Saturday, October 24, 2009

Wet and Warm...

The weather has been chilly for the past couple of weeks, but Saturday was a surprisingly warm day. It was about 68 degrees, and the rain which had been falling the past day or so stopped. So it was a moist but warm time, and the bees took advantage of the warmth to go out foraging:

I don't see them bringing back any pollen, because I think the frost killed off all of the flowers. I put 3 jars of syrup on each hive last week, and have a pollen patty on top of the top bars. I see a lot of bees clustering at the upper entrance:

I suspect they are using it to get to the pollen, and maybe the syrup. I don't see any agitation, so there doesn't appear to be robbing going on.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Scientific Side of Bees

Last Saturday was a special meeting of the Worcester County Beekeeper Association and the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association. A couple of prominent bee scientists came to town to give presentations on beekeeping topics. I'll give a synopsis of the day, with some pictures.

At the start of the meeting some danish was served for breakfast. Beekeepers like to eat!

The meeting was well attended - there were about 200 people according to a rough count.

Dr. Marla Spivak from the University of Minnesota was the first to speak. She spoke on "Propolis and Bee Health." Propolis is the gummy tree resin bees collect and bring in to the hive. In a natural hive, they basically encapsulate the inside of the hive. In Langstroth hives (which beekeepers use) the propolis gums up the frames something fierce, and beekeepers hate it. But it turns out propolis may have a health benefit for the hive's "social health." Her research is still ongoing. More Q&A with Dr. Spivak is here.

Then Dr. Heather Mattila from Wellesley College here in MA spoke on "Genetic Diversity, Dancing and Foraging of the Honey Bee." Queen Bees mate with multiple (6-20) males (called "polyandry") which gives the hive a diverse genetic makeup. She did some experiments with hives made up of a single genetic line (using artificial insemination from a single male) as well as multiple genetic lines (inseminated by 15 males). Her research shows that hives with a diverse genetic makeup are superior in many ways (foraging, etc.) so it's a benefit for the queen to be promiscuous (you can read a short article about her research on this here).

Ken Warchol then gave an update on the Worcester Bee Research Project. Beekeepers in the area have expressed concern about the USDA’s use of imidacloprid to kill the invasive, tree-killing Asian longhorned beetle first discovered in the Worcester area last year. Combined with infested tree removal, officials plan to inject the chemical into potential host trees over three-year cycles to kill off the beetle in the area.

Ken will be monitoring about 50 hives throughout the area to see the impact of the pesticide on bees. Obviously it's a bad thing if the bees are impacted by the pesticide. Here is an article from the Worcester Telegram on this issue.

(sorry for the blurry pictures - all I had was my point-and-shoot digital camera)

After lunch, Dr. Spivak again took the mic and gave a presentation on "A New Novel Way to Monitor Varroa Mites." She showed how to accurately sample your bees to see the mite level of the hive, so you can decide how and when to treat for the mites. The process is described here.

Then Dr. Mattila gave a presentation on "Life Inside a Swarm." She showed what happens when a beehive decides it needs to execute a swarming activity. It was an interesting study on the group dynamics of tens of thousands of bees, and how they decide what they decide.

Overall it was very enjoyable conference. Dr. Spivak is a highly sought-after speaker, due to her prominence with the Minnesota Hygienic bee line. It took 3 years of scheduling to get her here. The presentations weren't too scientific, and from my observations, didn't go over everyone's head. As an engineer myself, I am fascinated at how much of Beekeeping is "art" - people with opinions on what is works and what doesn't. There is a joke that if you ask 5 beekeepers a question, you'll get 10 answers. That's true in a lot of ways. But both of these women have done a good job of applying scientific methods to the bees. Bees aren't the easiest creatures to study, because they won't do exactly what you want. But there are tricks you can do to get the answers you want.

I had to laugh at the end, when as a thank-you gift Ken gave each of the presenters a jar of club Honey. I could imagine them thinking to themselves, "Gee, just what I need - another jar of honey!"

I had a followup e-mail conversation with Dr. Mattila and she mentioned that she feels like she has a foot in 2 different worlds, as a beekeeper and as a scientist.

By the way, you can also read about the meeting at my friend Michelle's Blog (she is a fellow beekeeper in the club).

A Quick Check...

The weather was great today, and heavy rains are planned for the weekend. So I took advantage of the evening light to do a quick check of the hives.

It's been about 3 weeks since I put on the Formic Acid pads, and it was time to take them off. So I suited up and fired up the smoker a little (not too much - it was a quick check after all).

The green hive hadn't taken any syrup over the past week. I thought that it was strange, but when I lifted off the upside-down bottle I found out why - the small holes were apparently clogged (probably with sugar crystals). I didn't have enough either - only 4. The brown hive had almost emptied their bottle.

I found that the bees had added propolis along the underside of the pads, plugging up the holes. I guess they really didn't like the smell! They also didn't eat much of the pollen patty. I suspect that it was because of the odor of the pad - they were staying away. I added another pollen patty to both hives; we'll see what they do this next week.

I took the opportunity this evening to cook up a batch of 2:1 sugar syrup, and added some Fumigilin-B medication (to treat for / prevent Nosema). I needed a better set of feeding jars, so I bought a 12-pack of quart canning jars. Since I had bad luck with the metal bands and lids, I found a set of replacement plastic lids which fit the jars. I could have chosen a larger jar (and thus have to add syrup less often), but I liked having to only use one super to surround the jar. I figured I can fit 3 jars per hive along a long set of riser sticks I cut. Here is a picture of 6 jars ready for feeding. The lids have small holes drilled in them (if you can see them):

I should note that most people would be showing jars of honey produced by the hive, but alas, such is not the case for mine...

I'll probably put the jars on tomorrow morning after they have cooled.

Friday, October 16, 2009


No, this isn't a picture of my beehives! We had about 1/2" of snow overnight, and by mid-day it had all melted. But it is a sign that we are heading into winter.

I decided to do a little maintenance on the hives this afternoon. One good thing about the cool/cold weather is that the bees aren't out and about, and they don't bother me while I work around the hive.

I bought some styrofoam insulation (a sheet about 3/4" thick) and cut some pieces to fit under the screened bottom board of my hives. This'll cut down on the drafts coming up the bottom. Here's a picture of the insulation:

I checked the syrup feeders, and the one on the green hive was empty. I filled it back up, and the bees should be able to get to it once the weather warms up a little.

When I checked the brown hive, I found this visitor:

Mr. Spider, meet Mr. Hive Tool! Notice that there is a poor bee caught in the web.

I also tilted up the hives a little (wedged a stick under the back end) to cause any moisture condensation to go to the front edge of the hive, and not drip down on the bees. While I was lifting them up, I felt that the green hive was a lot lighter than the brown hive. This is consistent with the fact the green hive is newer than the brown hive. So I'll feed and feed and feed!

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I've been treating the hives with some medication for a couple of weeks now, specifically to combat the Varroa Mite and Tracheal Mite. You'll recall that these mites can weaken a beehive to the point where it can't survive, especially the winter. Now that fall is here, some beekeepers treat with medication (others do more natural treatments, like sugar shakes, while others don't do any treatments at all).

[It's interesting to note that these pests are relatively recent to the U.S. The Varroa Mite arrived around 1987, and the Tracheal Mites in 1984. See here for more information.]

I wanted to see how effective the treatments are, so I performed a "mite drop test." I have a couple of sheets of corrugated plastic board, and I sprayed them with aerosol cooking spray (to make the surface sticky). Then I placed the boards under the screened bottom board of each hive last Sunday. Tonight I removed them for examination.

Wow - there were lots of mites on the boards! Here are the pictures - the first is from the brown hive, the second from the green hive (click for larger).

The small brown dots are mites. You'll note that the brown hive had more mites than the green one (the picture at the top is a closeup from the brown hive's board). I attribute this to the fact that the brown hive is older, and has a larger population. In any case, the medications appear to be working. Next weekend I'll take off the Formic Acid pad, and the Apistan strips come out a few weeks after that. This weekend I'll also start feeding the Fumigilin-B which treats for Nosema.

As an aside, this weekend is a special meeting of the Worcester County Beekeeper Association. It's the Mass Bee Fall Meeting and Honey Show hosted by WCBA, and is an all-day meeting. One of the speakers will be Dr. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota. Dr. Spivak is one of the world's leading experts on bee hygienics, or the feature of bees being able to keep their hives free(er) of disease and pests.

Oh, and it snowed today; go figure...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pleasant Afternoon

Yesterday we had very harsh rains. Obviously the bees stayed in. Today was clear and the weather was in the 70's at the high. Around 2 in the afternoon, I looked out and saw a lot of activity in front of the green hive. The new bees were doing their orientation flights, just lazily hovering in front of the hive. Very serene! The picture doesn't do it justice...

Friday, October 2, 2009

Inspection 10-2-09

It's been a while since I last inspected the beehives (back on 9/13 to be exact - almost 3 weeks). One of those weekends was taken up by a bee club meeting. The other weekends had really lousy weather, and I didn't feel like bothering the hives.

I had a middle-of-the-day meeting at my son's school today, so I worked from home. The weather was nice (mid 50's) and the sun was shining, so I decided to do an inspection this afternoon.

Since the last time, I ordered and received some medications to help the bees make it through the winter. There is a Apistan for the Varroa mites, and Formic Acid pads for the tracheal mites. I also got some medicine for the Nosema parasite, and I will mix that in with some sugar syrup to feed them this month.

The weather has been chilly most of the last couple of weeks - we went right into fall head first. So the bees will be starting their winter preparations. They will eventually begin to "cluster" which means keep together in a group in the hive for warmth. They move down to the bottom chamber, and during the winter, they literally eat their way upward (consuming honey as they go). So it is important that they have honey accessible.

I started with the green hive, which seems to be the gentler of the two hives. Today was no exception - no problems taking apart the hive. Since that hive started August 1, they aren't as large as the brown hive.

This picture shows the Apistan strips inserted in between the frames:

You can see the tops of the strips (twisted over to keep the strips from falling down). As the bees move around, the miticide rubs off onto the bees, and it kills any mites. Over time, the pesticide makes its way to all the bees. You have to remove the strips at 6 weeks, otherwise the mites can build up a resistance.

I also put a Formic Acid pad on the hive:

It sits on a couple of sticks so the bees still have access to the tops of the frames. You add a small spacer (shown above as the unfinished wood frame on top - I built those myself) so things don't get crushed. The pad stays on for 3 weeks, and the heat from the sun and from the hive vaporizes the formic acid, which kills the tracheal mites.

I didn't go too deep in the hive. I pulled out a frame and saw capped brood, so I left things alone.

Then I moved on to the brown hive. That hive is in a lot worse shape than the green hive, since early on the bees were very uneven in how they built up the comb. I pulled out an end frame, and it was full of honey and the top of the honey was too tall that it scraped open when I removed the frame. The bees went a little crazy (as they do when there is exposed honey), so I quickly put the medicines on and closed up the hive. The guard bees were giving me a hassle also.

I refilled the feeder jars with 2:1 sugar syrup to feed the bees in both hives. I have about another 2 quarts of the regular syrup to go, then I'll mix up a couple of gallons of 2:1 and put in the Nosema medicine. Then I'll keep feeding until it gets too cold to take syrup.

I'm not sure what I am going to do for the brown hive, to help correct some of the problems in it. I hope that when spring comes, and they have emptied out most of the honey, I can swap out some frames to try to even things up. I also have a frame in that hive where a piece of the wood split off, so that it doesn't stay separated from the next frame, and can be squeezed over too close. I have to keep an eye on that frame when I push the frames together, to keep it from getting too close. So we'll see next year if I can swap out some frames.

So finally, here's what the hives look like, and this will probably be the winter configuration:

I still need to put in a mouse guard over the entrance, and probably put some styrofoam insulation under the hive (blocking the screens on the bottom boards to keep the drafts out) and maybe some inside the inner cover. People have varying opinions on whether that is good or bad - we'll see.
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