Cover Story archive
Queens for Pennies
by Randy Oliver
I’ve been encouraged in recent years by the number of beekeepers who appear to be successfully keeping locally-adapted stocks of bees without treatment for varroa. I am a strong supporter of their efforts, and see them as the wave of the future.
But First a Rant
Unfortunately, there is also a great deal of confusion as to what “treatment free” beekeeping really means. Allow me to use an analogy to explain:
Dairymen prefer to keep Holstein cattle. Holsteins are thin-skinned, thoroughly domesticated cattle selected solely for milk production. Their normal care requires shelter, supplemental feeding, routine vaccinations, and treatment with antibiotics. If a dairyman turned his Holsteins out on the range to fend for themselves without care, and half of them died each year, he would be accused of having committed animal neglect—“the failure to provide the basic care required for an animal to thrive.”
Yet this is exactly what thousands of recreational beekeepers do every year. Under the misconception that they are practicing “treatment free” beekeeping, they are in actuality simply neglecting their domesticated animals. The reason for this is that they are starting with commercial package bees—bees akin to Holstein cattle, in that they are bred for high brood and honey production under standard management practices (notably mite management, but also supplemental feeding or antibiotic treatment if indicated). Most commercial bee stocks should be considered as domesticated animals. There is absolutely no reason to expect that your wishful thinking will miraculously transform your newly-purchased “domesticated” bees into hardy survivor stock able to survive as wild animals without standard care and treatment.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am no more criticizing the commercial queen producers than I would criticize the dedicated breeders of Holstein cattle. The queen breeders are producing the best breeds for beekeepers willing to provide their colonies with the “standard” degree of husbandry (which includes at this time, treatment(s) of some sort for varroa). I have no problem whatsoever with that; but my crystal ball says that someday the market will dwindle for bees that require regular treatment for mites.
Do not disillusion yourself. Allowing domesticated package colonies to die year after year is not in any way, shape, or form a contribution to the breeding of mite-resistant stocks. There is a vast difference between breeding for survivor stock and simply allowing commercial bees to die from neglect! By introducing commercial bees year after year into an area, and then allowing those package colonies to first produce drones and then to later die from varroa, these well-meaning but misguided beekeepers screw up any evolutionary progress that the local feral populations might be making towards developing natural resistance to varroa. Not only that, but those collapsing “mite bombs” create problems for your neighbors. Referring to yourself as a bee-keeper confers upon you a responsibility to the local beekeeping community. Allowing hives to collapse from AFB or varroa makes you a disease-spreading
Enough scolding. I strongly support those willing to actually practice selective breeding for treatment-free (or minimal treatment) locally-adapted stocks of bees. But let me be frank (try to stop me); if you start your hive with commercial stock, then by all means care for them as domesticated animals! If you want to go treatment free, then start with survivor stock bred to be naturally resistant to mites and viruses, such as VSH, Russian, or locally-adapted ferals. Do not kid yourself into thinking that allowing innocent domesticated bees to die a slow and ugly death is the same thing as breeding for survivor stock—“breeding” instead means the propagation of bees that don’t die—the key word being propagation. And this is a frustration for many well-intentioned beginners—no one in their area is propagating survivor stock for sale. That is why I wrote this article.
To me, it is a crime against nature not to breed daughters from that fantastic survivor colony. But most beekeepers think that it is beyond their scope of ability to raise queens. Nonsense! Let me show you how to raise about 10 queens at a time for pennies apiece. This is not the way we do it commercially, but this method can be easily practiced by most anyone.
A Simple Method
I’m going show you step by step how to raise about 10 queen cells in a simple queenless cell builder. Here’s a list of everything that you’ll need:
- A chosen breeder queen hive.
- A strong, healthy donor colony from which to make the cell builder hive.
- An empty brood box with a bottom board and cover to use for the cell builder hive.
- If there is no nectar flow occurring, a syrup feeder.
- If you’re over 40, a lighted magnifying headband.
- A few Chinese grafting tools.
- JZ’s BZ’s plastic cell cups.
- A damp towel
- Any sort of nuc boxes or divided hive bodies in which to mate out the queens.
Timing: It’s easiest, and you’ll get the best queens, by raising them during swarming season. Look for when your colonies start building queen cells on the bottom bars, or when they are full of emerged drones.
Day 0—Locate the future queen larvae: Before you start setting up the cell builder, first make sure that you can find larvae of the right age from your chosen breeder queen. Go into her colony and make sure that there’s an older, dark frame containing well-fed freshly-hatched larvae. Mark this frame for later recovery and put it back into the hive. You want to graft from the youngest larvae possible—when they are still the size of an egg, and just starting to curl (as in the photo above).
Choose a donor colony: This is the colony (or colonies) from which you will steal nurse bees to make up your cell builder. It must be healthy, full of brood, and the larvae should be well fed with jelly as an indicator of the nurses being in a good state of nutrition. Locate the queen of your donor colony and temporarily set her and the frame she’s on aside in a nuc box for safekeeping.
Set up the cell builder hive: Put down a bottom board with an empty brood box wherever you want to make your queenless cell builder (its entrance should be at least several feet away from the donor colony). Into this box, you are going to put at least 4 frames in the order above (the breeder larvae frame will be added later):
A comb of open larvae: Start with a comb containing some open brood and eggs. This will be the core of the cell builder, around which the nurse bees will cluster. You don’t want a solid frame of young brood competing with the queen cells for feeding—just a patch of young larvae emerging over the next few days to stimulate the nurse bees to produce an abundance of royal jelly. The rest of the frame can be sealed brood, beebread, or whatever.
Cut a channel the width of a hive tool: parallel to the top bar, at least midway up the frame, in either the pollen frame or open brood frame as shown. Scrape out the comb right down to the foundation.
Add the nurse bees: Now shake all the bees from all the frames of the donor hive (other than the one that the queen was on) into the cell builder hive. The older bees will quickly fly back to the donor hive, leaving your cell builder full of young nurse bees. You have now created a free-flying queenless cell builder colony. At this time you can temporarily add the frame of larvae to be grafted.
As you were shaking bees, if there was nectar shaking from the combs, the bees do not need to be fed. If not, then lightly drench all the bees with 1:1 syrup and add a quart of syrup in a top feeder jar. Put a cover on the cell builder and check back in an hour.
One-hour check back for strength: After an hour, your cell builder should look like this—bees covering the frames and hanging from the lid. If there are not this many bees, then shake additional bees (through a sieve box) off of brood combs from other donor colonies. A strong starter like this can rear up to 50 queen cells, even in a snowstorm.
Now wait a few to several hours. It takes a few hours for the bees to recognize that they are queenless, and to be ready to start building emergency queen cells. What you are going to now do is to give them chosen larvae from which to rear those cells.
I got the idea for this method from observing my bees building queen cells as in the photo above. It occurred to me that we could duplicate the process with prepared queen cups, thus avoiding the need for the recreational beekeeper to use cell bars to hold the queen cells (commercial guys typically put about 50 grafted cells distributed on 3 cell bars into a special frame).
Down to the nitty gritty—grafting. Yes, I said “grafting.” ......
Liz Vaenoski - Queen of Beeswax Sculpting and Advocate
for the American Beekeeper
by Karen Nielson Lorence
Beekeepers know the importance of the queen in the hive. She is the mother of the colony, the central nervous system of the hive, the producer of the workers and drones. Beekeepers in the United States have a ‘sort’ of queen who advocates for them in the industry and who
sees that things get done by her generous donations at the American Beekeeping Federation convention and in state clubs.Liz Vaenoski is that queen...that monarch...who rules exclusively in the realm of beeswax molding. Liz got into serious beekeeping 33 years ago when she married John Vaenoski, but her interest in bees came long before
She grew up in beekeeping as her uncle, Marcus Osborne, was a commercial beekeeper at that time. Both of her parents worked during the day, so she would hop on her bike in the summer and ride the four miles out to her uncle’s apiary. He ran 1200 hives in Beloit, Wisconsin and was an active member of the American Beekeeping Federation. Liz wanted to be a beekeeper, but her uncle would not take her on as a partner because, in his words, “beekeeping was not for girls.”
It was in September of 1979 when Liz’s aunt and uncle invited her out to a Friday night fish fry with them and included John Vaenoski in the invitation. John had been a commercial beekeeper since 1959 and was widowed. The first time Liz met John, she said to herself, “I’d like to marry that guy but...” It didn’t take long for the couple to realize that they had a lot in common in addition to their love of bees. John first offered her a friendship ring followed by an engagement ring in December. But Liz knew it was for real when he bought her an engraved stainless steel hive tool. They were married in May of 1980.
Now Liz will quip that this is not exactly the correct chain of events. With a smile on her face, she says it went something like this: “John put out an ad saying, ‘Wanted: Single girl with extractor. Send picture of the extractor.’ I did (send a picture of the extractor) and he liked what he saw and married me.”
John Vaenoski had 1400 hives at that time and worked them mainly for honey production. He would drive out from his grocery store in Maywood Park outside of Chicago and work his bees and then go back to the grocery store in the evenings. His first wife would extract the honey... as much as 6 drums a day. One year she totaled 254 drums of honey. John had only one helper. Liz jumped right in after they married and LOVED it! John died in 1997 and Liz still keeps 150 hives today, working with one helper two days a week.
This biographical story of Liz now evolves to how and when Liz got started in beeswax sculpting. If you have ever been to an American Beekeeping Federation convention, you most likely have seen a sculpture that Liz has created, either in keeping with the theme of the year or with the interest of the potential bidders.
The wax that she uses comes from her own hives, starting first as cappings from her cappings melter. Water is NEVER put with the cappings. A double boiler type of set up is used where the wax is in a container above hot water. Liz’s set up is a melter, 6’ The Wisconsin Honey Producers met in November and Liz donated this sculpture for their auction. long and 4’ wide. In the wax container, the wax will flow out one hole while the honey flows out the second hole. Why? Because wax is lighter than honey. However, she is the first to suggest that a make-shift double boiler on the top of a range could be used if you are a smaller beekeeper. Her advice:
Wax has a 140 degree melting point. Melt your wax; do not cook it! Over-heating will burn the honey. Do not stir cappings. When cappings are completely liquified, take the container off the heat and let it set. The wax will be on top and the honey will be on the bottom. That honey can be used for baking, for feeding back to the bees, or for customers who prefer a full-bodied honey. She even suggests you sell it as a special feature since it is thicker and more highly colored and flavored than extracted honey.
Now that the wax has set, it is time to remove it from the mold. Remember....this is just the first step in making a wax sculpture. There may be impurities on the bottom. Scrape these impurities off of the wax and save those scrapings to re-melt a second time. Your pure wax on the top is now ready to be perfected...either for sale or for use. If you are going to sell processed
wax in its rendered form, you can re-melt the wax and run it through a paper towel. You may then want to get containers that represent 1#, 1/2# or 1/4# quantities. Your customers may want to try their hand at candle making, value added products, or beeswax molding.
Here are some of Liz Vaenoski’s suggestions:
● Get small molds with lots of detail. Detail is what makes you see the figure as an angel or something specific.
● You may, in some cases, use a kind of release agent. If the figurine is still difficult to remove from the mold, put it in the freezer for a short time and it will shrink slightly. Don’t use release if you are going to paint as the release agent may have an oil base.
● When using ceramic molds, the temperature must be very low. If you cannot get the mold apart, put the mold on a cookie sheet or cake pan, upside down, and put it in the oven. The wax will then run out.
● If your candles bloom from the cold temperatures, remove the bloom by using a blow dryer or by polishing with a soft cloth.
● To increase your sales of candles, demonstrate dipping them at the same time you are selling. Or...have a pot with wax heating in it, but not in an outdoor market. You will draw bees.
● Always put labels on to warn your customer about the fire hazard that candles present.
● Wick size is determined by the diameter of the candle. Candles burn1 hour for each inch of a 1” diameter candle in general. For a pillar candle, remember that the area = π r2.
● Liz flattens out the bottoms of her candles and sculptures most often with a hot plate, warning us that THIS IS AFIRE HAZARD!!! This should not be done without the utmost care.
Besides candles, Liz also makes ornaments, wall decorations, and sculptures. Here is where her artistic talent is showcased. Using every single ‘trick in the book,’ Liz takes advantage of bizarre receptacles to make the first shapes....potato chip lid for a hat brim, egg shells, small boxes and oddly shaped containers. These are eventually joined to make the shapes she is looking for. How does she secure these shapes together to get her final sculpture? A wire is inserted between two pieces. An Exacto knife blade is heated up. Put between the wax, the two pieces will each melt and then meld together. The Exacto knife is then used to smooth out the juncture of the two pieces. All of this takes a lot of patience. Using foundation for thin items, Liz warns that this is tough to work with. She has made sails for boats as well as leaves for trees out of foundation and then adheres them to the project she is making. A quick dip into liquid wax gives an added insurance that they will bond more securely.
She has been known to scour craft stores for bargains that she can use for her beeswax creations. A leftover Easter egg tree one year was purchased, wrapped with thread around each branch (so wax will adhere to it) and then dipped, re-dipped, and dipped yet again into hot wax. To this she added cookie cutout leaves and yes....it was immersed again.
Liz Vaenoski is a modest person who does not seek notoriety. Yet, she is well known in the beekeeping community as an aggressive advocate for the honey bee. She supports the American Beekeeping Federation with her donations and is willing to do so for any state by making an item for their organization to auction. All the state association needs to do is to pay for the postage. Texas, Iowa, California, and Wisconsin have all taken advantage of her generosity. When asked what her preferred part of beekeeping is, she answered with a laugh, “Winter!” Her favorite (and hardest) wax sculpture? An extractor with the center moving, set to the sound of a music box playing “Roll out the Barrel.”
Liz’s favorite part of beekeeping is talking and teaching about bees. They have been very special to her for so many reasons. Her inquisitive nature loved learning the science of beekeeping. She has met so many interesting and wonderful people. Mainly, however, she concurs that the ‘way of the beehive’ is the way we all should be living. Each bee has a job to do and does it. Bees work together for the betterment of the community. And..they are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the hive.
Thank you Liz Vaenoski for providing photos of your beeswax sculptures.
Tax Q & A
by Howard Scott
I’ve been writing beekeeping tax columns for 15 years and have received many questions. So this time, I am reproducing the most-frequently asked or most intriguing questions and my responses.
Q: Should I file a Schedule C or Schedule F?
A: Schedule C is for small business owners. Schedule F is for farmers. Each form has useful entries. But, since Schedule C is simpler, I suggest using Schedule C. All tax preparers are familiar with Schedule C, but only a few practitioners are comfortable with Schedule F. Plus the result will be the same. If you make $4.000 profit using a Schedule C, you will make the same earnings using a Schedule F. Possibly the Schedule F could help you allocate costs of livestock better, but that isn’t really necessary.
Q: I have lost money on my beekeeping on my last four years. How serious is that?
A: It depends. If you lost $100,000 a year and deducted it from other income, the IRS might be interested in looking over your books. But if you lost, say $500 to $1,000 a year, then it’s not too serious. Of course, you must be able to explain why you lost money. Perhaps you purchased many packages and most of them died. Maybe you invested in equipment for making beeswax cosmetics and it hasn’t paid off yet. The rule is, a business, to be a business, must earn money in 3 out of 5 years, but that guideline isn’t hard fast. If you could defend your poor performance so that an IRS agent accepts it, you could continue to lose money.
Q: What are you if not a business?
A: You’re a hobby. Generally speaking, a hobbyist is taxed on his revenue, but not on his expenses. Or, if you have lots of job expenses and are filing form 2106, your beekeeping expenses are only partially deducted. The net result will be a higher tax liability.
Q: If I have a separate building as a honey house, can I take a home office?
A: Strictly speaking, yes, you can. But the advantage of a home office is that it captures a portion of normal home costs—heat, electricity, water, mortgage, taxes, home maintenance, repairs—as expenses. A separate structure has limits. You cannot take any of these general expenses. Plus, if you elect to have a home office, you have to add back depreciation when you sell the house. That means you will pay some tax when you sell your home, which normally would not be the case. That’s because there is a house sale exemption ($500,000 gain exemption if married, $250,000 gain exemption if single), but this exemption does not include the home office deduction. So, unless your honey business is a major part of your income (over 50%), I would not bother with a home office. The other exception to this is when you can isolate the costs of your honey house (have a separate electric meter, etc.)
Q: How should I calculate cost of the bees?
A: Keep it simple. The money you spend on packages are the cost. Buy 20 packages at $80 each. Livestock cost is $1,600. If you do ten successful splits, then have 30 hives, livestock cost is still $1,600. Per hive cost goes from $80 to $53.33 ($1,600 divided by 30). If you purchase 10 queens at $10 each, then your livestock expense is now $1,700 ($1,600 + $100). Livestock cost is the total money you spend to purchase bees.
Q: Should I incorporate?
A: You incorporate because of liability, not economic reasons. If you are worried about being sued, then incorporate. A lawyer might charge you $500 to draw up the papers. What is the chance of having a lawsuit being filed against you? Well, if someone swallows a shard of glass in one of your honey bottles, and incurs medical expense, they might sue. If someone eats your honey, gets sick, and experiences serious medical issues, they might sue. If someone walking across your property is stung, and goes into anaphylactic shock, they might sue. If your truck carrying beehives crashes into another car, and the bees sting a person badly, they might sue. Probably the answer depends on the scope of your operation. If you are a small operator with fewer than 10 hives, the chance of a lawsuit is so remote that I wouldn’t bother incorporating. Otherwise, I might go through the expense of incorporating.
Q: I hear there are changes in Social Security this year? Will they be costly?
A: From 2011 and 2012, there was a temporary payroll cut in Social Security from 6.2% to 4.2%. In 2013, that expired. Consequently, as a self-employed beekeeper, your Social Security liability will go from 13.3% (4.2 + 6.2 + 1.45 + 1.45) to 15.3% (6.2 + 6.2 + 1.45 + 1.45). So if your beekeeping business made $10,000 profit, you will pay $200 more tax.
Q: It seems when I do my own taxes and try to fill out the Schedule C, I wind up paying two taxes. Is that correct?
A: On your self-employment income, you pay Federal tax at the bottom of Schedule C. But you also have to pay Social Security, which is computed in Schedule SE. Both your self-employment federal liability and Social Security obligation is reinstated on Form 1040, on lines 12 and 56, respectively. That’s the double-taxation you are talking about. It is confusing, but it’s not double taxing. In your weekly paycheck, Federal, Social Security, and State taxes are deducted. It’s simply unavoidable. Indeed, you will most likely have to pay state taxes on your beekeeping income.
Q: But why do I have to pay double Social Security on Schedule C?
A: It’s true, you pay both the employee (7.65% = 6.2% + 1.45% Medicare) and employer (7.65%) portion, for a total of 15.3%. So your Social Security takes a bigger bite than if you were just an employee. On the other hand, you get to deduct expenses from this revenue, which would not be possible as a employee, generally speaking. So incorporate, pay yourself a salary as an employee, and you will only pay 7.65%.
Q: How many beekeepers file their beekeeping income taxes?
A: I do. Others do. Certainly someone with a going business does. It is the law to file all worldwide income. But, you’re probably right. Nine out of ten backyard beekeepers probably don’t file their beekeeping activity. My bee club recently set itself up as a 501(C) nonprofit corporation simply because it wanted to comply with the law. You never know when the IRS will stick its nose in your business, and you’ll have to account for this activity.
Q: I have a combo business of producing honey and removing hives, in which I obtain more honey. In addition, I do traditional carpentry. Should I keep them separate? How should I account for the different honey flows?
A: If you are seriously trying to make this into a business, then you you should separate as much as possible. Compartmentalizing revenues and expenses allow you to see what’s going on in each area. So have one revenue trough for honey sales, hive removal, and carpentry. Merge honey sales with honey obtained from hive removal, for ease of bookkeeping. But divide expenses among the appropriate categories. If there is some overlap, divide equally among the three revenue categories.
Q: What can I deduct in mileage?
A: Any trips that directly relate to your bee work. If you visit your outyards, that’s allowable. If you trek to a supplier or attend a convention, that’s allowable. If you do a farmers’ market, all commuting miles are countable. Even your bee club meetings are useable, because such membership helps you be a more proficient practitioner.
To keep track, set up a travel sheet, listing date, destination, reason, and miles travelled. That’s your backup documentation.
I hope this helps.
Scott is a 30-year beekeeper and 20-year tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He keeps bees in Pembroke, MA.
Leaf Basics - Helping You To Identify Honey Plants
by Kennon LorickThe task of plant identification can prove daunting, even for a trained individual. It is often challenging to accurately compare a written description with real-world observations, especially if unfamiliar botanical terms are used. The main hope in creating this glossary is to provide interested beekeepers with an introduction to botanical terms commonly used to describe and identify plants. It is being prepared as a companion piece to the monthly column “The Other Side of Beekeeping.” The illustrations and accompanying definitions are intended to help the reader better understand the technical terms used in the column. It is also hoped that the glossary will be the start of providing readers with the courage and confidence to delve into the botanical literature of their area (or of areas to which they plan on traveling).
Eventually, both the monthly column and the glossary installments will be combined into a book. While the column provides explanations of technical terms as footnotes, these footnotes will not appear in the book due to the amount of redundancy that process would entail. Instead, it is planned that the text of the book will provide references to the glossary pages on which a given term can be found. In the meantime, you may find it helpful to cut out or copy the featured glossary for convenient referencing as you read the column.
This first section of the glossary describes some of the common terms associated with leaves. All of the terms have been used at least once in the monthly column. Currently, work is being done on the next installment, which will be an introduction to flower types and associated terms.
Essential Leaf Blade Shapes:
Generally, when someone talks about a “leaf” they are most likely referring to the section known as the blade. Leaf blades come in many shapes and sizes. Knowledge of leaf blade forms will greatly aid in plant identification. The following is a list of some of the most common forms referenced in botanical
Basic Leaf Parts, Division, and Associated Terms:
In addition to the blade shape, leaves have several other features used in identification. These include margin (edge of the blade), how the blades are divided, and the shape of the blade’s base and apex. The following list is an introduction that defines and illustrates some of the basic forms in which these features are
Beentle, Henk. 2012. The Kew Plant Glossary: An Illustrated Dictionary of Plant Terms. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Cronquist, Arthur, and Henry A. Gleason. 1991. Manual of the Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, 2nd ed. Bronx, NY: The New York Botanical Garden.
Dirr, Michael. 2009. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses. Champaign, Ill: Stipes Publishing.
Harris, James G., and Melinda Wolf Harris. 2001. Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary. Spring Lake, Utah: Spring Lake Publishing.
Baldwin, B. G., D. H. Goldman, D. J. Keil, R. Patterson, T. J. Rosatti, and D. H. Wilken, editors. 2012. The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California, 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Ants In My Pants, and Bees in My Veil
and Other Troubling Things
by T'Lee Sollenberger
I’ve been known to give my Guardian Angel a mite spot of difficulty while actualizing my life as a beekeeper. It’s not that I’m careless. It’s not that I’m unprepared. Perhaps, it’s my unbounded enthusiasm for keeping bees. There’s nothing more exciting than cracking the top off a colony, smelling the floral bouquet of ripening honey, the chocolaty fragrance of brood comb filled with developing larvae, or the delicate perfume of freshly pulled wax. I pleasure in the summer sunshine bathing a vast prairie of blooming wildflowers humming with working bees. Heady and undeniable is my sensory addiction to honey bees.
Then there’s working the little stinging she-devils, since I never keep anything too tame. Italians are nice, but I cannot resist the potluck puzzle of the wild swarm! This burdens my Guardian Angel.
Wild swarms are t-r-o-u-b-l-e. Well acquainted, Trouble and I. It lovingly tracks me down, puts obstacles in my face, intrigues me, tempts me. Trouble is my toy. Trouble drives my Guardian Angel crazy! Poor guy!
1. So, what does Trouble look like?
Arriving at my bee yard without my smoker?
Here’s knowin’ I have several contrary to kindness colonies that must be worked because the drought has sucked dry every weed known to support nectar. Here’s knowin’ I must check food supplies for these gigantic grub sucking colonies. Here’s knowin’ there isn’t a beesuit or pair of gloves made that can withstand the onslaught of a stinging frenzy, no matter what manner or make of fabric or hide is used. Here’s knowin’ I’m likely to be breathing the vapors of hatred through my veil.
To do or not to do?
I took three deep breaths and called 911. Not. But seriously? I minimized. Being mule stubborn, I worked them. Had to. I didn’t break ‘em down around my knees. I removed a super, soooo sloooowly. Backed away. Waited. I waited for a slow simmer to materialize over the cauldron of bubbling bees. I removed a second super, soooo sloooowly. Quietly. I peeked at a frame in the center. Hive-tooled it up. Evaluated. Minimal impact to my personage; minimal impact to the hive’s mindset of murdering.
Four to do. Four done.
A few years back, when green was more the color of my experience, I wouldn’t have ventured into this business without a suit of armor and a fire-breathing smoker. Forgetting your smoker is reason enough to turn tail and return to base camp to fight another day. Depending on the ferociousness of your bees and your experience level, always err on the side of caution. There are no zombie beekeepers. Death is pretty permanent.
2. What does Trouble look like?
Me stupidly standing in the midsection of a fire ant mound working my bees. Fire ants are from Hades. No Guardian Angel can protect against sheer stupidity and a full blown attack from Hades.
So, how fast can I strip off a bee suit? Less than a minute.
I twirled. I stomped. Then I really stomped, (think Riverdance troupe on a Starbuck’s bender). Ants flew off my boots! They clung to my socks and ankles.
I madly crushed ants. Welts arose; welts made from tiny injections of formic acid. They burned like Hellfire! Inquisitive bees swirled around my dancing body and joined in the fracas. I cursed all members of Hymenoptera.
How to fix.
Bait. Bait and oil.
I always carry two kinds of granular ant bait with me. Firestrike treats fire ants specifically and Ant Block, (both made by Amdro), which treats 14 kinds of ants, including carpenter ants.
Teensy-tiny sugar ants, aka “piss ants,” fire ants and carpenter ants often make entire mini colonies on the inner cover. They will nest in the lap joint corners, or even between the tin of the outer cover and its wooden components. Sugar ants are tough to eradicate and Ant Block only helps if they’re of the mind to eat it.
However, I find a liberal dousing of my specially prepared Ant Oil, (see sidebar), usually works to discourage the ants from taking up permanent residence. I liberally anoint the areas of infestation with Ant Oil, brush in and restore the equipment. Applications may be repeated as needed. If that fails, I replace the inner and outer covers to break the scent trail and nesting pheromones of the ants involved.
3. What does Trouble look like?
Bees inside my veil.
Pissed off bees inside my veil. Stinging, pissed off, Africanized honey bees inside my veil. Stinging, pissed off, AHB acquiring their target inside my veil.
Avoiding this disaster.
Zip up your bee suit completely. Did I say completely? Totally, utterly, unconditionally—UP! Can’t begin to tell you how easy it is to forget this little lifesaving task.
If there’s a hole in your veil or your zipper doesn’t zip, seal it with duct tape. If your veil, (or bee suit), is so torn up as to be a patchwork of said duct tape, (photo 5), buy, (did I say BUY?) as in REPLACE it.
I’ve been stung beneath the nose, above the eye, between the eyes . . . but never in the eye, which is damn lucky. I’ve seen a couple of beekeeper friends with swollen black eyes from bee stings in the eye area. Can you say—painful?
4. What does Trouble look like?
Black widow spiders, scorpions, or rattlesnakes underneath the outer cover of my bee hive.
My Guardian Angel has been working overtime here. Hasn’t happened yet. Fire ants, carpenter ants, sugar ants, jumping spiders, cockroaches and Small Hive Beetles by the cupful, have been frequent visitors. No snakes, no scorpions, no black widows, all of which live here in North Central Texas.
How to fix.
I have no experience with scorpions, but I believe my spiders, Small Hive Beetles and cockroaches hive tool treatment—squish—should take care insectoids.
Snakes, uhm. Y’all have to give me some feedback on that one.
For permanent control of SHB, disposable oil traps filled with the cheapest vegetable oil mixed with a dash of date vinegar, (when I can find it.), works well.
Cockroaches are tricky-quickie mothers. No bait, (especially sweetened borax acid), is safe around my honey bees. Oh, well. At least I don’t find them very often.
5. What does Trouble look like?
Setting fire to the prairie, while lighting or using my smoker.
In the drought stricken years, (which have been recent and many), I refuse to light my smoker at all. Remember Trouble #1? If the bees are so totally out of control that I must risk it, I take extra special care.
A fiery smoker inside a trash can inside my SUV is not optimum, but it works on windy days, cough, cough. In the bee yard, it is stored in the trash can as I work the bees. I never let it run out of fuel and reach the cinder ash stage, which can catch the tall grasses on fire while refueling.
Or I simply reschedule myself.
I’ve tried liquid smoke. On rank, semi-related to AHB colonies that really get their dander up—real smoke or liquid smoke—forget it. Might as well sprinkle them with holy water.
Speaking of water. I always carry a gallon with me. Never know when I might need it.
6. What does Trouble look like?
Nasty piece of work, those. Tall grass
prairies become a hot bed of grass riding chiggers all looking for the next passing beekeeper. Chigger, (Trombicula alfreddugesi), larvae are the culprits of tiny, red, pimple-like bites that itch worse than a dose of poison ivy. And bites they are.
The chigger injects an enzyme into a skin pore, which dissolves the skin cells making a nutrient-rich protein food source, (sounds like Small Hive Beetle sliming enzyme, doesn’t it?). The damaged skin elixir grows the chigger into full blown welfare recipient looking for its next handout—me!
How to avoid.
Spraying my bee suit copiously with a DEET bug spray like Deep Woods OFF and wearing tall boots seems to help more than anything else.
Also, I keep the grass and weeds cut down around the bee yard. This reduces the chigger loads in the immediate area.
How to treat.
Calamine lotion or a corticosteroid cream or ointment, readily available at a local pharmacy, will stop the itch and help with healing the bite site.
7. What does Trouble look like?
Being stranded in a bee yard.
Whether it’s a mechanical breakdown, or stuck in the mud, it’s expensive to have a tow truck haul your butt out of a remote yard, that’s assuming you’re within cell phone tower range.
Escape is so sweet.
I once trundled across 50 acres of a mucky gumbo clay, up hill and down dale to my bee yard. Little did I realize that I had rolled up a couple of inches of sticky mud-embedded grass on all four tires. Why I was still rolling I have no idea. Momentum? Surely not traction, must have been my Guardian Angel working overtime.
Once at the yard, I really looked at my tires. Can you say—heart in throat terrified? Moving forward or backward seemed totally iffy.
Now, this was one of my first big adventures with my new 4 x 4 SUV, (read that as, no clue about how to drive it in 4-wheel drive).
My Guardian Angel knew panic mode when he saw it. “Calm down Sollenberger!” he whispered in my ear. “Call Harold.”
Harold, (my hero and best friend), who has driven a gazillion miles in muck and mud in his 4 x 4 pickup, just laughed.
“So—not funny,” I mumbled sheepishly. “Do you think I can drive outta here?”
He laughed some more. What are friends for?
“Four wheel drive low and slow? And yes, you can get’ter done.” I heard him snickering in the background.
I turned the key and proceeded to rock and roll over tiny hillocks staying clear of the muddy ruts of the farm road. Eventually, I reached the paved highway.
Relief! I turned onto the pavement and stomped the accelerator. Freedom!
Can you say rooster tail nine feet tall?
I pitied the cars behind me!
And my Guardian Angel? Well, he was last seen attending a GAA, (Guardian Angels Anonymous), meeting. Poor guy . . .his gray feathers had turned white overnight.
Mite Management Update 2013
by Randy Oliver
It’s that time of year again to get a jump on varroa mites before it’s too late. This raises two questions: how to measure the degree of mite infestation in your hives, and how to treat if the levels are excessive. In this article I’ll share some of what I’ve learned in the past year.
It’s common consensus that if the mite infestation rate (the percentage of bees actually parasitized by a mite) is kept low, that the colony can generally deal with the “varroa/virus complex.” It is only when that infestation rate exceeds some “economic threshold” that the combination of the direct damage due to varroa parasitism, combined with the mite’s vectoring of viruses within the hive, create the explosive virus epidemics that cause noticeable colony morbidity or mortality.
For my apiaries in the California foothills, I’ve found that if I keep the mite infestation rate below the 2% level (2 mites per 100 bees) that my colonies thrive. But should that rate reach 5%, then I start seeing the brood fall apart. By the time the rate reaches 15%, the colony is generally seriously on the way downhill, and even with treatment may not recover.
The most critical time to monitor and reduce the mite level is in late summer and fall, since this is when the generation of bees that form the winter cluster is raised. If there is a virus epidemic in the hive in fall, the colony will likely not survive the winter.
Surprisingly, many beekeepers allow their apiaries to enter the winter with excessive mite loads (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Data from samples from cooperating beekeepers across the country indicate that mite levels in many apiaries exceed the economic treatment threshold in fall. Note that in 2010 the average sampled hive contained nearly 10 mites per 100 bees in November! It is not surprising that such colonies suffer from elevated winter mortality. Graph from.
Last year I ran some trials in which I was required to withhold mite treatments. I do not yet have the data from one trial in which 70% of the colonies died, but those results should help us greatly in understanding the dynamics of the varroa/virus complex.
But I do have some data to share from a smaller trial in which I measured mite levels and colony frame strength over the course of the winter (Fig. 2).
Figure 2. For these 36 colonies, there was a clear relationship between November mite levels and loss of colony strength over winter. The mean starting strength was 9.2 frames covered with bees (range 6.5-13) on Sept. 12.
Monitoring Mites by Sampling
So how does one determine what the actual infestation rate of a colony is? The only definitive assessment is to kill all the bees in the hive, wash all the mites from them, and then count all the bees and mites one by one. And then, you’d need to open all the sealed brood and count the mites in each cell. Obviously, Joe Beekeeper is not going to do that!
So we generally use either:
- An indirect method of sampling, such as natural mite drop.
- A more direct whole-hive method such as drop accelerated by sugar dust or chemical treatment.
- A direct counting of the number of mites in a sample of adult bees or in worker or brood cells.
All the above methods are detailed at my website.
I’ve found the sampling of drone brood to be totally unreliable, and no beekeeper I know is going to open hundreds of worker cells to count mites. The accelerated drop method works well, but it requires a screened bottom board, two trips to the hive, and must be adjusted for the number of frames actually covered by bees.
So that leaves as the most practical methods, the natural mite drop onto sticky boards, or one of the “jar” methods—ether roll, alcohol or detergent wash, or the “sugar shake.” I tend to favor the jar methods, since they are quick, require only one trip to the hive, are direct rather than indirect methods, and do not require adjustment for the strength of the colony.
The other reason that I favor the direct methods of sampling is that they reflect the actual biological relevance of the mite infestation. The percentage of bees that are carrying a mite is more relevant to the immune suppression and virus transmission by the mite than is the rate at which mites are falling from the combs on any particular day. Direct measurement also does not need to be adjusted for colony strength.
Although many commercial beekeepers favor the ether roll, I found it to be inconsistent. That leaves the alcohol and detergent washes and the sugar shake, which give roughly the same results. The alcohol is also handy because it will preserve bees for later sampling for nosema, or at a wash table back at the shop. On the other hand, the sugar shake does not require the killing of any bees, but does take a strong arm if you plan to do more than a few tests.
So allow me to now compare the alcohol wash and the natural drop methods. First, let me check our assumptions for the validity of the sampling and the wash.
Frame-to-Frame Consistency of Samples
Dr. Frank Eischen of the U.S. ARS was kind enough to share with me a data set from 2005 in which he had counted the numbers of bees and mites in samples of bees shaken from two different frames from the brood nest of each hive. I took the 168 paired samples, which averaged 512 bees per sample, and determined the difference in the mite infestation rates between the samples. The mean mite infestation was 6 mites per 100 bees (6% infestation rate), ranging from zero to 58/100 (Fig. 3)
Figure 3. Frequency distribution of the differences in mites/100 bees in samples taken from two different frames from the broodnest of a hive. In 85% of the cases, the count was within 3 mites/100 bees. Data originally from Dr. Frank Eischen.
The above data suggest that there is not a great deal of frame-to-frame variation in the mite infestation rate of house bees (my own limited data suggest the same). Since I use a treatment threshold of 2 mites/100 bees, I checked the 54 cases in which a colony tested at 2 or fewer mites/100 in the first sample. In only three cases out of those 54 did the second frame contain more than 5 mites/100 bees.
Practical applications: any frame from the broodnest appears to be adequate for sampling. At low infestation rates, any sample is unlikely to underestimate a serious infestation. I tend to pull an outer brood frame in order to minimize the chance of disturbing or inadvertently killing the queen. So long as you consistently pull a frame from the same area of the broodnest, you can then compare consistent samples.
Mite Recovery of the Alcohol Wash
The question to me then is how well the “Mite Wash” bottle developed by Dr. Medhat Nasr (Fig.4) actually recovered the mites on the bees. So I shook a bunch of samples of bees three times in a row to eventually recover all the mites. I shook at a rate of about three shakes per count, for the count of twenty, for a total of about 60 shakes. I shook vigorously enough to dislodge stingers from the bees (Fig. 5). At the end of each shaking I jiggled the bottle to keep the mites from being caught in the bees as the alcohol drained to the lower jar (see for details on the method).
I collected data for both ½ cup (~330 bees) and 1/3 cup (~220 bee) samples (See Table 1).
You can see that determining the mite infestation rate of a colony has a certain amount of built in error. There is frame-to-frame variability, variation in the number of bees in the sample cup, and variation in the recovery rate of mites. However, it appears to me that washing the mites from a sample of bees from the broodnest gives a pretty good ballpark representation of actual mite infestation rates. I would certainly not trust any individual sample. But in practical experience, I find that a second shake from the same colony generally comes up within a mite or two at low infestation rates. Please note that one need not fabricate a Mite Wash bottle to perform an alcohol wash—a kitchen sieve in a bowl also works just fine!
Lots of beekeepers use stickyboards because they don’t have to open the hive, which is a plus. But if you’re over 40, then you’ve got to deal with the fact that it’s danged hard and dismally tedious to discriminate the mites from the hive trash, and then keep a running total of counted mites without either missing some or counting others twice (Fig. 6). In addition, sticky board counts still must be adjusted not only for colony strength, but also for the time of year and amount of brood present in order to see how they relate to the threshold for treatment.
But what I really I wondered was just how consistently the natural mite drop reflected the actual infestation rate of the adult bees in the hive?
I had the opportunity last summer to run a trial in which I took sticky board counts of natural mite fall, as well as alcohol washes from the same hives sometimes on the same days over a period of time. I was immediately surprised by the large day-to-day variation in natural mite drop, and wondered whether it had anything to do with temperature, humidity, or rain, so I downloaded the records of the local weather station. Below are the average daily mite drop counts for 12 hives over the course of 10 days, recording the average and maximum temperature for the day, minimum humidity, and whether it rained (Fig. 7).
Note that in the above graph that the mite levels went up and down considerably from day to day, which was surprising, since I think that it’s safe to assume that the mite infestation rate of the apiary did not vary that much on a daily basis. This raised the question in my mind as to how consistent the counts were for each individual hive, which would tell me how much I could trust any single count. I’ve plotted the data below (Fig. 8).
Clearly, natural mite drop is highly variable from day to day. So I wondered whether the same would apply to an alcohol wash.
Top Ten Questions New Beekeepers Ask
by Peter Loring Borst
Some things are perennial, returning every year with renewed vigor. The desire to have bees about the place seems to fit neatly into this category. Lucky for them we like them so well that we have learned their curious habits and cater to their varying needs. Equally perennial are the questions that new beekeepers ask. I compiled a list of such questions. Buyer beware, what follows is highly opinionated. This being my fortieth season as a beekeeper, I feel prepared to tackle the task.
The Top Ten Questions
1. Feeding bees, when and why?
This one seems to vex some people more than others. Perhaps it’s because many people have grown accustomed to animals which require constant care and attention, while others think honey grows on trees. The truth, of course, lies in between. While it is safe to say that bees have been used to sustain families and whole communities, there are also times when they need to be put on life support.
If you live in an excellent honey-producing region, no doubt you will have surplus honey to sell, and can count yourself among the producers. Some areas are so marginal that honey yields are low and the hives are often in crisis. Learning how and when to feed bees can turn a marginal area into a reasonable success.
First and foremost among the reasons why to feed bees is to prevent starvation. Even if you are judicious in your efforts to take only the surplus honey beyond what the hive needs for itself, there are times when we miscalculate. At such times, you need to think in terms of gallons, not quarts. Syrup weighs about 8 pounds to the gallon, so to put on 30 pounds, you’re probably going to need five gallons (some shrinkage will occur).
The easiest way to do this is with a hive top feeder, which you can buy from the bee supply outfits. Most of these appliances are simple enough to make, so you might just buy one and copy it. A three gallon feeder pail inverted over a hole in the cover works well, too. Many commercial beekeepers have plastic frame feeders installed in every hive, so syrup is there whenever it’s needed.
The second major reason to feed bees is to get them to grow. Honey bees are very stimulated by a strong influx of energy-rich sugar syrup or nectar. Old timers often state that a good honey flow will straighten out whatever is ailing the hives. Lacking that, we can simulate one using syrup, but it is very important to keep on feeding for an extended period, if you hope to achieve anything.
2. Equipment, various sizes, foundation yes or no, etc.?
The range of equipment available for beekeeping can be bewildering. The best thing to bear in mind is that most of it is unnecessary. The essentials are boxes and frames. It is probably wisest to purchase these, while most of the other woodenware can be made if you have basic woodworking skills. Some will naturally prefer to buy everything.
You can successfully keep bees with one size box and the corresponding frames. However, it is very common to use a large size for the brood nest and a smaller size for the honey supers. A deep super can weigh 85 pounds when full and many people find this beyond their capacity. An obvious workaround is to remove the frames, one at a time, and place them in a waiting super on a cart or tailgate.
The merits of wax vs plastic foundation can be debated till eternity. I submit you should use what you like. Some people really enjoy wiring frames, handling real beeswax foundation, and the process of embedding the wires, etc. The hard plastic foundation is vastly more durable, especially after it has a good solid comb build over it. On the other hand, the trend towards using frames without foundation, while well intentioned, is a step backwards.
3. Bee diseases, what to look for?
As a former New York State bee inspector, I would probably put this at the top of the list, but I understand that people don’t like to think about what is liable to go wrong, right at the beginning. However, bees are living organisms, which we are caring for, so it falls upon us to monitor their health.
At one time, American foulbrood was rampant in this country. These days, most successful beekeepers seldom see it. This is the result of two factors. First, the bee inspection services really rooted it out in most areas. Second, cheap livestock grade antibiotics made the prevention and control of outbreaks relatively easy.
The worst thing that can happen is that a whole bunch of new beekeepers arrive upon the scene with no knowledge of disease, or the history of it. They advocate let alone beekeeping, based on a misguided notion that Nature takes care of her own. Nature does pretty well without our help, but Nature includes diseases and parasites.
There are plenty of online tools for helping people to recognize, diagnose and control bee diseases and parasites. But the beekeeper has to develop the degree of diligence necessary. Just like you don’t drive around with bald tires, you can’t keep bees without looking closely at the brood at least once a month, and sample for mites whenever possible. What you don’t know, can hurt you.
4. What are the best kinds of bees?
The quest for better bees began in earnest in the 1800s. At the time the USA had only the European black bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, which is native to France, Germany, etc. These bees make honey, but beekeepers found the Italian bee to be vastly better in temperament and disease resistance, so the country was “Italianized” in a few decades. Later, other types of honey bees were imported, such as the Carniolan from the Alps in Slovenia, and the Caucasian from the Caucasus mountains. Today, we have sort of an admixture of all of them. If the bees are orange, they are called Italians; if they are black -- people assume they are “Carnies”.
There are a lot of advocates for locally adapted bees. These are essentially mongrel descendants of the original stock and probably have no specific flaws, but no great features either. I would suggest the main criterion should be mite resistance. Whether you buy Russian bees, VSH bees, or Weavers, put your money on the mite resistance. The more people who buy these, the more widespread the traits will become. Good qualities in livestock seldom arise spontaneously, but are the result of hard work and persistence toward specific goals.
5. Swarming: detecting and preventing?
In the old days, swarming was looked upon as a good thing. In fact, in many regions of the world, beekeeping still consists of attracting or capturing swarms and getting what you can from them. With modern beekeeping came the knowledge that a hive that doesn’t swarm can produce three or four times as much honey as one that does.
Many old books describe the process of monitoring the colonies for queen cells, cutting them out as they appear, and many other complicated manipulations aimed at thwarting the reproductive urge of honey bees. I always liken such measures as the equivalent of telling teenagers not to fall in love till they’re older. Do what you will, some things just happen.
Swarming is best prevented by keeping the brood nest of the hives uncongested in spring. This can be done by adding combs, by moving brood into the upper stories, by removing brood and making nucs with it, or dividing the colony in two prior to the swarming period. Some will swarm anyway, no matter what you do.
6. Where to buy bees?
Buying bees is like buying a car. You can pay a lot of money and not get what you want, but if you go too cheap, you will likely have trouble. The queen and package bee industry has been in place for at least a hundred years and they are experts at providing bees for restocking northern hives in the spring. The prices have risen steeply, however.
Often you can buy bees locally from someone who raises them for that purpose, or has decided to cut back or sell out. If you don’t know exactly what to look for, try to get an experienced beekeeper to go with you. They can tell at a glance if you are being played for a fool, or are about to get a real bargain. Used hives are seldom a bargain, however, as the equipment is often old, non-standard or incompatible with what you already have. Unless, of course, if you already have a non-standard grab bag assortment of equipment. Then the stuff will fit right in.
7. Chemicals, what, when and why?
This is one of my pet peeves. People who know nothing about honey bee hygienics will declare that they do not, or will not use any “chemicals” on their hives. As if this were some sort of moral choice and they are taking the high ground. There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to control diseases and parasites in your honey bee colonies, by whatever legal means available. I will even go out on a limb and say the laws are too restrictive and US beekeepers should have more options, not less (thinking of oxalic acid, here).
On the other hand, there is no obligation to use chemicals on bees -- unlike pets which are required to be vaccinated. However, you do have a responsibility to prevent foulbrood, and control it if you get it. Foulbrood is extremely contagious and difficult to get rid of, once it gets a foothold in your operation. If you are fortunate to live in a region with a low incidence, you are very lucky. Other beekeepers have to battle with it constantly.
The basic arsenal of chemicals, medications and controls can be seen in any bee supply catalog. Of course, the mere fact that these products are available should not be taken as a recommendation for any of them. They are tools which you may need to protect your investment. One thing is certain, however, monitoring the health of your hives is part of the job description. Let alone beekeeping is a thing of the past.
8. When is the honey flow?
When I first moved to New York State from California, I used to ask beekeepers “What is the main honey plant here?” Where I came from, the main nectar source was eucalyptus. In some years it would be supplemented by orange, sage, and sumac, plus a myriad other sources. In upstate New York, the flows seem to vary from year to year. Ironically, this area used to be predominantly white clover and buckwheat, but those crops are pretty scarce any more. A lot of the cropland has reverted to forests, and hay is mostly cut from whatever comes up in the fields.
The point is, each region is unique. Each year is different. Being a beekeeper means learning about more than bees. We learn the native plants and the introduced species, the crops and the invasive weeds. Weather, climate, land use changes, suburban sprawl; all these things affect bee colonies and the nature of the honey flow. It is not like farming, where you plant a crop and harvest it at the end of the growing season.
Depending on the condition of the colonies, the moisture content of the soil, daytime temperatures, and so on, the spring flow may be the best of the year. Or there may be only one flow, in mid-summer. Some regions have a series of short, overlapping honey flows and the end product can’t really be given a name, other than “Wildflower” or “Summer Honey”. Other locales produce very distinct honey crops, like tupelo, basswood, or fireweed.
9. Inspection, what to look for?
I don’t know why this is so far down on the list! As a former bee inspector, I am constantly harping on this. Experienced beekeepers can tell at a glance what is going on with a colony. Novices don’t seem to be able to see what is in plain view in front of them. It is always a good idea to shake the bees off of the brood comb and look at it in bright sunlight.
Normal healthy brood has a definite appearance. If you think of each cell as a muffin, the top of the muffin should be puffy and light colored. Sometimes it will be whitish, if the comb is new, or dark brown if the comb is old and stained, but the brood capping is porous and like fabric. If you see cappings with a greasy, sagging appearance, like a fallen cake, you may have a problem. One of the tell tale signs is sunken cappings, often with a hole in the center. Some nurse bee has cut a hole, and sniffed in their with her antennae.
However, brood inspection is not just a matter of snooping for disease, however. There is a lot more that the experienced eye will see. There may be newly gathered nectar glistening in the cells. Rings of fresh pollen will circle the brood, carefully distributed by the hive bees so that the nurses have exactly what they need, close by, to produce fresh royal jelly for the thousands of larvae in their care.
The brood pattern is of utmost importance in evaluating the colony condition. A really good queen will lay in a tight concentric manner. This can be seen in the placement of the eggs, the larvae and the capped brood. The developing bees will be close together in age. The opposite of this, of course, is when you see sort of a hodgepodge. One cell might have an egg, another a larva, another capped brood. Either the queen is not laying systematically, or the brood is not developing normally. This could be the result of some infection, or worse -- inbreeding. But inbreeding in colonies is rare, presenting a scattered appearance; shotgun brood, it’s commonly called.
The more usual cause of shotgun brood is a failing queen. She can no longer produce the tight consistent brood signature of young prolific queen. Many beekeepers will replace such a queen on an as-needed basis, while others replace queens before they begin to sputter. Still others let the bees replace any such queens, which they may or may not do in a timely manner.
Ultimately, if the queen gets old enough, she will run out of stored sperm. Then you have what is called a “drone layer”. This queen can still lay eggs, but they are unfertilized, and develop only into drones. As we know, bees can make a queen from any fertilized egg. But a hive with a drone laying queen is pretty much a goner.
The final stage in a failing hive is when the workers begin to lay eggs. Biologists will tell you that this is the colony’s last ditch attempt to pass its genes on to some future generation, but personally, I don’t buy that. I think that workers have underdeveloped ovaries in order to retain the maternal instincts and tend to what are essentially not their offspring. And when the queen goes missing these underdeveloped ovaries kick into high gear, doing what they are supposed to do which is produce eggs to care for. Unfortunately, in honey bees (except the Cape Bee), they develop only into males. Some species of insects can produce females from unfertilized eggs. This ability may have been present in ancestral honey bees.
10. When to harvest?
This might seem like a dumb question, but my philosophy is that there are no dumb questions. Everyone goes from knowing nothing, to knowing way too much and trying to forget stuff, like advertising slogans from the sixties. Anyway, with harvesting honey, it’s a bit different. I remember taking off honey one time with a friend who was a commercial fisherman. We had loaded up my pickup and I decided to call it quits. There were obviously a few supers we hadn’t gotten to, and he asked me about them. I’ll get them next time, I said. He replied, it isn’t like that with fish. You get them this time or you don’t get them!
Anyway, this wouldn’t be here as a question, if there were not a bit more to it than pick the berries as soon as they are ripe. My rule of thumb is when the hives start to get too tall to work comfortably, it’s time to start taking some honey off. If you have distinct honey flows where you want to keep the honey separate, you may have to be more proactive. Generally, if a frame is mostly capped, or a super is mostly capped, the honey is ripe. If you shake the frames and nectar splashes out, you had better wait. Unripe honey is liable to ferment.
Sometimes there are other concerns. If a honey flow ends abruptly, honey bees will go into “robbing mode”. Then, it is very difficult to get the honey off without inciting them to rob (that is, plunder). If you have never seen a robbing frenzy in full flame, you are very lucky. They pretty much go berserk, kill each other by the thousands, sting anything that moves, and often fan out looking for hives to pillage and bodies to sting.
So, you may want to harvest a tad before the flow ends, to avoid this particular ugly scenario. Or, in our region, one can wait till the cold weather arrives and take off honey then. I didn’t go into harvesting methods, but I will mention that using bee repellants requires warm weather. Cold weather harvesting needs other methods. Ultimately, harvesting requires skill and judgment, like everything else in the keeping of bees.
Bailey, L., & Ball, B. V. (1991). Honey Bee Pathology. 2nd Edition. London, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Graham, J. M., Ambrose, J. T., & Langstroth, L. L. (1992). The Hive and the honey bee: a new book on beekeeping which continues the tradition ... Dadant & Sons.
Sammataro, D., & Avitabile, A. (2011). Beekeepers Handbook. Cornell University Press.
Seeley, T. D. (2009). The wisdom of the hive: the social physiology of honey bee colonies. Harvard University Press.
Taylor, R. (1975). The joys of beekeeping. St. Martin’s Press.
Urban Seattle Beekeeper Develops a Successful Business Niche
by Dave Schiefelbein
The Puget Sound region of Washington state has a reputation for drizzle and gray days. But in the mind of bee entrepreneur Corky Luster it’s raining bees and there are nothing but bright days ahead. Luster is the founder of Seattle’s Ballard Bee Company. His ability to “think outside of the (bee) box” combined with living in a region open to innovative individuals of all types (think Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, Chihuly, Pearl Jam) has helped Corky craft a distinctive small-business model for beekeeping. The account of how it all came about and continues to evolve is equally unique. Corky Luster’s story is one of humble beginnings based in a simple desire to help honey bees. The ability to recognize needs that were not being addressed led him to see opportunity. But it is his creative approach to filling those needs that truly sets his business apart and allows it to grow and thrive.
Corky has spent most of his life in Seattle, born and raised there. He’s seen the city develop and transform from a sleepy place tucked quietly away on the upper west coast to the center for technology, aerospace and the arts that it is known as today. As an adult he began to notice another, more subtle way in which the city was changing. He was no longer seeing honey bees in the neighborhoods the way he had when he was a child. About the same time he was also taking note of news reports on the increasingly dire circumstances of pollinators, particularly honey bees due to something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). It’s a widely know axiom that it is tough to effect change when a problem is as big and far-reaching as CCD is. Rather than change the world, the best most of us can do is change our little part of it. That’s exactly what Corky decided to do. He vowed that rather than just being an observer, he would be part of the solution. Corky had a little bit of beekeeping experience learned from a friend when they both were in college. So, he knew that he could take on a couple of hives in his own backyard. What quickly followed was a realization that this small step would be a huge bonus, not only to his yard but to the whole neighborhood. A big “aha” moment occurred when Corky was visiting the vast farming region of Eastern Washington state. He noticed, next to a large field of blooming yellow canola, a small apiary placed there specifically for pollination of that crop. He reasoned that if pollination could be encouraged in large agricultural regions in the country, why couldn’t the same thing be done in the city? In rural areas commercial beekeepers move their hives from place to place to spread pollination services around as necessary. Didn’t a “city-wide apiary” make just as much sense? Corky thought so, “I wanted to challenge the presumption that farming is only done in a rural setting.” And while there were backyard beekeepers in Seattle, he soon discovered that no one in Seattle was doing anything remotely close to what he wanted to do. At the most other beekeepers might have been setting up several hives, then selling the honey at the occasional farmer’s market to fund their beekeeping hobby. Corky envisioned something far beyond that. He wanted a full time, sustainable and profitable business. Since no one had yet set the guidelines, Luster was free to do whatever it took to create an unbounded apiary within the city. Restricted by City of Seattle ordinances (a limit of four hives per yard) he needed to start thinking creatively about how to have hives in the city outside of his own back yard. One thing that had always made an impression on Luster is that a beehive is not much more than a wooden box possessing about the same spatial footprint as a file cabinet. Yet it can have an impact that far surpasses its physical dimensions. A hive can fit in anyone’s yard. It can fit on any building rooftop or balcony. Anyone can find a space for an object of that mass. Yet the effect of something so small is much stronger and larger than its size. It occurred to Luster that by letting other people host his hives...other backyards, hotels, restaurant roofs...he could create his large apiary inside of Seattle. Corky spent at least a season in “dress rehearsal” mode. In 2009 he made it official by obtaining a city business license for his new endeavor. He called his company the Ballard Bee Company, appropriately named after the local Seattle neighborhood in which he lives. He referred to it as “an urban pollination company”. And its mission was to expand the apiary.
It turned out that Seattle was a ripe environment for this type of untested business model. Seattle is one of those places that seems to attract progressive, forward thinking people. New ideas are encouraged and welcomed. Seattle also has an extremely active culture of unique food, exceptional restaurants with a heavy emphasis on eating locally produced seasonal fare, urban agriculture, urban livestock, and a love of all things “green”. For a business to succeed it needs the right product at the right time for the right consumer. Corky’s mission fit in precisely with a strong “local-vore” movement already present there, so the people of Seattle saw value in it. His backyard Hive Hosting Program is not entirely different in its makeup than other garden, pool or yard care services performed for a fee. The Ballard Bee Company takes applications from interested host families, a yard inspection follows, yards are either accepted or rejected based on the suitability for the bees and the hosts. Host families sign a contract, and are charged monthly for service. The Ballard Bee Company tends and maintains the hives throughout the year. While pollination is the most obvious benefit for a host yard and their neighborhood, program participants also receive other perks. Those include two jars of honey each month, special discounts and pricing, a monthly newsletter, a “bee education” resulting from watching the bees work every day, and of course the satisfaction that comes from knowing that they are helping to grow the number of honey bees in the city. Since a business is only as good as its customers, Corky knew he had a market based on the response of the people of Seattle. They hosted his hives in their back yards and they gobbled up his urban honey by-product. Businesses jumped in with their support as well. His hives complemented existing restaurant’s roof-top or patio gardens. And Corky’s bees thrived in these unusual locations. Chefs used to cooking with local, seasonal ingredients began featuring Ballard Bee honey from their own rooftop in their recipes. A craft micro-brewery made a small batch of beer with his local honey. Specialty food stores, artisan bakeries, even a florist began to stock Ballard Bee honey to sell to their customers. One truly ambitious experiment in beekeeping began when the Executive Chef at the elegant Fairmont Olympic Hotel contacted the Ballard Bee Company requesting help in establishing an apiary on its roof, twelve stories up in downtown Seattle. No one knew whether honey bees could thrive in the midst of concrete and high rise buildings. But the hotel bees flourished and are now entering their third season on the roof. The story of the downtown bees even made it to the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
In fact many of the projects of the Ballard Bee Company have gained the attention and awareness of the media all over. The Ballard Bee Company, its unique business or Ballard Bee Honey have been chronicled in print and electronic media across the nation including Virtuoso Life, Sunset, Men’s Journal, Wallpaper, Women’s Health, Epicurious and Monocle. Last autumn a minor media frenzy erupted around the Ballard Bee Company when Corky posted a quick Facebook update and photo mentioning an afterhours visit by a black bear to one of his apiaries which took out a couple of his hives. Corky’s phone rang nonstop as local television and radio stations called wanting details. As the story traveled around the planet, the offending bear somehow morphed from black to grizzly by the time it reached London. Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton even felt compelled to write about the incident. While bears may spawn fifteen minutes of fame, more lasting attention has been paid to Ballard Bee Honey. With his background in art and design Corky devises the packaging for each of his honey products himself. Corky describes the presentation of his honey in this way: “I wanted an important story to be packaged in a beautiful way.” Retailers frequently are willing to carry his product based on its looks, even before they have sampled the sweetness of the multi-floral honey contained within the jar. Labels are usually minimalist black and white. Containers are glass and unique in shape, particularly as honey containers...no plastic honey bears here! Through a juried procedure, Ballard Bee Company honey jars were recently included in Boxed and Labelled Two!: New Approaches to Packaging Design, a large format book coffee table book highlighting some of the world’s most innovative and beautiful packaging.
Corky has become a bit of a “go-to” guy when it comes to all things bees in the Seattle area. His hives were used by the local zoo on family day for a live demonstration on the topic of “living safely with wildlife”. A crowd was delighted as they watched the zoo’s resident grizzly bears dismantle one of his beehives. One local talk radio personality, a beekeeper himself who had never been stung by a bee, enlisted Corky’s help for a call-in broadcast on beekeeping. He even had Corky orchestrate his first ever bee sting, broadcast live and on the air!
Next month we’ll discuss other aspects of Corky Luster’s bee business, including educational outreach, managing and marketing to the growing number of urban beekeepers, staying focused on his business’ original mission while looking to the steps Ballard Bee Company will take in the future.
April 2013 Cover Story
Simple Early Treatment of Nucs Against Varroa
by Randy Oliver
When I try to understand something about beekeeping, I seek out examples from the extreme ends of the spectrum. For that reason, I often look to the experience of our Canadian brethren, due to their long, cold winters and bounteous honey crops. We can take advantage of those huge honey yields to allow us to discern even small effects upon honey production from the impact of the varroa mite, eh? Dr. Rob Currie found that surprisingly low mite levels can affect yield, recommending that the late spring varroa infestation rate not exceed 1 mite per 100 bees. At this year’s ABF convention, Dr. Medhat Nasr described how beekeepers in Alberta, Canada find that they get best results with very early season mite control.
I’ve previously described how one can reduce mite levels by using queen cells to make up spring nucs; but we can go a step further if we hit the nucs with a miticide at the same time! The question then, is which miticides are gentle enough so as not to adversely affect the newly-mated queen or the buildup of the nuc?
Several studies have found that the synthetic miticides may have adverse effects upon queens, so I hesitate to use them. That leaves the essential oils and organic acids. I know from experience that the most effective essential oil—thymol—is disruptive to broodrearing, so I’d rather not apply it to small nucleus colonies (there are also temperature issues with thymol).
As far as formic acid is concerned, the manufacturer of Mite-Away Quick Strips™ recommends that they be applied only to colonies exceeding 6 frames in strength, and anecdotal reports from a number of beekeepers suggest that formic acid, under some circumstances, may be risky to queens--an observation supported by research by Dr. Pierre Giovenazzo.
So that leaves us with only two proven miticides--the recently-registered product HopGuard® (hops beta acids) and the unregistered oxalic acid. The manufacturer of Hopguard states that the product is safe for queens, so it sounded promising. The oxalic acid dribble was a likely candidate as well, since it also does not appear to negatively affect queens[6,7]. Giovenazzo had also tested oxalic acid with good results.
However, both Hopguard and oxalic have one drawback—since they only kill phoretic (hitchhiking) mites, and since either product is only active for a few days in the hive, they don’t hit the reservoir of mites in the brood. Both of these miticides are most effective in broodless colonies, such as in fall, or during a period of induced broodlessness, as demonstrated by Wagnitz and Ellis--who caged the queen in late summer, replaced her in a few days with a queen cell, and then later applied oxalic acid after all the brood had emerged.
I normally start nucs with queen cells. It occurred to me that in such nucs, a window of opportunity exists for the effective use of short-term natural treatments against varroa. It’s all about the timing. A nuc is made up with frames of brood from an established colony. That brood will contain mites. Some of the unsealed brood will continue to be invaded by mites for up to 9 days after the nuc is made up (bottom colored bar). But any and all brood from the parent queen will have emerged by Day 21 after the making of the nuc (Fig. 1).
I insert 10-day* queen cells into the nucs on the day after I make them up. That means that the new queen won’t emerge until Day 2 or 3 after make up (middle colored bar), and not begin laying eggs until around Day 11 after make up (sometimes a bit sooner).
But the mites cannot yet enter the new brood, since varroa doesn’t invade a cell until about 8 days after the egg is laid. That means that the first opportunity for the mite to hide in new brood generally occurs around Day 19 post make up of the nuc (upper colored bar). So from Day 19 through Day 21, virtually every mite would be exposed to the treatment!
OK, this sounds good in theory. So I ran two trials to see just how well it actually worked in practice.
Materials and Methods
The unusually warm winter of 2011-2012 was a good opportunity to test the method, since mite levels were unacceptably high by early April. We used a batch of nucs grafted from two queen mothers (the majority from one mother) on April 12. On May 1 (Day 19 after make up) we equalized them to 48 queenright nucs each containing 5 full frames of bees by adding frames from the unmated nucs to the mated ones, and by shaking bees, which helped to randomize the original mite infestation rates. At this point (again apparently due to warm weather), some larvae from the new queens were already being sealed, meaning that some mites may have already infested those cells prior to treatment.
Since the nucs were scatted in a rough line in the order of make up, every 4-5 in the row would have come from the same parent colony, so we marked them sequentially down the line for treatments in order to avoid any effect from the original brood sources. After allowing 2 hours for them to settle down, we took samples of ½ cup of bees (~320 bees) from each nuc, preserved them in alcohol for later washing for mites, and then applied treatments as shown in Table 1.
After a week, we moved the nucs to another yard, placing them in groups of 4 facing out 90 degrees to each other, and rotated to equalize the directions of the entrances for the various treatments. Shortly afterward, we worked each nuc into a single, adding 5 frames of foundation. We fed 1:1 sucrose syrup equally as necessary to augment the natural honey flow.
We took mite samples again at Day 37, Day 51, and Day 87 post treatment.
Results and Discussion
The mite infestation rates of the groups are shown in Figure 2 (Day 0 is now reset from the treatment date).
The differences between the first two bars are the most indicative of the efficacy of the treatments, with the greatest reduction being from the oxalic treatment. Mite infestation rates climbed at a fairly steady rate after treatments. My treatment threshold is 2 mites per 100 bees. This level was exceeded in the control group (which began with the lowest mite level) by the first time point. By contrast, the mite level in the oxalic group (which began at nearly twice the mite infestation rate of the controls) was still well below threshold at three months!
To more easily compare the effects of treatment, I normalized the mite population growth curves for all groups to start at 100% (Fig. 3).
The mite count data need to be taken with a bit of caution, as they were only single samples from each colony at each time point, and thus have a built in degree of potential error, especially in the low ranges, which give disproportionate influence to any single mite in (or not in) the sample. However, I’ve carefully inspected the raw data, and feel that the results are meaningful, despite the variability in counts.
The intermediate performance of Hopguard and Hive Clean (applied at manufacturer’s recommended rates) suggests that their efficacy was less than that of the oxalic dribble. The registrants may need to adjust the suggested treatment rate for nucs.
Note also that each colony had received a new queen, who may have passed on mite resistance to her offspring. Indeed, in 3 of the 10 colonies in the control group which made it to the end of the trial, the mite counts were lower at the end of the trial than they were in the beginning. But compare this to the oxalic group, in which mite counts went down in 9 out of 11!
Colony Survival and Productivity
We removed 9 colonies during the course of the trial due to failure or disease (EFB), roughly spread among groups. The oxalic group had the lowest rate of failure, with only one removal.
Measuring the productivity of the nucs was problematic, since the main honey flow essentially failed. On July 27 (Day 87 post treatment) I opened every hive in the test apiary, excluding (censuring) any that had superseded, or with abnormally small populations. I recorded which colonies fell into one of two extremes from the norm (which had roughly filled a third to a half of the second deep with honey)—as “productive” (having nearly filled the second deep with honey) or as “nonproductive” (having barely touched the foundation). The results were unexpected:
Of the 13 “productive” colonies, only 3 had received an acid treatment (oxalic or Hive Clean).
Of the 7 “nonproductive” colonies, 6 had received some form of acid treatment.
The Hopguard group contained the highest proportion (6 of 10) of productive colonies
Of the 13 “productive” colonies, 4 had high mite counts (4.7-13 mites/100 bees).
I don’t know whether the apparent lack of production of the acid-treated colonies was a fluke, or whether the acid treatment had some sort of long-term effect upon productivity--the lack of normal honey flow may have confounded the results. Giovenazzo also observed a nonsignificant 13% reduction in honey yield after oxalic treatment, but he applied twice the dosage of oxalic acid as I did. This potential effect certainly demands further investigation! On the other hand, compare this result to the grading for colony strength in Trial 2.
Materials and Methods
We ran a second trial with oxalic dribble alone to see whether we would obtain similar results as from Trial 1. Grafting (all from the same queen mother) took place May 3, and we made up 4-frame nucs 9 days later. In this trial, the weather was warm, and the queens started laying unusually early, with mature larvae at Day 15 after nuc make up. We equalized 36 queenright colonies to 5 frames of bees on that date.
We alternately treated the hives the next day (May 28), with either oxalic dribble or sham opening, but did not take initial mite counts. This treatment timing was earlier than optimum, since workers from the parent queen would still be emerging for 5 more days after treatment, possibly compromising the efficacy of the treatment.
After a week, we moved the hives to another yard and worked them into singles, adding 5 frames of foundation. The honeyflow failed to materialize in June (but pollen was abundant), so we fed the colonies equally with 1:1 sucrose syrup. The strongest colonies were just filling the 10th frame at grading on Day 69 after making the nucs (Fig. 4).
Results and Discussion
All colonies in the oxalic group survived to the end of the trial; three failed in the control group. Again, the oxalic dribble substantially suppressed mite infestation rates. I present the results differently here, showing the distribution of mite rates across the treatment groups (Fig. 5). The green bars represent the control group, which had a median value of 4 mites per 100 bees at Day 53 post treatment, compared to a median of 1 mite per 100 bees for the oxalic-dribbled group.
I observed no negative effects due to treatment of the nucs with oxalic dribble. Only two colonies in the entire yard went queenless—both were in the untreated group. Overall, the oxalic-dribbled colonies were substantially stronger at 53 days (2.5 brood cycles) after treatment (Fig. 6). This result reflects those of Giovenazzo, who also observed stronger colonies after oxalic treatment (although not statistically significant). One plausible explanation for this result is that the knockback of mites just prior to the first round of brood being sealed is enough to break the virus infection cycle of the first generation of bees, allowing for greater longevity of those bees.
I was curious as to whether differences in strength of the colonies was related to nosema infection, so I checked a 20 house-bee sample from each of the three weakest, and three strongest colonies, with representatives included from each treatment group. None of the strongest colonies showed nosema spores, but two of the weakest did—one of which showed 30 spores per field of view (1 mL/bee dilution). I squashed an additional 10-bee sample from that colony one bee at a time—only 1 of the 10 was moderately infected.
So, did colony strength reflect the mite infestation rate? I plotted colony strength vs. final mite count (Fig. 7).
Despite the fact that in both trials some brood had already been sealed by the time I applied treatment, the method was not only very effective at reducing mite levels (to 1 per 100 bees in most colonies), but also inexpensive (pennies) and quick.
Based upon the early results, we treated several hundred nucs this spring with oxalic dribble at Day 19, and did not notice any difference in queen failure over our normal low rate.
Practical application: following only two mite treatments in the past 9 months (one oxalic dribble in November, and the oxalic dribble over the nucs in May) our mite counts across the board in late July were still gratifyingly low—averaging a bit less than 2 mites per 100 bees (some of this was also due to breeding for resistant stock).
But how in the world, you say, will I be able to keep track of treatment window dates during the hectic spring season? That was also a major concern to me, since during our spring nuc making frenzy I often wouldn’t be able to tell you the day of the week! I solved the problem by printing up a simple spreadsheet (Table 2) that I could check each morning. For the cells grafted on any day, it shows the two critical dates in red—the last day that we can make nucs for that batch, and the 19th day for queen check and treatment.
The spreadsheet (Table 2) made it really easy to pull off the timing of treatments despite my perpetual disorganization (and actually made me feel somewhat professional)! The method only required one slight change in our regular production of nucs. We normally check for queen rightness two weeks after putting in the cells (good mating weather permitting), but in order to save trips to the nuc yards, we now wait 19 days, so that we can do three things on the same visit:
Check for laying queens. On Day 19, any queens from the grafted cells should normally have a good pattern of open brood, and it is just before the date that any emergency queens or laying workers would have started laying.
We combine the frames of bees from the unmated nucs with the queenright ones to boost them all to 5 frames of bees.
We then dribble them with oxalic acid before putting the lids back on.
By this method, the added oxalic dribble only adds a few seconds per nuc to our normal routine, plus by waiting a few more days to check for laying queens, we weed out the early failures or poor layers.
Possible Improvements on the Method
In warm weather, there may be brood from the new queens being sealed a few days earlier than Day 19, so you should check to see whether you need to treat earlier. If you find this to be the case, it may be of benefit to make the nucs up a few days before the cells are ripe, to allow the original brood (and mites) enough time to emerge.
The efficacy could also be improved by treating the parent colonies of the nucs with formic acid a few days prior to splitting them. If one makes up nucs by the “yard trashing” method (the complete breakdown of the parent colonies into nucs), any queen loss due to the formic treatment would make little difference.
Since mites continue to enter brood in a nuc for 8 days after make up, efficacy could potentially be improved by applying an additional oxalic dribble or Hopguard strip at make up. Let me also make clear that I have not given up on Hopguard or Hive Alive (should it be registered in the U.S.)—both show potential.
This method uses precise timing, combined with making normal colony increase, to gain the most advantage of residue-free “natural” mite treatments. The oxalic dribble costs pennies and takes seconds to apply. We already love it for early winter treatment at cessation of broodrearing, and now can also use it in spring. Our findings also call for more research on the possible effect of oxalic dribble on productivity, and whether treatment with two Hopguard strips would give better results.
Practical consideration: this project was funded by donations from beekeepers, performed by beekeepers, for the benefit of beekeepers. You can support such research with your donations to ScientificBeekeeping.com.
I greatly appreciate the help in running this trial from my sons Eric and Ian, whose labor was covered by your generous donations to ScientificBeekeeping.com. I especially wish to thank volunteer Brion Dunbar for his unstinting assistance throughout the trial. The Hive Clean was generously donated by BeeVital, Seeham, Austria.
1. Currie, RW and P Gatien (2006). Timing acaricide treatments to prevent Varroa destructor (Acari: Varroidae) from causing economic damage to honey bee colonies. Can. Entomol. 138: 238–252.
4. Giovenazzo, P and P Dubreuil (2011). Evaluation of spring organic treatments against Varroa destructor (Acari: Varroidae) in honey bee Apis mellifera (Hymenoptera: Apidae) colonies in eastern Canada. Experimental and Applied Acarology 55(1 ): 65-76.
6. Cornelissen, B, et al (2012). Queen survival and oxalic acid residues in sugar stores after summer application against Varroa destructor in honey bees (Apis mellifera). Journal of Apicultural Research 51(3): 271-276.
7. Wagnitz, JJ and MD Ellis (2010). The effect of oxalic acid on honey bee queens. Science of Bee Culture 2(2) (Supplement to Bee Culture magazine 138(12): 8-11. http://www.beeculture.com/content/ScienceJournalDec2010.pdf
8. Giovenazzo (2011). Op. cit.
9. Wagnitz, JJ and MD Ellis (2010). Combining an artificial break in brood rearing with oxalic acid treatment to reduce varroa mite levels. Science of Bee Culture 2(2) (Supplement to Bee Culture magazine 138(12): 8-11. http://www.beeculture.com/content/ScienceJournalDec2010.pdf
11. Giovenazzo (2011). Op. cit.
12. Giovenazzo (2011). Op. cit.
March 2013 Cover Story
Dying Queen Cells - Pesticide Mystery Solved?
by Randy Oliver
The Case of Pristine Fungicide
If you hang out in the Northern California almond orchards during bloom, you’re going to see fungicides being sprayed over the trees, the bees, and the hives (and sometimes the beekeepers!). Due to our wet winters, growers spray hundreds of tons of fungicides during bloom (Fig. 1).
These fungicides don’t normally kill adult bees to any great extent (although the adjuvants in the tank mix may), but they (or again the adjuvants), may have adverse effects upon the brood, as reported by Dr. Eric Mussen in 2008:
California beekeepers seem to observe more problems with fungicide toxicity to their bees than beekeepers around the rest of the country. Perhaps that is because California beekeepers devote significant time to “lifting lids” in spring (actually, late winter by the calendar). As early as the late 1950’s beekeepers noted brood loss, in some apiaries, following the use of captan. Later, they noted brood loss following the use of Rovral®. Now, they report seeing brood loss following Pristine® applications. These are not immediate losses, such as one might see with Monitor® or other insecticides that are toxic to bee brood. These losses are noted, usually, about seventeen days after exposure. Counting backwards, that means exposure of one-day-old larvae that interfered with immature development. Pupae and newly emerged bees are seen with anatomical malformations, like undeveloped wings.
However, most almond pollinators take such occasional setbacks due to fungicides in stride, since colonies build up vigorously on almonds and generally recover quickly from the loss of a few foragers or a bit of brood. In my experience in almonds, I’d say that colonies that go in looking great generally come out looking fantastic! And I don’t notice any lingering effects due to exposure to the fungicides. But Mussen continues:
Does this mean that beekeepers can dismiss concerns over certain fungicides? No, not all beekeepers. If beekeeper observations are correct, Pristine-contaminated pollen, if consumed by colonies in the process of rearing queens, will decrease the number of queens reared to adults.
Problems in Queen Country
The California queen breeders, generally located in almond country, produce a large proportion of the nation’s queens each spring. They typically rear them in cell builders fed with combs of recently-stored almond pollen. In recent years, some of them have experienced occasional mysterious failures of entire batches of queen cells. Such failures could set a producer’s entire delivery schedule back for weeks during the critical early spring market for queens (this is no reflection on California queens—the vast majority of cell builders are unaffected).
The affected breeders noticed that such failures appeared to be linked to combs of pollen that had come from orchards that had been sprayed with the recently-introduced fungicide Pristine. Beekeepers were already leery of fungicides, after Eric Mussen’s warnings, especially since the Tucson Lab confirmed that some fungicides were toxic to bees.
Subsequent research by Dr. Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman’s team suggested that Pristine might amplify the negative effects of the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos upon bee nutrition, endosymbionts, and brood survival, including that of queen cells[3,4,5]. It appeared to be a slam-dunk case against Pristine!
So the queen producers put pressure on the growers not to use Pristine, which the growers then reported to their pest control advisers, who told the salesmen for the product. This of course got the attention of the manufacturer, BASF, who commendably sent out representatives to work with the queen breeders.
What appeared to be an airtight case against Pristine actually had some serious holes. For one, BASF showed us data from their research which indicated that Pristine, at field realistic doses, did not kill brood. Furthermore, plenty of healthy cells were being produced from pollen that did contain residues of Pristine. So we had opposing evidence as to whether or not Pristine was actually the problem.
Judging the Case
This is where it is useful to apply Koch’s Postulates. The first question was whether Pristine was always associated with the unusual queen failures. Unfortunately, those failures were sporadic, and samples of beebread had generally not been taken, which made it harder to link residues of the active ingredient to the problem. And it was really hard to tell which hive had been exposed to what, since there are often several almond growers within flight range of any hive, and queen producers bring in combs from the field to stock their cell builders. So much for direct linking evidence.
This is where California Pesticide Use Reports might shed some light. California has the best pesticide use reporting in the nation, with every commercial application recorded by applicator, date, crop, and location. These reports are summarized in an open data base, with more detail available from the local ag commissioners (who, in Northern California are very supportive of the beekeeping industry). I’ve graphed out the monthly application rates of pesticides on almonds below (Fig. 2).
The queen producers started complaining about lost cells around 2008. Note that little Pristine was applied statewide that year—far less than in 2005 and 2006. However, the breeders are not necessarily affected by statewide use, but rather only by applications immediately adjacent to their hives. I have not yet gotten that data for Pristine, but some of the queen producers are also almond growers, so they generally knew what pesticides were being applied (or so they thought).
Last season, BASF stepped up their efforts, and sent scientist Christof Schneider over to California to work with the queen producers and to take samples of pollen and beebread. Sure enough, residues of Pristine could often be found in pollen, but not in the royal jelly, suggesting that there would be little actual exposure to queen larvae.
BASF then went a step further, and attempted to fulfill Koch’s third postulate to see if they could experimentally create queen cell failure by intentionally feeding Pristine to cell builder colonies. They spent a lot of money last summer to run a “semi field” trial in which they grew flowering phacelia in hoop houses, sprayed it during bloom with Pristine, and then set up cell builder colonies inside the tunnels. Again, it was easy to detect residues of the active ingredients in the beebread, but not in the royal jelly. Most notably, the cell builders had no trouble producing healthy queens. This finding forced us to question whether the case against Pristine was as solid as we had assumed. So what else could be causing the queen cell failures?
A New Clue!
At this year’s California Beekeepers convention, I had the chance to review results from pesticide analyses of beebread samples from colonies that the queen producers had deployed in almond orchards during bloom last year. A few items caught my attention:
1. In the first place, the California queen breeders have relatively pesticide-free comb. The breeders go out of their way to minimize pesticide and miticide residues, to the extent that they hold hives back from pollination to get “clean” combs of beebread.
2. Surprisingly though, the beebread often still showed residues of coumaphos and fluvalinate, despite the fact that the producers hadn’t used those miticides in years!
3. There were also residues of various other pesticides.
4. But the real red flag was the unexpected presence of an “insect growth regulator”! This surprising discovery suggested a new suspect. An insect growth regulator (IGR), as its name implies, could well be harmless to adult bees, but might prevent queen pupae from being able to molt into adults!
The IGR was diflubenzuron, generally sold by the trade name “Dimilin.” The queen breeders were surprised to hear that an IGR was being applied during bloom. Upon further checking I found that Dimilin had been approved for use in almonds and stone fruits since the 2004 season (Fig. 3).
Well-meaning pest control advisers were recommending Dimilin to control Peach Twig Borer, and the timing of application in the above graph suggests that growers may have been adding it as a tank mix with fungicides:
Growers have long relied or dormant oil sprays alone or mixed with organophosphate or pyrethroids for early-season Peach Twig Borer control. However, organophosphates are coming under increasing scrutiny of regulators who want them phased out. These sprays also have caused problems by disrupting beneficials and washing into waterways… “As a farmer I am concerned about what I use. I look for products that are not only effective, but safe on beneficials and do not harm bees.”
The grower was correct in that Dimilin is safe for adult bees, but it certainly isn’t for brood! In a 2001 review, Tasei concluded that:
Insect growth regulators, used for pest control management will cause no damage to adult honey bees and probably other adult pollinators, and can be considered as safer for foragers than second generation insecticides.
However, he also noted that:
This safety for pollinators is only apparent, since serious damage to brood has been reported in honey bees and bumble bees…Abnormal mortality in eggs, larvae or pupae and typical malformations have been observed in colonies after some IGR applications. These troubles were due to the properties of these products, which all interfere with embryo development and moulting process and which contaminate food resources collected (nectar and pollen) and stored in the colony by foragers. As a consequence, the effects of intoxication by IGRs are always delayed.
Additional recent research has confirmed that Dimilin can cause brood mortality in honey bees and bumblebees. So here we are—the growers are trying to use a more environmentally-friendly product, but due to circumstance and unfortunate timing, they might be hurting a specialized but important segment of the beekeeping industry.
Gettng Down to Details
So how much Dimilin is actually in the beebread? One queen breeder had several beebread samples analyzed in 2009, so I asked him for copies. There was only one sample with residues of Dimilin, but it was present at nearly 2000 ppb (Fig. 4)—a concentration at which larval mortality might realistically be expected.
COULD DIMILIN BE THE CULPRIT?
The symptoms that the queen producers reported were poor “take” of grafts, or that the queens would develop through the pupal stage, and then die as they were in the process of changing into adults. When the producers uncapped the cells of the dead queens, they would find white or colored pupae, or deformed adults. Pay attention, because this is where it gets really interesting!
Dimilin is a “chitin synthesis inhibitor,” meaning that it arrests the formation of an insect’s exoskeleton, a process that is critical as a pupa metamorphoses into an adult. This is what makes it more environmentally safe—it only kills developing insects, not the adults, or other forms of life (although it is extremely toxic to aquatic invertebrates).
KOCH’S FIRST POSTULATE—WAS DIMILIN ASSOCIATED WITH QUEEN FAILURES?
Breeder Ray Olivarez Jr. was curious as to how much Dimilin had been applied during bloom in the heart of queen country--Glenn County--so he paid for a detailed pesticide use report for Dimilin, from which I created the graph shown in Fig. 5.
So Dimilin was indeed applied during the years of queen failures—especially in 2009! Now jump ahead to 2012--of the 22 beebread samples taken last spring, 8 had residues of Dimilin, at maximum levels of 4000 ppb and average levels of 1600 ppb! These sporadic detections may explain why only a few breeders were seeing problems. The case against Dimilin is firming up!
KOCH’S THIRD POSTULATE—CAN DIMILIN EXPERIMENTALLY CAUSE THE OBSERVED SYMPTOMS?
But to clinch the case we need to see whether exposure to Dimilin will produce the same symptoms in queen cells that the producers observed. Thanks to my buddy Peter Borst, we were able to get our hands on a copy of an obscure article from a German beekeeping journal. In Germany Dimilin was used for a number of years to control gypsy moths in forests, with no reports of bee mortality. But in the early 1990’s a queen producer starting noticing unusual failure of queen cells after a neighboring fruit grower applied Dimilin. The beekeeper then collaborated with university researchers to test the effects of Dimilin upon the development of queen cells.
Three trials were carried out in free-flying cell builders in March and June, testing Dimilin at 4 concentrations, each applied in a droplet of water added to the jelly surrounding 3-day-old larvae. The addition of Dimilin clearly caused queen cell mortality, and followed a dose response curve. The photographs of the dead developing queens were strikingly similar to those reported by the California queen producers!
Unfortunately, due to the mode of application in the experiments, we can’t directly compare the concentrations used with those found in beebread in California. One curious observation, though, was that queen cell survivability was much better in the mid-June trial, suggesting that there may be a seasonal component to Dimilin toxicity to developing queens. The successfully-emerged queens were placed into nucs, and appeared to function normally. Note also that the larvae were only fed a single dose of Dimilin, which then had a greatly delayed affect upon their survival.
Now for an interesting twist. Dr. Reed Johnson decided to perform his first study as a newly-minted PhD on the effect of Pristine (not Dimilin—we’ve gone back to Pristine) on queen cells (to see whether he would independently replicate BASF’s results indicating that it was indeed safe).
He got funding from Project Apis m, and collaborated with Sue Cobey and the Koehnens to set up several “swarm box” cell builder colonies (no free flying bees) so that he could completely control their diet. He spiked pollen with Pristine for the test hives, and fed plain pollen to the negative control group (for details, see). And then as a positive control, he spiked pollen with an insecticide known to be toxic to brood. By stroke of luck, he chose to use an IGR--Dimilin (not yet knowing that Dimilin residues were later to be found in the samples taken from the queen breeders)! (If you’re getting lost, we’ve now got a researcher testing both the fungicide Pristine and the insect growth regulator Dimilin side by side).
Johnson presented his results far from the almond orchards--at the American Bee Research Conference in Hershey, PA. He confirmed the results of BASF’s tunnel trial that the fungicides in Pristine degrade rapidly in beebread, do not make it into the royal jelly, do not cause queen cell mortality, and do not affect the size of the resulting queens. Looks like Pristine is likely off the hook as far as the queen breeders are concerned!
As expected, the beebread spiked with the IGR Dimilin caused major queen larval and pupal mortality. But he had spiked at 100 ppm, which is equivalent to 100,000 ppb—far above the “field realistic” level. So Johnson plans to repeat the experiment this season at more realistic doses to see whether he can duplicate the exact symptoms of the failed queens as experienced by the breeders.
OTHER FACTORS TO CONSIDER
I spoke at length with Ray Olivarez Jr., who pointed out that some beekeepers in Texas also reported problems with rearing queen cells after returning from almonds. Ray notices that if there is a good pollen flow following almond bloom, that colonies may hold stored almond pollen in reserve—not digging into it until much later in the season (at times of dearth, when colonies may be nutritionally stressed). The implication is that pesticide residues in almond pollen could conceivably have greatly delayed effects upon brood or queen production (swarming or supersedure cells) much later in the season!
An even scarier finding came to light when I searched the literature for effects of IGR’s upon emerged queens and drones. Thompson found that these insecticides may cause reduced egg survivability, drone loss, and reduced egglaying by the queens. The authors also suggested that IGR’s had the potential of causing long-term effects:
However, even if only those bees reared within 2 weeks of the IGR being applied are subject to premature ageing, this might significantly reduce the size of over-wintering colonies, and increase the chance of the bee population dwindling and dying in late winter or early spring.
Lest I raise unwarranted alarm, I checked the database of pesticide residue detections in pollen by Mullin—the infrequent detections and low levels of residues of IGR’s suggest that beekeepers in general have better things to worry about. That is not to say that IGR’s couldn’t be a problem in certain areas!
HONEY BEES AREN’T THE ONLY BEES!
Beekeepers and almond growers may forget that there are also other species of bees involved in almond pollination. A recent study out of UC Davis [and worth reading] found that almond nut set was substantially better if other species of bees were present besides honey bees. The other bees apparently cause the hired honey bees to cross rows of trees and thus effect better cross pollination. Due to their life cycles, solitary- and bumblebees are much more likely to be susceptible to IGRs. Should the application of IGR’s prevent the native bees from successfully rearing reproductives, those species could quickly disappear from the orchard lands, to the detriment of the almond growers.
WHERE DOES THE INVESTIGATION STAND NOW?
The results of two recent experiments, one by the registrant, and one independent, both appear to exonerate Pristine as a direct suspect for queen cell mortality. However, we can’t ignore DeGrandi-Hoffman’s findings, especially since the symptoms of the dead queens that she observed were similar to those reported by the queen producers (dark, fully-formed adults dead in the cells). Her research certainly demonstrates the pesticides in the beebread can negatively affect the ability of a colony to rear queens. Of interest is that those effects appeared to be indirect—neither pesticide was detected in the royal jelly; the effects were perhaps due to the exposure of the nurses that fed the larvae their first meals of jelly.
However, due to her experimental design, it is difficult to interpret and directly apply her findings to the question of whether Pristine is directly responsible for queen cell losses:
1. She used two pollen sources composed of entirely different species of pollen (mixed natural desert flora vs. pesticide-contaminated almond).
2. She did not do a straight comparison of queen cell survival in which the presence of Pristine was the only variable.
3. The pollen of both of her treatment groups were contaminated with a high level of the organophosphate chlorpyrifos—at nearly 1000 ppb in the pollen and 310 ppb in the beebread. Such levels were not typical of the many beebread samples that I’ve seen from the queen producers (in which chlorpyrifos was seldom detected, and if so, at very low levels).
4. There is also the question as to whether the “dose” of Pristine that she used was “field realistic.”
And what were the actual field realistic residues of Pristine in Glenn County? In order to see, I looked at the five beebread samples analyzed in 2009—a year of high Pristine application (see Fig. 3). Four of the five contained boscalid (the “marker” active ingredient of Pristine)--at levels of 23, 33, 34, and 86 ppb. Of the 22 samples taken in 2012, the average level of boscalid was a considerably higher 264 ppb. But those levels were all much lower than the concentrations tested by DeGrandi-Hoffman (1835 ppb of boscalid in the pollen; 682 ppb in the beebread)).
So I’m not sure how to interpret her findings, other than concur with her conclusion that residues of Pristine may “amplify” the effects of chlorpyrifos.
In the two trials in which Pristine was tested alone, neither researcher used almond pollen, so any potential contributory effect of the almond phytotoxin amygdalin could not be accounted for (see my other article in this issue). In any case, BASF tested an even higher dose of Pristine than did Degrandi-Hoffman, but did not observe increased queen mortality.
And that level pales in comparison to the 100,000 ppb (in the pollen) used by Reed Johnson, at which he also observed no negative effects upon queens (again, without the presence of the additional organophosphate). These findings certainly suggest that Pristine alone is not to blame, and that the chlorpyrifos in DeGrandi-Hoffman’s pollen was more responsible for the cell mortality than was Pristine.
I’m sorry to be throwing so many numbers and chemical names at you, but this is the only way that we can find out which pesticides are actually causing problems, and which are benign. We beekeepers must continue to vigorously pursue the investigation until we nail the guilty party (or parties)! For that, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Tucson lab, Dr. Reed Johnson, BASF, and all the other parties involved.
So at this point we really can’t yet positively say what was to blame for the mysterious deaths of queen cells, although the case against Dimilin is certainly compelling. Reed Johnson may eventually demonstrate that it is indeed the IGR, or maybe not. The pesticide use reports suggest a few other potential suspects that have been applied in increased amounts in recent years, such as some of the fungicides. Or another IGR, Intrepid, which causes premature molting. Or perhaps the increased use of the organosilicone surfactants is allowing other pesticides to better penetrate the bees’ exoskeletons or guts. Or maybe there is some sort of synergy going on between the various pesticides. But we are on track to get to the root of this problem!
In the meantime, our Extension Apiculturist, Dr. Eric Mussen, wasted no time in getting the word out to the pest control advisers, most of whom seem to be willing to do what they can to keep from killing bees (not a bad idea, since the California almond growers spend some $200 million annually to rent live bees to pollinate their crop).
Although UC Davis pest management guidelines state that Dimilin can be applied as a bloom spray, they also state that it can be effectively applied prior to or after bloom. It would likely be in the best interests of almond growers to avoid spraying Dimilin during bloom for two reasons:
1. Any factor that hurts the honey bee industry will be reflected in the prices that growers are forced to pay for pollination, and
2. It appears that growers receive valuable service from native bees as well as honey bees, and should look to protect them as well!
Any beekeeper who runs bees to almonds and then raises queens afterward should be aware that in combs of stored almond pollen there may be pesticide residues that could affect queen cell development (as a personal note, for thirty years I’ve raised plenty of queen cells on almond pollen and have never noticed a problem).
Perhaps the most important thing to be learned from this story is that beekeepers shouldn’t be too quick to finger an “obvious” suspect. Based upon circumstantial evidence, we may have placed the blame on the wrong chemical! Although Pristine certainly appeared guilty, two studies have now confirmed that healthy queens can be reared on pollen containing Pristine at normal doses.
Practical application: The fact that we may have made a false accusation will not be lost upon the EPA, the pesticide companies, nor the growers--which should give us pause. We should take this as a sobering lesson for our industry to be careful about whom we blame for what!
As agriculture and the EPA move towards more environmentally-friendly pesticides, the Law of Unintended Consequences may come into play. It may be the case that in trying to replace the environmentally harmful oil/organophosphate dormant sprays in almonds, that the “reduced risk” IGR that are taking their place might cause the unintended consequence of affecting California’s queen producers. Note that even “natural and organic” pesticides have the potential to still cause problems for honey bees—for example, Thompson notes that one of the components of Neem oil can apparently cause delayed serious winter mortality. Any change in pesticide applications, even if for the better environmentally, means that there will be a new learning curve involved!
It’s also important to note that the California beekeepers were able to collaborate with the pesticide manufacturer, who voluntarily spent a great deal of money to work cooperatively with us to solve a problem. BASF has expressed their willingness to continue to work with us (I find that other manufacturers are also more than willing to work with beekeepers). Beekeepers, through Project Apis m, funded an exemplary study by Dr. Johnson, showing that we can fund our own research-- which could then be submitted to EPA to help with risk management decision making.
The case of the unexplained queen cell deaths is a real life whodunit. I hope that this article demonstrates the process, and the difficulties involved, in determining the actual cause of what appeared at first glance to be a simple pesticide issue. The story is not yet over. But we are learning a great deal as we try to solve the mystery!
Thanks to Peter Borst, Christof Schneider and Joe Wisk of BASF, Ray Olivarez Jr., Reed Johnson, and Eric Mussen for their help and comments.
a VanEngelsdorp, D, et al (2009). “Entombed Pollen”: A new condition in honey bee colonies associated with increased risk of colony mortality. Journal of Invertebrate Pathology 101: 147–149.
c Ciarlo TJ, et al (2012). Learning impairment in honey bees caused by agricultural spray adjuvants. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40848. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0040848
d Mullin CA, et al. (2010). High levels of miticides and agrochemicals in North American apiaries: implications for honey bee health. PLoS ONE 5(3): e9754. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0009754
1 Mussen, E (2008). Fungicides Toxic to Bees? http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/files/147900.pdf
2 Alarcón, R and G DeGrandi-Hoffman (2009). Fungicides can reduce, hinder pollination potential of honey bees. Western Farm Press March 7, 2009. http://westernfarmpress.com/fungicides-can-reduce-hinder-pollination-potential-honey-bees
5 DeGrandi-Hoffman, G, et al (2013). The effects of pesticides on queen rearing and virus titers in honey bees (Apis mellifera L.). Insects 4: 71-89. http://www.mdpi.com/2075-4450/4/1/71/pdf
7 Cline, H (2003). State recently approved for use in tree crops: Dimilin OK’d for PTB control. http://westernfarmpress.com/state-recently-approved-use-tree-crops-dimilin
8 Jean-Noël Tasei, J-N (2001). Effects of insect growth regulators on honey bees and non-Apis bees. A review. Apidologie 32: 527-545. (free access)
9 Thompson, HM, et al (2005). The effects of four insect growth-regulating (IGR) insecticides on honeybee (Apis mellifera L.) colony development, queen rearing and drone sperm production. Ecotoxicology 14(7):757-69.
Mommaerts, V, et al (2006) Hazards and uptake of chitin synthesis inhibitors in bumblebees Bombus terrestris. Pest Manag Sci.62(8):752-8.
10 Nitsch C, et al (1994). Effect of Dimilin on queen rearing, Dtsch. Bienen. J. 2, 16–19 (in German).
11 Johnson, R. & E. Percel (2013). The effects of the fungicide pristine on queen rearing. 2013 ABRC. Johnson fed pollen treated with four concentrations of Pristine (0.4, 4, 40 and 400 ppm), an organosilicone-containing spray adjuvant (Break-Thru, 200 ppm), the combination of Pristine and Break-Thru (400: 200 ppm), diflubenzuron (100 ppm) as a positive control or water as negative control.
12 Thompson, HM (2005). The effects of four insect growth-regulating (IGR) insecticides on honeybee (Apis mellifera L.) colony development, queen rearing and drone sperm production. Ecotoxicology, 14: 757–769.
13 Mullin CA, et al (2010). High levels of miticides and agrochemicals in North American apiaries: implications for honey bee health. PLoS ONE 5(3): e9754. http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0009754
14 Brittain C, et al (2013). Synergistic effects of non-Apis bees and honey bees for pollination services. Proc R Soc B 280: 20122767. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2012.2767
17 Op. cit.
February 2013 Cover Story
The Buzz Down Under-Aussie Beekeeping
by William Blomstedt
(excerpt)If you take any point in the continental US and dig a hole straight through the planet, you won’t end up, as they say, in China. Instead your tunnel will lead to the middle of the Indian Ocean, and a thousand-mile swim to the east will be Australia. Australia’s reputation probably precedes itself; we know about the kangaroo, the didgeridoo, the boomerang and Crocodile Dundee. Although a terrifying selection of poisonous snakes, centipedes and spiders live on the land, and sharks, stinging jellyfish and crocodiles crowd the waters, the Australian people have found a way to live amongst the danger in a sun-splashed beach culture. Flip flops and (short) shorts are a common sight and every week there seems to be a story about a deadly snake bite or a crocodile attack.
Despite Australia being so far away from the US, our shared mother country and comparable manner of life make the place seem as foreign as New England feels to California. For beekeeping it’s a similar story; both countries imported non-native honey bees and originally adopted a European style of beekeeping, both have large migratory commercial beekeeping outfits and a developed queen-rearing industry and both countries require many thousands of beehives for a pollination industry worth billions of dollars annually.
The geography of the countries is what creates their greatest differences. Though nearly the same size as the continental US, Australia only has 22 million inhabitants, making the population density roughly seven people per square mile (as opposed to 87 in the US). The majority of the Australians live along the southeast and southwest coasts, an area of temperate climate and moderately fertile soil. Surrounding these urban areas is a mix of forest and crops, but further inland the terrain changes into range for sheep and cattle, towns grow infrequent and soon the poor, infertile soils and erratic rainfall make an uninhabitable region known as “the Outback.” Though it is actually a range of complex environments, urban dwellers often refer to any remote area, which in Australia is over 70% of the country, with this term.
Honey bees (with Australians pronouncing bees as “baes,” like ‘a’ and ‘e’ have melded together) arrived to Australia around 1812 and were able to spread quite rapidly through the country due to abundant nectar resources and nesting sites. In the temperate regions, Australian beekeepers take advantage of the imported crops and weeds similar to ours, but also make honey runs into areas where native trees flower. At present there are 9600 registered beekeepers in Australia, with only 340 producing 60% of the honey crop. The east coast of Australia, which is main beekeeping area, has ~500,000 reported hives.
Allow me to generalize for a moment. The typical Australian beekeeper is a male over fifty years of age. He’s a solitary creature, with either a very understanding wife or a frustrated ex-wife, for he spends most of his time working. He is inventive, hardy and knows his own country and bees extraordinarily well. He’s often too busy to attend any club meeting, or think about the bigger industry picture, thus leaving those decisions to others. He has a mistrust for most authority and regulations are considered a burden. He’ll discuss bees and beekeeping until the sun has gone down and the fire has burned low.
It has been a turbulent decade for these Australian beekeepers, much of it colored by the El Nino-Southern Oscillation; a long, hard drought with the occasional yard-wiping flash flood. They have also seen the arrival of chalkbrood (2002) and the small hive beetle (also 2002), the latter of which effectively shut down the beekeepers based in the humid coastal areas. Both European and American Foulbrood are present throughout most of the country and when I asked if Australia experienced anything similar to CCD, I was told: “Yes, every year. It’s called Nosema.” Both Nosema apis and cerana are common, and because Australia restricts the use fumagillin to only queen producers, it is the cause of many sick or dead hives during the winter.
But then Australia does not have the tracheal mite, Tropilaelaps and then, the big one: no varroa. Australia is the only beekeeping nation in the world which has avoided the wrath of the varroa mite, taking a huge burden off both the bees and beekeeper. Most agree that this will not last, and when the mite does arrive, it will be an industry-shaking experience. A recent research project carried out jointly by the University of Sydney and the United States Department of Agricultural Research Service evaluated the responses of seven lines of Australian honey bees exposed to V. destructor as well as US Italians, Russians and Varroa Sensitive Hygienic bees. Four months after infection, 44% of the Australian and US Italian hives perished compared to 4% of Russian and 14% of Varroa Sensitive Hygienic bees.
January 2013 Cover Story
The Remarkable Honey Bee - A New Column
by Larry Connor
(excerpt)It is time to put the Traveling Beekeeper series on the shelf for awhile, and put more focus on the honey bee. We will report on future travel as it occurs, but for now we will launch into a new theme: The Remarkable Honey Bee.
Most beekeepers have a curious obsession with honey bees, and non-beekeepers are nearly always fascinated by the workings of this complicated insect. We will look at the biology and behavior of honey bees, how they came about, and, as best we can, explain how we learn about and from the bee.
Bee death has become an increased area of discussion since the introduction of parasitic mites in the 1980s. Within the past decade experiences with the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) significantly redirected and refocused beekeeper pursuit of knowledge of beekeeping biology. Detailed discussions about how bees die have given humans a better understanding about how bees live. There are three distinct death stories within in the colony—the worker, the drone and the queen—and there is a forth story about how the bee colony itself dies. Workers, drones and queens each have unique stories of their respective demise due to the very different roles these three distinct bees occupy within bee society. The social organism, the colony, has a birth, life and death all with different features and risks.
Brood Trimming Workers and Drones
It is often hard for humans to understand the significance—or insignificance—of one bee in a colony. All bees exist for the needs of the colony. The classic example is in the drone bees. Their production occurs only when the colony is in a growth period or something unusual is at work in the colony. Beekeepers report that they have seen drone brood—eggs and larvae—in their colonies, only to return to discover that they are missing. The most common explanation for this disappearance is that the colony has experienced a shortage of food. In that case, the worker bees have started the behavior of brood trimming. Worker bees start by removing and consuming the drone eggs in the colony. This continues to include small larvae, then large larvae, and may result in the removal of all drone brood from sealed cells. While these immature drones reflect a considerable investment by the bees—produced during a period of colony abundance—food shortage, cold weather, disease, pesticides and other factors may have changed the food budget for the colony so much that the drones are “trimmed”, a euphemism for killed and removed. The brood’s tender parts are eaten.
At the end of the season, or when there is a break in the incoming food supply, adult drones will be barred from reentry to the hive as they return from mating flights. They cower at the entrance of the colony, in a cluster, until they either fly away or die of exposure. Drones in the hive will likewise be expelled, physically pulled out of the colony, by much smaller but enormously determined workers.
Worker brood is subject to the same pressure of brood trimming, but only after the drones are removed. When all is going well with a colony—when there is plenty of food being brought into the hive and when there are plenty of nurse bees—trimming behavior is not expressed, but it is not uncommon to look at an area of drone brood and note a number of cells that have been emptied by the worker bees. I have observed conflicting bee instincts in a single colony of bees that, in May, had plenty of bees and had swarm cells under construction for the bees to create a new colony, yet, at the very same time, worker bees were removing sealed drone brood and carrying the pupae out of the hive. The colony was strong, and on a path toward colony rebirth through swarming, but a period of intense spring rain had reduced the incoming food supply. One force at work was the dilution of the queen’s odor, which stimulated and supported queen cell production: the large bee population combined with the congestion of the large worker bee population contributed to the swarming instinct, a queen pheromone-based behavior. Meanwhile, the hive demonstrated the conflicting second behavior of drone brood trimming. The removal of the drone brood was an immediate reflection of the shortage of food, even though the combs inside the hive were filled with pollen and nectar—it was only the incoming food supply had been severely reduced.
November 2012 Cover Story
Does This Help Save Our Honey Bees?
by Chappie McChesney
National Honey Bee Day has come and gone with a lot of new beekeepers in our ranks. That is a good thing. By holding these events around the country we share information with the public on what they can do to help save our honey bees and other pollinators in their own backyards.
Most have heard or seen the sensationalized headlines of “Killer Bees” attacking a horse or a dog and yes, even humans. Why did that happen? Mostly because the public has no idea of what to do if they encounter a nest of any stinging insect. If you come upon a rattlesnake and you hear the rattle, most would slowly retreat and get out of harm’s way. If you come upon a growling, snarling, barking dog, you get away as quickly as you could. When folks encounter a hive of bees, many times their curiosity gets the best of them and they want to see what the buzz is all about. It’s not a good idea to disturb a bee nest. European honey bees are very docile if left alone and will not attack unless they need to defend their nest from an intruder. Many attacks by bees could have been avoided by using a little common sense and education. If horses and dogs have a way of escape from stinging insects, they can usually flee and will be safe…the same with humans.
Beekeepers know how to work with honey bees and other stinging insects and should be the person you call when you discover bees on your property. Sadly, too many folks call the exterminator or the pest control operator (PCO). Why? Is the honey bee a pest? I guess you can see anything or anyone as a pest if you want to. Does this help save our honey bees?
I guess it depends on how you look at honey bees. If you appreciate the work they do for us with their pollination services; they are a necessity. Today they provide over $15 billion worth of pollination services for United States agriculture. We derive most of our produce from the work they perform for us. Without the honey bees our diets would be very bland as we would have mostly wind-pollinated crops to eat such as wheat, corn, or rice.
When I receive a call about unwanted bees, I check to see what kind of bees they are. If they are honey bees, I want to save them and will remove them for free. Some states frown upon beekeepers charging for removing bees safely. Why would any state get involved with what a beekeeper does? They claim it is a safety issue, but I believe it is mainly because the pest control operators have the money and the lobbying power to get laws passed to shut out anyone other than a pest control operator from removing bees. Some agree with this stance the government takes; I don’t. Does this help save our honey bees? Of course not. But honey bees have no say in who kills them or who can actually save them. They just go about doing what they are designed to do; pollinate crops and take care of their young. And don’t forget the wonderful honey they produce along the way.
Anyone with a grain of common sense can see that we need our pollinators if we want to continue to have the wide variety of grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and flowering plants and trees we all enjoy. But many can only see the dollar signs in their eyes and go after the fast buck no matter how much harm they do to our world. Does this help save our honey bees?