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
IMG_2882
IMG_2878
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. ūüôā

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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).

FullSizeRender-21

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.

 

 

I Just Saw a Baby Honey Bee, or One Step Forward, One Step Back

During our last full hive check, The Engineer noticed this girl making her first appearance as a fully grown bee. Seeing this was definitely a high point in our beekeeping experiences so far.

 

We’ve continued looking in on our girls each week, though last week was devoted to a sugar roll, which unfortunately yielded a few more mites than is optimal. Our bee guru has advised us to insert our drone frames and sprinkle the frames with powdered sugar. We will then remove those frames sometime after two weeks, but before three weeks pass and the bee larvae hatch.

Because the drone growth cycle more closely mimics that of the Varroa Mites, the mites prefer to lay their eggs in drone cells, thereby affording their own offspring a better chance at survival.

This, of course, is the opposite of what we want.

By inserting drone frames, we will promote the raising of drones and the laying of Varroa Mite eggs on those drones. Thus, when we remove the frames, we will have a better idea of how many mites are in the hive, and at the same time (hopefully) decimate a portion of their next generation.

That this will also decimate the drone larvae is of little consequence. They don’t do much anyway and will be kicked to the curb before winter anyway. (In the honey bee world, drones are a bit of a luxury.)

The most important thing about using drone frames — and I’m not sure I can stress this enough — is to¬†REMOVE THE DRONE FRAMES BEFORE THE DRONES (and Varroa) HATCH!

Yes, I’m shouting. It’s that crucial. ¬†Should something happen and the frames not be taken out in time, we would not only have an overabundance of drones, we would also have an explosion of mites!

After we uncap the cells and take a look, the frames will be popped into the freezer for twenty-four hours and returned to the hive to start the process again.

Now you may be wondering why we would sprinkle the bees with sugar. The answer is simple. Honey bees like sweet stuff. They’re also very clean. Getting coated in sugar will encourage them to clean one another, which we hope will result in more Varroa deaths.

So our next hive check will be focused on the Varroa issue.

In other news, our Beetle Jail has been doing its job, having caught five of the little black nasties on our most recent check. The Beetle Blaster was less successful, and has been replaced with another Jail. We are currently using a bait mix of mashed banana, honey, fake pollen and water, which has added to the traps’ effectiveness. (I think that was the whole recipe. If you’re interested, leave a comment, and I’ll double-check.) ¬†We tried cider vinegar first and didn’t catch anything.

Alas, the “nuclear option” for Yellow Jackets was not as effective, probably because my trap design was faulty. ¬†In trying to not unleash death on any living creatures other than the would-be yellow raiders, I think I made the holes too small. (The traps did, however, catch an inordinate amount of flies.) I’m crossing my fingers that the commercial traps we hung have made enough of a dent in the Yellow Jacket population to keep them out of our hive.

Now we come to this week’s “one step forward, one step back” part of the saga. When we did the last full check, I developed a sinking feeling that they haven’t put enough by for the winter, even though we’ve continued to feed them.

Before all you experienced beekeepers come down on us for doing this, hear me out. First this is a new hive, one that had just begun to store honey before we left town for ten days, which also happened to be the beginning of the late summer nectar dearth. I’d much rather feed our bees and have them make it through the winter than take a chance on weaning them too early.

Could we be wrong? Of course. It won’t be the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the¬†last time we make the incorrect decision concerning the girls.

Anyway, I thought it prudent to replace our pint jar feeder at with a bigger one. And since we’d planned on getting an observation lid with a built-in feeder for the winter, I went ahead and invested (one step forward).

The only problem is the new lid doesn’t have an opening/upper entry. After only a few days, we’ve concluded it’s better suited for winter use (one step back), especially since Goldenrod season was nearly upon us and the bees would want that extra opening for quick access to the honey supers.

Well, the Goldenrod is now in bloom, and I wish you could have seen the hive yesterday! It was a blur of activity, with every other bee just¬†loaded with pollen. Unfortunately for you, I didn’t follow through on that wish in the form of a still photo, only marking the occasion by video. And though it rained most of today, severely hampering the workers’ ability to forage, I have no doubt they’ll be back out tomorrow. (Maybe I’ll manage a picture of the action for my next update.)

This weekend, we will put in the drone frames, do the sugar sprinkle, and go back to the original telescoping top cover and inner cover. We’ll also check the honey and pollen stores and perhaps (finally!) remove the food.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, here a few more of my bee photos to tide you over.

 

 

 

 

And They Shall Be Called … 

Since we got our hive, several people asked if we’d named it. To be honest, this was something I hadn’t previously considered.

However, after some thought, I came up with with an appropriate moniker, which I shared with one friend and The Engineer, and then promptly forgot.  

Fortunately, The Engineer didn’t. 

Readers, allow me to introduce the Buzzers’ Roost. 

If you look closely, you’ll see several of the buzzers are upside down fanning their wings to cool their home on this hot summer day.