Because of the nice weather in winter and spring the varroa populations have exploded. Winter treatment against varroa using oxalic acid is used during winter because that it is the only time that the colony is not expected to have any brood. A single treatment should impact all varroa as there should be no varroa protected inside caped brood cells.
But because of the mild weather this winter there is a good chance that the bees did have capped brood, most likely filled with varroa. And then there was the mild spring which gave the mites a head start in the bee season letting their population grow to new heights. That is why this year the varroa treatments here in western Europe are especially important. Varroa can be a major cause in colony death over winter. More so than lack of food or extreme cold.
The local apiarists organisation in the Netherlands has published an article on the explosive varroa population growth. A beekeeper counted 4 times the varroa he would count in an average year. You can view a translation of the article by following this next link (in all honesty the translation isn’t all that good, but kind of readable).
I’m not sure how the varroa population is going in my hives. I’ll check the mite drop after the 5 weeks of apiguard treatment tomorrow and update this post accordingly (if the weather allows, lot of rain here lately).
I’m using a, for me, new tool in my effort to combat varroa in my colonies, apiguard. You place a “serving” of apiguard on top of the top bars of the frames and leave it there for two weeks and repeat.
Worker bees climb into the Apiguard tray, remove the gel as a hive-cleaning behaviour and distribute it throughout the colony. The gel sticks to the bees’ body hairs and, as the bees move through the hive, particles are left throughout the hive. The worker eventually throws out the gel it is carrying, but the traces remain until they too are removed later.
The gel acts like a slow thymol release agent. Thymol is a naturally occurring substance that has proven to work as an anti varroa agent as well as being an antimicrobial and fungicidal substance. Seeing my earlier experience with formic acid, this perhaps is a good alternative. Although I forgot to place a bottom board in the hives to see the varroa drop, thus making it hard to compare it to the formic acid treatment. But perhaps I’ll see less varroa in December when I treat with oxalic acid because of this treatment.
You do need to be done with your honey harvest because the thymol will also dissolve into the honey giving it a distinctly unpleasant taste. You should also not feed the bees while giving this treatment because the bees will be to busy with storing the feed syrup to disperse the thymol gel.
Otherwise Sif and Artemis are looking good. Next on the todo list is judging the fitness of the colonies in the light of winter survival. Will need to asses their size and food supply to estimate how much feeding they will need.
As I said in my last post I wanted to name my colonies. Having thought it over and discussed it with my wife, who is more familiar with Greek mythology. I came to choose two names. I first came up with Sif for my old colony in reference to the old Nordic goddess “associated with earth”. I wanted to call the second colony in reference to a Greek goddess and my wife came up with Artemis who is in part a Greek equivalent of Sif. Artemis, from Wikipedia; is the goddess of the hunt, wild animals, wilderness, childbirth, virginity. Which apart from the first and last part I think is quite appropriate.
So in following blog posts I will be referring to the colonies under those names. (Dutch version: link)
I haven’t posted for a while, partly because I have a new job and partly because very little has happened with the bees. I just put on a second brood chamber and I’m still not sure if I’ll have to create an artificial swarm this season and if I’ll be using a honey chamber this year or not. I think not as it is already past the summer solstice. I’m still not so sure about this queen the colony seems to be growing very slowly, maybe I’ll remove her next month if I feel the colony is still lagging.
I met a fellow apiarist at the apiary this Friday who I hadn’t seen there before (although that isn’t saying much). He told me he had 5 hives there which were proving more work than what he had bargained for. and was willing to sell a colony to lighten his load. As I haven’t heard anything about the other colony I maybe could take over, I am anxious to get my hands on a second colony from somewhere. Update: Well I bought a colony from the guy I mentioned above. The fellow apiarist had just taken an artificial swarm from the colony and was waiting for the new queen to start laying before selling it. Well, the queen is laying like crazy as far as I can tell. We checked the hive today and the colony, on a single brood chamber right now, is already pretty big with about 7 frames full of brood at the moment. I’ll have to add the second brood chamber pretty soon or the single brood chamber will start feeling cramped.
I’ll try to take a picture of the queen next time I see her, in my eyes she is enormous. Unmarked as of yet something I would like to start doing but that requires some . Certainly compared to the queen in my first colony. I’ll have to start naming the colonies which I have read people do, to help keep them apart on the blog. I’ll have to put some thought in that.
My first colony is still plodding along, no hurry. I think I’m going to replace the queen, hopefully with a queen from this second colony. I think I’ll remove the queen and then add a frame with eggs from the second colony, hoping that eggs from the second queen will produce a queen with a similar productivity. I wan’t to face the winter with two strong colonies.
I’ll keep you updated. (Dutch version: link)
The bee research group in my country, bijen@wur, organized a symposium last month which I didn’t attend. One of the speakers there was bee researcher Dennis van Engelsdorp (weirdly dutch sounding last name, translates to “English village”). He presented statistical data from a beekeeper survey that suggested that annually replacing to much of the comb (50% or more) negatively influences colony health. Often the idea of replacing comb is to prevent buildup of pesticides and/or pathogens, but it also looks ugly blackish comb. But the data shows that beekeepers who replaced 50% or more of their comb compared to beekeepers who don’t replace any, lose more colonies over winter.
It is unclear what causes this, the survey was not comprehensive enough for any analysis like that but the data is clear. They suggest not to replace more than about 20% of your comb annually. I was aiming to replace about a third of the comb but according to this information I will have to amend that. Apparently reusing comb from old colonies is also not advised as it also caused more winter deaths. The only problem is the lack of additional information in the survey. For instance it is unclear what the origins where of the reused combs. Perhaps the old colony died of disease.
So much is unclear, it wasn’t a study but only a survey. What is clear is that you shouldn’t renew to much of your combs annually. See the accompanying video for yourself (there is also a link to the web page in its description):
I may be able to acquire a new colony with hive soon, from a beekeeper who want’s to reduce his number of colonies. I’m not sure yet on the details on this colony or if I actually will be able to get it but I hope I will, certainly now I’m slight unsure on the survival of my remaining colony. I would have liked to begin the season with two colonies, which I would have done if both my colonies had survived, but having at least one colony of bees is I’d say a prerequisite for being able to call yourself a beekeeper. When you have more than one colony you can supplement one colony with a possible excess in the other, either with stores or brood or a queen(cell). That is, if my last remaining colony/queen is still viable. Which I hope to find out on tomorrow when the temperature is predicted to exceed 18 degrees (64 F).
There is also a little voice in the back of my mind saying that it would be a bad idea to hand me another colony, seeing how the last one and perhaps the last two fared. I guess I’m going to ignore that voice and if the chance presents itself I will gladly take on a new colony. I would like to have about 5 colonies in total, in a few years. I suppose that way my beekeeping life will be a much more relaxed one. Loosing one colony would be regrettable but not catastrophic. When you have “x” chance on losing each colony you are expected to loose a percentage of your colonies over winter. Say each colony has a 20% chance (made that up on the spot) not to survive winter. If you then have 5 colonies you will expect to loos one colony over winter. This is a bummer but an expected risk of being a beekeeper, it comes with the territory. But losing a percentage of your colonies when you only have two, can easily mean you lose all your colonies and in a sense you will have to start over.
If you have also paid money to acquire a carnica or buckfast queen then losing that colony also means loosing an investment. Now for me that isn’t the case as of yet, although I do plan on becoming either a buckfast or carnica beekeeper in the future and maybe even try my hand at queen rearing. For now I’ll just concentrate on the colony in the apiary.
Edit: I went to the apiary today. Beautiful weather, warm and sunny although there was a lot of wind. I went mainly to find brood and eggs. I checked all the frames this time and I found caped brood, larva swimming in their food and eggs. There wasn’t all that much brood in my opinion. But perhaps that is just my inexperience and this amount of brood is normal for the time of year. If I had to guess I’d say there was perhaps a little over one side of a frame of brood divided over three frames. The frames also containing stores, fresh pollen and either sugar syrup or honey.
I also found the queen (see image to the right). This is the first time I have seen this queen because she was reared late last year. I thought she looked slightly small, compared to the other queens I’ve seen. Perhaps that is the reason she doesn’t give as much brood. I’m just speculating here. Time will tell as I can’t replace her before the swarming season in June.
(a short update mainly written 6 days after the fact)
The temperature is a sunny, record setting 18 degrees here in Groningen (the Netherlands). As I knew it was going to be warm I went to have a look in my remaining hive. At first I was planning to do some major “remodeling”. Like reducing the size of the hive and cleaning out dead bees. But more experienced beekeepers advised against this and to wait with this major work until the end of march. So I just took a thorough cursory (can you say that?) look, to check if they had enough stores and see if I could find what we in Dutch abbreviate to BIAS, Brood In All Stages. Stores galore but I didn’t find any brood. I didn’t go through every single frame, only the two or three center frames in both brood boxes. I also forgot to check for eggs but I didn’t find any larva or closed brood. I don’t know for sure but I guess that isn’t a good sign. Perhaps I should check better in a week or two or I will have to clean out a second dead hive when all the long living winter bees have died off. There were bees with pollen coming in not all that many nor did they seem to have full pollen baskets, this then would be a positive indication for brood.
No brood would have to mean that the colony is without a queen. I hope this isn’t so but seeing the luck I’m having with bees so far I’m not keeping my hopes up. If the colony is indeed without queen there is no hope for them as there is no possibility to replace the queen at this time of year. Queen rearing will not start for a few months yet and the first queens will most likely not be ready before June. So all I can do right now is wait and hope for the best.
I Never thought keeping bees would be this difficult or stressful.
Apparently I was too soon with my celebration that both my hives survived winter. As it would seem that my second colony, which was the weakest by far, didn’t make it after all. There were apparently too few bees to make it through the colder nights since the last time I checked. Beside that the frames on the outside of the hive were filed with mold, quite badly (the first picture above). My parents made the discovery of the passing of the colony today. They also made the pictures. If I have to make an artificial swarm this year I’ll make sure to keep it at my local apiary so I don’t have to make the thirty minute drive to check on my bees in my parents garden. I also wasn’t taught that you could keep an artificial swarm next to the original colony, but you can (when taking the right precautions).
Looking at the top-bars it doesn’t look good but reading this article (as well as this article from the same source) I gather that mold in a hive in/after winter is not so strange. This second colony had the old queen (from 2010) that I was going to replace this year anyway but loosing the entire colony was not part of the plan. I guess I’ll have to see it as a learning experience, that what I actually should have done is combine the colonies at the end of summer to create one strong one. But I reasoned that if I were to do that I would be left with one colony anyway because my first colony looked to be strong enough to survive winter I was in no real danger of losing that colony. So I gambled the second colony and I lost.
Now the time for questioning my decisions has arrived. What could I have done better? What could I have done to ensure the survival of the second colony. I think the answer to that is most likely that I shouldn’t have placed the hive in a food desert, which my parents home apparently is. There are some gardens in the vicinity, my mothers being one, but I guess they weren’t enough to support a viable colony, most is farmland. The smaller town at bout 3-4 kilometres (2-2,5 miles) apparently was slightly too far and/or didn’t have enough flowers for the bees.
To end on a more positive note; my wife took these pictures bellow in the city where we live. Crocuses are literally all over the place, especially in the parks but also by the roadside. I will visit my city bees in my first hive (to which I should simply refer to as “my hive”, as it now is my only hive) this weekend to do some housekeeping. Select which frames I will scrap this year and which will last for another year, reduce the size of the hive from two to one brood box and see if they need some additional feeding. Then I will leave them to their own devises for about two weeks?
I went to visit my bees today and both colonies have made it through the winter! As you may remember from this post, I was unsure about the chances of my secondary colony. As long as the end of the winter keeps on being as warm as the first part was all will be well. I expected my primary colony to survive but I actually was expecting the secondary colony to have died, but they didn’t. Admittedly the secondary colony at my parents house are a pity full lot, they seemed to be happy with the sugar syrup I made for them. I’ll take a picture of the simple syrup setup (unintentional alliteration there) if I remember to do so. It’s a very simple setup, just a jar with syrup (1:1, sugar:water) with small holes in the lid placed on top of the frames in a hole in the top cover (the holes are so small that the surface tension and the low pressure above the syrup keeps it from dripping out). I’m unsure as to what is the best method to provide the bees with extra food, at this time of year with this weather, the sugar syrup was my first inclination but perhaps bee candy/sugar candy/fondant would have been a better choice considering the possibility of fermenting, I’m not completely sure.
Winter has been extremely mild and so far. Last year the weather was lagging two weeks behind in spring now it seems that it will be two weeks early. This winter here in the Netherlands is going into the books as either the third or second warmest winter since they started recording the weather (for meteorologists the winter ends at the end of February). If it hadn’t been so warm I am quite sure my secondary colony would have perished.
I’d say there were between five hundred and a thousand bees, occupying just one space between the frames in my secondary hive. I can’t wait till the weather warms a little more so I can do some spring cleaning in both hives, they are a mess. The hive at my parents house, what I call my secondary hive, is full of mold and dead bees. From the primary hive I took a frame out, away from where the bees were, a frame almost directly against the outside of the hive. The outside of that frame had mold on it. So perhaps the honey/syrup inside wasn’t ready yet when the cold weather started or this is just something that can happen.
I didn’t want to bother the bees to much so I left the inspection at that. The bees were already going out to forage, so were bees from other hives in the apiary. I didn’t spend much time checking if the bees were returning with pollen, as the crocus is in bloom here as well as the snowdrop. In the short time I did look I couldn’t see any bees returning with pollen. Shortly after the winter solstice the queen will start laying eggs again. Pollen is the most important resource right now because it is needed to feed the new larva, it is the bees only real source of protein. The larva are fed a mix of pollen and nectar called beebread.
Another thing the bees are able to do in this weather, and have most likely already done a number of days ago, is relieve themselves the so called “cleansing flights”. The worker bees don’t defecate inside the hive, so all through the cold weather they will be storing faeces in there intestine waiting for a spot of mild weather, with mild I mean a temperature above 8 degrees (47 Fahrenheit ). When the weather is milder the colony will “en mass” go for a flight outside the hive to take a “cleansing flight”. Imagine how you would feel after not taking a shit for a month or two. As the queen only eats royal jelly which hardly contains any indigestible components she doesn’t have to relieve herself nearly as often and if she does she will do this inside the hive and the worker bees will clean up the mess. Obviously royalty doesn’t have to concern itself with excrement.
A colony of bees (or ants or termites for that matter) can and should be viewed as a singe organism. The individuals within that organism do not act in their own interest, they act in the interest of the colony organism. Evolutionarily seen the unit on which selection takes place is of importance. For bees that is not the single bee but the bee colony.
John Maynard Smith (an evolutionary biologist and geneticist) sums it up generally in the following way 1988: “Any population of entities with the properties of multiplication (one entity can give rise to many), variation (entities are not all alike, and some kinds are more likely to survive and multiply than others), and heredity (like begets like) will evolve: A major problem for current evolutionary theory is to identify the relevant entities.” For the bees this “entity” is clearly the colony.
In the same sense it is evident that the queen is not the boss/leader of the colony, she serves the colony just as much as the worker bees do. If she fails or wavers at her task the workers will dispose of her and promote a sibling to the position of queen. They do not come to this decision collectively, there are no bee comities that come to these decisions. A certain circumstance automatically results in a certain predictable outcome without intervention of any authoritative figure. There is no one telling the workers bees to forage or feed the larva or clean cells or do any of the myriad of tasks the workers perform but they still perform them. This behavior is “preprogramed” genetically.
You can compare the individuals in a bee colony with computer programs that reacts to certain inputs in predictable straightforward ways. Programs that simulate the behavior of eusocial insects (from wikipedia: “Eusociality, the highest level of organization of animal sociality, is defined by the following characteristics: cooperative brood care (including brood care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups”) often use ants as a model organism as ants don’t have to deal with a 3D world outside of the colony.
From the site of one such ant simulator the principle is describes aptly (corrected for grammar): “The simulation is based on the fundamental principle that each ant is not intelligent enough to understand it lives in a complex community, nor is it able to organize tasks in its colony. Therefore, each ant lives and works following some simple rules interacting (unaware of it) with the others through chemical signals. From these thousands of connections a self-organization of the whole colony arises, which leads an observer to believe that someone has imposed some kind of strategy.”