Bee Mama Missive: Mufasa No More

Mufasa, one of the two beehives that Bee Daddy and I have fretted and fussed over, has died, or if not dead,  is mostly on her way out.  Unlike her namesake, she wasn’t pushed off a steep edge by a rival, but sadly succumbed to an all too common infestation of honeybees:  varroa mites.

That’s what we think, anyhow.  In December, long after our last hive check of the year before the days grew chilly, I was out and about in the back garden.  I noticed some bees crawling along an open space in the garden a little ways in front of where Scar and Mufasa are situated.  Then I realized that it was more than just a few bees–indeed, there were hundreds of bees crawling along the ground.  I observed this massive and confused exit from the hive for several days, reading what I could about what I was observing.  I contacted a leader of the Austin Area Beekeepers Association and he confirmed what I suspected:  my honeys were abandoning the hive because of sickness from a varroa mite infestation. Varroa mites, Varroa destructor, are probably the greatest single threat to honeybees.  The mites have a complicated life cycle, but essentially they  feed on the blood of adult bees and the brood, causing disease, deformities, and general mayhem in honeybees.  I didn’t witness any deformed wings which is a common visual symptom of disease, but Mufasa’s honeys exited the hive in droves and that’s another sign that the bees are infected and dying.

The honeybee expert I consulted called the  honeybees leaving Mufasa, “walkers.”

Zom-bees.  That can’t be good.

Not only were the bees walking out of the hive, but they were dying in droves.  They died along the landing board,

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…and were in piles on the ground around the beehives.

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Sob.

My bees are BeeWeaver bees, touted as  varroa resistant through genetic selection of queens resistant to the varroa mites.  Of course varroa resistant doesn’t necessarily mean varroa proof.  BeeWeaver claims that fewer than 5% of their queens will succumb to varroa mites and apparently, Mufasa’s queen landed in that statistical range.

BeeWeaver bees are the descendants of bees who survived the initial onslaught of varroa mites in the late ’80s.  An idea behind their survival is that they’re particularly tidy bees and they rid themselves of varroa when the varroa arrive–and sooner or later, varroa mites will arrive.  Varroa mites are the biggest invasive scourge that North American honeybees and their keepers must deal with.  Bee Daddy and I have been fortunate–this is the first hive we’ve lost in the almost two years since we began this buzzy backyard adventure.

In fact, in early summer of 2014 shortly after we started beekeeping, we removed a couple of frames of comb from one of our new hives and on some of the larvae  I saw several  varroa mites; I just knew that the hive was a goner right then and there. But true to their varroa resistant genetics, the bees rid the hive of the mites and the hive continued successfully,  despite occasional (some might say, constant) beekeeper ineptitude.

Until now.

I think my mistake was in assuming that my bees were immune to an infestation, rather than keeping a keen watch on the goings-on of the hive, year-round, winter included.  I became a complacent bee keeper.

We treated Mufasa with an organic product called HopGuard II, which is made from hops.

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Apparently, beer helps all situations.

HopGuard comes in a sealed package and contains a series of strips coated with a thick and sticky hops solution.

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We placed two gooey hops strips in each box of each beehive, each draped over a comb.

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Though not showing any symptoms of infestation, we treated Scar because as Mufasa was dying, she was also robbed of her stores of honey (yes, honeybees do that) and it’s possible the mites could migrate from Mufasa to Scar if we don’t stay ahead of the mite situation.

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In this picture,

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…there are lots of bees buzzing around Mufasa (left in the photo), but this was taken after many (most?) of Mufasa’s bees absconded and died.  I’m guessing that the bees are Scar’s bees, or even bees from another nearby hive, robbing poor Mufasa with abandon.

The HopGuard procedure was simple enough, though it’s messy.  I could smell the grainy fragrance for a day or so afterwards.

For the moment, Scar appears healthy and we’ll treat with HopGuard II again when temperatures are appropriate.  I’m sad about Mufasa’s death, but life is full of loss and one must learn from experience and move forward.  If we’re going to lose a hive, now is not a bad time.  Bee Daddy is busy making two new Langstroth hives and we’ll have two new  honeybee packages (mated queens each with 10,000 workers) delivered in April. With our plans in place to hive new honeybees in more easily managed and efficient hives, we were going to let Scar and Mufasa just…bee,  allowing them to swarm (if they want) or to just hang out to pollinate and nectar as they see fit.  For Scar and Mufasa we would become honeybee havers (thanks Debra, at Under the Pecan Trees for that one), rather than honeybee keepers.

There is a bit of activity in Mufasa even now, though very little; the difference between Mufasa (left) and Scar (right) is telling.

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As of this post, I haven’t opened the hive up fully since treating with the HopGuard, but I did peek in about 10 days after treating and things were very quiet, certainly in the top two boxes–I can’t  see into the bottom box.  There was no buzzing and no concerned guard bee coming to the top to check me out, bum in the air ready to warn the rest of the hive of an invader, so I’m guessing there’s little life left. If this winter continues mild, it’s possible that there might be a bit of Mufasa by springtime, but I’m not hopeful about that.  We’ll just have to wait, be patient, and accept the outcome.

In the days that followed the revelation that we were losing Mufasa, I was out dealing with  leaves in the garden.  I spied a probable drowned honeybee in one of my birdbaths.  I hate to see their floating bodies, so I always fish them out and deposit them in a garden;  a garden  seems like an appropriate resting place for a dead bee.  This little girl vaguely waved a leg at me, so I cradled her in my palm in the hopes that my warm skin might revive her,  all the while depositing rakes and other garden utensils in their appropriate places with my other hand.  Within about 5 minutes, she’d revived, was licking off the offending bird bath water and then, without so much as a by-your-leave, she flew off to  her next pollinating date.

The resilience of that little bee was affirming in the wake of Mufasa’s death.  Her drive to live  and continue her community responsibilities and her acceptance of life in that moment, was touching and a good reminder of the importance of purpose.  It’s been a transformative adventure to learn about honeybees–to work in the garden closely with them and to learn about their remarkable lives.  Becoming a backyard bee keeper has also strengthened my commitment to providing for native bees and all the other pollinators so important to the health of our ecosystem.  I’ve loved and planted native plants, focusing on gardening for wildlife in my personal garden and beyond. By actively encouraging pollinators to live and breathe in my gardens by what I choose to plant–or not–I hope to continue an intentional repair of the world, in my own small space, giving respite and nourishment to wildlife despite occasional losses and setbacks.

Lastly, Bee Weaver shared a lovely and locally produced film by  Dylan Tidmore profiling two Austin beekeepers, Tanya Phillips and Chuck Rayburn–and of course, the real stars of the production: honeybees.

Enjoy…learn…appreciate.