Plate spinningA number of still ongoing, non-apicentric distractions have been for too many weeks leaving us unable to do more with the bees than glance at hive traffic, fret over queens, listen to the buzzing in passing, fret over varroa, walk past them working flowers, generally fret, and uselessly wish them well. Finally last Monday we forced some time to inspect them and perform sugar rolls.

Dorcas – The queen cell was gone but there was no sign of a queen or the combs of brood we had been expecting. We did find a very few drone cells, which raised the spectre of laying workers, but could simply have been uncapped when we last looked at the cells. Was there a queen slow to be about her business and we failed to see her? We decided to look for a suitable brood frame from another hive to transfer and see if they try to make yet another queen.

Beatrix – She has definitely recovered from her European foulbrood and is again bursting with bees. So much so, that she had started building comb on the other side of the follower board! This is the first time we have seen that. We spotted the queen and felt very proud of ourselves! Unfortunately, she was on one of the two brood frames we wished to transfer to Dorcas. Delicately prodding her majesty with the tip of a gloved hand we tried dropping her into the measuring cup of the sugar roll kit to then gently deposit her on the floor. We were successful in dislodging her but she deployed her wings and glided down on her own. Fervently hoping we had not injured her, we transferred the two brood frames.

We next proceeded to perform a sugar roll, somehow having a harder than usual time filling the cup. With brood breaks from both swarming and the EFB we were not expecting much varroa and, indeed, counted 6 in the sample for 2 mites per hundred bees, borderline treatment level.

Clarissa – We had forgotten how close she is to having full comb on all her bars. One honeycomb was not quite cross-combed yet but had an odd two layer structure that promised future trouble. We stole harvested it.

The brood pattern looked good but there were a few uncapped cells with large larvae, perhaps eleven days old, visible. Evidence of hygienic behavior? Again having a hard time collecting the sample, the sugar roll result was a frightening count of 16 for over 5 mites per hundred bees! Having pessimistically ordered MiteAway Quick Strips (formic acid) earlier in the season, we were able to immediately fetch it and apply a full dose. We accidentally opened a second package and applied it to Beatrix just not to waste it.

Annabelle – She is yet unrepaired, sitting in the woodshop. Seeing Beatrix once again so full suggests that we should rush Annabelle back into service and perform a split. But then we have already just stolen brood from Beatrix. Should we be raiding her again soon? And the old saying is that “A swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.” suggesting that our split would not have time enough to build up before winter. Having used up our capacity for decisive action we again fret ourselves into circles.

Not much to this post. Last Saturday we sugar rolled our initial mite load measurements for the season and found them agreeably low. If we see a repeat of last year, they will stay low until a jump in autumn frightens us. We will, of course, be checking regularly.

Mites per Hundred Bees
Hive May 27
Beatrix 0.67
Clarissa 0.0
Dorcas 0.67

In other news, Dorcas has largely taken the hint and is building straight, new comb on the empty bars we had provided although she could not resist one small perpendicular foray, which we discouraged sharply with a hive tool. And Beatrix is muddling along, having not yet recovered her full strength. We imagine Clarissa may be feeling pleased with herself.

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?

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