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: Ramping Up

We’re ramping up for spring and another (hopefully) successful year of honeybee keeping with our two newer hives, Buzz and Woody, and the remaining original hive, Scar.

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Woody and Buzz, the Langstroth hives, are in the foreground and Scar, the Warre hive, resides in the background.

Fresh from a day-long beekeeping seminar that we attended a few weeks back and armed with loads of new and refreshed honeybee information, we’ve been eager to check out our hives and see how the girls fared over winter.  Though it feels a little early in the season, it’s been a mild winter with the exception of a few days in the 20s F (-6ish C) in December and early January.  Our original plan for a first hive check was to test for varroa mites, but it’s either proven too cold (below 65 F /18.3 C) or, as it was this past Sunday, above 65 F, though too humid.  Varroa mites are a serious threat to honeybees and unfortunately most commercial and hobbyist bee hives have some varroa mite levels. The trick is to keep tabs on the mite levels so that they don’t overwhelm a hive and subject the bees to fatal viral overloads. Truthfully,  Bee Daddy and I haven’t been particularly good about keeping a regular check on varroa mites; in fact, we’ve been downright irresponsible about checking for varroa mites.  Partly that’s because we’ve hived honeybees who enjoy a proven resistance to varroa mites (thank you, BeeWeaver!), and partly because…we just haven’t.  I’ve seen mites on larvae a few times when I’ve pulled off comb and last year we lost a hive, Mufasa, to a fatal viral load, most likely due to a varroa infestation.  You can read about that sad event here.

This year, our 2017 bee keepers’ resolution is to be better bee keepers and we will check for varroa at least four times over the course of the season.

Ahem.

It was good to see what was going on in our honeybee hives after so many months.

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This frame has comb and nectar, but little else.

Buzz is buzzing along beautifully and Woody survived winter and though small, is thriving.  The girls have been foraging and bringing in pollen of varying colors:

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The corbicula is also called a pollen basket. I use a Tina-term “pollen pantaloon.”

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I’m enamored with the salmon-red pollen; I have no idea which plant produces it, but wow!

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The bees have also been bringing in lots of creamy white pollen, much of which I suspect comes from a neighbor’s stand of viburnum.

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Creamy white pollen taken from the flowers and stored in the corbiculae, pollen baskets, or pollen pantaloons.

As always, lots of good, old-fashioned yellow pollen is collected–no doubt from a variety of sources.

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Can you count the number of bees carrying pollen?  I counted five!

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Honeybees forage up to three miles and I know that viburnum, rosemary, flowering quince and perhaps a few early trees are in flowering mode.  My Leatherleaf Mahonia, Mahonia bealei,  was certainly one source of nectar and pollen a few weeks ago, but there’s nothing currently blooming in my garden that the honeybees are interested in, though I have seen a few of the tiny wild bees working at some native salvia species that have pushed out some blooms in the last week or so.

Honeybees forage for nectar, which is their carbohydrate source, and pollen, which serves as protein.  A diverse and well-rounded diet is key to a healthy life and honeybees certainly benefit from a diversity of flowers.  That the honeys are pulling in pollen and nectar from a variety of early sources is a good thing.  I planned to take a photo of the comb with differing pollen colors, but completely forgot about that once I was in the hive and looking at the good work of the queen, with support from her workers.

This comb–and it wasn’t the only one–demonstrates  a beautiful pattern of capped brood, meaning that Buzz’s queen is healthy and  laying eggs. The next generation of honeybees is in the works!

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While pulling up some frames to check, I tipped one full-of-comb frame and the comb broke.  ARGH!  It’s not the first time I’ve made that mistake (when will I learn?), but when I’ve done that in Mufasa or Scar–the Warre hives, with top bars and not frames–we had to sacrifice the comb, or if it was full of honey, take the honey.  There is simply no remedy for placing a broken comb attached to a bar back into the hive, because there is no way to “hold” the comb in place. Now that we use Langstroth hives with full frames, a dumb mistake is fixable.

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This frame is mostly capped brood, but there are some uncapped brood (larvae) and there is also some honey in the top right corner.

Three rubber-bands wrapped around the girth of the frame will sufficiently hold the comb in place and allow industrious little bees to repair the beekeeper damage by building new comb and continuing their honey-making or baby-bee tending.

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Unfortunately, some of the larvae about half-way through their development were victims of the comb breakage.  The bees will harvest the doomed larvae as a protein source–bees waste nothing.  Once they’ve rebuilt the comb,  Ms.Queen will probably lay more eggs in the new comb.

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Ramping up indeed!  I was pleased to see that Woody and Buzz seem healthy and next time we open up the hives, we plan to conduct our first varroa mite check for the season.

Sadly, Scar is on her way out as a viable hive.  There were five full combs of honey in the top box–we took three out–but the lower boxes contained mostly empty comb. There is no brood, indicating that the queen has probably died and while there are worker bees busily foraging and still engaging in most of their bee work, there’s no new generation to nurture.  Last year, we decided that once our Langstroth hives (Buzz and Woody) were up and buzzing, we’d allow Scar to atrophy naturally–there would be no extreme measures to keep her going.  Still, I’m a little sad and must admit to a temptation to re-queen her.  But Scar is a difficult hive to maintain and I’ve become quite spoiled at the ease of working with Buzz and Woody in all their Langstroth glory, so I imagine I’ll keep with the original plan and let Scar go. Scar’s bees will live out the rest of their lives over the next month or so and then she will be empty.

I’ll plant something bee-friendly in that shady spot in Scar’s memory: maybe a nice Evergreen sumac, Rhus virens  or Turk’s capMalvaviscus arboreus.