An unnatural dilemma

For the past few weeks, I have been gleaning tidbits from both natural beekeepers and the conventional kind. On one day, a speaker explained that Nosema would go away if we just stopped using Fumigilin. The next morning, I took an exam on how to test for Nosema, and how and when to use Fumigilin most effectively.

I like studying both sides of the coin. If I only listen to one side, my information is biased and incomplete. How much harder it is to defend your beliefs if you don’t know how your opponent thinks! Nevertheless, the contrast between the groups is jarring. Each side “knows” they are right; each side is unwilling to bend. The scientific literature points every which way, but each camp has its pet papers lined up, ready to prove a point.

But even after endless reading, listening, studying, and thesis-writing, I still come down somewhere in the middle—closer to the natural side but with a nod of understanding to the conventional side. I sometimes think I should take a radical position and become another bee guru, the “I’m right and you’re wrong” type. But it’s not me. I can’t go there.

More than just bees

The question of right and wrong is not confined to how we keep our bees. The larger question is how do we feed the ever-burgeoning world population. We already have food inequality. We have people who can barely afford food, let alone a cucumber. Conversely, we have those who insist on an organic cucumber. Is it right that those with lesser money have to eat pesticide-laced food? No way will I tackle that question, but it remains, simmering in the background.

Back when I was a student of agriculture, when I was enrolled in courses like “Soil Fertility and Fertilizers” and “Herbicide Science,” I remember hearing about organic food. It was a small movement, just at the edge of my peripheral vision. My classmates and I, all suffering through thousand-page organic chemistry tomes, were nonplussed by the idea. “Of course!” we said. “If it’s food it’s organic (carbon-containing). All food is organic.” We shrugged and went back to killing bugs with chemicals.

It seems funny to me now, as I fill my shopping cart with organic produce, organic milk and cheese. But here’s the lesson: I think that aggressive commercial agriculture has a low probability of stumbling onto the next big thing. But I think the hobbyist, the backyard beekeeper, or the postage stamp gardener has a very good chance of discovering the wave of the future—the thing that saves the planet and the bees.

Different kinds of keepers

So therein is my dilemma: I believe we need the conventional beekeepers to keep the food rolling in, at least for now. Equally important is the small-time “wacko” beekeeper who always has a crazy idea. One of those crazies may save the bees. One may clean up the food supply.

But regardless of the need for natural beekeepers, I believe it is harder to accomplish than many believe. In most urban or suburban areas, beekeeping clubs or suppliers ship in hundreds or even thousands of southern packages every year. It becomes a numbers game. Even if you purchase expensive mite-resistant queens, or produce your own queens from survivor stock, your virgin queens will set out to mate among tens of thousands of drones from those shipped-in packages. What is the chance of your queen mating with drones from another local survivor colony?

If the odds of winning the lottery were the same as getting struck by lightening, people would still buy tickets and hope to win, even when they are dead certain they will never be struck by lightening. But can it happen? Sure. Someone always manages to produce treatment-free bees in the suburbs. Someone always wins the lottery. Someone always gets struck by lightening.

Drowning in drones

So I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to raise treatment-free bees. I’m just saying that if you live in an area with hundreds of packages of imported bees, each of which produces thousands of drones per year, the odds are stacked against you. Realizing that, you can try alternative methods such as instrumental insemination to get the crosses you need. But you have to understand what is going on, and you have to do what is right for you.

What I don’t like to see is people believing they have failed. The natural beekeeping fanatics will say you didn’t do it right, when it may be a problem with your local beekeeping situation. Those who succeed often have hundreds of colonies and can flood their area with mite-resistant drones. Or perhaps they own many acres that are free from annual shipments from the south. Or maybe they live in areas with like-minded individuals who also resist imports. The zealots will tell you otherwise, but be real. If it were easy, the mite problem would be over by now.

The common thread

However, you can become a better beekeeper regardless of your philosophy. The successful commercial keepers and the successful natural keepers have one thing in common: they know their bees. They know the biology of honey bees, their behavior and their needs. They understand pests and how the pests and bees interact. They know honey bee nutrition and the plants that provide it. And they know the strengths and limitations of their beekeeping environment.

So after carefully considering the pros and cons of becoming a bee guru, a one-trick pony of sorts, I’ve decided to stay right where I am. You can keep bees any way you want, and if I can help with a little biology here and there, a little physics or chemistry, that is fine by me. I will never discover the answer to the bee problem, but one of you might. The world is counting on it.


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.


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.


*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.


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.