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?

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

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. The commonest error seems to be forgetting to wait the two minutes to let the mites drop.
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.