After snow blanketing us on Monday April 18, 2022 we achieved sunny, summery weather last weekend and opened up our remaining hive, Dorcas, for general evaluation and a mite check.

Starting at the brood end we went past a comb of food and a comb of drone brood to a comb of worker brood. The next comb had even more worker brood. With indications that a queen was laying we went no deeper.

But we did perform a sugar roll check for varroa mites, which yielded a mere one mite per hundred bees. We usually regard that as below treatment threshold but it is so early in the season that we shall likely treat to knock the mites back anyway.

Restoring the brood end, we started looking from the other and found that the four frames of sugar candy were somewhat smaller and more polished. They may not have been needed but received some interest.

Unlike previous seasons we found that end of the hive dry. Usually we would find it somewhat damp and moldy in spite of whatever hygroscopic material we packed. We credit the sugar candy frames with collecting the moisture more effectively.

Most of the honey combs were only partially full so backfilling the brood nest ought not be imminent. Also only a few drones were seen and we still await the dandelions. So swarming is unlikely to be soon.

We have seen bees investigating our other hive, Clarissa, which sits empty but ready. It would be most convenient if a swarm from Dorcas just moved straight in but we should not expect that.

Not a bad start to the season.

All the colonies survived into March but Clarissa did not last into April. Since that happy day of observing traffic from all the hives, we had been uncertain of seeing any from her. Confusingly we would see foragers come to the entrance, flit about a bit, and then suddenly dart off to enter Beatrix or Dorcas. A very few may have entered but we were unsure. The other hives definitely had traffic.

Three Sundays ago we were sitting on our bench, watching bees at work, and finally lost patience. Without suiting up we impulsively opened Clarissa and had not a single bee come to question our intentions. Grabbing a hive tool, we somberly poked through the combs. She resembled a typical winter varroa death as described in this article. [Edit: 2021-Apr-23 Changed to link to a newer version of the article per comment from its author.] Looking at its points in detail:

  1. The colony was big and looked healthy in the fall.

    Yes, it did.

  2. A lot of honey is left in the top supers.

    Equivalently for our horizontal hive, the combs furthest from the winter entrance are full of honey while those nearest have just bit at the corners with slightly moldy cappings.

  3. The cluster is now small, maybe the size of a softball.

    Smaller. And moldy.

  4. There are hardly any bees on the bottom board.

    Definitely dead bees on the floor. Not as thick a carpet as we have seen but more than “hardly any”.

  5. Near or just below the cluster is a patch of spotty brood – some fully capped, and some with bees dying on emergence (heads facing out, tongues sticking out).

    Nearly no brood at all. We did see one cell where the occupant had just cracked open the capping and expired.

  6. If you look closely in the cells around the brood, you will see white crystals stuck to the cell walls, looking like someone sprinkled coarse salt in the brood nest.

    In past years before we took varroa monitoring and treating seriously, we would see such small crystals in many cells. We thought they were sugar until we learned that they were guanine from varroa waste. We see some such cells this time and more with large blobs. Incontinent varroa on diuretics? Could they possibly be larvae that had gone through a few freeze thaw cycles? We have not read of such a thing but the color and volume of these deposits do not quite match varroa poop descriptions or our previous experience.

  7. You don’t have records showing that varroa was under control.

    And there is a bit of a puzzle. We do have records indicating that varroa was under control except in Dorcas, not Clarrisa. We applied the oxalic treatment to all the hives anyway and verified that the mite count in Dorcas had declined to our target level. It is true that we did not check Clarissa’s mite count post-treatment but it had already been fine pre-treatment.

So Clarissa may not tick all the boxes for winter varroa death but it still seems the likeliest explanation at this point. And our fault yet again.

In the last post we went into detail about the difficulties of the panel wrapping and taping procedure to insulate our hives. This year was the worst ever. Not only did we have all the problems of which we wrote but the day after we took the glamour shot of the hives in their new winter finery the duct tape already started to release its grip. We taped down the tape in response but to little avail. We would always need to apply some extra tape on a few occasions throughout a winter but never so soon nor so much. Unsticking faster than any season before, a mere week later loose tape ends were flapping on slouching panels like a bad complexion on a sullen teen.

Except for nae-sa-wee Angharad. The tape seemed to cling quite well to the trash bag covering her as opposed to the tar paper on the other hives, a thicker paper than we had used before. So, once again taking advantage of a favorable break in the cold and rain, we removed the panels, stripped them of the tar paper, recovered them with black plastic sheeting, and retaped. We considered using black trash bags as we had for Angharad but the panels did not quite fit well within and we would need much more cutting and taping. Easiest to just begin with the sheeting we had once bought for smothering weeds.

Weeks later the tape is holding and the hives still look neat and tidy. Lesson learned. And someday soon we shall cover the rooves.

The gradual descent of daytime temperatures had a brief reversal this last weekend so we decided it was a good opportunity to check on Dorcas and winterize all the hives. She remains our smallest colony but seemed large enough to be viable with good stores of honey, bees still bringing in pollen, and with more brood than we expected this late. Even after the repeated fogging treatments Dorcas had a mite count of 4 per hundred bees. Very much improved but still not as low as we would have liked. We considered fogging again but, since we had her open anyway, we decided to quickly make a batch of the old, reliable oxalic syrup and dribble between the bars with a syringe, as we have before.

After treating Dorcas we still had a lot of our half liter of syrup left so we proceeded to just treat Beatrix and Clarissa as well without even bothering with a sugar roll. We were less concerned about these hives since they had not had disastrous counts thus far and had received the same fogging treatments as Dorcas. As we had come to expect, the bees did not mind having the syrup drizzled on them and were not bothered by our cracking all those propolized bars apart. But they became quite agitated, flying up in buzzing clouds, when we opened a gap into where the brood chamber was. Perhaps, they also were not quite done rearing brood. We worked briskly and the bees settled down.

The rest of the winterizing did not upset them. For each hive we taped a bit of window screen over the hole in the follower, filled the closet with loose wool after evicting the few loitering bees, and restored all the bars, eke, roof. Then it was time for the insulating panels, ever a source of annoyance.

We have described the general procedure before but perhaps never vented about the irritations. In theory, one cuts foam insulation panels to form a tidy, rectangular box around the hive, covers them with tar paper & duct tape, and uses more duct tape to hold them together. In practice, the tar paper is hard to fold neatly over the panels so they likewise do not fit together as neatly as desired, leaving vertical gaps between them. All of this gets addressed with duct tape so that the installation procedure is much fussier than envisioned and, of course, the duct tape seams do loosen over the winter requiring reapplication, which never seems to hold as well as the original, which was not that well, truth be told. And then a few years later the duct tape holding the tar paper gives way requiring rewrapping.

We are always trying to improve the process, to make it less fussy and more reliable. This year we tried using construction adhesive to hold the tar paper on the foam panels but without success. It may be a workable idea with leisure and space to press each covered panel between weights overnight but the stuff did not spread well and took too long to set or cure to fit in our timetable, leaving us with a few smeary messes before we abandoned the experiment for the familiar duct tape.

Perhaps not quite the familiar duct tape. We obtained some heavy-duty version in black. It stuck very well to itself as it twisted and folded when we tried to tear or cut off a piece. It also stuck readily to our fingers to aid in the twisting and folding process. It stuck less well to the tar paper but mostly adequately. We had a few rubber rollers this year to flatten anywhere it showed signs of separating from the paper.

Our innovation of the year was to cut tar paper to make hinges between the panels. Any vertical gapping between panels would be better covered by such a hinge than by strips of duct tape. We shall see how things last.

And so winterizing our full-sized hives was completed but for covering their shiny rooves with black, another slightly fussy operation, which we shall perform on another day. Since Frankie is unoccupied and so in no need of winterizing that left the tower of nae-sa-wee Angharad, our nucleus hive of the Langstroth persuasion. Three deep boxes tall, we covered the slot in her inner cover with a bit of screen, added another box above it, and filled the box with loose wool. We then cut a piece of foam insulation to fit inside the telescoping cover and topped the pile. Rather than prepare more panels we covered her with a jacket for insulating water heaters and then dropped and taped a black trash bag over the lot.

We dithered over providing an upper entrance, as seems to be the general practice here, but opted against. The aim is to avoid humidity condensing on the roof and dripping onto the bees. An upper entrance does this by venting the humid air, losing a bit of warmth along with the moisture. We prefer to trust in hygroscopic material to absorb the moisture and insulate the roof so condensation occurs down the walls of the hive.

The remaining argument for upper entrances is to allow the bees egress should snow or accumulated dead bees block the usual entrance. We have no particular solution for this but vigilance.

This has been quite a long stretch of blog silence but while we have been too distracted by other projects to write about our bees we have not been neglecting them, which is why alarming mite counts shocked us so. One week into August the hives were all below the three(3) mites per hundred bees threshold for treatment. One week into September, Beatrix and Clarissa were unsurprisingly just over with four(4) mites per hundred bees and ready for a treatment. Nae so wee Angharad was still well below threshold. But Dorcas was near ten(10) mites per hundred bees when we disheartenedly stopped counting. At this level she was a danger to the entire apiary.

We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that sudden high mite levels can happen to anyone at any time. The arrival of hitch-hiking mites is out of our control. And it is well known that mite counts rise rapidly in the fall. Bee population declines as brood rearing slows and drones are evicted but the damnable mites carry on. Interestingly this is the first time since we began monitoring mites that we have had one hive so very much more infested than its neighbors.

The evening of our unhappy discovery we applied an oxalic treatment with our Varomorus fogger. We dosed all the hives to be certain. A week later the mite count in Dorcas was half of what it had been. Effective as an oxalic fog is, it only affects the phoretic mites, the ones riding on the bees and not the ones reproducing in capped brood cells. We treated all the hives again and will do so at least twice more at weekly intervals.

We may yet save Dorcas and with more certainty will protect the rest.