It has been a while, so grab a drink and a comfy chair. I'll try to keep this interesting (not, as I told someone recently, "and then they did this, and then I did that, after which they did this, causing me to decide to do the other...") because it has been another interesting and challenging year. Yet, things are changing— including how I'm handling the honeybees — and it is by turns mind-opening and a bit frightening to see what stays and what goes as we travel along this life together. But there is not much poetry in playing catch-up here, and I promise to do better later.
If there is a way to make this a short story, it is in the title of this post: last year ended with 5 hives, and 2007 started with only 4, when the mill hive died. For one reason or another (winning a package of bees at the club holiday party, deciding it made no sense to keep just one hive at the historic mill) by the end of April I had 7 hives in three locations. The monastery hives had trouble, though, and I had to fight to keep them alive, ending up uniting one of the struggling hives with the bodacious packaged bees (who just took off like crazy! Rock on girls!). So that makes six hives, all buzzing along quite nicely now, with almost no thanks due to me. It's a bit overwhelming, and I have been forced to take up a different kind of relationship with the bees: less "personal" if you will, but more respectful of them.
I have a lot to tell you even so, and therefore there are lots of small pictures on the left: if you click them they will pop up to the larger shots you might be used to here. This first one shows you one thing that has taken up alot of the past two months: assembling woodenware. The stuff at left is just the last batch of over 10 boxes (and associated frames) that joined our inventory this year. In previous years, I bought completely assembled hive parts, paying the extra money and banking the time. However, last year I read an article that said honeybees do better when given pure beeswax frames, and you can't get those shipped to you. Also, I felt a bit like a fraudulent beekeeping mentor when newbees ask me how to put their hives together, and I have been basically clueless.
Which brings me to my next great excuse for prolonged absence: I've been out trying to give what guidance I can to even newer beekeepers! The picture at left is my friend Jane in her apiary. I've been out there a couple of times (mostly because she worries too much!) and she has helped out at the mill, too. But I have also helped two new beekeepers set up at the Monastery (Joe and Joseph, with 2 and one hives respectively) and had a look into the hives of Bill, Andrea, and Jill. Mostly, new beekeepers just need a more experienced set of eyes to say "that's drone brood" or "this is a 3-day old egg) or "there's your queen" while they educate their own visual databanks. Sometimes there is an issue (like a crowded brood chamber) so I show them a few easy steps to sort things out. It's the kind of help I needed and got, and it is my duty to get out there myself.
Excuse number three boils down to even more doings in the world of humans, rather than bees, though it is the girls' fault to some extent. This picture shows my non-beekeeper cousin holding a frame of monastery bees (note this people: NO GLOVES!) We were on the road together for a week, celebrating her completion of another year of college on her way to becoming the teacher we all wish we had. She also helped me out with a surprisingly stressful commitment to volunteer in three different capacities (am I a moron, or what?) at the bicentennial of a historic site where I walk my dogs. This is the same place where we had the yellowjacket adventure last year, so the bees are really responsible for my rise to prominence (and exhaustion :-) ) over there.
Which brings me to the last figleaf of this post, but it is one to which you new beekeepers might want to pay attention: if you start looking out for bees and flowers, you are not very far off from butterflies and bats, and maybe snapping turtles and birds and ladybugs. Just after I began keeping honeybees, the world suddenly seemed to contain astoundingly more flowers and smells. This year, the yard seems to contain a remarkable selection of butterflies, birds, and native plants (which might have been simple weeds just a couple of years ago). When you open a door in your life, it's amazing the company you start to keep.
The Roof Bees
But you are probably more interested in bees than excuses, so perhaps you would like to know what is happening up on the roof. After losing the mill bees to mite-borne illness (or so I think today: ask me again in a few months...) I decided to get serious about Spring varroa mite treatment. Around here, the weather does not cooperate with the methods I like the best: I won't use the neurotoxin pesticides, and the essential oil and formic acid treatments have exacting temperature requirements. The roof bees were most similar to the colony that died in terms of persistent mite loads and the type of treatment they received last year, so I was VERY worried. I did not want to use oxalic acid again, and the confectioner's sugar treatment (more on that below) would result in a layer of frosting on my roof.
My solution was this: formic acid pads —"Mite Away II," in fact. As treatments go, it is pretty convenient and non-toxic. The temperature has to stay above 50 degrees F, and below 79 degrees F (at least during the first week), though. Around here, Spring is a bumpy time, and nights in the 50s quickly turn into days in the 80s. The pads have to be on for 21 days, and you have to get them out of there before the honey flow (in other words, May) so you can see that timing is everything. The heavy dose of formic acid which is release in the first week also hurts uncapped brood, which can put a hole in the workforce just before the honey flow here. The pads went on April 26 and came off on May 17. I've never tried a Spring mite treatment before, and truly hope this will make a major contribution to the health of the girls this season. They need every break they can get.
With apologies for the smear on the lens, here is the latest rooftop plot twist. These are supercedure cells in Wilde, my crazy Carniolan tribe. There were also THREE capped queen cells in the swarm position at the same time. We found them just as my cousin and I had to leave for our trip, so the next morning in the car, I sat there wondering whether they had left, and whether the formic acid treatment gave them a better chance of surviving if they did set up shop on their own. MaryEllen told me that the swarming impulse was considerably muted during the honeyflow, so maybe they would not go at all. As of today, it appears that they did not go. Perhaps they superceded, though their mom (a supercedure queen herself) is doing a great job.
The workers may have blamed her for the brood break that came with the formic, or they may have called it all off later. I am not sure, but I can tell you that there are three medium supers of honey on that colony, and probably 60,000 bees, so it is nonetheless a good year so far.
But what about Twain, you might ask? That hive superceded last year, too, and is still standing. The colony has fewer bees and less honey than Wilde, but it is definitely happy and strong. I was just in there today, giving another honey super to them. Even though most beekeepers here think that the main nectar flow is over, we have lots of linden trees planted along the streets, bursting with blooms. I hope that they will continue collecting actively for at least another week. While in the hive, I saw the darkest honey ever: tulip poplar, probably. There was no evidence of swarm cells, and lots of new eggs. While not as dramatic as the Carnies, Twain's Italian honeybees are buzzing along just fine.
The Monastery Bees
The Franciscan bees have presented the biggest scare and largest challenge of the year, so far. Sometime in late Winter, both queens became drone layers, and I had to pull all sorts of drone brood and requeen. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Hygienic queens that were available so early turned out to have problems. MaryEllen had several, none of which worked out, and one of mine ended up dying at my hand.
When the package bees I won arrived, I installed them in a nuc box at the Monastery as well. You can see the box at the left, with another upside down nuc box on top (to function as a feeder box). Those bees took off at once, with the queen laying wall-to-wall and happy bees flying to and fro all day long.
For several weeks, I went to the Monastery to monitor how the Minnesota queens were doing, from being released through initial laying. The queen in the Doug colony (furthest right in all of these pictures) came online relatively well, but the MaryEllen-the-Hive queen produced just a very few brood cells, then would stop, then would start, and I could never find eggs. For a month, I would go every few days, planning that "today is the day" I would kill the weak queen and unite the remaining bees with the nuc. You can see from this picture that the package had grown so big that they had been expanded into a full hive body. Then, in the next picture, you can see that they actually grew larger than MaryEllen-the-Hive.
Finally, I opened up the colony, and found that wax moths had started to breed, and that the bees had been too weak to fight them off. The time had come, as much as I hated to kill a poor, innocent creature who had earned no blame. To let her live, all her children would die, and a hive that could give life to thousands of wild plants (and the creatures that depend on them) would cease to exist. It was my responsibility, and I did it, but I wish she had not seemed so terrified and confused. It was not her fault.
But let me try to explain what I saw. Here's a shot of a really great brood pattern. Do you see how there are very few open cells? The edges of the frame hold nectar and pollen for the nurse bees to use in taking care of the brood. The queen began laying in the center of this frame, and little by little, cell by cell, spiraled outward, laying. The cells in the middle will hatch first: some of the empties near the edges may actually be brood that has not been capped yet. The queen will come back later and lay again in these cells, once they are cleaned and ready to go again.
This is a not-so-great pattern. If you click on this picture, you will get a bigger-than-normal photo, an attempt to show you something which is a little hard to see. This is a medium frame, but it is not even filled out top-to-bottom. There are more empties than filled holes. Finally, do you see the queen cups on the bottom? These workers know that they need a new mom, and are trying to get one. The cups are actually in a swarm position, but the hive is so low on population that there is no way they will swarm. I think they are just trying to get a new queen any way they can, and they are not succeeding.
So in early May I united the nuc and MaryEllen-the-Hive, and they seem to be doing really well now. I still need to watch Doug, because that hive still has a hygienic queen, the last among all the queens that MaryEllen and I installed from that shipment that still appears to be reigning over a hive. Therefore, there is reason to worry that she will peter out. But so far, so good.
You might wonder why I am not talking about varroa treatments at the Monastery, and you would be a smartie if you did. The reason that I did not do a Spring treatment is this: the drone laying and drone larvae removal was one massive IPM-style varroa treatment. The mites are attracted to drone larvae preferentially, and when you remove the boys, you generally whallop the varroa population. Also, requeening caused a big disruption in the hives' brood cycles, also depressing the varroa population. Therefore, I am holding off until Fall, trying not to interfere too much in these very messed-with hives.
The Historic Mill Bees
In a way, I've saved the simplest, most rewarding story for last. Here is the Mill apiary, with 4 hives and a nuc (the small colony with a red strap around it). MaryEllen-the-Beekeeper is having her swarmiest year ever, so she keeps having to stash a nuc of captured wanderers at the Mill while she plans her next move. Since last year, a big old tree that overshadowed the apiary had to be removed (or it would fall down) and you can see me in the background in front of our new privacy fence. The extra sunlight seems to have done wonders for the girls, because we are all doing really well so far.
Here are my two colonies. I am trying to replace all the green boxes with white to get away from the stripey look and to keep better track of my gear inventory, but you see how it is. These two big colonies were actually started from packages just two months ago, and they took off like a rocket. The packages were installed onto comb that the girls who died left behind, somethig that worried me. But there is no evidence of disease so far, and a general vibe of health and happiness seems to spread from those boxes. There were three medium supers of not-yet-capped honey on each hive when I visited a couple of days ago, really wonderful for colonies started from packages this year!
And also a bit unnecessarily, here is a picture of some mill nurse bees taking care of new eggs. It is more important to see eggs than to track down the queen, and these hives have made it very easy for me this year. They have grown fabulously and happily, and I just hope to stay ahead of them in meeting their needs, including varroa management. The mites killed their predecessors, and I want to do better this year.
After going to a state beekeeping meeting where the role of all kinds of chemicals was a concern in the recent Colony Collapse Disorder crisis, I became convinced that I should try a completely non-toxic, non-chemical approach to control at the Mill. Here you see two cups of confectioners' sugar ladled onto the screened top of a hive.
By brushing the powdered sugar into the hive, I can cause the varroa mites to lose their footing and fall off the bees. The powdered sugar literally clogs up the little hooks and hairs they use to grab bees, and the motes fall down to the waiting ants. The bees can actually eat any extra sugar, and the grooming behavior they use to remove it also helps in mite control.
The only problem with this treatment is that it needs to be repeated regularly and many many times besides. I know a beekeeper who used this treatment exclusively, and nonetheless lost her bees. Therefore, I need to watch for any signs of an infestation, and have another plan just in case one erupts. I have formic pads set aside as a fall treatment even now, but my jury is out on what to do if an infestation erupts during hot weather.
It can actually be a little entertaining to apply this treatment. The bees change their buzz as soon as you drop the sugar, and they begin flying around in a somewhat disoriented fashion, looking like little ghost bees. Here's a whitened bee lifting her nasanoff gland, followed by another grooming herself on a fencepost. Notice the little white spot she left when she landed!
The bees probably do not see so well with sugar in their eyes, and in the left picture you can see a bee that drifted into the hive next door during the mere 10 minutes between when I opened the first one and then the second to apply the treatment. The right picture shows a hapless bee that has been captured by a "Daring Jumping Spider," kind of a cool looking beastie itself. I know this may sound odd or wrong to you, but I am actually glad to see the bees become a part of ALL portions of the cycle of life where they are located. Honeybees are not native to North America, but if they can slip into an integrated role in a balanced ecology, they can provide tremendous benefit. I am sorry to kill bees, but not sorry to see life be succeeded by death and renewed life in the natural order of things.
Finally, while there I actually saw one of the Mill queens cruising around, measuring a cell, and laying an egg. Unfortunately, I smeared my lens again, so this is the best I could do. It was a treat to see an utterly unbothered queen, healthily going about her regal business, supporting a family that is doing well.