Sugared Bees, Anyone?

Sugared honeybees.

Don’t close your reader, you have no worries that I’m about to pass along some trendy recipe that I read about on Epicurious or that I’m planning to  promote some cool restaurant which serves sweet bees. Instead, sugared honeybees are all about Bee Daddy’s and my attempt at responsible bee keeping.  The varroa destructor mite is one of several pests which plague honeybees (and their keepers), but is arguably the worst of the lot.  Varroa mites reproduce in honeybee hives by laying eggs on the bee larvae after the larvae cell is capped.  The mites leave the cell along with the young adult bees and spread their menace throughout the hive–and beyond.  Varroa mites spread viruses and other diseases which can disable bees and eventually, cause hives to collapse.

There are honeybees which have proven resistant to varroa mites because of their fastidious grooming habits.  BeeWeaver Apiaries touts their bees as varroa resistant and we have certainly had good fortune with our BeeWeaver bees, though we lost a hive, Mufasa, in December 2015 because of a mite overload which we didn’t initially recognize until the bees were so diseased that they died.  Even BeeWeaver bees occasionally succumb to varroa infestations and because of that, going forward in our beekeeping endeavors, we’ve committed to checking our bees the recommended four times per year.

We could check for varroa mites using an alcohol wash, but bees would die in the process and this Bee Mama just can’t do that.  So, sugared bees, specifically powdered sugared bees, it is!

We’ve read about the varroa check ‘sugar roll’ and watched a couple of how-to videos.  Last week during our twice-monthly hive check, we sweetened the pot, or rather, the hive, to check for varroa.

Powdered sugar is the ticket to coating bees and we made our own by pulverizing granular sugar to fine in a blender.  Everything we learned suggested that the corn starch in commercial powdered sugar isn’t great for bees (though I never found out exactly why), but making the powdered sugar was a breeze. We gathered our sugar-roll paraphernalia,

…which included a container in which to dump bees for the check, the powdered sugar, a half-cup measure, a glass container with a net fitted over the top, and a white paper plate for the final look-see for varroa mites.

With equipment on hand and from each of our three hives, one at a time, we pulled a frame with capped and uncapped brood and nurse bees in attendance, since that’s the most likely place to see varroa happenings.

We looked thoroughly for each queen on each frame–rolling your queen is not a great idea, because she could die in the process–not likely, but a possibility.    The directions state to check for varroa with ‘1/2 cup bees, lightly packed’ as that equals about 300 bees and is a good number on which  to base a mite count.   The process is to pull the frame and tap it so that bees fall into a container.

We quickly scooped the bees into the half-cup measuring cup and plopped them into the jar with a couple of tablespoons of powered sugar ready and waiting to cover bees.

Bee Daddy rolled the bees-in-jar for a minute or so and then allowed it to sit for a minute or so.  We placed another tablespoon of sugar through the mesh and repeated the process.

Another set of shakes over the white plate allowed the sugar–and any mites therein–to fall off of the bees (the sugar makes the bees slippery) and on to the plate where they’re visible. I sprayed the plate with water prior to the shake, then again once sugar was on the plate, just to make the visual clearer.

 

It’s not all that obvious from the photo, but a mite (from Woody) is the middle of the plate.

 

Once we’d rolled, poured and checked, it was time to deliver our sugar-sweet and annoyed bees back into their respective hives.

I can only imagine, knowing how much honeybees like sweet stuff, that these sugared bees are the hives’ inhabitants BBFF–Best Bee Friends Forever–as they come back into the hives.

The mite count in our hives was excellent:  Buzz had no visible mites in the check (though realistically, there are probably mites somewhere in Buzz), Woody had only one mite, and Scar had three  mites.  That’s a good start to our season.  We’ll check again in June, in August and in October/November.  It wasn’t hard to check for varroa, though it’s one more duty we must add to our repertoire of beekeeper activities.

While we were nose-deep into our hives, we also performed a general check.  We found some more queen cells in both Buzz and Woody (as I described in Tight Quarters) and also, interestingly, some supersedure queen cells in Buzz.  No photos, I’m afraid, because this was toward the end of our lengthy hive doings and my hands and gloves were simply too sticky with honey-goo to work with a camera. (Have you ever cleaned a camera after taking photos with honeyed-fingers?) Because we’re working quickly, there’s no time for the niceties like washing hands. You can see a photo of supersedure cells here.  So what is this kind of cell? It’s an emergency queen cell and found in the middle of a frame, rather than at the bottom, like a “normal” spring swarming queen cell.  And what does it mean?  It means that either Buzz’s queen is dead, injured, or simply so weak that the hive decided they need to make another queen ASAP.  And what did we do?  Nothing.  We decided to leave the four supersedure cells that we found and we’ll see what happens.  We’re learning as we go and willing to take some risks. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

The queen who emerges first will kill the others.  Honeybees live an Apis Game of Thrones kind of life and there’s never a dull moment.

Stay tuned…

Scar, I’m please to state, was a revelation!  In our first hive check of the year, back in late January/early February, and chronicled in Ramping Up, we didn’t find any brood in Scar and determined that the queen had died.  We decided not to re-queen her and let the workers live out their days, as we have  two healthy Langstroth hives (Buzz and Woody). For the varroa check, which we felt obligated to do for Scar, we pulled up several top-bars and found a perfect laying pattern of capped brood! (In fact, a better laying pattern than we viewed in either Buzz or Woody.)  Scar lives!  She is alive and well with a strong queen–at least for now.  Scar, in bee keeping vernacular, is queen-right.  

Since Scar looks good, we opted to try a new method of small hive beetle trap. Scar has always struggled with hive beetles, though generally, has proved strong enough that the beetles are more of a nuisance, than a real threat.  We’ve purchased special hive trays that are placed in between frames (or in Scar’s case, top bars).  There are slats at the top in which we poured a commercial oil, made for bee hives, into the slats.

The bees are too large to get into the holes, but the beetles are just the right size and oil is attractive to them.

Drown, beetles, drown!

I’ve spoken with several bee keepers who swear by this method of integrated pest management for their hives, so we think this method is worth a shot.  We’ll see if it works to lower the beetle count in Scar.  So far, neither Buzz or Woody have had more than a few beetles, but hive beetles are common in most Texas honeybee hives.

Our honeybees.  It’s been a busy season so far and they never fail to keep things wild and keep us on our toes.

The drama continues…

 

Tight Quarters

Several weeks ago and for the second time this season, Bee Daddy and I checked our honeybee hives, Buzz and Woody.  We knew that we needed to peek in on the girls, but weather and schedule conflicts conspired to repeatedly delay the inspection.  Toward the end of a weekend where rain was forecast, but had yet to materialize, I impulsively opened the lid to Buzz and was astonished to find busy bees jam-packed up against the lid–comb built horizontally, rather than vertically–and nurse bees tending plenty of larvae.  In other words, the bees were so packed in and crowded, that there was no more room along the frames for the queen to lay eggs.

Overcrowding in a honeybee hive is what will cause the bees to procreate or reproduce   another hive. SWARM!!

Oops!  We realized we’d better hop to it and to check things out before Buzz and/or Woody initiated a swarm.  A honeybee hive is a superorganism consisting of many individuals, but who function as a whole organism.  Individual honeybees don’t mate and reproduce, they have a queen who mates and lays eggs and that’s her only function. The workers are all of the other honeybees who keep the organism, the “hive,” clean, fed, and productive.   If a hive becomes crowded to the point where the queen has difficulty finding places to lay eggs, the bees will produce another queen. The original queen will leave the hive to form a new one, taking roughly half of the workers with her. Two queens, two hives–that’s honeybee reproduction.

I knew that with our spring blossoms in full swing that the bees had been crazy busy with nectar and pollen gathering, but I didn’t realize just how successful they’d been.  While I’m not anti-swarm, I’d rather my hives not swarm because we’d lose half of our workers and we don’t know where the gone girls would end up–they might land in unfriendly hands.  To control the situation, we quickly donned our bee suits, fired up the smoker, and got to work controlling nature.

We all know how well that usually turns out.

Once we opened Buzz and  Woody, our first order of business was to scrape away the rogue comb with larvae and to disposed of it.  I hated to do that, but we can’t allow the bees continue building there because it would make subsequent checks impossible.  So scrape we did.  I don’t have photos of that stuffed-wherever-they-had-room-to-build-it comb, but after we cleaned it up, we began pulling out frames to check for brood and also, to check for queen cells: remember that, it will be important later.  In both hives there was beautiful egg laying pattern in many of the combs,  with both capped and uncapped brood. The flatter capped brood are those that will become valuable female workers.

The area of no capped brood in this photo is where I placed a rubber band after having broken the comb in the previous hive check.

There was also capped brood of drones, or male bees.  The drone eggs are usually laid at the sides and bottoms of the frames and, once capped, are larger and rounded.

The only job for a drone bee is to mate with the queen–that’s it.  Drones don’t gather pollen, they don’t gather nectar, they don’t take care of baby bees; they do nothing toward the good of the hive.  They mate with the the queen and that’s all they do. That’s fine in the real world, but our queens are mated when we purchase them, so drones in our hives are superfluous.

Sorry guys, you’re worthless deadbeats.  You eat the food, you sit on the comb, you watch bee TV, and you don’t do a damn thing.

Actually, we generally allow our drones to live because the honeybees we purchase (BeeWeaver Apiaries) are varroa resistant and that’s a good genetic quality to send out into the world. The drones from our hives potentially mate with “wild” honeybees and that ability to rid themselves of Varroa destructor mites is a powerful and positive genetic component to pass on.

Buzz  and Woody were so full that we added another brood box to each; both now have two brood boxes, with room to grow.  To Buzz we also added a shallower top box called a dadant box; it will be only for comb and honey.  How do we keep the queen from moving into this top box and laying eggs?  We added a queen exlcuder (a metal frame laid horizontally atop the second brood, now middle, box),  between that brood box and the new dadant box. Only the worker bees can enter the dadant–the slats are too narrow for the larger queen to get through.

The workers will build comb and make honey, but with no queen in that box, there will be no eggs: all honey, all the time.  I don’t expect honey for quite a while from Buzz, but we hope to extract some by the end of this season.

In opening these cramped hives, we knew that there was a possibility that the honeybees had begun the swarming process by creating one, or more, queen cells.  Sure enough, we saw several in both hives like this:

The queen cell is that bulbous thing at the bottom of the frame. The other capped brood are regular workers. There are also a number of uncapped larvae–I call them “squishies.”

Queen cells are  oblong and peanut-shaped and  usually placed at the bottom of a frame; they are distinctive from all the other capped brood.  There is another type of queen cell besides the overcrowding sort; remember that, it will be important later. Since we have laying queens, we snipped off each queen cell that we saw.  In theory,  the queens are laying eggs well, we’ve added brood boxes, thus giving both hives more space to grow, so the honeybees shouldn’t swarm.

Fingers-crossed.

The bees were cranky about the intrusion and our having turned their homes inside-out, but by nightfall,  all had marched back into their respective hives.

 

That same weekend, I finally processed the honey that I’d removed from Scar, our original hive, which I wrote about at the end of my last Bee Mama post.  I crunched the comb and dripped as much honey as feasible into four, 12 ounce jars.

Fall honey!!

As has been my practice, I laid out the rest of the pulverized comb with plenty of honey still available for the bees to enjoy.

By the end of the next day, there was only dry comb left.  I think bees like honey, what do you think?

That check took place almost three weeks ago.  We’ve checked again this past Sunday, with interesting results.

Stay tuned….

Bee Mama Missive: Bee Story

Meet Woody and Buzz.

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You know Woody and Buzz, don’t you?  Woody and Buzz from Toy Story, the first of the full-length Pixar films which debuted in 1995. We’re continuing the trend of using cartoon character names for our newest beehives, which began with our older and original two hives, Scar and Mufasa, named after characters in The Lion King.   Mufasa the Hive died in December due to an infestation of varroa mites, but Scar is buzzing along just fine.

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In fact, we took three (heavy!) combs of honey from Scar this past weekend.

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Whoop!!  Spring honey!

Buzz and Woody are Langstroth hives.  I’ve written about our travails with Scar and Mufasa–both Warre hives–and we’ve been planning two new Langstroth hives for quite a while.   Langstroth hives are considerably easier to work with and we finally hived these babies a month ago. We were planning to hive them in April, but a serious bicycle accident two days before the hiving waylaid Bee Daddy for a time and it was only recently that we finished final touches on the hives and then picked up our new bee-gals.

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I now understand why Langstroth hives are the industry standard–they’re SO much easier to work with than the Warre hives.

All the preparations are the same, of course: donning the hot bee suit,

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…readying the beekeepers’ paraphernalia,

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…and firing up the smoker.

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But the actual hiving with those lovely frames,

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…which fit together with ease, coupled with the larger boxes that they’re placed in, make this beekeeper’s life much easier.

Warre hives Scar and Mufasa were great learning tools and truthfully, we were fairly successful with them–we’ve had darling honeybees and their queens made other darling honeybees and the whole bunch-a-bees made oodles of gooey, delicious honey. But the cramped conditions of the smaller hives, along with top bars rather than frames, made things tricky these past two years as we kept tabs on our bees or when we pulled honey out of the hives.  So we did what others before us have done and transitioned to Langstroth hives.

While Bee Daddy was in the garage with his beloved power tool companions, fitting the Langstroth brood box like such a puzzle,

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…I was arranging our bee “yard” for the new ladies.

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Meanwhile, the Buzz and Woody bee gals were sitting on the living room floor, stuck in their cages, no doubt annoyed and tapping their tiny toes, anxiously awaiting their new homes.

Putting together the hives, we start with a plinth which has a screened bottom board, which will make it easier to check for the dreaded varroa mites.

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I set each brood box atop each plinth.

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Per instructions, we placed four brood frames (where the worker bees build their honeycomb and make honey, and the queen lays eggs) on one side in each box.

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We added the outside boardman feeders already filled with sugar-water syrup at a 1:1 ratio. Most beekeepers use trough feeders located inside the boxes, but we’ve used the boardmans and prefer not to open the hives each time we add fresh sugar-water.

Time to hive!!  We pull up the embedded cans containing their syrup in the traveling cages,

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…which also holds the queens’ cages, attached with the orange tabs.

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Queens from commercial apiaries usually arrive in their own separate cages from the workers.  Our bees come from BeeWeaver Apiaries, located here in Texas.

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At one end of the queen cage is sugar fondant to feed the queen until she’s safely hived.  The beekeeper pokes a hole in the fondant just prior to placing the cage in the hive so that the queen doesn’t work too hard eating through the fondant on her way to her subjects.

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The orange tabs attached to the queen cages allow us to thumb-tack each cage onto one of the frames in each box.

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It usually takes a few days for the queen to eat through the fondant and join her girl gang.   By the time the queen enters the hive, her pheromones are dispersed throughout the hive and all the worker bees love her so and will follow her to the ends of the earth.

Once the frames are in, the queen cage attached, we pour some bees onto the queen cage.  Then the entire traveling cage, with the rest of the ready-to-work workers, is situated cozily in the remaining open area of the box!  The worker bees will exit the traveling box and begin their work in the hive:  building comb, taking care of the queen, foraging, taking out dead bees, whatever is required of each.

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Wow, that was easy!

We placed the lids on top,

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…and added the roofs.  Bee Mama sat for a well-earned break!

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Interestingly, later that afternoon, I was watching the hives and Buzz became buzzy–and loud.  Bees vomited out of the hive.  I left to fetch Bee Daddy so he could observe the mass exodus as well and when we returned, who was crawling around on the ground but Ms. Queen Buzz.  Honeybees were swarming all over the area.  We captured Ms. Queen in a glass and gently (you REALLY don’t want to squish your queen!) placed her toward the back of the hive. All the bees followed her directly into hive.  If only humans could follow directions so well.  I suspect that initially we may have place her too close to the hive opening and she managed to find the door to the great outdoors–which is not good for a bee hive.

That was exciting.

Since then, all seems well with both hives–they’re actively foraging and sipping syrup to augment their diet.

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We’ve checked the hives twice since hiving and both queens are doing their job and laying eggs: there are larvae of different ages and even adult bees emerging.

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Bees know how to stay on task!  We removed the traveling boxes and queen cages from the brood boxes a few days after hiving and added the remainder of the frames. There are still only four frames with any significant amount of comb, but there was more comb at the second check than the first–good progress.  I’m still feeding the bees, though they’re drinking less from the feeders with each passing week.

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Buzz and Woody are the gentlest bees we’ve ever hosted.  I think we could work them without smoke, they’re such laid back ladies.

Laid back,

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…but busy.