Worried about my bees

Yesterday afternoon I was outside in a short-sleeve tee admiring the sky, a clear ethereal blue above a jagged frame of alder, maple, and fir. As I gazed beyond the pasture, a meteor slashed the blue just above the tree line, ripped an arc through the sky, and vanished in a heartbeat. Is it even possible, I wondered, to see a meteor at 3:15 in the afternoon or was I crazy?

I went online to find an answer, only to learn we were entering the Orionid meteor shower at that very moment. How cool is that? Oh, and I found the answer, “Yes, it is possible to see a meteor in the daytime, but good luck setting up your lawn chair and looking for one.” Serendipity, I guess.

But the reason I was outside is more problematic. It is impossibly warm for October. The alders are still wearing their summer clothes, the aronia leaves refuse to turn, and my bean plants have flowers. The air smells of humus and earthworms, and my bees seem to think it’s August.

My colonies are actively bringing in pollen in shades of white and Day-Glo orange. Sure, pollen is good, and so are all those empty intestines. But nary a bee is bringing in nectar. I see none of those distended, nearly translucent, abdomens that signal a full honey crop. No, these bees are not storing nectar for the winter, they are using it up.

When foraging bees look for nectar and don’t find it, they expend a huge amount of energy. They fly from place to place and often come home with an empty crop. They refuel from the colony’s winter supply, and try again the next day. Each day that flying weather persists, the stores are diminished.

Even more worrisome is the fact that here in western Washington—at least in my area—the honey season was not great. The biggest flow, blackberries, was cut short by a hot and dry summer, and the fall flow didn’t amount to much. I fear many northwest bees will go hungry this winter unless their keepers are alert.

I hate to feed sugar. I believe honey bees should eat honey, and to that end I keep a large reserve for emergency feeding. But there is no way I have enough to feed all my colonies for most of the winter.

Each balmy afternoon, I get a little more worried. I purchased 200 pounds of granulated sugar as an hors d’oeuvre. Tomorrow I will buy more, stack the bags to the ceiling, shoo away the ants. Meanwhile, my bees are out there cavorting with the meteors, sunning themselves on the porch, partaking of the facilities. Silly bees . . . if only they had cable.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Monitoring mites with a sugar shake

It seems that every beekeeping group has its own way to monitor Varroa mites. I keep hearing variations on the sugar shake (or sugar roll), the alcohol wash, and the soap bath. But one thing remains constant: most hobby beekeepers don’t want to kill bees in order to count mites.

The powdered sugar shake does not kill bees. The sugar-coated honey bees are easily added back to the hive and the sugar consumed. Both the alcohol wash and the soap bath give a slightly more accurate count, but both kill the bees. Soap and alcohol give more accurate results for two reasons: they better separate the mites from the bees and they allow an actual count of the bees in the sample instead of an estimate.

However, it is my opinion that beekeepers are more likely to monitor if they don’t have to kill bees in the process. I also believe that the easier it is to do, the more likely it is to happen. Furthermore, I don’t think the last scintilla of accuracy makes much difference. Your decision to treat or not treat will probably be unaffected by the one or two mites you missed.

If you are uncomfortable with the difference, you can try this at home: Do a sugar shake and count the mites. Next, use alcohol on the same group of bees and count the extra mites. In most cases, you will find that the sugar shake dislodged at least 90% of the mites.

If you want, you can assume you are getting 90% of the mites with your sugar shake, and then you can adjust the estimate by  dividing your count by 90%. For example, if your sugar roll yielded 8 mites, then 0.9χ = 8, so χ = 8.8 mites. Let’s call it 9. But do I think this is a necessary step? No.

In the interest of simplicity I have distilled a number of sources that describe how to do a sugar shake and tried to make it as easy as possible.

Simple Instructions for a Sugar Shake Test (Sugar Roll)

Equipment Needed:

  • A mason jar with a marking at the 1/2-cup level. Some mason jars come with embossed measurements, or you can draw a line with a marker.
  • A mason jar ring fitted with a round disk of #8 hardware cloth. This lid must fit on your mason jar.
  • Confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar or icing sugar)
  • A spoon
  • A container for counting mites. It should be white or at least very light colored so the mites can be seen.
  • A bucket, bowl, feeder, Tupperware container, or something that you will shake your bees into.
  • A small amount of water

Prepare all this equipment in advance. If you use a 5-gallon bucket to catch the bees, you can put the rest of your equipment in there for transport. Once in the apiary, lay out your equipment.

Now, here are the steps:

  1. Remove 1 or 2 frames of bees from the brood nest. Ideally, these frames will contain open brood and nurse bees. Make sure the frames you shake do not include the queen.
  2. Shake the frames over your bucket. Don’t bang the frames, just shake.
  3. Take your bucket of bees, tap it so the bees collect on the bottom, and then pour them into your mason jar up to the 1/2-cup line. This will give you approximately 400* bees.
  4. Quickly screw on the modified lid.
  5. Pour the rest of the bees back in the hive.
  6. Spoon some confectioners sugar onto the mesh screen and work it through with your fingers.
  7. Shake the bees in the jar for about a minute to completely coat both bees and mites, using as much sugar as necessary.
  8. Invert the jar and shake it into your light-colored dish. Keep shaking until mites and sugar stop falling out.
  9. Add a small amount of water to your dish of mites. This dissolves the sugar and makes the mites easier to see.
  10. Count the mites.

This concludes the actual test. Next you will need to consult a chart in order to decide if you should treat for mites. Recommendations vary depending on the season and where you live. Also, recommendations may be given based on the number of mites per bee, in which case you will have to divide your mite count by the estimated number of bees in your sample.

None of the methods mentioned above—sugar, soap, or alcohol—count the mites under the brood caps, but most of the charts available take this into consideration. If you are uncertain, but sure to read the fine print.

Although this system is not perfect, it will give you a lot of information for a very small amount of effort. Give it a try and see how your mites are doing. One way or the other, you might be surprised.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite


*Estimates vary. According to Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota, there are approximately 100 bees per fluid ounce.

Moisture quilts should be dry

Every now and again someone wants to know what happens when my moisture quilts become saturated. One beekeeper wrote, “I can’t believe you keep a soggy pillow over top your bees.”

The short answer is simple. I don’t.

Here’s the issue: if your moisture quilts are soggy, they are not made correctly. Moisture quilts are designed to regulate moisture, not store it. As I’ve said before, nothing improved my overwintering more dramatically that moisture quilts. My hives remain dry inside, the quilts are never wet, and the bees thrive. Since using them, I’ve routinely overwintered 80% to 100% of my hives.

Remember, moisture quilts are not a new concept. They have been in use for decades by Warré beekeepers with great success, and they are easily adapted to Langstroth hives.

Built correctly, moisture quilts never become saturated. Never. In fact, before I tried them for the first time, I was convinced I would have to replace the chips mid-winter. But I never have. I’ve used the same chips year after year.

Here are some important points:

Water vapor from the hive does not condense on the bottom of the moisture quilt—that’s not how they work. Warm water vapor from the bees’ respiration (water in the gaseous state) rises. Still in the gaseous state, the vapor finds its way through the wood chips, moving between and around the pieces as air does. At some point, the vapor reaches the cold under surface of the hive cover where it condenses. That condensation rains down and is collected on the TOP surface of the wood chips—the side away from your bees.

The wooden frame of the moisture quilt contains a number of ventilation ports which allow the wood chips to dry out and also provides a source of ventilation for your hive. At most, I have seen the top ¼-inch of the wood chips become damp (and I live in an extremely wet climate). I can’t actually see the moisture except for the fact that the wet chips are slightly darker than the dry ones.

But humidity varies from day to day. So while the dampness collects on the wood chips during certain combinations of temperature, humidity, and wind, it disappears during other combinations of temperature, humidity, and wind. Basically, the top layer collects and then releases moisture over the course of the winter—some days it is damp, some days it is bone dry. But you never have a “soggy pillow” in your hive. And since the water that does collect remains on the top surface of the quilt, your bees never touch a damp surface.

Another benefit of the chips above the bees is that they provide good ventilation. Since the air must find channels or pathways between the chips, it travels more slowly than if it had a straight shot from the entrance to the ventilation ports. In other words, you get good ventilation without creating a wind tunnel through your hive.

If you want even more insulation, you can make thicker quilts which will slow down air movement even more. The ventilation ports can be restricted to the top of the wood chip layer since that is where the moisture collects.

I keep a feeder rim beneath my quilts in case I want to feed hard candy or granulated sugar. This is easy to do, and since the feeder rim is below the quilt, enough moisture will collect on the feed to make it palatable for the bees, but the rest of the moisture will go up through the quilt and then be caught by it.

The moisture quilt is such a slick system and works so well that if I were selling them, I’d give a money-back guarantee. I have complete faith in them. That said, they have to be built properly. Simply put: if you’ve got soggy pillows, you’re not following directions.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

A pair of enemies share a pear

Yellowjackets and honey bees share a meal. Photo © Manuel.
Yellowjackets and honey bees share a meal. Photo © Manuel.

Have the gangs settled down long enough to break bread? Well, it’s not the Jets and the Sharks, or the Crips and the Bloods, but close enough: it’s the Honeys and the Jackets sharing a pear.

This interesting photo was sent to me by Manuel, a beekeeper in a drought-stricken area of California. He says the pears have been falling in his yard, and a variety of creatures have been munching on them. But he was surprised to see the honey bees and the yellowjackets peaceably eating side by side. Not only that, he didn’t know that honey bees would eat fruit.

Two months ago I ran a post on that very subject, and the overwhelming consensus of beekeepers is that honey bees will definitely eat fruit, especially in a dearth. The only question remaining was whether they are capable of piercing fruit themselves, or whether they eat it only after the fruit is breached by something else.

Manuel’s pears, like my own up here in Washington, have been opened by any number of creatures including birds and small mammals. So neither the Honey’s nor the Jackets had to breach the skin.

We have all seen yellowjackets attack bees, and we’ve seen honey bees on flowers chase off intruders, so what exactly is happening? I’m not sure, but since neither species is protecting its nest, perhaps they are okay with sharing the windfall—a sweet drink on a hot day.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Winter pollen for bees: snowdrops, crocus, and squill

Good news: if you act quickly, you can still plant some early-blooming perennial bulbs and corms for your bees. During a quick check of local stores yesterday, I was able to find my three favorites: snowdrops, crocus, and Siberian squill. All of these perennials provide an early supply of pollen for your honey bees just when they need it most—when the brood nest is beginning to expand but pollen stores are running low.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops (Galanthus) are in the Amaryllis family, and as their name suggests, they will pop right through a crust of snow and open into inverted white and green blooms. Although they open much too early for most solitary bees, given a warmish day they will be visited by honey bees.

Snowdrops do best in rich soil and thrive in full sun or partial shade. I have them planted around the trunks of evergreens and they seem happy with that. The pollen ranges from orange to reddish orange.

Crocus

Crocuses are next to make an appearance. In the Iris family, they arise in shades of purple, white, pink, and yellow and are loaded with orangey-yellow pollen. I’ve loved crocuses since my mom planted them randomly throughout the lawn. They bloomed early—about February—and then died back for the year. By the time the lawn was ready to mow in spring, the plants were gone and no harm was done to the resting corms.

Honey bees literally frolic in crocus blossoms—you can almost hear them giggle. They roll and spin and come out looking like chicken legs tossed in flour. Since crocuses open a bit later than snowdrops, they also attract the occasional early bumble bee.

The flowers—which aim upwards—tend to collect rainwater, so I plant my crocus inside the drip line of small trees and shrubs on the south side. This gives them plenty of sun, but keeps them drier for the bees.

Siberian squill

In the Lily family, Siberian squill has nodding blue flowers and steel blue pollen that glistens when mixed with nectar. Siberian squill blooms even later than the other two, so it will attract a large variety of early bees. Last year, I photographed at least ten species on my squill including mason bees, mining bees, three species of bumbles, and a steady stream of honey bees.

Of course here in the Pacific Northwest you have to be willing to lay on the rain-soaked ground with your cameral wrapped in plastic, but hey, is there anything we won’t do for a good bee pic?

I have my squill planted under a large pine tree where they get morning sun but are partially protected from direct rain. Again, this is more for the bees than the plants, but it seems to work well—during light rains, the bees continue to forage as if nothing were amiss.

Planting in drifts

If you are planting any of these perennials for honey bees, bear in mind that honey bees seek large quantities of any flower they forage from, so it is best to plant in drifts or large swaths of a single variety.

One of my favorite methods of garden design consists of placing all the bulbs or corms in a basket and then tossing the contents into the planting area. Then you simply plant them where they land, separating those that are too close together and bringing in the outliers. The random arrangement gives a natural look to the garden that you and your bees will love.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

By Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Snowdrops. Photo by Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Anne-Sophie Ofrim (Uploaders own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Crocus. Photo by Anne-Sophie Ofrim (Uploader’s own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Honey-bee-on-siberian-squill
Siberian squill. Honey bee with blue pollen all over her face. © Rusty Burlew.