When Everything Looked Great*

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Oh the good times.. when the queen was laying and the worker bees were bringing in honey and pollen. Where did those times go? Okay, that is a bit dramatic. In reality, this summer has the potential to create some strong colonies and produce lots of sweet, sweet, honey.

*Over at the garden, we’ve already dealt with Spencer’s hive swarming. My hive has had a great start to the beekeeping season with a few issues along the way.

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All the rain we have been having has been great as the bees have been raking in the nectar and making honey.

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Before installing this hive, I converted my solid bottom board into a screened bottom board. This allows better airflow in the hive and also helps control varroa mites.  When the varroa mites fall off a bee, rather than climbing back up and into the brood chamber, they fall through the screen and out of the hive. Unfortunately, the screen mesh I installed was just big enough for bees to squeeze through when entering and exiting the hive. When they squeeze through, the mesh scrapes their pollen baskets and flicks the pollen granule to the floor. What you see in the photo above is a pile of pollen under the hive. There has been a lot of pollen this year and I know they have also brought pollen in from the front, so I am not too concerned.

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Bee pollen is actually a super nutrient. Some people take bee pollen as a natural energy supplement. It also has a very interesting taste and texture. The bees won’t recollect the pollen once it has fallen on the ground. Rather than let this pollen go to waste, I collected most of it and put it in a jar in my fridge that I snack on from time to time. Just another delicious byproduct of beekeeping.

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Here is a great example of a good laying pattern.  You can see a little white rice-shaped egg in each empty cell. When a healthy queen is laying properly, the pattern is densely clustered, with one egg per cell.

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The egg develops into a larvae and eventually capped with wax. The capped larvae is the final stage of brood before hatching into a baby bee. Again this is a very dense pattern, which is great.

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Honey is also capped with wax. After the bees bring in nectar, they wait until they have the right level of moisture in the cells before capping it off, which is when it is officially considered honey.

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With a hive is thriving and doing great with resources, it is only natural that the bees start to consider swarming.  Here are two queen cups the bees have created in preparation to swarm. Looks like I will have some work ahead of me.

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A sad day to be a beekeeper :(

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I regret to share with you that I have lost my honeybee colony. Deceased. Not only did my hive die, but both of Mike’s hives did as well. We knew it would be a tough winter after such a poor summer last year, but we did not expect to lose all 3 hives.

It was warm enough today to peak inside the hive and lay a pollen patty on top. Pollen patties supplement the bees’ diet with proteins that plumpen them up and stimulate brood rearing. This would have helped them have a strong start to the spring. Given that we have some warm weather ahead of us, upwards of 55 degrees, now is the time for pollen patties.

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We started with Mike’s small hive and quickly noticed zero activity. It was quite a shocker, to be honest. I felt my heart sink to my stomach. For some reason, in my mind I had told myself that all three hives would survive.

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We had the roof shingles attached to the sides as insulation, so we couldn’t immediately go down through the hive. So it was onwards to the next hive- my hive. At this point, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I removed the bricks and lifted away the telescoping cover to reveal the inner cover which has a small opening in the middle. Again, instantly zero activity.  As I cracked open the inner cover, I saw a couple bees frozen in place, as if I hit pause on a video.

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As I peered down between the frames it was clear to me that everything was lost. I pinpointed the cluster of bees and where they met their end.

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I pulled out a couple of frames and found some bees head first in the cell. Their final attempt to stay warm.

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We moved on to Mike’s other hive and it was the same story. All were dead. This is the only one of the 3 hives that had made it through the winter last year. It was the most promising.

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Here are some of the frames as we pulled them and cleaned the dead bees out. You can see there is still a good amount of capped honey in these frames. We fully disassembled the hives for cleaning and then put them back together for storage. A sad sight.

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Why did they die?

We can’t be certain why they died, but we do know a number of contributing factors.

Varroa Mites – This is probably the main cause. Varroa mites are external honeybee parasites that feed on the bees. They weaken and shorten the life span of the bee from which they feed. We found a lot of mites in the piles of dead bees. There tends to be a certain level of mite infestation in most colonies. Some people use chemicals to treat for them or alternative methods to encourage hygienic behavior among the bees. Looking back, we could done more to manage the mites.

Low Population – Ultimately, the mites lower the population of the bees going into winter. Whether or not the low population was because of the mites, it means there are fewer bees to cluster and keep warm, leaving them more susceptible to cold temperatures.

Freezing Temperatures – A strong colony of bees can survive in temperatures down to -30 degrees F, provided they are protected from the wind, have proper ventilation, and have a strong population to keep warm. In our case, the low population ultimately caused them to freeze and shut down indefinitely.

One of our biggest fear going into the winter was that they would not have enough food to make it to the spring. The bees must have died in January or February because there was still a lot of honey in the hive. I probably have a good 20-30 pounds in there.

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You can see here among the beeswax and pollen, a good number of varroa mites. They are the small elliptical-shaped black dots. The number of them here in relation to the number of dead bees is high. This indicates we had quite an infestation.

What happens next?

Well, it’s time to suck it up and move on. It’s time to order another package of bees. A package of bees will run me anywhere from $75 to $100. This is assuming there are still packages available for sale. March is pretty late to be ordering packages. I will have to call on Monday to a few places and see if they have any available for April pick-up.

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I do plan on taking some of the honey my bees left behind. I will probably take 2 or 3 frames worth of honey, which will be a few jars. I am going to save the rest and use it to hopefully jump start my next package of bees, giving them a strong start to the season and strong colony by next winter to make it through to the following year.

Also, I will end this with some exciting news. I am going to be starting a beehive at the Met West Community Garden in East Village. I have already ordered my package of bees for that. So there will definitely be bees in my life in 2013. During the summer I am going to invite members of the community garden to join me on inspections and hold educational sessions on honeybees.

Another thing I am planning to do in a couple months is try to catch a swarm of bees. This will be an adventure and merits a blog post on its own. Mike will not be ordering a package of bees and will be depending on catching a swarm, which will be tricky.

My Bugs Have Bugs

More appropriately, my bees have mites.. varroa mites that is. I found this out after Mike was browsing my blog and sent me an email after seeing multiple photos with mites on the abdomens of a couple bees.  He tells me though that mites are common in many hives.  There’s a good chance my bees can manage the mites themselves without me taking any action.  I definitely prefer to to stay chemical-free and treat them only if necessary.

Here is an image of the mites CAUGHT IN ACTION crawling across a brood cell in my hive.

What do the mites do?
When trying to understand mites, one might compare them to ticks.  Basically, they suck on the bees.  This makes them more susceptible to disease. As the mites get into the hive, they hide in the brood cells, sometimes more than one mite in a cell.  The basically lay their eggs in there and when the bee hatches, the mites hatch as well.  The mites prefer drone cells because the drones are larger and thus mean more bee for the mites to prey on.

Where did the mites come from?
My mites came with the bees when I ordered them and I just haven’t noticed them until now. I got my bee package from Apple Blossoms Farm in Indiana.  Luckily, I found out my queen is a Minnesota Hygenic Queen, which means her and her offspring do fairly wellwith control mites and disease.

What can I do to treat or prevent mites?
It is possible to treat the mites with various chemicals or essential oil alternatives.  One chemical-free method that is fairly common is to sprinkle powdered sugar on the bees in masses.  This is safe for bees and causes them to clean themselves. In the process of picking the sugar off their backs, they pick the mites off as well.

Before taking these measures, what I did is replace my bottom board with a screened bottom board.  Essentially, instead of having a wooden board at the bottom, there is a screen.  When the mites fall from the bees, they fall through the screen and out of the hive. Otherwise, the mites would have the opportunity to crawl back up and into the frames.  The screened bottom board also provides adequate ventilation, especially once we get into these hotter summer months.  Come winter time, I may need reduce the amount of air that comes in.