Month: July 2015

Bring Out Your Dead…

EFB infected larvae, from
EFB infected larvae, from

We have an unfortunate visitor in the apiary, unfortunate but giving us a wonderful learning opportunity!

Our #2 student apiary hive has suddenly developed the symptoms of foulbrood, and so is now being treated and is under quarantine. Almost all brood affected was young and uncapped, suggesting EFB. I ran a Vita-Life AFB test kit and it came up negative. Either way, with an irradiation facility handy to sterilize the infected equipment, the protocol is the same. I do not usually stock EFB kits, but I should…if the deaths are from neither of the foulbroods, this is just colony stress and the equipment need not be sterilized at all.

This is a perilously small colony and may just have found themselves unable to care for the eggs their spunky new queen is laying. The larvae may just have died and rotted as a consequence. But we will treat as per the foulbroods, just in case.

Note that this colony failed to use its syrup feeder, even though we are in a deep drought and nectar dearth. If a colony fails to take feed, that is usually an indication that something is wrong, usually illness or extreme pest pressure, and an inspection is necessary, ASAP.

The protocol is as follows:

Day 1: apply a “flash” treatment of Oxytet (tetracycline powder) 1:5 mixed well with icing sugar. Apply 2 T(ablespoons) of mixture to ends of top bars, avoiding brood.

Day 4: repeat the flash treatment above

Day 5: turn colony out onto clean, bare equipment. This forces the colony to use up their (medicated but still possibly contaminated) gut contents to make new wax, metabolizing the pathogen and its possible spores. Do not feed the colony for 1-2 days. You will lose no foragers if you put the clean, bare, new setup on the stand the old hive occupied. Take the old equipment away and scrape clean, bag to prevent robbing and for sterilization. Burn scrapings, or take them to the city dump tagged for burning.

Day 6/7: Give medicated syrup in syrup feeder to prevent recurrence of pathogen and to promote comb building. You can at this time also give them some drawn comb so the queen can begin laying right away.

Ongoing…continue to feed to support colony expansion, check brood carefully for health. You can repeat the protocol if there is a recurrence. You can also boost the numbers of a small colony when you are sure it is healthy by adding frames of capped brood or layering on a nuc of adult bees. Monitor queen fecundity: it may have been impaired by the disease or stress agent. If she is not laying well, or if the disease recurs (indicating her daughters may just be from susceptible genetic lines), replace the queen.

This queen is drop-dead-gorgeous, let us hope she makes it through unscathed!


Update August 24 2015

All’s well that ends well! Our little colony stuggled, given that the brood was all dying thanks to EFB. We medicated twice with Oxy-Tet in icing sugar, as above.

But our drama occured during the turn-out phase, when after a day on bare equipment, just before I arrived with their medicated feeder full of Oxy-tet in syrup, the colony absconded! This was a shock as we are in a serious nectar dearth. It could be they objected to their used nuc box, which I will scub more thoroughly, and spray with “Queen Juice” before re-use. They were certainly very unhappy with their clean, bare equipment and no feed!

Their absence was discovered in late afternoon, likely on the day they decamped. A quick search of the area failed to turn up the bees…you can often find a swarm by looking for flights of bees, often just a few bees coming and going, from places they ought not to be flying from…like blackberry thickets, ie. not from a known hive location or floral source.

I had to leave, but returned to the beeyard at sunset. I could not believe the bees had left, and further that they had not chosen to move into any of our bait hives! I took one more walk around the area, and along a small path, across a ditch from the original hive site, there were the bees, happily in a low bush. I joyfully swept them into a box and dumped them into a hive with drawn comb AND a frame of open brood from the next hive.

I reasoned that after two round of meds and a day or two of starvation, there was little chance of the EFB surviving in the bee guts. And so it has turned out.

We are two weeks down the road, the queen is laying very well, and the brood all seems healthy, even since the medicated syrup feed ended.

Although the colony lost about a month of new bees, and of course was losing old bees at the same time, they should have time to build up for winter. They are now getting protein patties and syrup feeds.


Week Four: Spring Management

On to Week Five

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Week One

Week Two

Week Three

Spring Management

It is necessary to state the caveat to seasonal management: what you do in one season affects colony development in all the others! This is why you read so frequently that “spring management starts the summer before” and soforth. What does change from season to season is the intensity of the management…or perhaps better stated, the stakes are higher/different.

In spring management, we are assessing whether the colonies survived the winter, and if they did, in what shape. IF honey is our goal, we are thinking ahead to the all-important date that we expect to be the beginning of the main nectar flow. That date, tattooed onto every beekeeper’s heart, varies from biozone to biozone. And from year to year.

The bees come out of winter with brood in the hive. The colony, sensing the lengthening of days after midwinter, will have slowly been increasing the amount of brood. Left with stores of honey and pollen in the fall, and in my case with a sugar brick on the top bars to prevent starvation (and which serves as a handy check for the beekeeper…on warmish days I can pop the top, and observe the sugar brick…how much have the bees eaten, and how many bees are on the brick? these are all potent indicators of the health and size of the colony), colonies generally arrive at January/February in good condition, but can quickly run through stores as brood rearing ramps up.

It is not uncommon for an overwintered colony, otherwise healthy and viable, to starve in March. Why? Because it is very difficult to offer meaningful supplemental feeding before overnight temperatures rise above 10C/50F. The bees will literally starve themselves attempting to raise the spring brood: the winter bees are aging and cannot expect to meet the spring nectar flows in effective numbers. They know they have to raise a new generation of foragers…and every forager is 43 days = 6 weeks from the egg (or to put it another way, foragers learn to forage when they are three week old bees).

In my locale, the first big nectar flow is the Oregon/Big Leaf Maple bloom, usually in mid to late April. To field a great forager force for maple, new bees have to be started in February till very early March. Because brood rearing is not likely at its peak that early, and because that forager population is not going to have time to build to max force, we often fail to capitalize on that big nectar flow…it really just helps the hives build toward the critical June blackberry flow. To hit the June flow with max forager force, bees must be in peak new bee production mode in April.

Once nights are reliably 10C or above, you can begin syrup feeding. Before that time, syrup feeds cannot be effectively cured and can cause overwhelming condensation in the hive. And wet, cold bees are dead bees.

Remedy…if you are feeding syrup when the nights are still cold, keep insulation on over the feeder and cluster. This keeps the inner cover warm enough that condensation does not (we hope) form there and drip down onto bees. Condensation on the side walls of the hive is not usually a problem for the bees.

In our locale we have a conundrum! Days might be averaging 10C, but nights are often well under 10C far into April. So we have to consider our goals in deciding how and what to feed at this time of year. Because I am pushing colonies early to max brood production to fuel my own apiary goals (honey, queen breeding), I will put syrup in the feeders when I unwrap in late March/early April but continue to leave some sugar on the top bars as added insurance until I am certain the bees are taking the syrup. Note: many beekeepers offer saved frames of honey to the bees in spring, but I am not set up to do that.

At any time you can add a protein/pollen patty (and a fresh sugar brick if needed). These feeds will enable the bees to support the spring brood, and to increase their rate of raising new brood. I start adding a bit of pollen sub in February. They don’t usually touch it till March/April but it is a bit o’ insurance in case their pollen stores are low.

Feeding both carbs and protein offers one huge advantage to the honey-focused beekeeper (building a maximum sized forager force to meet the dominant nectar flow), and one huge disadvantage: big, booming hives are programmed to swarm in the spring.

Swarms are wondrous things. And they are the way bees reproduce. But as it rises into the air, your swarm takes half the bees in your hive, your productive queen, and a substantial store of honey in all those little bee bellies (they fill themselves to bursting before taking off). Now your colony is queenless, although it will have ripe queen cells left behind to emerge, and half your older, forager age bees are gone.  Eek! Even supposing one of those ripe queen cells emerges successfully, and runs the gauntlet of “new queen risks” (will they all kill each other in their bid for ascendancy? will she find drones to mate with? be damaged in the process of mating? be eaten by a bird on her mating flight(s)? will she find her way home? and be as productive as her mother?), it will be a full month before our new queen begins to lay eggs. During that month, there will be no new bees coming along, and the hive population will stall, and fall.

This is a disaster if you are trying to build up a honey hive. You will arrive at the nectar flow minus one month of bees = (1500 x 30 days) = 45000 bees that should have been laid. Remember, you will have lost almost as many as the bees age out. And, depending on the timing of the swarm, you already have, on day one of that month, vastly reduced numbers of the all important foragers.

Be careful! If your first attempt at queen rearing fails, there are not enough bees left by then to take the hive through another month with no new brood coming along. Be prepared to buy a queen at that point, or you risk losing the hive to either simple attrition and/or the development of laying workers.

(note: at peak season, a single queen hive is at most a sum of the lay rate per day (1500-2000 eggs in top queens) over the life span of a typical summer worker (6 weeks max). So an exceptional hive at peak population could be as much as 85000 bees, with even middling performers weighing in at 42000 bees. Most are likely 50000-60000 bees strong.)

So, much of spring management is the see-saw exercise of building the hives but applying effective swarm control.

Another excellent summary, from the University of Delaware.

A wonderful primer on equalizing hives, which can be part of your post-winter, anti-swarming toolkit.

To encourage the hive to stay home, you give the queen room to lay. Feeding itself can trigger swarming as the bees plug the brood nest full of syrup honey. And once the maples bloom…

Big Leaf Maple in bloom.
Big Leaf Maple in bloom.

…the nectar really starts flowing into strong hives. You will be watching your hive very closely, inspecting weekly (weekly, I repeat weekly!!!) to check that your queen has room to lay and that the bees are not putting up queen cells. A queen cell can form and the bees can swarm in SEVEN DAYS (they swarm soon after the queen cells are capped), so vigilance is required.

Or like me, you will risk yourself standing in helpless fury as a massive prime swarm collects 50′ up a cedar tree, ignores your bait hives and flies away.

Never. To. Be. Seen. Again.

You will be giving the bees honey supers so they can cure the nectar flowing into the hive (in a good year you will get a nice crop of spring honey!), making sure the hive is well ventilated. You can do controlled splits, such that the swarm impulse is directed by the beekeeper to generate a new colony, and in such a way that either the original colony is left strong for the honey flow, or the new colony is, just as the flow starts, reunited with the old colony. There are many, many approaches to spring splits for swarm control.

As a new beekeeper I was taught to inhibit swarming by taking out of a booming spring hive a few frames of bees, brood and fresh eggs, to put them in a nuc box with some honey/pollen stores, feed and let them raise a new queen from those fresh eggs. The variation on that theme was to wait till you see queen cells and pull those out to hatch in nuc boxes with a couple of frames of bees to take care of them…one queen cell and two frames of bees per nuc box. These methods worked, but not quite as intended. The original, strong hive still swarmed, and you were left to deal with the new colonies…and most of us have a finite amount of room and time for more colonies.

In Journeyman class, I learned a better method from my teacher, retired WA state bee inspector Jo Miller, who learned this method from her mentor, inspector Roy Thurber: take out the queen and a small court into a nuc, and let the main hive do the queen rearing. The main hive has a bigger work force to feed and care for those precious queen larvae…who eat up a lot of resources, and the more they eat, the better queen they will be. The main hive will halt swarm plans, finding themselves suddenly queenless, and egg-less. All their energy will go into foraging while they wait for the new queen to begin laying…which will take a month. Meanwhile, the old queen is busy establishing her “new” hive, and is there as a) insurance in case the new queen fails for some reason and b) to keep raising brood (you can, if you want to, meld the bees being raised by the old queen with the original hive once the new queen is established and laying).

The new queens raised by the main hive are much better fed and of higher quality than nuc-raised queens. Neither colony is inclined to swarm, and you can rinse and repeat if they are.

But there is one other way to ensure your big honey hives stay together, and stay big: use queen mandibular pheromone sticks (PseudoQueen) in the spring hives. These little sticks give off a pheromone that strongly inhibits swarming, keeping your honey hives large and intact to meet the nectar flow.

Locally, when you see the blackberries sprout clusters of tight, silver-green buds, you had better get your colonies in order.

Blackberry bud.
Blackberry bud.

Getting your colonies in order, assuming a maximum honey crop is your goal, means honey supers on, preferably full of drawn comb. The pheromones in drawn comb impel the bees to push nectar foraging rates. You can use a few drawn combs per box to bait the honey supers. You will be checking to see that the queen is laying and has room to lay in the brood nest. You want to be sure she’s been at peak lay rate in the time period of: 43 days before the honey flow (age of youngest possible forager) and 43 days + 3 weeks (the age of the oldest possible forager) before the honey flow:

In 2016, when we are anticipating another dry, warm year, that calculation (using a table of day number of year) breaks out as follows:

Anticipated date of blackberry bloom (going by the 2015 date) = June 5

Age of forager bees = 43 days from the egg

June 5 – 43 days = day 157 – 43 = day 114 = April 23 (youngest foragers on June 5)

June 5 – (43 days + 3 weeks) = day 157 – (43 + 21) = day 93 = April 02 (oldest foragers on June 5)

Therefore, I am going to bend all my spring energies to ensuring that all my honey hive queens are laying at peak, peak rate by

April 2nd, 2016

In wetter, colder springs, that date of peak lay can move back a week or two. But any way you slice your honey cake, April is the month you need your colonies to be building strongly.

When the honey flow begins, you will then find yourself with big hives, big forager forces, lots of room to store and cure nectar, and every chance of maximizing your honey crop.

There are other wise additions to the spring beeyard: a swarm bob (so you have a hope that any swarm that does erupt settles in a location you can reach and collect it from!), and a bait hive (so you can perhaps attract your own swarmed bees to a hive or even random swarms in your bee area).

To make an optimal bait hive, Dr. Tom Seeley’s research has shown us that bees are looking for a 40 litre space, preferably 15 feet off the ground, containing old comb, with a small, preferably east facing entrance. These are especially effective when at a small distance from the hives expected to swarm…our own, or possibly near a field hosting hives of pollination bees! Pollination hives become very swarm prone as they sit untended in the fields  ; ) You can also add lure…Swarm Commander has a good reputation, or make a salve of olive oil, beeswax and lemongrass oil to smear at the door and on the frame tops.

Spring Mite Control

As the colony comes out of winter, any Varroa, and there are almost always some, that have gone into the winter with the bees are now desperate to reproduce. Unfortunately, the absence of brood in the winter hive causes fertile female Varroa, who would normally just parasitize and reproduce under cappings with the pupating brood, to extend their lifetimes. They wait patiently for the early spring brood-up and typically heavily infest the first few rounds of brood. Because spring brood is very heavily predated by the mites, and because this sets off a sudden, exponential rise in mite numbers, this can cause an otherwise healthy overwintered hive to crash in spectacular and unexpected fashion.

Options for treatment are limited by weather. Before mid-March, Apivar and oxalic acid are good choices. Once the weather warms a bit, usually our first half of April, formic acid becomes possible. All are hard on weak queens, so watch the hives for queenlessness after treatment.

What is most important is to take the hives into winter with low mite loads, so late summer (pre-Winter bee laying) treatment and midwinter oxalic acid treatment (when most mites are phoretic ie. on the bees, not hidden in brood) keep mite loads to a minimum during winter and set the stage for a healthy spring expansion.

Queen Rearing Techniques

There are several approaches to raising your own queens. Go ahead and read up on them. The limitation for all production methods involving large numbers of queens is: you can’t hold them for long once they emerge. They need to be fed by a worker force, and they need to fly to mate/be inseminated within 10 days, or they will be sterile drone layers. And once mated they must be placed in a hive to begin laying.

If you produce 50 queens, you must have either 50 nucs to put them in, or inseminate them by hand, and then you still need 50 buyers ASAP, and/or 50 nucs to keep them in. And the nucs will, with new queens, expand rapidly into hives.

For the small scale beekeeper, the method outlined above works well…taking the old queen and some bees out to start a new colony, leaving the strong main hive to raise up a new, robust queen. You can do that several times over a season, particularly if you add nutritional support, and expand your apiary quite rapidly while maintaining a nice degree of control….and keeping mind that all colonies must be well on their way by July 1st, in order to have time to build and provision against winter.

On to Week Five

Week Three: Fall Management, Diseases and Pests


Week Three is not just what I consider to be the most pertinent in terms of information necessary to keep your bees alive, it is the longest of our course sections as well. So pour a cup of tea, get comfortable and read on!

and when you are ready, on to

Week Four

Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky - Van Gogh
Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky – Van Gogh

Fall Management

Although we are only just at the end of July, it has been an unusually warm and dry since March here on the coast. The reproduction hives have been “nuc’d out” repeatedly, for spring nuc sales, raising two or three queens in succession. This of course means there were few baby bees being made, so by July the hives were healthy but small, with brand new queens, the last we will make them raise this season. The honey hives have been harvested, and to stock the student apiary, two were split and requeened with bought queens. As David Eyre of Orillia, Ontario’s The Bee Works advises, we are taking all young (2015) queens into the winter. Young queens have a higher rate of lay, and lay longer into the fall. This means you have a good, healthy, large cluster of the all-important long lived winter bees to take the colony through the winter:

        “A “winter” bee is produced at the end of the summer. It is physiologically different than the summer bee, with a different hemolymph (blood) protein profile than the summer bee.   Winter bees also have fatter bodies which they rely for nourishment during the non-foraging months.  A winter bee will live much longer (4 to 6 months) than a summer bee (45 days).  The sole purpose of the winter bee is to get the colony through ’til spring.  In the fall as the hive prepares for the long winter months ahead, the bee population drops as the summer bees die off, replaced by the smaller winter cluster. Brood production stops. When the outside temperature is above 50°, bees take cleansing flights as they do not defecate inside the hive ” (West Mountain Apiaries)

This makes fall management, particularly of small hives like those in our student apiary, very similar to spring management. We want to support the colony in ways that make it grow at a time of year when there is little to grow on: so we will feed both white sugar syrup to replace nectars and protein to replace pollens. Note that brown sugar and some other sweeteners are toxic to bees. Use only white cane or beet sugar.

Bee quality is very much a function of nutrition. The more food the colony brings in, the more likely the bees are to get an optimal start in life. Bees take marvelous care of one another, given the essentials. The more they have, the more they give…well fed baby bees are swimming in royal jelly, are fat, round, white, and look juicy and wet:




If the larvae look discoloured, dead, rotted, dry, or are not curled up in a nice C shape, pull the alarm bell! (we will have a closer look to see what is causing the problem, hoping to catch any serious disease state in the earliest stages)

We will be feeding the colonies, and attempting to monitor just how much nectar and pollen they are bringing in themselves. We want to give the bees a bit of a boost, but not too much. It is expected that the queen will, given the approach of winter and the local nectar dearth, reduce her rate of lay, reducing the expansion of the hive. But by the end of September we want to see a good colony in need of two deep boxes, with good amounts of honey at the corners of most of the inner frames (the outer frames will be entirely capped honey), a good store of pollen on many frames, and brood still coming along. So we will give them feed: of syrup and a protein pattie or syrup plus protein powder (affectionately known as “Almond Juice” as this is how very early spring colonies are fed to get them to size to meet the California almond bloom…it saves work to be able to just top up the feeder, not open the hive, put on the protein patty, close it and then also top up the feeder).

Starting new colonies

Colonies can be started in a variety of ways:

1. a swarm might choose your empty equipment as their new home. Yay! Free bees! Note that the disease and queen status of swarms is always suspect.

2. you might be lucky and get a call to catch a swarm. Yay! Free bees! Note that the disease and queen status of swarms is always suspect.

3. you may buy a package of bees (a few pounds of bees, usually 2 or 3 lb. plus an unrelated, caged fertile queen). In 2015 these cost about CAN$220.

In Canada this is how we import bees in the spring, and we can only import them from New Zealand. Unfortunately, 60% of the NZ package queens are superceded in their first season, we think thanks to the disruption of the bee clock that occurs in being transferred from the season calendar in one hemisphere to another: the queens arrive at the end of the NZ summer, finding themselves now at the beginning of our spring, and facing another approaching summer.

It may also be, as with USA queens raised in vast numbers, that the queen rearing operations are run in a way that produces queens who are either of poor quality (fed poorly as larvae) and/or are poorly mated (not enough drones, infertile drones). So later we’ll discuss the remedy for that, which is raising your own fat and sassy queens. It is not hard to do, it just takes some planning ahead. And it is incredibly rewarding, on multiple levels.

Supercedure, if it happens, can be smooth, with the colony keeping the old queen laying until they are sure the new one has returned, mated, and is laying reliably. But if the old girl is disposed of and the new queen is lost on her mating flight, you have an emergency on your hands! There will be no eggs and no way to make a new queen, and beekeeper intervention will be required ASAP. Why? Because every day the queen is absent, you are losing around 1500 of the bees in the colony to old age. With no new baby bees coming along, your colony can die out within weeks.

But even in the normal run of things, as the package gets established, builds comb, and the queen begins to lay, there will be no new baby bees for at least 3 weeks. During this time the package population drops as bees age out and die. It is critical that you check early to make sure new brood is coming along, and support the package by giving them clean drawn comb if you have any, and feeding lavishly, particularly if they arrive in early spring (March) when there is little feed out there for them and lots of cold and rain.

4. you may buy a nuc (short for nucleus hive) of bees. These will be bought from a Canadian supplier as we cannot ship live bees or used bee equipment across the USA/Canada border. A nuc of bees is a mini colony in every detail. It contains, sometimes with minor variations: a laying queen, brood in all stages, worker bees of all ages, and frames of nectar/honey and pollen stores. Nucs can be different sizes, from two frames to five, and their price varies accordingly. But in general it is best to buy a five frame nuc: two frames of stores, three frames of brood in all stages, lots of bees (a good nuc seller will add an extra shake of bees, attempting to shake in a good number of nurse bees), and a laying queen no more than a year old. The equipment should be in good condition, the frames should have the date of their first year of use on them, and the bees and brood should be healthy and well fed. The population of a nuc will expand rapidly and should not experience the sag in numbers that a package will. Here is a great link to first year care for your nuc. Nucs usually cost what packages do, although they offer more than packages as they expand steadily from day one of acquistion.

5. you may buy an entire, established colony. Instant apiary! Expect to pay the price of a nuc plus about CAN$200 for the extra equipment and bees = around $500. You will need to have all the necessaries for transport yourself.

Site consideration

In general, you want:

~a site that is accessible by vehicle (beekeeping involves moving in and out of the apiary a lot of heavy things like honey boxes and water, and lots of equipment and tools…it gets very old, trudging down a path into a beeyard, carrying all that stuff)

~has good exposure to sunlight, especially early in the morning,

~is sheltered from prevailing winds (especially in winter)

~is in a rich forage area (bees preferentially forage from between 200′ and 1/2 mile from the hive, but will fly up to two miles for a meal…note that the further they have to fly for nectars, the less they can store when they the less honey they will put up….it is like driving to fill your gas tank, makes sense if it is nearby, not so much if you have to drive three hundred miles for a fill)

~has access to nearby, clean water, and is not exposed to pesticides and other bee-harmful chemicals

~is close to the beekeeper…if it is nearby you can visit more easily and more often and respond more quickly to emergencies, like swarming or robbing

~and has few other honey bee colonies nearby, as they will compete for resources, trade disease and pests, and will rob one another, given a chance (common in late summer nectar dearths).

Races of Bees

Locally we get New World Carniolans from New Zealand, but you can with some effort source other sorts of bees. The NZ bees are great bees, but in addition to the new packages’ propensity to supercede in their first season, they have also demonstrated very poor resistance to Varroa destructor mites. Most beekeepers try to bring in varied genetics when they source new queens or colonies, to deepen their local gene pool. We are very fortunate that in being right on the USA/Canada border, our queens mate with the more diverse (generally Italian honey bees) populations of nearby USA colonies. This gives us a nice, diverse roll of the genetic dice. Locally, breeders are attempting to incorporate good overwintering ability, gentleness (because so many of our bees are now in urban locations), good honey production, and hygienic behaviour/ability to weather Varroa infestation.

Bee Health

In a nutshell, bee health is affected by pests, diseases, nutritional status, and the ability to find or be provided with good housing. Bees are struggling, thanks to the Three Horsemen of the Bee Apocalypse: the Varroa destructor mite, degraded forage habitat, and pesticides.


(second, excellent resource, here)

Parasites of note are: Varroa destructor mites, tracheal mites (Acarine mites), small hive beetles (recently found in Abbotsford BC, so bag all beetles found in hives for identification by the Provincial Apiculture department!! Note that these SHB have reproduced in Abbotsford, with larvae reported in at least one colony…let us hope the winter does them in), Braula. The pest we must know all about is Varroa destructor, which has spread worldwide after an accidental exposure of its native bee host to the European honey bee population. Although we have adopted anti-varroa strategies and treatments, the continued infestation of honey bee populations with Varroa may well spell the end of the honey bee…which at this point is barely surviving. A measure of the desperation of the situation is that, in Canada, there are no more feral colonies of honey bees. Mites make overwintering in the wild impossible. Swarms continue to fly out every spring to seek new, feral homes. But these colonies will not survive the winter, as they will be too weakened by unchecked mite growth.

This means, at least in Canada, the survival of the honey bee is now a function of having an attentive and skilled beekeeper.

Varroa fallen onto a counting sheet 24 hours after formic acid treament. Note size of Varroa compared to the bee wing...
Varroa fallen onto a counting sheet 24 hours after formic acid treament. Note size of Varroa compared to the bee wing…

Varroa not only reproduce in honey bee brood, they vector (carry to the bees) a host of diseases, including Deformed Wing Virus and EFB and AFB. For the honey enthusiast they are a disaster: even small mite loads cause hives to put up less honey. Varroa present a significant challenge to colony survival. The fertile female mite, after sucking some bee blood, hops into a brood cell onto a bee larva just as it reaches the stage where it is capped and spins its cocoon. She hides in the food jelly at the bottom of the cell, and feeds off the pupating larva. She prefers to infest drone brood, as drones are in the cell for 3 more days than workers are…giving the female Varroa critical extra time to produce fertile daughters. Her first task is to lay a male Varroa, who then inseminates the females she lays after. They emerge, mated and fertile, when the bee hatches. Note that this reproductive style causes exponential mite population growth.

The wretched misery that is the life cycle of the Varroa destructor mite.
The wretched misery that is the life cycle of the Varroa destructor mite…in drone larvae, the extra pupation time results in up to 4 more Varroa emerging as fertile female adults, vastly increasing the exponent in exponential growth.

Read all you can on the Varroa mite!

Varroa Control (note this link is probably the single best resource on Varroa I have seen!!)

There are a lot of things we can do to keep bees alive and healthy in the face of Varroa infestation. But ultimately, we must eradicate the Varroa mite, world-wide. The simple fact is, the Varroa can evolve much more quickly than the honey bee can. In any race to evolve compensatory survival mechanisms, the Varroa will win every time. Please read up on anti Varroa strategies; they range from wishful thinking to “soft” treatments to “hard” treatments. I have seen bee club meetings devolve into shouting matches, thanks to disagreements on Varroa management.

We all hoped, after realizing the blinding speed with which Varroa evolve resistance to mite treatments and mite treatment strategies, that breeding survivor bees would be the answer. But recent research indicates that even survivor stock, when moved to new biozones, loses its ability to survive Varroa. Research to figure out why is under way now. This is an example of how quickly Varroa can evolve as compared to the honey bee: left isolated and to themselves, the colonies that survive with Varroa are not those whose bees have evolved, but whose Varroa have evolved…such that they do not kill their host colony. Returned to the world, the colonies are then invaded via drift with the more virulent Varroa that we have inadvertently produced in our efforts to keep bees Varroa free. And in some cases,  bees in isolated zones, who are not reinfested by nearby colonies, may manage (with or without the assistance of their beekeeper and treatments) to weed the Varroa out of their population…and flight range. They can then remain Varroa free.

Alas most of us live in bee dense areas through which flows a river of heavily treated pollination bees, always on the move. We are constantly facing reinfestation by drift bees carrying Varroa hitchikers. And the local drone congregation areas are filled with non-Varroa-resistant drones.

One area in Canada, Thunder Bay, Ontario, recognized early that they could, in their remote location, keep Varroa out of their honey bee colonies. They worked with extraordinary cooperation to keep infested stock out of Thunder Bay, and aided beekeepers who found Varroa in their hives by destroying the colony infested but providing each other free replacement bees. They have struggled, but remain Varroa free. I think this cooperative model of Varroa defense could be adopted by many North American communities, in particular those not hosting migratory pollination operations and bees. Newfoundland and the Isle of Man have also remained Varroa free.

You will rarely, if ever,  actually see a Varroa mite on your bees. DO NOT be lulled into a false sense of security by telling yourself “well, I haven’t seen any mites in MY hive!”

Not only are they tiny, and not on every bee, but they slide between the segments in the bees’ abdomens, and only a sliver of the mite may show. And that sliver is a similar colour to the bee itself, so is very hard to spot. By the time you do see them, or catch one crawling across a frame, you usually have catastrophic infestation levels.

***Let me pull you up short here and examine just what “catastrophic infestation levels” means in real life. If you see Varroa mites on your bees or your frames, that means one thing: mite levels are so high, so catastrophically high, that your hive is in imminent danger of complete collapse and death.***

I kid you not. These are very small parasites, smaller than the dot left by the head of a pin. By the time there are so many they are visible, crawling around, that means they have filled every available larval bee cell, and are wedged between every available bee segment, and are now running around trying to find somewhere to latch on and suck bee body fat, simultaneously injecting the bee with their virus-laden saliva. Not good.

The next step is complete colony collapse.

To check your mite load quickly, you can spray a mite counting sheet with oil (ie. Pam) and slide it into the bottom of the hive. It will catch and trap all Varroa that fall off the bees in the normal course of things. Check it after 24 hours. If you have 10 or more mites, you should treat for Varroa in the near future. Do this regularly between treatments, particularly when you are new to the beekeeping craft!!!

Comparing the mite fall between hives can be interesting, and reveal which hives have larger Varroa populations. Then you can speculate as to why!

You can adopt a flexible array of anti Varroa tactics. You can use screened bottom boards, which are thought to reduce mite loads by up to an optimistic and perhaps unrealistic 30% (when mites lose their grip on adult bees and fall all the way to the bottom of the hive, and out of the hive). The price for screened bottom boards may be reduced brood amounts and honey stores, perhaps due to the reduction in brood nest size due to the cooler areas above the draughty screen.

This spring I used Apivar (Amitraz) strips, a harder treatment than is my preference, but I wanted to be sure that my nuc sales went out as mite free as possible. Apivar can be used in the cold early spring, unlike the more organic and (we think) less toxic formic acid pads (Mite Away Quick Strips), which are used when temperatures rise above 15C/59F, and are typically applied in late summer after the honey is off the hives. Formic acid is reasonably effective at reaching the mites hidden away with larvae, under cappings (the cappings are porous and breathe), and has the added benefit of killing tracheal mites.

In midwinter, when there is little or no brood and the mites are all exposed, you can use oxalic acid vapour to kill Varroa. This can replace the early spring Apivar treatment if your mite levels are low after the late summer treatment. You can also apply oxalic acid in a sugar syrup based dribble.

You can also lay a narrow bead of food grade mineral oil along the tops of the top frames in the hive on a regular basis. This oil gets onto the bees, who groom themselves more as a consequence, and groom the mites off, one hopes to then fall through the screened bottom board! And the oil makes it hard for mites to hang on to the bees. It also smothers tracheal mites and makes it difficult for them to reach bee spiracles and then migrate into their tracheae. It is an easy, cheap and harm-free method of stacking the deck in favour of your bees…BUT it is only weakly effective. It helps, but not enough on its own. Use other treatment methods as well, and don’t get it on your queen as it will suppress her exudation of queen mandibular pheromone and perhaps trigger supercedure.

Some beekeepers opt to use grease patties, composed of icing sugar and vegetable shortening. The bees, in carrying this foreign substance out of the hive (bees have little tolerance for anything in the hive beside wax, nectar, pollen and themselves), get the shortening on themselves. They groom it off, knocking off Varroa in the process, and the shortening oils, like the mineral oil, make it very hard for the mites to cling onto bees. Heh heh.

Dusting icing sugar also causes increased grooming and mite fall, but needs to be done frequently (weekly) and causes problems with attracting ants and robbers.

Many beekeepers use drone trapping to reduce Varroa numbers in their hives. Varroa preferentially infest drone brood as it allows them to reproduce over a longer timeline, which equals more hatched fertile females. You allow drone brood to be laid in a larger than usual amount, by using drone brood frames, below, or by inserting shallow frames into deep supers (the bees draw free drone comb on the bottom of the frame, and the beekeeper cuts out the drone brood and with it any mites in with the drone brood once the brood is capped). Either way, you remove the drone brood and destroy it once capped, and the Varroa along with them. This is non-toxic and effective, but is a huge drain on colony resources. You must balance the result against the effects. Over time, drone trapping will strip local drone congregation areas of drones, making it hard for queens to find mates, and also drive the Varroa population toward infesting worker brood.

This purpose made drone foundation forces the formation and production of drone brood.
This purpose made drone foundation forces the formation and production of drone brood.
Forcing drone brood by using shallow frames in deep boxes, from
Forcing drone brood by using shallow frames in deep boxes, from

Integrated Pest Management and “treatment free beekeeping” (it is anything but!) have received a lot of attention in recent years, as we all desperately search for non-toxic ways to protect honey bees from mites. I wonder what value many of the methods have given that we must treat for Varroa on a regular basis anyway, at least in our bee-dense area.

There are bright lights on the horizon, in particular gene manipulation in the Varroa mites. We now can aspire to eradicating, not just controlling, the Varroa mite population infesting honey bees. And new, more targeted and less toxic remedies are also in development.

I have tried the all-natural, non chemical, soft approach. It was for me an utter failure. I have concluded that I do not possess the requisite time, expertise, equipment or location for that to be successful. I wish it was, I truly do. But a hive crashing from Varroasis is not a pretty sight. In addition, a hive crashing from Varroa releases waves of bees who drift to any nearby hives, searching for a home, and carring mites and disease.

I suspect we will find that Varroa infestation triggers behavioural changes in honey bees, pushing them to drift far, far more than is normal. This parasite triggered host effect is common in other parasites, and bestows on the parasite increased reproduction benefits. Alas.

I have taken the position that bees are no different than other domesticated animals, and that it is immoral to withhold treatment for them when they are sick or infested with parasites. I medicate my dogs for heartworm, fleas and intestinal parasites…why not keep my bees parasite free??

So I treat as outlined above, and medicate if I find Nosema or the foulbroods, as per Ministry guidelines. But I long for the day we have either completely Varroa resistant bees, a non-toxic and completely effective remedy, or when we have extinguished the Varroa mite.

Because we owe this to the bees.

The Foulbroods

The most alarm-worthy situations you will find in your colonies are the foulbroods, two catastrophic bacterial diseases that infest honey bees: European Foulbrood  (EFB) and the more serious American Foulbrood (AFB) They are transmitted by bee drift of infected bees into new hives, and by the transfer of infected comb, wax and honey between hives. EFB and AFB are also thought to be vectored by Varroa mites.

This transfer is the reason we have a hive tool for each hive, and why beekeepers do not bring their tools into an apiary they are visiting and helping in. And why we have a wash station set up in the beeyard: if inspecting multiple hives, wash your hands between each hive inspection. It is cheap insurance against accidental disease transfer.

Both the foulbroods can be treated by administering an antibiotic treatment regime, and by putting the medicated bees onto clean, bare equipment. But AFB generates highly resistant spores, which can survive on old equipment or in old honey for literally decades. Typically, AFB infected bees are destroyed along with their equipment, usually via fire.

In the Lower Mainland of BC, we now have access to the Iotron facility, where using high energy electron beams, materials can be irradiated and thereby sterilized. You can bag and process your infected bee equipment at this facility, and that will eradicate the AFB spores. So our AFB protocol, followed precisely, now allows for the saving of infected bees and equipment.

In jurisdictions lacking access to a sterilization facility, burning bees and equipment is still the only way to stop the spread of AFB.

Note that AFB and EFB are rife in British Columbia, possibly due to the fact that many bee operations continue to medicate prophylactically to suppress the symptoms of AFB and EFB in their colonies. Essentially, they treat with antibiotics all the time. Once those colonies are sold or placed in fields and orchards for pollination, the antibiotic levels drop in the colony, and the disease re-blooms. Infected bees drift readily and infect other colonies. First signs of infection are dead, off-coloured, or odd looking larvae, and/or ragged holes in the capped brood, under which you find dead and/or rotted larvae. As the infection spreads, there can be a characteristic sour, rotted meat smell.

Detecting “off” brood is a key skill in beekeeping. If you have the least suspicion of foulbrood in the hive, call for help IMMEDIATELY. There are many colonies nearby, not just our own, who could both infect our apiary, or be infected by ours. There is no shame in finding foulbrood in your colony: the best beekeepers find it in their bees. But there is complete shame and blame for not recognizing and/or dealing with your foulbrood. A hive battling foulbrood may suddenly look uncharacteristically quiet, and will be dwindling for no good reason (ie nectar dearth).

If a hive seems too quiet, investigate! There is usually an reason and you need to find it! And a hive that fails to take a syrup feed is also usually in trouble.

You can send off-looking/rotted brood into the Ministry lab for diagnosis, a process that can take weeks (meanwhile, treat your bees….the longer the colony remains untreated, the more the disease will spread…to your hives and the hives of others). The affected larvae (or what remains of them) is scraped out of the cell with a toothpick, and the material collected is placed in a labelled ziplok bag.

Note that while you extract the larval goo, if it strings out in a long, elastic rope (this is called, inventively, “roping”), you likely have AFB on your hands. EFB rotted larvae do not generally rope out like this.

AFB affected larval matter will pull out in a long, long elastic string.
AFB affected larval matter will pull out in a long, long elastic string.

You can also keep a couple of $15 AFB test kits in your kit bag. These monoclonal antibody tests work instantly to diagnose AFB in your colony. They are used very much like a simple pregnancy test kit, and are available from beekeeping supply houses, including online sources. EFB test kits are also available…alas the test strip does not test for both, you must buy separate kits. However, if larvae are dying pre-capping, you can suspect EFB. If they are dying post-capping, you can suspect AFB. That is not a hard and fast rule, but applies in most cases.

Finally, you can do the inexpensive Holst Milk Test, in which larval contents are mixed with powdered milk and water. AFB affected larval matter will cause the resulting suspension to clear within 20 minutes. Non-AFB contents cause the suspension to stay cloudy.

Holst Milk Test photo from Randy Oliver's
Holst Milk Test photo from Randy Oliver’s

Note that in British Columbia, you can choose to simply treat either foulbrood with Oxytet, turn the colony onto clean, bare equipment, feed medicated syrup while they build new comb, and bag all the old, contaminated equipment and send to Iotron for sterilization. No real need to verify if you have AFB or EFB as that protocol will deal with them both.

Unchecked, the foulbroods will kill a hive quickly.

Foulbroods are generally only a problem in a hive under stress. It may be that it was cold, wet,  hungry, or mite-ridden, or headed by a poor queen. This makes nutritional support and site location priorities as you treat an infected hive.

In addition, I put a question mark against any queen whose hive falls ill with a foulbrood. It may be that her genetic heritage produces workers susceptible to the foulbroods. I generally replace the queen of a foulbrood-stricken hive once the hive is treated, cured, and back on its feet. Just in case.

Please read widely on the foulbroods, and on foulbrood detection.

There are other common conditions that affect honey bees, principally sacbrood and chalkbrood. Both are stress related, so the best treatment and prevention is good husbandry technique…providing good nutritional support and clean, warm, dry housing.

Note that there is anecdotal evidence that formic acid treatment is associated with low chalkbrood levels. It is always good to do a formic acid treatment at least once a year, not just for Varroa but for tracheal mites…and if it drops your chalkbrood spore count, all the better!

European foulbrood infestation.
European foulbrood infestation.
AFB, note ragged holes in cappings.
AFB, note ragged holes in cappings.

The Nosema Twins

There is a final class of serious diseases of honey bees: the microsporidian caused Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae. Both the Nosemas affect and damage gut function in bees, and bees are little more than flying digestive systems, a digestive system that functions as flight engine, baby bottle, and storehouse.

There is a great page on Nosema, here.

The microsporidians are fungi-related unicellular organisms. Unfortunately for the bees, who exchange gut contents frequently in the course of normal hive activities (feeding larvae, feeding drones and queen, transferring nectars, making bee bread, moving stores), the Nosemas freely transfer in the act of exchanging gut contents. Infection with Nosema apis produces the classic tell tale hive-wide diarrhea. Bee feces, waxy smears of ochre to burnt umber colour, are evacuated in the hive, and ofen are sprayed across the face of the hive exterior as bees exit the hive, desperate to defecate. Normally bees never, ever defecate in the hive, or even close to it.

Nosema caused diarrhea stains in hive.
Nosema caused diarrhea stains in hive.
Dysentery streaks on hive body, extreme. From
Dysentery streaks on hive body, extreme. From              

In contrast, Nosema ceranae may never leave tell tale streaks in or out of the hive.

What they both will cause is an inexplicable dwindling of the hive population.

A colony that should be expanding simply seems to stall out or even dwindle. Dwindling can be fiendishly difficult to see. The give-away in a multi-hive apiary is the hive that seems quieter than the others, particularly when the expectation is that it will be equal to its peers. Frequently, these quiet hives also seem reluctant to take syrup feeds, even when other colonies are guzzling down their own syrup feeds.

Observe the hives midafternoon on a warm, sunny day. Which look quiet? Do an inspection on them ASAP and see what is up in there!

For our purposes, Nosema is expected when you see fecal streaking as in the photos above (note that dysentery can be transitory and nothing to worry about…maybe the bees got into old syrup…but when dwindling or inactivity at at the hive entrance seem apparent, ring that inner beekeeping alarm bell!), or when you feel the hive is not expanding as it should, or is not taking syrup when it should be.

In the early spring, through the nectar flow, hives should almost physically boom. There will be lots and lots of bees coming and going, pollen coming in, and big orientation flights on warm, sunny late afternoons. You can be in the apiary in the early afternoon, puttering about at various chores, all the hives looking routine, when suddenly one hive wakes up and a big cloud of bees hovers in a constant figure 8 flight pattern at the entrance of the hive, with bees crawling on the face above the entrance. It looks a lot like a swarm event, or robbing, but the orderly, circling flights with bees all looking at the hive, and an sense of intensity but calm are hallmark signs of orientation flights.

In a hive dwindling from Nosema…no orientation flights, no clouds of bees. Alas, Nosema can permanently impair the laying rate of the hive queen.

Any hive that has weathered a Nosema episode needs to have their queen monitored for fertility and lay rate. It is probably best to replace her, once the hive is in recovery. As with the foulbroods, replace the queen, just in case…

Nosema is treated by the application of Fumadil-B, fumagillin. Alas fumagillin is only weakly effective against Nosema ceranae, which is becoming the dominant Nosema in our area. So you can treat, but it may not do much good. I only treat when I am reasonably certain Nosema is in play. Many beekeepers dose bees in spring and fall, or during/after transport, as Nosema can also be a stress based disease (cold, wet weather, malnutrition, transport stress).

Dosing in the absence of symptoms drives resistance, so I prefer to wait until I see symptoms, which admittedly can be subtle. As a general rule of thumb, I would dose any hive that is dwindling, if I cannot find a good reason for that dwindling (symptoms of foulbrood, which also causes dwindling, are usually quite obvious).

A course of Fumadil-B may help unexplained dwindling and, IMHO, won’t hurt….after all the colony is struggling already, you do not have much to lose!

However, the manufacturer of Fumagillin is ending production of that substance, and it will no longer be available. That means hives that are struggling must rely on TLC (feeding, insulation) to help them, not medications. And if you have a deadout that might have been from Nosema, you need to be careful to disinfect all that equipment before putting it into use again.

Whenever you are puzzled by a hive that fails to thrive, or has worrying symptoms, reach out for help. Experienced beekeepers are happy to come have a peek and see what’s up, you can find them at your local bee club or through an online beekeeping forum. Taking photos of your problem when you post to a forum can be a big help in diagnosing your problems.

List of useful links for learning about bees and beekeeping, from Serenata Flowers.

Week Two Class Notes


We received our hive assignments this week, and we’ll be doing our first inspection as a team, discussing what our objectives are for the hive in question, and how we are going to set up the girls for success. These small hives do have time to build up to an overwintering size and with a winter-worthy pantry, but they won’t get there without help. We are going to feed them, monitor mite levels, ensure that HRH is fulfilling her royal duties (laying lots of eggs), and all while defending the hives from the increasingly aggressive robbers, both wasps and honey bees.

One advantage of stripping hives out to make nucs is that the main hive is then rendered queenless while it raises a new queen, and gets a brood break. A 30 day brood break…which has some effect on at least halting the mite expansion in the hive. There were very high hopes a couple of years ago that brood breaks would eliminate mite populations in the hive, as adult, fertile female mites only live 4-11 days in hives with brood. It seemed an elegant, organic treatment option…but it didn’t work out well. Why? Alas, researchers looking into the question found that the fertile mites radically alter their life plan in the absence of bee brood, and can live in a broodless hive for up to 6 months. Months. Sigh.

What to do? One promising idea, not yet confirmed by research, is to apply a mite control measure while the hive is broodless. By day 21 after removing the queen, all worker brood will have hatched out, ditto for drone brood by day 24. So if you apply a mite remedy on day 25, all the mites in the hive will be phoretic (on the bodies of bees, not inside capped cells) and will be vulnerable to a treatment. A sugar dusting at this point, perhaps boosted by thyme oil, would be one approach…keeping in mind that a virgin queen/newly mated queen is in there and vulnerable to harsher measures.

Part of our student beekeeping will be evaluating the new queens bought locally, and assessing the performance of all the queens we have raised ourselves in this season. It is time to start thinking about which queens we’ll breed from in 2016. The best honey-maker of 2015, hands down, was the hive “Miss Honey”. So I will make daughters from her and keep them in the apiary. But right now, we are searching for queens whose worker force can effectively forage in our late summer and drought conditions.

We are also adding a watering station to the apiary. I am not a fan of communal feeders or water stations as they can easily act as robber magnets and disease transfer stations. But the robbing screens are going on all hives shortly (a few have them already) and that precludes the use of Boardman feeders as water reservoirs. We water our bees to keep them out of the local ditches, which are filled with runoff from sprayed fields. The bees will do what they want to do, but at least we have done our best to give them clean, pesticide/herbicide/fungicide/fertilizer free water…a precious commodity in agricultural areas, alas.

from Linda's Bees
from Linda’s Bees

Providing the bees their own water supply also (I hope) means they do not have to waste a lot of valuable foraging time to roam the countryside searching for possibly rare and distant water sources…and may save them drowning in troughs and buckets.

We began our class this week with a field trip to see Vivian’s nearby Warré hive. Vivian populated her Warré using a melding board (a board with a nuc shaped cutout) and a bottomless nuc box. The bees filled the nuc box with brood, then migrated down into the Warré to build comb and new brood space. After two rounds of brood had hatched in the nuc, they backfilled all the cells with nectar/honey, allowing Vivian a chance to take the nuc off and put her proper Warré quilt box and roof on the hive. She will process the frames and feed the uncured honey back to the bees: almost none was capped yet.

In choosing a non-standard hive, Vivian found herself having to figure out how to solve some basic problems. And this is at the heart of the beekeeping experience…every time you open a hive, you can never be sure what you will find. Very often, you do not find what you expect to. And that leads you into an instant problem-solving exercise. Unless the situation is dire, you can take a good look, take notes, and take time to think. Give yourself a day or two to decide on the best strategy possible…consult with beekeeping friends, post for advice on a bee forum, google the issue. Considering all your options increases the chance you will make a good decision, and gives you a great opportunity for learning.

We discussed the pros and cons of the various hive types.

Your beekeeping objectives will frame your equipment decision. There are many reasons to keep bees. You may want to produce honey, even sell the honey. Ditto the wax, or the bees themselves. You may want to make your bees available for pollination; as native bees are starved out by our disruption of the landscape, and until we do what we should (plant more for all pollinators) honey bees are becoming increasingly critical to successful agriculture.

You may just want to beekeep for pleasure…there is a zen quality to observing and caring for honey bees…and relaxation. Or you may just enjoy the natural science of social insects. Perhaps you just want to keep a colony healthy and thriving in an increasingly honey bee unfriendly world.

The various hive types each bring their own impact to those disparate goals.

Finally, we quickly discussed ethical beekeeping. As beekeepers, we have an ethical duty to the bees, who have not asked to be domesticated and managed. We have an ethical duty to our fellow beekeepers, particularly those in our flight range, who are impacted by our apiary and our management practices (or lack thereof!). We have a duty to our communities, where bees are feared but required for food production. And we have an ethical duty to the wild and native pollinators, who cannot forage as effectively as honey bees, and are therefore pushed to the edge in human-altered, forage-poor, degraded habitats.

It is increasingly fashionable to diss the honey bee in favour of the native pollinators. There has been a lot of media chatter that honey bees are responsible for the decline of native bees. While it is true honey bees can fly further than most native bees in pursuit of nectars and pollens, the real threat to native pollinators is habitat loss and degradation.

Even if we removed honey bees from the picture, forage areas are so disrupted the native bees would still starve.

But happily, what is good for one is good for the other, and we need them all. Planting pollinator corridors and keeping in mind the short flight ranges of native bees a la the stellar, successful work of the Bumblebee Conservancy, would remedy our landscapes.

And do good things for all bees and pollinators.

bb conservation

We did not have time to pull out our beekeeper note books: we will open our Week Three class with that exercise.


Week One Class Notes

Week One

Inspection Technique

The most important thing to remember is to move like a Tai Chi Master…gentle, unhurried movements. Bees hate vibrations, so cause as as few as possible: wedge out frames gently and lift up and out without tilting the frames, or bumping them against the hive body and crushing the bees. If the bees get upset, stop. Give them a gentle puff of smoke and give them a few seconds to settle down. The pitch of their buzzing is your guide…it gets higher and louder when the bees are upset.

Smoke the entrance, the top entrance, under the cover and any other hole in the hive gently before you open the hive up. Give the bees a minute or two to go fill up on honey before cracking the inner cover. Move quietly and do not bang equipment around. Wedge the inner cover open (it will be stuck down) without big cracking noises ie. slowly. Give the top of the hive a bit of smoke as the cover comes off. Work through the hive quietly. If you need to put hive bodies on the ground, do so on top of the upside down outer cover…lay it on the ground first. That way a queen running for cover will not end up on the bare ground or grass and be lost. About one inspection in 20 you will find the queen on the cover when you go to put it back on. Put her gently back in the hive first.

As you inspect, make a mental note of how much honey and pollen is in the hive, and where. How much brood is in the hive, especially the rough amount of cells with eggs…the size of your palm? Two palms worth? Tracking egg amounts tells you something about the queen…if the rate is up, why? And if the rate is down, why?

Is the larval brood pure white and glistening, wet looking? Are there any discoloured larvae?

Older larvae, and how they should look!
Older larvae, and how they should look!
Yellow, distorted larvae: they should NOT look this way!!
Yellow, distorted larvae: they should NOT look this way!!

Are the capped brood cappings solid or do some have ragged holes in them (suggesting foulbrood)? Are the sheets of capped brood solid, or riddled with missed or empty cells (shot brood, shotgun pattern)?

If you see the queen, is she marked? And is she looking good?

Are there any damaged, odd-looking or obviously sick workers? Are there any drones around?

Does the queen need more laying room? Another box?

As you inspect, use all your senses!

See the bees: are they calmly moving about the frames, or scurrying wildly? Note things that are odd or worrying. Smell the bees: is there a sweet, musky honey scent, or can you smell something sour or rotten?

Hear the bees: is there a low, contented hummmmm, or is the pitch sharper and full of anxiety?

Touch…keep your movements gentle and slow, vibrations to an absolute minimum.

And taste! As you break apart frames you will often open up some honey cells in the bridge comb. Enjoy the savoury-sweet wild honey flavour!

Bee Biology

Bees come in three sex divisions: queen, worker and drone.

The queen is the sexually mature, reproductive female. She has 32 chromosomes, and stores the sperm gathered on her mating flight(s) in a special organ, her spermatheca. Remarkably, the queen can choose, when laying any given egg, to fertilize the egg (which then yields a worker bee, who also has 32 chromosomes but does not develop into a queen, and never goes on a mating flight…in special situations a worker will lay eggs, and they will develop, but they will always be unfertilized, and so grow up to be drone bees)…or not fertilize the egg, which yields a 16 chromosome drone. Drones then, are said to have only a mother, no father.

Queens are the egg layers. Worker bees do all the other tasks (making and cleaning cells, feeding and cleaning queen and brood, storing pollen and nectar, curing nectar into honey, capping the honey, gathering pollen and nectar, cleaning the hive, and guarding the hive). Drones fly to drone congregation areas to await virgin queens, mate with those queens, and also regulate temperature in the brood nest.

Because bees feed one another and the queen, disease can rapidly disseminate throughout a hive.

Genetic Diversity in the Hive

While the workers in any given hive share a single mother, the queen, they have (if the queen found lots of dates at the drone congregation area on her mating flight(s)) different fathers. Queens can be mated succcessfully by one to over 20 drones. Recent research confirms that the more drone fathers there are in the colony, the healthier and more vigourous it is. Thus, there is, in a well mated queen, a wealth of genetic diversity in the hive. Not only does the queen pass to her daughters a random 16 chromosome sub-set of her own 32 chromosomes, she passes a subset of 16 from the drone whose sperm is used to fertilize the worker egg. Many drone fathers = many different paternal subsets in the colony workers. Workers who share a drone father, called “supersisters”, will differ slightly based on which subset of their parents’ genes they inherit. Thus workers are genetically diverse, meaning they have differing abilities and susceptibilities to disease or pests. In the best case scenario, that diversity endows the hive with a population in which at least some of the worker bees will excel at any given task or challenge. One well known limitation in commercial queen breeding is the tendency to inseminate the queen with closely related, non-genetically diverse, drone semen…often the product of very targeted breeding programs ie. disease resistance, or propensity to forage aggressively.

Colony Development Through the Year

As of Midwinter Eve, December 21 in the Northern Hemisphere, the colony senses the lengthening of the days and the queen begins laying more eggs. Her egg production will rise throughout the early months of the year and peak around Midsummer’s Day, will rise when there is lots of nectar and pollen coming in, and will fall when food sources dwindle. Thus, the colony expands in the early part of the year, and contracts in the latter half. Beekeepers generally focus on having the hive at full strength to meet the dominant area nectar flow (if honey harvesting is their main objective). Given that the youngest forager is 42 days old from the egg (21 days to hatch, and 21 days to mature into a bee capable of foraging), and given that the life of a forager is only two to three weeks at most, the hive must be at peak population just before the nectar flow (in order to meet the flow with the maximum amount of foragers). Pollination services want to meet the early agricultural bloom with peak populations, so will force their colonies in late winter/early spring by feeding lavishly.

Organization of the Colony

Driven by an array of chemical feedback loops (via pheromone production), everything that needs to be done in a colony is done by castes of bees. Castes are roughly age based, with bees using the following progression:

Age castesIt is a very busy life! Queens hatch, mature, go on their mating flight(s), and return to lay eggs in the hive for the rest of their life. They will be replaced if for some reason their pheromone levels drop (indicating lowered fertility), or if they do not lay an optimal amount of brood (brood pheromone levels drop), or if they are sick or injured. Drones exist to mate with queens from other hives (queens prefer to fly well outside the flight range of their local drones, increasing their chances of mating with unrelated drones), and to regulate the temperature of the brood nest.

Age Polyethism of Honey Bees
Age Polyethism of Honey Bees

Sting Basics

Read the Sting Basics section (pgs. 11-16) of Randy Oliver’s Beginning Beekeeping Workshop. Upon being stung, calmly scrape the stinger and venom sac out of your skin, as quickly as possible. Work with smoke, and protective gear either on or at hand. Work gracefully, quietly and with minimal vibration. If the bees become upset, cover them and quietly walk away. Do not hesitate to end an inspection and return on a better day! Carry an epipen, a charged cell phone, and a bottle of Benadryl for bee inspections. If you feel a sting is serious, and you are experiencing the symptoms of anaphylaxis, use your Epipen and seek immediate transport to Emergency for medical care. Remember as you work that as few as 100 stings can kill a child, and the adult lethal dose (in the absence of severe allergy) is 300-500 stings. Given that a good sized colony can easily contain 30,000 to 60,000 bees, it is essential to work in a way that does not upset the bees, particularly in an urban or community garden setting.

Note that if you are allergic to wasps (yellowjackets/hornets), they predate bee hives and so are regular and short tempered visitors to the beeyard. If you have a wasp allergy, be extremely cautious, particularly in late summer when wasp numbers explode and they become even more likely to sting.

Bee Kit Contents

Whatever else you have in there, always be sure you are packing a charged and working cell phone (to call for medical help), an Epipen (in case of anaphylaxis) and a bottle of Benadryl (helps suppress sting reactions, buying you extra time for the ambulance to arrive!).

Beeyard Notebook

Using a binder or clipboard, devise a way to track the life of your colony and document the findings of your inspections. Set up this tool such that you have a way to plan your future inspections and goals. Sample log sheet.

hive inspection log sheet

Week Two

Week Two Class Notes

On to Week Three

Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun November 1889, Vincent Van Gogh
Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun
November 1889, Vincent Van Gogh

We are setting up the student apiary this week: and expecting record temperatures in this endless, dry, hot summer.

Before delving into Week Two’s planned topics, I want to repeat one critical bit of information from Week One (yes, it is that important!), so bear with me:

***Critical Tip and Trick***

If you are starting with a package or nuc, keep an eye on the rate at which brood is being laid and capped. In every inspection, look for eggs, larvae and capped brood. A healthy hive will expand steadily through the spring until late June, and every time you look inside, should be taking up more and more frames to live on. If you do not see expansion, if they stay the same size as when you bought them, or suddenly stall out, reach out for help. ALL spring/early summer colonies should grow visibly between inspections! Most colony failures can be fixed if you catch the lack of expansion early.

With every inspection, you grow your sense of what a healthy, normal colony looks like. But at first it will all seem confusing. Persevere! Soon you will have a feel for whether what you are seeing is expected….and if you find the unexpected, you will reach out to bee mentors and advisors for help interpreting what you have seen.

Two thing happen after Midsummer’s Eve (June 21 in our hemisphere), one is universal, one local. The universal is that the bees, sensing the dying of the light and the approach of winter, begin to restrict their rate of lay. From here on in, the hive will be shrinking, not expanding as it has been all spring. And locally, our blackberries fall out of bloom and set fruit: this is the end of our main nectar flow. While in most years we can count on a trickle from the fields and forests, and more than a trickle if we are near large neighbourhoods with irrigated flower gardens (we hates low maintenance shrubberies, we does!!), this year is so dry, there is really nothing out there for the bees. And with little rain in the long range forecast, that means we are going to have to feed them a bit to get them up to winter weight, to get them to raise the winter bees, and to keep the queen laying at a meaningful rate.

This creates stress in the hives, and that can make the bees vulnerable to disease, in particular the foulbroods. And in late summer, the mite life cycle means mite levels are going to increase, so we’ll be keeping an eye on the mite levels, in anticipation of the usual late summer mite treatment. It is best to apply mite treatment before the winter bees are being raised, but in this unseasonably hot weather, that makes my favourite late summer treatment, formic acid, tricky to use. It is safest to use when temperatures will not go above 20C/68F…something that is not going to happen here any time soon.

The week’s topics for Week Two are:

1. beekeeping equipment basics and history (have a look at Beverly’s Bees equipment page for Langstroths, as that is the setup we’ll be using in class). Note that legally we are required to use hives with movable frames.

2. alternative hive types (Warré and top bar). Just a note on Warré: they are not constructed to be inspect-able…this means you cannot check for budding disease or queen-rightness problems, a fatal drawback particularly in bee-dense/disease-dense areas. Also check out Slovenian hives!

3. beekeeping objectives…some beekeepers run for honey, some for making new colonies, some for pollination and some just for pleasure. Your objectives will frame your beekeeping strategies.

4. ethical beekeeping…what is good husbandry, and how do you place bees ethically in bee dense, agriculturally dense, and human dense environments? What can you do as a beekeeper to give your bees a good life, and a chance to avoid extinction?

5. Just a heads up, we’ll open our class this week by reviewing our brand new beekeeping notebooks…have a name for your hive (so we can readily identify it in conversation…note it will be put on the front of your hive), and be ready to meet your own hive this week.

14may26_santropol_bees_02Week Two Class Notes

On to Week Three


The Beekeeper’s Kit Bag

Soft sided tool tote.
Soft sided tool tote.

Wherever I go beekeeping, I take along my beekeeper tool tote, affectionately known as “My Little Bag of Tricks”.

Given the unpredictable nature of beekeeping, you learn quickly what to put in the tote. Here is a quick summary of the essentials:

1. Epipen: you may not (yet) be allergic to honeybees, but it pays to have this with you at all times. I have read enough stories about beekeepers who, after enjoying years of beekeeping and the invevitable stings with no trouble, suddenly went into anaphylaxis without warning when stung. You will also need an epipen if for some reason you get scores of stings, or if someone close by is stung and goes into anaphylaxis.

2. Charged cell phone: In case of medical emergency, above. Because once you need the epipen, you must secure immediate transport to Emergency for further medical care. Great for taking quick photos too!

3. A bottle of benadryl: in case you just swell up a lot from bee stings.

4. A hive tool, unless you leave it tucked under the outer cover of the hive.

5. Queen marking cup and marking pen. For the day you discover an unmarked queen in your hive!

6. Small plastic bags/ziploks and toothpicks: for taking foulbrood or diseased bee samples. Note you can also carry foulbrood test kits.

7. Duct tape: you can put a piece onto the outer cover with notes to self flagging a situation of interest ie. “queen cells in hive, hatching July 9th”

8. Squeeze bottle of food grade mineral oil: lay a bead of mineral oil across the top bars of the top super every time you close up the hive…acts as tracheal and Varroa mite control.

9. Not strictly something that fits in the kit, but consider using cover cloths.

10. Water mister/spray bottle. A mist of water moves the bees down and out of your way.

10. Random useful items: scissors, permanent marker(s), queen cages, collecting jar, pieces of foam to use as quick entrance blocks, extra pen/pencil, paper for notes.



What you need to start beekeeping:

At a minimum, you need a good beesuit, a veil, beekeeping gloves (fit them carefully), a smoker and fuel, a lighter (I use a butane canister fitted with a créme brulée torch head), a hive tool. You will be glad if you have a complete extra hive setup ready to go at a moment’s notice, or at least extra painted supers (bee boxes) and frames. You will be very glad if you have a painted nuc box or two in case you have to do some quick splits or manipulations.

Dans woodworking nuc box

I know the expense is daunting…sequence your purchase of backup equipment over a few months, but having that ready to go is going to pay off, if not this season then next!

Note that painting your plastic foundation with a thick layer of purchased beeswax will really speed the bees along on drawing out those first frames. Until you have a stock of drawn comb stored in totes, waxing foundation can really help your colonies grow quickly.