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.

 

 

Busy As Bees

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

Once you own a beehive, you soon get a clear understanding of the etymology of that phrase, and it’s the only one appropriate for the progress our bees have made.

We’ve checked on our girls twice since you last heard from me, and they have been very busy indeed.

One thing we’ve learned is they seem to like the security of having queen cups ready to go. Too bad the sight of them has the opposite effect on me. (As I’ve already mentioned I’m not quite ready to handle a swarm.)

Here’s a couple of pictures so you can see what I mean. If you’re not a beekeeper, look closely at the frame, and you’ll see a couple of oddly shaped cells. Two of them (one on far right middle of the photo and one almost covered with bees at the bottom) are shaped a bit like a piece of Kix cereal. These were not so worrisome because they were small and uncapped. It’s the bigger one, shaped like a peanut, at the bottom of the frame that was a concern. IMG_2233

I handled the longer cell the only way I could think of: I scraped it off (out of sight, out of mind?). We also added a second deep box as planned. (Bees swarm when they feel crowded, but if their hive is too big, they can’t protect it from raiding wasps, yellow jackets or honey bees, so the timing on this is important.)

We saw our Bee Guru during the week, and that’s where we learned that some hives like the security of having a queen cup or two ready. (I didn’t actually mention the longer cell, because I wasn’t 100% sure that’s what it was. Or maybe I just didn’t want to admit that’s what it was.)

Thankfully, there was no sign of swarming before our next check. (And we would have noticed. The Engineer and I are very protective of our bees.)

Also during the week, we attended a session on using the Apiary Diagnostic Kit we got from the Ohio State Beekeepers Association. This organization got a grant to provide these kits (worth over $80!) free of charge to new beekeepers. The goal (per their website) is increasing “beekeeper confidence in hive management by providing tools to help monitor and diagnose changes in the hive before they reach a critical stage and the hive dies.” If you’re a new beekeeper (starting in 2016 or 2017), click the link to get one. Experienced beekeepers can order kits for $49.99 (plus shipping), which is still a deal.

No, this is not a commercial for this project. I just think it’s great that the OSBA made it happen. And the educational sessions about using the kit, which are being offered around the state, make the program even better.

But back to the hive. Varroa Mites and Small Hive Beetles are creatures whose sole existence seems dedicated to wreaking havoc on honey bees and reproducing so their offspring can do the same.

And when I say wreak havoc, I mean it literally. If unchecked, these pests can (directly  or indirectly) cause the demise of a hive (or hives).

Since we don’t want that to happen to our hive, we were grateful for the opportunity to learn more about protecting them. And after attending the OSBA class, we felt prepared to try out some of the tools they’d provided to help us do just that.

This is the time of year to get a base count of the Varroa, so we decided to do a sugar roll (also called a sugar shake). Check out this video from Hudson Valley Bee Supply to see a demonstration.*

Seriously. Watch the video. Even if you don’t keep bees, you’ll find it fascinating.

You can do a similar test using alcohol. It’s more accurate, but it kills that 1/2 cup of bees (about 300). We don’t like killing bees, so we used sugar.

We also inserted both the “Beetle Blaster” and the “Beetle Jail.” These are variations on a theme — both shallow trays baited with cider vinegar inserted between frames. The Jail uses cooking oil to trap the beetles, and the Blaster is designed so they can get in, but not out.

Before closing  the hive, we put strips of microfiber in its dark corners to try to catch even more beetles. (The next day, we found one of the strips at the entrance to the hive where the bees had evidently dragged it. Clearly, one or more took a dislike to the cloth and wanted it gone.)

As you might guess, this hive check took longer than previous checks. Not only did we have two boxes to check, sugar to roll, Jail, Blaster, and microfiber to insert, The Engineer had surgery on his dominant hand on Thursday and was somewhat hindered in using it.

So we were especially grateful to one of our classmates who agreed to come over to help/learn/participate.

The difference from last week was amazing. Our bees are amazing. We couldn’t believe how hard they’ve been working. The queen, whom our classmate spotted first, must be an egg-laying machine! There were loads of eggs, plenty of larvae, lots of capped brood, some lovely glistening nectar and yellow pollen, and some capped honey.

Oh, there were also a couple of queen cups too (as you can see).

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We were so proud! I wish I’d taken more pictures, but we were so busy admiring the results of their labor, I just forgot.

The sugar roll resulted in us finding one mite, and we spotted (and killed, of course) another one on the top of a frame. However, I re-read the directions after we came back inside, and we may not have shaken the jar long enough, resulting in a number that skews low. And with all that beautiful capped brood, well, you just know those mites are going to be after our growing larvae.

Once we feel confident the hive is full strength, we may try the drone comb to try to offset some of that issue.

Quick explanation for those who aren’t beekeepers: Drones are male bees. There aren’t as many drones as workers because they don’t do much for the hive, but their growing cycle is longer and coincides better with the mites’. So mites really like drones. The type of egg — worker or drone — the queen lays is based on the size of the comb the workers draw. If the workers feel the hive can support drones, they draw (make) drone comb, the queen lays drones, and the mites are happy. You can force the issue by inserting a special kind of foundation, with drone-size cells started on it. The workers then draw drone comb, the queen lays drones, and the beekeeper takes the foundation out before [that’s really important] the drones hatch and set any mites free into the hive. The beekeeper then uses a special tool called a capping scratcher to open the cells and count the mites. And also kill them. In this way, the drone comb serves as both a diagnostic tool and a treatment measure against drones.

Okay, so maybe that explanation wasn’t so quick. At least you get it now, right?
Your reward for being so patient is one more picture of the girls. 🙂 IMG_2245

Our next visit will be a simple check — having a look for the queen, seeing if the bees are still doing well and when they might be ready for a honey super, and looking in our Jail, Blaster, and microfiber for dead(!) beetles.

*After doing a bit of research, I have one correction to the information provided by the film: Domino Powdered Sugar is no longer cornstarch free. We used a powdered sugar that has cornstarch for our first roll; I purchased Heinen’s brand for the next time. It’s organic and uses tapioca starch instead, which seems like it might be a bit better for the bees.