the wool we had been using and be reusable next season after a spell in the oven. Sadly this is nearly all the winter care we have provided this season.

Master beekeeper Rusty Burlew has great overwintering success and attributes it to always doing what the bees need without delay or excuse. By contrast, we, slackers, in many of our blog posts lament trying to find a suitable window to tend to our few hives, when weather, our paying jobs, and other commitments combine to allow sufficient bee time. This year we did not even apply the late season oxalic drip although we are convinced it has been the largest factor in what overwintering success we have had. Although the mite loads have been low, almost nonexistent, all season they could still climb rapidly in late fall. Rather than sugar roll to check we hastily applied some formic acid pads while weather was still in the effective temperature range.

And for even more fretting, a late peek into the hives revealed that Beatrix and Frankie had, in what seemed to us a very sudden outbreak, small hive beetles. Fortunately the bees seemed to be keeping them adequately confined. Without time to make the boric acid bait for the traps we used six years ago, we hastily added along side the silica gel bags some strips of Swiffer pad to tangle-trap the tiny beetles.

Our winter fretting this season will be laden with guilt.

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After three somber posts about sorrowful recent events it is time to return to being generally informative and humorously entertaining, even silly.

hydroxymethylfurfural moleculeIt is a common caution to not heat sugar syrup or honey intended to be fed to bees too much lest it form toxic compounds. The specific reason is the dehydration of fructose to form the molecule toxic to bees which is diagrammed here and amusingly named  hydroxymethylfurfural. At least we find it amusing. It is the furfur. How can one say furfur and not smile. Furfur.chuckle

Ahem. The process is catalyzed by acids, which is why those of us using an oxalic acid drizzle to treat for varroa ought not save any leftover syrup, although there are claims that it may be kept in the freezer safely. We shall not risk it since it is easy enough to mix just the amount needed and the syrup is cheaper than bees.

Our procedure for preparing any syrup for bees is to boil water in an electric kettle as we measure the sugar (plain, old grocery store sucrose) into a large Pyrex pitcher. When the water has boiled we pour a measured amount into the sugar and stir. Then we cover it with a paper towel and wait for it to cool before adding whatever else our purpose requires. For feeding we add a commercial mix of essential oils (formerly a squeeze of lemon juice) to attract the bees and prevent molds. For varroa treatment we add the carefully weighed oxalic acid.

The hot water unavoidably splits some small amount of the sucrose into dextrose and fructose and some tiny bit of the resulting fructose no doubt forms a tinier bit of hydroxymethylfurfural. snicker But surely the amount is minimal. It seems that those who add sugar to water actively boiling on the stove risk generating more. And even more yet if they try to invert the sugar (split most of the sucrose) by adding cream of tartar or some acid. But even these beekeepers do not seem to routinely poison their hives. Anyone up for some quantitative chemistry?

Although the furfur part of the chemical’s name comes from the Latin word for bran, it always makes us think of Furfur the Great Earl of Hell mentioned in certain grimoires, oft drawn as a winged hart, whose specific abilities are said to include causing love between a man and a woman, raising tempests, and teaching secret knowledge.

Would that secret knowledge include beekeeping?

Gowry's painting of Icarus fallingOne imagines that after his initial, frantic flapping developed into deliberate, controlled flight Icarus was surely feeling rather confident at the moment just before the beeswax started to soften and the feathers to drop away. We too had our brief period of confidence when, after years of frozen deadouts, all three hives survived last winter, which we credit largely to finally managing varroa, especially applying an autumnal oxalic acid drizzle. With our freshly acquired knowledge and skill this season was going to be a change from our usual winter moaning over whether or not we would have any bees at all come springtime. Perhaps not.

We had tried to be timely this year with the oxalic treatment, beginning with Dorcas of the alarming mite counts, who took her medicine as calmly as last year. But when we continued to Clarissa she let us know that she was not receiving visitors, however well-intentioned, so we retreated to deal with stings, intending to try again another day. Whereupon the weather turned far too cold to be wetting bees and remained so as we applied the insulation to the hives, still hoping for a few warm days when we could treat the remaining two hives.

The hoped-for few warm days finally arrived last week and we returned with a fresh batch of oxalic syrup, this time planning to start with reliably even-tempered Beatrix and leave the stinging Clarissans last. But misfortune struck soon after we moved the follower board. The first top bar had two, large, partial combs that had not been merged into one and each was attached to a side of the hive. We had barely begun to cut away one attachment with the sharp end of the hive tool as we routinely do when a crack shot across the top of the comb and it suddenly dropped. Switching to a serrated knife we sometimes use, we tried to cut the other attachment but at once the second comb cracked free as well. At a loss for proceeding, we propped up the fallen combs to be next year’s problem, closed the hive, and abandoned our oxalic plans for the season.

So two hives did not get their oxalic treatment and the one that did had high mite counts before the expected autumnal rise. Once again we shall be fretting through winter. And muttering quiet blasphemies against Apollo.

 

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.