Clean-Up on Aisle “Bee”

So this is my fourth “Bee Babble for My Mentees” article. The first three will appear at a later date. The title for this article is an homage to an episode of the TV show “Monk,” although I can’t find a quote for the line. I think that it comes from “Mr. Monk and the Employee of the Month” … but don’t quote me on that.

Back from the Amazon

Paula and I have returned from a two-week trip to Brazil. Our first morning in the Amazon rain forest, I decided to have some honey with breakfast. It was a tub of ordinary commercial honey made in Brazil. Not interesting. While we were eating, I noticed that someone was very interested in my open honey.

Someone came to share my breakfast

This is not a fly, it is a stingless honey bee, native to the Amazon. I found that they were gathering nectar and pollen from flowering trees. You might have seen articles about Meliponines and honey harvesters in Mexico who gather honey from these stingless bees. Unlike Apis mellifera, which is a single species (our honey bees), these are referred to scientifically as (Hymenoptera : Apidae : Melipona) because we don’t know what genus they are. I had heard that there was a beekeeper in Manaus who was keeping them and harvesting them, but I did not get a chance to visit.

I made a video of the Meliponi gathering pollen, but they are really fast and I don’t have a high-speed camera. I  saw a few A. mellifera flit in to grab some pollen or nectar too. Those were probably Africanized Brazilian bees, but I don’t think that they are dangerous when they are far away from their hive. Not that I intended to squish one to find out.

What Are Your Hives Doing?

Are you seeing pollen coming in to your hive on warmer days? What are your bees doing? What are you seeing among the trees and on the ground?

I have been seeing a nice supply of pollen coming back on days that it is warm enough to fly. It is out there. The bees are also happy to find water right outside their hives. I think that they “taste” the water with the bottoms of their feet, because they all seem to skip/splash across the surface of the water before they choose to fill up from that source.

I do not recommend that anyone do inspections or pull frames, even when the daytime temperatures are getting into the 50’s or 60’s … it takes the bees several hours, at least, to get back into the cluster if you leave them alone and some of them choose to fly and forage. Either they instinctively know when it is getting cold and they have to get back inside, or they are expendable … many are not going to make it home because in the cold, they could fly away and get chilled before they get home. I am opening my hive tops to check two things: do they still have emergency feed (fondant) on top, and do I see some signs of life in the hive (without pulling frames). If and only if there is no sign of life at the entrance and the top of the hive, I might carefully pull a frame or two to see whether there are bees alive. Only if I am really concerned that there is nothing alive. If I pull any frame and there is anything but honey on it, I will close up ASAP. This is not the time to do inspections or be curious about how much brood the queen is laying.

What Are Your Beekeeping Plans for 2020?

According to our beginner beekeeping courses, the “beekeeping season” begins in August and runs through July. We can make all kinds of plans for what we will do in the Spring, but it is only after we take stock of our survivors that we can decide what action to take. That does not mean that we should not have contingency plans and decide what we will do in different scenarios. For example:

  • All your hives survive the winter, are building up strong, and are looking like they want to swarm. What will you do for swarm management? Are you going to make spring splits? How many hives do you want to end up with in total? Do you have space to double your hives? Will you keep the new hives, if the splits all thrive? Will you plan to combine them back in the late summer if you won’t?
  • Not all your hives survive the winter. How are you going to increase your numbers to get back to where you want to be? What do you need to do to increase their survival through next winter?
  • None of your hives survive the winter. Are you going to buy more bees? Nucs or Packages? Early bees or Local bees? Take a year off and work with someone else? (Contact me!)
  • What are your objectives for this season? Make lots of honey? Make lots of bees? Build up your stock of drawn comb frames? You can’t do “all of the above” with all your hives. You have to choose. Maybe you just want to make a nuc and have all your hives survive the winter. That is OK too.

When are you going to do your first mite treatment? When do you have to do that in advance of putting your honey supers on? Do you have it on hand?

Do you have enough woodenware, frames, accessories, etc. that you will need? This is the busy season for bee suppliers. You might not get the two-day turnaround that you were getting last year, so figure out what you need, order it, and put it together.

Finally, what are you going to do to improve your beekeeping knowledge and skills this year? If you (and your bees) have survived their first year, you might want to be thinking about mentoring a new beekeeper, or doing some outreach events for your local bee club. There are some advanced beekeeping courses becoming available. Make a reading list for yourself and do it. Your bees will thank you!

It Can Happen to You Too!

I checked my out yard hives yesterday and found that both nucs and one of my production hives, Mae Jemison, had died out. Recently. They all had plenty of fondant on top of their frames. They all had lots of honey still available.

What killed my bees?

They were all dead, in all three hives. They were surrounded by frames of honey and with fondant at the top. I had heard of bees starving within an inch of honey or nectar stores.

Was it Starvation? Yes, and no. That was the final cause … but bees should not starve if they are surrounded by honey and fondant on the top bars, should they?

Cold? Well, that was a contributory cause. It became cold enough to force the bees to cluster together. We know that honey bees should be able to heat parts of the hive up to 94℉ even when outside temps go below dee into the negative, like -30℉. It did not get that cold here in Bethesda. It never does. Maybe we hit a low of 30 degrees above zero.

Disease? Yes! I have no doubt that viruses were a major contributory factor.

Mites? Yes! The mites spread the diseases, mostly in the fall.

Colony Size? Definitely yes, and probably root cause leading to the final destruction by starvation.

The mites that were out of control in the fall made my winter bees sick. They were all looking fine, going in to the winter, but the die-off rate was much too high. The colony did not have enough bees in the spring to survive.

They did fine when there was no brood, in the dead of winter. They could move, slowly, as a cluster. As long as a couple of bees are touching a honey cell, they will share food around to feed everyone. There had to be enough bees to cluster and keep each other warm, but they could do that anywhere they wanted to.

The queen had started to ramp up her brood laying. It was a ridiculously warm winter. Spring is springing much sooner than usual. When I made a fondant check in early February, I gave them some pollen substitute, at the top of the hive, to help the nurse bees feed the brood. The workers were frolicking in the warm weather, even bringing in a little bit of pollen and winter bloom nectar.

Then the weather became cold for a few days. Not Wisconsin cold, but cold enough that they had to cluster together to keep warm.  When the bees formed the cluster, they could not move around on the comb to stay on top of honey, and stay on top of the brood nest to keep it warm.

I did find some brood in another part of the hive that had partially emerged and died … probably because there were not enough bees to keep them warm until they emerged.

The telltale sign of starvation is dead bees with their abdomens sticking up in the air, and other clusters of bees all huddled/stuck together. 

I did not find brood under the dead bees. Why is that, if they will not abandon their brood? According to another beekeeper, more experienced than I, when they get into starvation mode, they will eat the brood, which may give them a little time, but it is probably too late by then. One of the things that I have seen is that hungry bees start to slow down. Since they share food throughout the colony, everyone slows down. Things got bad enough that the remaining bees all starved at once.

I will add pictures later.

What Should I Have Done Differently?

  • Keep the mites under control. I did not do oxalic acid treatments in late December when they could have helped. I did not test or treat the nucs at all, though they were made with bees from a hive with low mite counts after treating and given a good mated queen each (sorry Sean). Test/treat if above threshold/test. Treat and test again if still above threshold.

  • Don’t try to overwinter weak colonies. This is a bit hard to judge. Mae Jemison had plenty of bees in the fall. Its worst mite count was 6% in the fall, before treating. Treatment got the mite load down to something acceptable, around 1%. But the damage had been done … my winter bees probably had shared food with sick bees, even if the mites were gone. If you have weak hives (not enough bees) that are healthy, you can combine them.

    My own counter-example to this is Stanley, which had ridiculous mite loads last year. Something like 12% or 13% before multiple treatments. It was so bad that I was going to euthanize that hive. I got as far as setting up a soapy water bucket next to the hive. I decided to give them a chance. This spring, Stanley is very strong.


Warning : This pages are part of my ‘Bee Babble’ series. The content is intended for a specific audience and is subject to my disclaimer

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