Propolis, Beeswax, and Owning a Wired Hive

Before we took our beekeeping course, I didn’t know about propolis. Obviously I knew bees make honey from nectar, gather pollen, and somehow produce beeswax, but propolis? I’d never heard the word.

In case you’re in a similar boat, here’s WebMD’s definition: “Propolis is a resin-like material from the buds of poplar and cone-bearing trees … Propolis has a long history of medicinal use, dating back to 350 B.C., the time of Aristotle … Propolis seems to have activity against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It might also have anti-inflammatory effects and help skin heal.”

Bees use propolis to seal small openings and cracks in their hives. Some breeds and hives propolize a little. Others propolize a lot. Italian bees, in particular, are said to be less propolizing than others.

Having no basis for comparison, I can’t say for sure our bees are overly fond of propolis, but they do seem to be rather particular about their hive, and I’ve certainly scraped off a lot of propolis.

Here’s the thing: Propolis is sticky (as one might expect from something made of tree resin), which makes it challenging to clean off a hive tool. However, I recently learned it’s also quite brittle when cold, which makes cleaning much easier. Supposedly people buy it for natural medicine, but I imagine it would take a long time (or many hives) to acquire enough to sell.

Here’s what our supers looked like before I scraped them.

I should mention bees have also been known to propolize heat-seeking mice that sneak into their hive. If you’d like to see a picture, visit HoneybeeSuite.com.

Beeswax is a different thing altogether. Bees use it to form comb for honey and brood. They also use it to fill gaps and holes that are too big to propolize.

We don’t toss any propolis or wax on the ground (nor dead bees, for that matter) because we’ve heard those nasty yellow jackets will smell it and be even more attracted to our hive. Instead we put both substances into jars for future use.

A few days ago, I finally got around to melting down the was. Below is a picture of two pans. One has the sludge left on the bottom of the pan after warming and then straining the wax. The other has the wax. We had a quart and a 1/2 pint mason jar full of wax, and the strained wax barely covered the bottom of the pan.  IMG_3018

That’s okay. It made the house smell divine, and there’s enough to coat at least one or two frames.

And, hey, did I mention our hive is now wired? The Engineer and I bought raffle tickets at OSBA, and each won two drone frames. Now we have seven, more than sufficient for our single hive, but at least we’re ready for expansion.

I also won a Broodminder temperature sensor, perhaps partly because I paid attention to what it was and put a lot of tickets in the jar. I think most people just noticed the drone boards.

It’s kind of cool. You stick it above the brood box, with the tag hanging out, download an app, and then start taking readings (though you do have to be within thirty feet of the hive). Dead easy once I realized the plastic bit was part of the device and not the wrapping as I first believed. I’m repeating a picture so you can see the tab on the front of our hive.

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Beekeepers can then upload their information to the “Bee Counted” website where they and others can compare readings. Broodminder also sells a scale, but The Engineer won $30 off a wi-fi hive scale, so he bought that one, which has the advantage of being able to be read anywhere from any device.

I think we both felt too inexperienced to judge if our bees have enough honey for the winter.

So far, we’ve weighed our coffee table — 169 pounds, if you must know. It would be great if our hive weighed that much.

We’ll find out once The Engineer decides how to mount it. I’ll keep you posted.

 

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Minding our Bees and Qs

I think I’ve established The Engineer and I have a lot to learn about beekeeping. If you haven’t yet reached that conclusion, I recommend you re-read my previous post, as well as the one before, which are full of corrections.

For this reason (and because Brushy Mountain offered 10% off any orders picked up at the event) we attended the Ohio State Beekeepers Association (OSBA) conference held Saturday.

We also planned to visit Darling Daughter, which morphed into attending a beer tasting event held by the Friends of the Worthington Library system. Bees, beer and books — what more could you ask for in a weekend?

The conference sessions were interesting and educational, though some were well beyond our beekeeping skill level. I’m quite sure we won’t be rearing queens for profit in the near future, yet it was good to be exposed to possibilities that are currently beyond our capabilities.

Our order from Brushy Mountain was hope, prevention, and current needs made manifest in beekeeping equipment — a nuc box in the hope that we’ll eventually have a large enough hive to split, a drone frame as part of our pest management plan for the future, and an oxalic acid (OA) vaporizer to treat once more before winter.

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Oxalic Acid and Vaporizer, with my notes on use, painters’ tape for sealing hive, nitrile gloves and measuring spoons.

We previously treated Buzzers’ Roost with MiteAway Quick Strips (MAQS), which can be used with the supers on, but for the vaporizer, it’s necessary to remove them. This means first removing the bees from the supers, and to accomplish this, we used an escape board (picture below is from the Brushy Mountain catalog). 774-escape-screen-10-f_main-1.jpg

The board above is upside down, and you can see how it works. The beekeeper puts the triangular maze facing down so the bees easily enter through the big hole to return to the brood boxes, but find it difficult to find their way back to the supers.

After performing what will probably be our last semi-thorough check of the boxes on Sunday (when it was 67* F), we inserted the board.

At first we forgot to close the top entrance, rather defeating the purpose of an escape board, but once that was remedied, the board proved effective. There were only three bees in the supers when we took it out the next day. (If you leave it in too long, the bees figure out how to get back up, so this must be done within 24-48 hours.)

By then, however, the temperature had dropped to the upper 50s, necessitating a quick removal to avoid chilling the hive. About 30-40 bees were hanging out in the net triangle maze and had to be assisted back through the front door to their brood box. Even with our encouragement and guidance, not all managed the feat. (If we looked at it from the bees’ perspective, you could probably substitute “interference and meddling” for the words “encouragement and guidance.”)

Yesterday, I taped off the upper entrance and the small gap in the back where the bottom board is inserted, donned my mask, gloves, and eye protection, and used our new vaporizer for one last mite treatment before winter. You can see the tape in the picture below. And check out the verandah The Engineer created to help keep rain off the entrance. The metal thing is a mouse guard. Both were removed before the treatment. IMG_3003
Unsurprisingly, the bees don’t like this kind of intrusion. About thirty seconds after inserting the wand, a kind of quiet roar began emanating from the hive. Also, one befuddled bee tried in vain to find the entrance that had been there only moments before. No vapor escaped though, and the OA crystals were gone when I pulled out the wand, so maybe the treatment will prove successful. Between the tape and the bees’ propolis (more about that next post), the boxes were well-sealed.

I removed the tape so they would have the ventilation necessary to prevent a wet hive and left them to recover.

Then, this morning I woke up to this.unnamed-5

Snow.
Time to put on the hive wrap.

Not all beekeepers wrap their hive(s), but since our bees had a rough start, we wanted to give them some extra help for the winter. This morning, I duct taped on the hive quilt we bought from B&B Honey Farm. There are other means to insulate a hive — a wind break made of straw bales, wrapping the hive in tar paper, crumpling newspaper to absorb moisture under the lid — about as many as there are beekeepers.

It seems the challenge is helping the bees keep warm while at the same time preventing condensation. Damp bees are dead bees.

We chose two tactics: the hive quilt and insulating foam under the lid.

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Snow falling over Buzzers’ Roost

Cross your fingers that this is only a cold snap and not the start of true winter. We’d like one more warm day to move the hive, put the honey super back on, feed one last pollen and/or sugar patty, and attach our new wi-fi hive scale.

 

 

 

 

 

So, You Want to Be a Beekeeper? Prepare to Occasionally Feel Very Stupid

If you read my last post, including updates, you will see I was quite wrong about several things.

  • Although I knew drones were bigger than workers, the large eyes of the bee in the “stand-off” photos convinced me it was a drone, despite it not having a blunt body and being the same size as the other bee.
  • When we tested for Foulbrood and the test was negative, I assumed (always a mistake), our bees were in the clear. Wrong again. They have Parasitical Mite Syndrome, which means their chances of making it to spring are slim indeed.

And yet, as one reader commented about the Yellow Jackets, we can’t give up until the bees do. As long as they are alive, we will continue to do everything we can to give every chance possible to survive.

What this means in practical terms is pretty much following the winter strategy we had already decided on.

  1. Feed them as much as they want to take.
  2. Treat them again for Varroa (this time with a vaporizer).
  3. Winterize their hive with insulation and a wrap.

If they don’t survive, our next bees will benefit from this year’s bees’ work by starting with drawn comb instead of foundation and having honey, rather than sugar water, as food if they need it.

So, lessons learned:

  1. Beekeeping has a steep learning curve. There is much to know, and I don’t think anyone can become an expert in a day (if ever).
  2. Sometimes, you just have to do what you can and trust your bees to know what’s best for them.
  3. If you are the sort of person who wants to feel smart and be right all the time, beekeeping is probably not for you.
  4. Some hives thrive despite ignorance and lack of care.
  5. Other hives fail no matter how much care and thought they are given.
  6. Use drone frames early, and make sure you take them out before the drones (and Varroa) emerge.
  7. Treat for Varroa. Just assume your hives have them. They do.
  8. When you put out dry pollen for your bees, every bee in a five mile radius will come to call.
  9. Everyone has different ideas about how to do things. Some of these strategies may work for you. Some won’t.
  10. Because every hive is different.
  11. In no way does the above truth excuse you from learning as much as you can.

 

 

Cautiously, Infinitesimally, Almost Imperceptibly Hopeful (for About a Day)

As you read this, please be sure to read the updates to get a true picture of what’s happening in our hive.

If there were a scale called “Chances Our Bees Will Survive the Winter,” it might look like this:

1__________________________________5_____________________________10
Bees will certainly die.                  Bees might not die.                 Bees will certainly live.

Following the Yellow Jacket raid two weeks ago, I would have put our girls at about 1.5.
After this week’s hive inspection, however, I think they’re closer to a 3, perhaps even a 3.5.

They have some brood. It’s spotty, but I think that may be normal with winter approaching. I know the queen slows down on laying eggs this time of year so there are less mouths to feed during winter. And we have baby bees hatching and some larvae. We also spotted the queen, which is always reassuring. IMG_2864
The caps on the cells aren’t as nice as earlier in the season, which was a bit worrying, so we checked for American Foulbrood (AFB) this week. The larvae in the caps we opened weren’t discolored and didn’t “rope out,” so we don’t have to burn all our equipment.

Yes, AFB is that bad. Its spores can live up to 70 years on equipment, and it’s lethal. (Click the link, and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs will tell you all about the disease.)

So, no burning necessary. That’s a relief.

Update: Sassafras Bee Farm very kindly sent me an email with some bad news. Our bees almost certainly have Parasitic Mite Syndrome (PMS). Here’s a link to some information on this syndrome, with lots of pictures that look exactly like our hive.

This week, there’s also been a great deal of wrestling going on in front of the hive, with bees dragging other bees out of the hive and dropping them on the ground, sometimes even flying away with them (to drop them elsewhere, I guess).
At first, we thought the hive was being raided … again, and our bees were protecting the hive — another worry. But our girls weren’t stinging the bees they tossed out.

It reminded me of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know, “I’m not dead yet!”

If you haven’t seen it, click the link above for the clip.
I’ll wait.

Funny, eh?

I can be a little dense, but eventually I realized what was happening. The worker bees were getting rid of the drones. They didn’t need to sting the evicted bees because drones don’t have a stinger and can’t sting back.

As you may know, drones don’t do much except fly to a Drone Congregation Area (DCA) and hang around, hoping to mate with a queen. (I’ve linked to Honeybee Suite here, partly for the description of DCAs and partly because I liked the comments.) There’s at least one DCA in England that is documented as having been in the same place for centuries.

Here’s a blog post from a guy who went in search of one that was written about in the late 1700s.

He found it too. Pretty amazing, if you ask me!

The mating process breaks a drone in two.
At least they go out with a bang. (Sorry!)

Since drones take up valuable resources with no immediate benefits to their hive, a hive won’t create male bees until it can support them.

But who makes that decision?

Not the queen.  Her job is laying eggs, and she does so according to the size of the cell — fertilized for workers in smaller cells, unfertilized for drones in larger cells.

Not the drones. We’ve established that they’re only good for one thing. (And I’m not, repeat not, drawing conclusions about any other species based on bees!)

So who decides the size of the cells? The worker bees.
And don’t they deserve that privilege? They’re called workers for a reason, and it’s a simple one. They do all the work.

Okay, okay, the queen labors too. Spending your life laying eggs and then being made to swarm or being killed by a usurper is work too. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and all that.

But, I digress.

Back to the workers. Guess what? They also chose when to create queen cells and raise new queens when they deem it time to swarm or replace the old queen.

Talk about the power of the sisterhood!

The boys? Not so much power. If a drone doesn’t mate by the time fall comes around, he’s kicked to the curb. His sisters quit feeding him, making him weak, and all that much easier to wrestle out of his home.

Judging by the state of the wings of some of the drones we saw on the ground, I think the girls may chew the wings of their bros, as well.

Yeah. It’s a rough life for a bee. Workers work themselves to death. Drones mate and die or get kicked from their hive and die. Queens lay eggs their whole life, and then are killed or forced to swarm (and then die later).

So, let’s change the subject and look at some pictures.

IMG_2886The Engineer took this picture of a showdown. I’m pretty sure it’s a worker making sure a drone doesn’t come back in the hive. Drones are usually bigger than worker bees, which isn’t the case here, but their eyes are also much bigger. This is more obvious in the picture below. The blog, Gerry’s Bees, has a nice picture showing the usual differences. Update: Sassafras Bee kindly pointed out that the big-eyed bee is NOT a drone, but a worker with Deformed Wing Virus. IMG_2885
In the seven days since our last inspection, the bees also produced a lot more honey. IMG_2879
It’s so beautiful; I couldn’t stop taking picturesIMG_2881
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This last picture is of the honey they’ve made on one of the drone foundations we put in last month to try to help with the Varroa infestation. The queen laid a few drones on it, but the next time we checked the hive, our bees were saving nectar in both drone frames. We left them in, and now they are full of honey.

Notice on the bottom of the picture there are bees hanging off one another in sort of a cluster. They frequently do this between frames as we remove the frames to inspect, clinging to each other in a living bee chain until the distance becomes so great they are forced to let go. The phenomenon is called “festooning,” and here’s a great photo of what it looks like (from Honeybee Suite).

The Engineer and I have been working too, learning what we can do to aid our girls in getting through winter. Yesterday, we attended an all-day class on “The Hardest Season.” We came away with a much longer “to-do list” than we went in with.

And now, I’m cautiously, infinitesimally, almost imperceptibly hopeful we can help — or at very least, not hinder — their chances of survival.

On a scale of one to ten, I’d give us a 4, mostly for effort. 🙂

Update: While I’d still give us a 4 for effort, I’m not sure anything we do will save our hive. We may be starting fresh in spring. Feeling down about this, and there’s nothing slight, cautious, or infinitesimal about the emotion.

 

 

 

 

 

The end of a bee. This poor thing has flown until she can fly to more and will soon die.

Heartbreak

Yesterday, we inserted the Mite Away Quick Strips (MAQS).

Using them meant removing the entrance reducer, so we worried about the vile and predatory Yellow Jackets who have plagued us and our hive. Of course, we were also concerned about the possible side-effects of the MAQS (dead bees, rejected queen).

However, if we didn’t treat the hive, the Varroa would continue to proliferate, debilitating our bees so they probably wouldn’t last the winter. If they somehow managed to survive the cold, the viruses carried by the mites would weaken them enough that they wouldn’t thrive next year.

There were no good choices.

This morning, when we went to have a look at the hive, we found this. IMG_2845

The little white things — that I initially thought were bits of paper from the strips — are larvae.

As I slowly absorbed that fact, with all its implications, a Yellow Jacket flew past the bees milling on the front porch and straight into the hive.

As if she owned it. As if it had been her who had raised and cared for those larvae, fed the queen, foraged for pollen and nectar, and fanned that nectar until the water evaporated to 18%, and it became honey. As if it were she — and not our hard-working girls — who had given everything for the hive.

The view from beneath the hive was equally dire. Bees milled around scattered larvae and another Yellow Jacket sauntered around like our hive was a buffet for her and her sisters.

I felt sick.

There was no clear course of action, nothing we could do without consequence. If we put the reducer back on, it would limit the space the bees needed to defend, but also limit the air circulation they need for the MAQS treatment. If we left it off, the Yellow Jackets would decimate what was left of the hive.

The Engineer made the call, not that it really mattered. The fumes will get them or the Yellow Jackets will. The chance of our bees recovering from a catastrophe of such magnitude at this time of the year is so small as to be almost non-existent.

Still, when the required seven days of treatment are over, and we can once again feed them, we’ll do so. Assuming there are any bees left to feed.

Even if there are, it’s almost certainly too late for them to raise another brood to take the hive through the winter.

My thoughts jump ahead — to next year, and what we can do differently. We’ll buy a package so we can start earlier, put the drone boards in immediately, treat the hive in the spring for Varroa, move it to the sunnier location that opened up when some trees fell this year.

Next year, we will do better.

For now though, I am heartbroken.

Hive Check, Or “Do Our Bees Have Enough Honey to Get Through the Winter?”

In preparation for applying the Mite Away strips, we did a complete hive check on Friday.

We needed to find out how the brood was placed to assess where best to place the strips for treatment. Also, we wanted to get a reading on how prepared the girls are for winter.

The good news is we have a lot of bees, all squirreling away nectar/honey/pollen for the winter (a bit of a mixed metaphor, I know). We saw capped brood and larvae so our queen is still laying, albeit at a slower rate. The brood and larvae were all in the second brood box, but there were bees working in the bottom one.

There were no more capped drone cells on the drone frames. Instead, they were filling it with nectar. Hey, whatever works for them, right?

I tried to write down what was on each frame. It’s difficult to effectively transcribe and quantify, so my notes look something like “Frame 4: 1/2 1/4 honey, 2/3 nectar, some pollen; 1/2 2/3 nectar/honey.” And so on. (I actually made those amounts up — my real notes were even more confusing.)

According to my admittedly shaky calculations, the girls are coming up short on their winter supplies, and we’ll probably have to start feeding them again soon. For now they continue to feast on goldenrod, and, to a lesser extent, the asters that have begun blooming. IMG_2832IMG_2830IMG_2829

We inserted fresh beetle traps, but ended up also re-inserting the previously baited ones in the lower honey super because we killed two beetles there. We also sprinkled the fullest brood chamber with powdered sugar again, figuring it can’t hurt and may help until it cools down enough to use the Quick Strips.

Afterwards, we sat and watched the bees work. (We do this at least once a day.) There are always a few who have worked themselves to death (the plight of the worker bee) and just can’t fly any more. Sometimes just die on the front porch or ground around the hive.  And sometimes the other bees come along and remove them, which is always interesting to watch.

If they’re still alive, The Engineer sometimes tries to help them back into the hive, but that’s just putting off the inevitable.IMG_2828IMG_2827IMG_2826This one is missing a leg.

Honey bees truly live to support their hive. My wish is that we’ve been able to fumble our way through supporting them well enough so they make it through the winter.

I fear the odds are against us.

 

 

Small Pests = Mite-y Problems

I can’t say they didn’t warn us. At our Intro to Beekeeping class, the teachers all said the Varroa Mite population would explode in the late summer and fall.

They were right. Although our sugar roll count in late August seemed borderline, our bee guru thought our bees needed treating.

On her advice, we began by putting in two drone frames and dusting the brood boxes with powdered sugar. Supposedly, the powdered sugar encourages bees to groom themselves and each other, thereby clearing away some of the mites.

Well, maybe. The sticky board count afterwards was unequivocally bad, though part of that might be due to the bees’ hygienic efforts. And our bees did build some drone comb on one board, resulting in about 15-20 capped drone cells. (If you recall, Varroa prefer drone larvae because they are larger, and their growth cycle more closely matches that of the Varroa).

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You remember drone cells, right? They look like Kix cereal.

The important thing about using drone frames is to be sure to take it out after the cells are capped but before the bees (and Varroa) hatch.

I’m going to repeat that yet another time because it’s really, really(!) important. YOU HAVE TO REMOVE THE DRONE FRAMES AFTER THE DRONE CELLS ARE CAPPED BUT BEFORE THE BEES AND VARROA HATCH! Otherwise you have a drone population explosion. Worse, you’ve just created a Varroa bomb in your own hive.

After you remove the drone frames, you uncap the cells. Here’s what we found. See those little specks?

IMG_2741I’m pointing to one with my uncapping tool below.FullSizeRender-22

Those are Varroa Mites. They carry deadly viruses and can lead to a colony’s die-off. (Click the link for more information from MSU’s Pollinator Initiative).  It was horrifying to see so many in such a small part of our hive.

Next year, we’ll be putting in drone frames as soon as our queen starts laying. This year, however, we’ll be inserting Mite Away Quick Strips as soon as the weather cools. These have a good track record of treating Varroa and Tracheal Mites in both capped brood and   the bee population. They can also be used while honey supers are on.

The downsides? They can’t be used if it’s over 92 degrees, and they have to be on the hive for at least seven days. They also get expensive if you use them regularly.

We planned to insert them yesterday, but the weather’s been hot for this time of the year, with expected highs in the upper 80s this week — too close to 92 to risk it.

There are some other concerns:

  • Treatment requires taking out the entrance reducer, and yellow jackets are still looking for a way in.
  • There may be bee die-off.
  • The treatment may cause the bees to reject the queen. (And this is not a good time of year to lose a queen.)

Still, I don’t believe we have a choice if we want to give our girls a fighting chance to get through the winter.

I’m starting to think beekeeping is a continuous cycle of choosing the lesser of two evils.

Other news on the pest front: our Beetle Jails  continue to catch Small Hive Beetles. When we first received the Jail and Beetle Blaster in our Ohio State Beekeepers Association Apiary Diagnostic Kit, we baited them with apple cider vinegar and caught nothing.

Then we tried the recipe printed in the “Monitoring for Sustainability” handbook (also in the OSBA APK). I’m sharing it below because it works. In fact, the Beetle Jail, paired w.ith this recipe, has been so effective, I invested in several more traps. So here’s the recipe: one slice of banana, one spoon of high protein brood builder (I’ve been using pollen powder substitute), one spoon of honey, a pinch of yeast (they prefer Brewer’s, but I had regular bread yeast, and it’s worked fine), and a spoon of water. Let ferment overnight, mix well, and put a few drops in each trap.

And go for the Beetle Jail traps. The other ones don’t work as well.

I’ll let you know how the MAQS treatment goes.