Friday, September 26, 2014


I read blogs by beeks like my friend over at August Cottage Apiary battling mice, but honestly, it's not something I thought I'd have to deal with. After all, there is a hawk who lives in my yard, and I see her/him regularly swooping down to pick off chipmunks and other small rodents. That is, I never thought I'd have to deal with it until today.

This afternoon, I noticed a lot of bees nosing around my empty Warre. I thought they might be scout bees from an autumn swarm, so I opened up the hive to add some lemongrass oil as bait. However, this is what I found.  

It's hard to see in this photo, but the nest is quite
beautifully constructed. The moss is so green and soft.
I'd love for her to make me a bed.

Doesn't that nest look cozy?

Protecting her pups. Such a good mama.

We opened up the hive several times (each time that someone came home from school/work). By the fourth time, mama and papa didn't even bother leaving the nest. Apparently, we weren't much of a threat.

Naturally, they can't stay in the hive, but I haven't the heart to kill them either. I mean, look at them! How adorable is that litter? 

Cuteness factor 9,001, says my son

I've been formulating plans all day, and I think I've finally settled on a plan of action. Tomorrow, I'll make a box out of scrap wood, which I'll place inside the hive. I'll move the nest into it, and once mama and papa have settled into the new box, I'll move it out of the hive. Sounds nice and simple to me. Fingers crossed, my squatters will be relocated by Monday.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Barely Cohesive Ramblings about Treatment-Free Beekeeping

If you haven't guessed by now, I started off with a pretty hippie-leaning attitude toward beekeeping. Now that two seasons have gone by, I can say that my overall approach has been refined and aligned with "treatment-free beekeeping." Essentially, this philosophy boils down to not adding any chemicals to the hive in an effort to preserve its ecosystem. The colony, as a superorganism, is teeming with thousands of different bacteria and fungi that are necessary to the bees' health. For example, bees use pollen to make fermented bee bread that they feed to their babies. Fungi is essential to the fermentation process. Using chemicals in the hive, whether they are treatments for mites (i.e., pesticides) or antibiotics for disease, throws off the delicate balance that exists.

What about "natural" treatments?
For example, some beeks use essential oils to treat hives.  Last year, my first season, I got some Honey-Bee Healthy at the advice of another beek. This is basically a sugar syrup that contains essential oils from lemongrass and mint. However, this year, I only  broke it out twice, once when installing packages and once when combining hives because I wanted to mask the different colonies' odors. Over two years, my thinking has evolved, and the conclusion I've come to is that in beekeeping, "natural" does not equate to the same thing as "occurring in nature." Let me 'splain (in my best Ricky Ricardo voice). Yes, essential oils are natural substances produced by plants. However, in nature, they do not occur in the highly concentrated forms that beekeepers use them.

Essential oils are something plants produce as a defense mechanism against insects that eat them. Putting unnaturally huge, concentrated doses of these oils into a colony of insects... well, it just doesn't make sense to me. Many essential oils also have anti-microbial properties which can upset the balance of bacteria and fungi in the hive. Plus, odiferous oils mask the pheromones bees use to communicate, so again, that's not something I normally want (though there are exceptions, like when I'm combining hives).

For the same reason, I rarely use smoke. I'm not against smoking bees (you know what I mean, blowing smoke on them, not stuffing them into a pipe) because I've found it very useful on several occasions, However, unless I'm in a bad way, I skip it. I'd rather have the bees able to communicate. Plus, listening to their noises also tells me a lot -- like for starters, when it's time to close up the hive.

What about dusting with powdered sugar? 
Powdered sugar is a common treatment that manipulates bees to pick mites off. A real treatment-free (TF) beek will tell you that this is a no-no because in addition to contaminating honey with sugar, it presents another form of interference. A hard-core TF beek will let bees that can't handle the mites die off because interference only postpones the day when we have actual mite-resistant bees. It's better to bite the bullet and take our losses now so that in the end, we have survivor bees that can take care of themselves.

As an aside, my first-year colony (purchased from a treatment-free beek) had a ton of mites. I never did a mite count, but the buggers were everywhere. I never dusted or treated them. Still, they were robust and healthy and went into winter with all their mites. In the end, parasites did not kill them; starvation & possibly lack of a queen did. Unfortunately, they were attacked by a bear three times in November, and even though I tried putting the hive back together, I did a crap job. They were still alive in February, but they just couldn't break cluster to move the the next honey-filled comb.

I guess this experience of seeing bees that can survive and thrive despite mite infestations really gave me confidence in the remarkable adaptability of bees.

How about monitoring?
You might be asking yourself why I bothered to post about powdered sugar rolls if I don't actually believe in treatment. The truth is that I'm on the fence when it comes to monitoring. Some TF followers don't see the point of monitoring if there is no intention to do anything about it. I can concede to that point of view because there is no sense in doing pointless work. However, other people feel that monitoring provides valuable information that can be used to gain a wider insight about bees, mites, overall health, habits, etc. Being somewhat naturally curious, I can totally get on board with that, too.

Even though I've never actually performed mite counts, I could see it being a cool science-fair project with my kids someday (always looking for those). If I decided to monitor, though, I'd have to make up my mind beforehand regarding my goals (which would be collecting data only) so that I wouldn't freak out if I saw any undesirable test results. (I have a low freak-out bar.) Michael Bush commented on a thread in BeeSource, and he sums up how I feel pretty well:

I did monitor for several years and I agree you may learn something in the process. If I had the time I would love to monitor what infestation levels are on small cell worker larvae and drone over the course of the year. In my experience often a colony would get bad before it got better. The numbers would go up and this would seem to motivate the bees in some way and then the numbers would go down. If you don't let the mites get bad this doesn't happen. Obsessing over counts can easily lead you down the wrong road and cause you to intervene when things were on the verge of resolving themselves...
Fetal monitors have become a "necessity" in labor rooms around the US. The mortality of babies in childbirth has not improved. The number of C Sections has skyrocketed... people often have too much information. "Blink" is a good book on the phenomena of too much information leading to bad decisions...

Do treatment-free beeks feed?
Generally, no. Bees are supposed to eat honey and not sugar. For the most part, feeding is done for reasons such as stimulating brood production, providing a substitute for honey that has been harvested, and administering chemical treatments (whether natural or unnatural), All of these reasons go against the grain of TF beekeeping.

An exception to the rule is preventing starvation. This is a great reason to feed. Even the best of bees can't control flows and dearths. Then again, there are those hard-core beeks...

You use "bee tea" in your syrup. What's up with that?
I'm a self-admitted proponent of bee tea . I don't know how a hard-core TF beek would feel about that, but I rationalize it to myself by saying that it provides essential micro-nutrients from plants that plain ol' sugar syrup lacks. Additionally, I've watched bees choose some of the nastiest puddles for collecting water. The lovely, clean bee waterer I've set up will go virtually unnoticed while they sip from brown puddles, full of leaves and organic debris. (Sounds kind of like bee tea, right?) They will go for the wet ground around the compost pile. They even like scummy water from buckets that haven't been emptied in weeks. I've also read accounts of bee-hunters using hollowed out pieces of wood filled with salt water to attract bees, so I'm thinking that bees probably actively search for micro-nutrients.

What if I go treatment-free and all my bees crash?
In the various forums and clubs I belong to, I hear about people who have bees that are used to living with treatments. They try going treatment-free, and all of a sudden, their bees are succumbing to every known disease and parasite. The problem is that most treatments create a vicious cycle. The treatment alleviates the problem for awhile, but then it creates treatment-resistant diseases and pests. These have to be treated with harsher chemicals, and so on.

I heard about one beek who went treatment-free, and in the first year, lost something like 70%  - 80% of his hives. However, the good news is that the bees that didn't die off were survivors and bred more survivors. After years of being treatment-free, I think he still loses about 20% of his bees over the winter. Not great, but certainly manageable.

However, even if one loses a bunch of hives (probably easier for a hobbyist than some one who makes a living keeping bees), one needs to start somewhere. Better now than later.I suppose an alternative would be to simply re-queen with a TF queen during the spring or summer. That way, they have a chance to build up TF brood before winter.

Of course, if one is just starting off and doesn't yet have bees, I would recommend getting bees from a local beekeeper with treatment-free bees. Local is important because those bees will be adapted to conditions in your area. Getting treatment-free bees puts you just that much ahead of the game since you won't be starting from scratch. (Naturally, if you can catch a swarm or get wild bees from a cut-out, that's even better, but in my area, there don't seem to be too many of those.)

More info on treatment-free beekeeping
There is an excellent Google-talk by treatment-free beekeeper Dean Stiglitz, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, from Golden Rule Honey. He discusses what it is and why it's important to the future of sustainable beekeeping. If you want to learn more about it, that's a good place to start. There are more videos on YouTube and also forums for treatment-free beekeeping at,, and on Facebook.

Finally, someone in a forum I belong to commented. I really liked this comment, because it sums up my goal so well:
The fundamental difference with TF is that we are not trying to keep bees alive. We are trying to multiply living bees. Do not sprinkle them when [sic] anything. First of all, it doesn't work, surveys show that. Secondly, any treatment that does work does the multiplying for you, giving you (and the rest of the world) bees that cannot survive in the given conditions. Treated bees are unfit bees! Instead, learn methods of expansion, splitting, queen rearing, nucs, etc. Multiply your living bees. Forget trying to keep them alive. That's not treatment-free beekeeping.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Problem with being a Beekeeper...

... is that I now notice stuff like this, whereas I didn't before.

Item for sale on Etsy

You see it, right?

I know I have an unhealthy tendency to obsess over details, but these kinds of things drive me bonkers now.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Counting Mites Using a Powdered Sugar Roll

Lots of folks have been asking me whether I've done a mite count this year. The answer is no. Because I split my colonies, they all got a brood break. They also stopped producing drones in late July (which means they were hungry :( ). Therefore, the likelihood of having a mite infestation is pretty low. Indeed, while I'm sure there are probably mites in the hives, I haven't seen a single one this year. As a result, I haven't felt a mite count has been warranted.

However, I recently found some terrific instructions for doing a powdered sugar roll which I thought I'd share. These instructions are part of an informational poster produced by Gary S. Reuter and Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota, which you can download in pdf format.

Yes, the instructions are illegible in this image. Download the pdf for a readable copy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tips for Combining Hives

Because I just had to combine top bar hives, I thought I'd come up with a post describing how I did it.

When combining Langs, most people will tell you to do a newspaper combine. During a newspaper combine, basically, the queen in the weak hive is removed. Newspaper is placed on top of the strong hive. Then the weak hive is placed on top of the paper. The bees from both colonies will chew through the newspaper, but the paper separates them just long enough to adjust to each other's scent.

When combining TBHs, it's a little harder to work with newspaper because it's difficult to get a tight fit. Some people, use tape to fasten the paper to the walls. Some people make a frame that is the same size as their divider board but with a paper-covered hole in the middle. The frame can be made of wood or cardboard.

Personally, I didn't do any of this.

Over the summer, I've moved bars of bees from one hive to another and always had positive results. So I asked on BeeSource whether anyone had ever tried using just powdered sugar during a combine and what their results were. Several people provided tips that did not involve messing around with newspaper. I figured Michael Bush must know what he's talking about, so I heeded his advice and put down the paper. For anyone who is interested, here are the tips I picked up.
  1. Remove the queen from the weak hive then wait 20 minutes before combining hives.
  2. When combining, do something to mask the differing scents of the two hives. Two methods that seem to work include: 1) Heavily smoking all the bees 2) Spraying the bees with sugar syrup that contains essential oils. I would recommend using anise oil or something like Honey-B-Healthy. (Note: Some people claim that this step isn't necessary -- that the idea of the bees fighting is an old wives tale. However, I figure better safe than sorry.)
  3. When adding comb from the old hive, put it at the end of the last full comb of the new hive. The last comb in your new hive might have brood or it might be a comb in the honey area. Doesn't matter which. 
  4. When adding combs from the weak hive, add them so that they are in the same order. 
A couple of other things. Once I was done moving the comb, I was left with a box of bees. Because TBHs are so bulky, I couldn't shake them into the new hive very easily, so I sprayed them all with syrup then tipped them out onto the ground as best as I could. I suppose I didn't need to spray them, but I figured that being covered in sugar might help them beg their way into the new hive. I don't know, it was just an impulse on my part.

I also moved/dismantled the old hive so that any returning foragers would have to join the surrounding hives. I'll put it back after the the bees have all re-oriented to their new homes.

I can't tell you if I did things right or wrong, but it worked out, so I figured I'd share. 

If you've ever combined TBH's, what did you do? How did things turn out for you?

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Swarm in July

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July isn't worth a fly. 
 -- Old English saying
There are a number of variants to the saying above, bu all the variants are clear. May and June swarms = good. July swarm = not good.

Lucky me, my hives started swarming in July. BTW, one variant of the saying is "A swarm of bees in July, let them fly,"  but I can't do that.  That's how I ended up going from 2 colonies to 5 in a span of about 4 weeks. All five are pretty small, though, because of their late start, which began just before our summer dearth. One of them is doing quite well, though. Three are acceptable. The last one, Hippolyte, was (more on that past tense in a minute) performing miserably.

Last week, I started feeding Hippolyte extra syrup hoping she'd rally, but after a week, she actually looked worse. Her numbers were even lower than before. No stores to speak of. I didn't see any chewed comb, but I have a feeling she was being robbed before she could even cap any honey/syrup. Why? If you've been following my blog, you know that I started dyeing the sugar syrup I feed the bees to see how it gets used. Well, I started seeing a little bit of red syrup in Peach, and that's the one colony that I haven't fed at all, so I know those naughty girls have been robbing someone. Also, I saw a few holes in the bottom of Hippolyte, and bees were passing through it. A few were being mobbed on their way in, so I put 2 and 2 together.

With nighttime temperatures down into the 40's now, I decided I really couldn't wait much longer for Hippolyte to pick up steam. I had to pull the plug on her.

Tuesday morning, my DH asked what I was going to do with the queen, and when I told him, he remarked, "Wow, when you have livestock, you have to be a little ruthless."

Queen Hippolyte's last moment.
I feel so sad seeing her babies gathered around her.
Ugh. I justified my need to pinch the queen -- I had two choices. Option 1: She died, and the rest of the colony got combined with a stronger one. Option 2: She died along with all of her children.

Rationally, I know Option 1 is the kindest choice, but I was still miserable about it. Not having the courage to whack her immediately, I committed high treason against her majesty in the most cowardly manner possible -- I popped her into a small plastic container and then stuck her in the freezer. Hopefully, the cold lulled her to sleep before she died. However, to add insult to injury, I will probably use her as swarm bait for my empty Warre next year. Ok, that really is ruthless.

Within minutes of removing her from the hive, her babies began making the most horrible din. They were positively roaring. I could feel their anguish and confusion. It was terrible, simply terrible listening to them mourn for their mother.

Hippolyte had three empty combs that I stuck at the back of Peach. If they get filled with honey well and good. If not, the comb will still provide some insulation for the nuc. Austeja got the few remaining combs with brood.

Fanning to let her sisters where their new home is
All afternoon, Hippolyte's returning foragers buzzed wildly looking for their home. Alas, it was gone. I had removed it. They all appeared to be begging their way into the neighboring hives. Since they were carrying nectar and pollen, they were admitted entry. Hopefully, this will make all the remaining hives stronger.

Oh, look! This one still trusts me.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Something Cool I Learned about Bees

The amazing thing about bees is that there is always something new to learn. My new discovery yesterday was that the African Honeybee or AHB (A. m. scutellata), that bee that we all dread here in the States, is threatened in in its South African homeland. Apparently, South Africa is also home to another species of honeybee called the Cape bee (A. m. capensis) that is able to take over AHB nests due to an ability called thelytoky.

Image of Cape bees from

Thelytowhat? Yeah, I had to look that up, too. I learned that thelytoky is a kind of parthenogenesis in which female are produced from unfertilized eggs.

As you may know, in honeybees, diploid eggs (fertilized eggs that have two sets of chromosomes) are female bees. Haploid eggs (unfertilized eggs with one set of chromosomes) become drones. When an unmated European worker starts laying, she lays haploid eggs only. This is not always so with the Cape bee, which has a frequent rate of  thelytoky (pronounced thə-ˈlit-ə-kē). Once in a while, this trait occurs with the European honeybees that we all know and love, too, but it's a very rare occurrence with our bees.

According to Wikipedia, "Not all (Cape bee) workers are capable of thelytoky - only those expressing the thelytoky phenotype, which is controlled by a recessive allele at a single locus (workers must be homozygous at this locus to be able to reproduce by thelytoky)."

I'm not a fancy scientist or anything, but hopefully, I've retained enough from biology classes to explain it more simply (though with far more many words). Diploid organisms have two sets of chromosomes. Every chromosome has two genes and consequently two alleles that control various physical attributes of the organism. (Alleles are variants of genes. I heard an analogy that explains alleles like this: Think of a gene like a shoe. An allele would be a kind of shoe -- sneakers, dress shoes...) When the alleles are the same, that trait is said to be homozygous (e.g., wearing two sneakers). When they are different, the organism is heterozygous for that trait (e.g., wearing a sneaker and a flip flop).

Some alleles are recessive, some are dominant. The dominant trait is the one that gets exhibited in the observable characteristics of that organism (i.e., phenotype). For example, alleles for black or brown hair are dominant. The ones for blonde or red are recessive. So if someone has one allele for brown hair and one for blonde, they'll end up with brown hair. In order to have blonde or red hair, a person needs two recessive alleles.

In some cases, phenotypes are controlled by multiple alleles. For example, eye color is one of these things. Have you ever noticed the wide variety of eye color shades in people's eyes, though? Just look at blue eyes. Some people have intense deep blue eyes. Other blue eyes are more pale and watery. Some are in between. Some are mixed with green, and so on. That's because eye color is influenced by multiple alleles. Other physical characteristics are caused by just one pair of alleles. I think I remember a professor saying that baldness was one of these, but don't quote me on it.

In any case, Cape bees that are capable of thelytoky have two recessive alleles at that one crucial spot in their DNA strand, so these girls are capable of laying eggs with two sets of chromosomes -- just precisely what's needed to produce workers and queens.

But why do Cape bees need this feature??? I don't remember which article it was now, but I read that the Cape area is quite windy, which leads to a low return rate from mating flights. Thelytoky allows A. m. capensis to create backups. Amazing!

The thing about the Cape bee, though, is that these laying workers use pheromonal mimicry to sneak into AHB hives where they lay eggs which are cared for by the resident African bees. Unfortunately, the mature Cape bees are underrepresented in the hive's foragers (I don't know what they do exactly), but they continue to expand and take over the colony. As fewer AHB workers are laid, the number of foraging African bees dwindles. Ultimately, the hive reaches a tipping point where there are too many Cape bees for the AHB to support, so the colony dies, and the Cape bees fly off to infest a new host.

Once again, I'm flabbergasted by the weird and wonderful life of bees.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Inspection Notes: Feeling like the worst beek ever

The goldenrod is in full swing now. Lots of Japanese knotweed, Joe Pye weed, and asters as well. However, as of last week, I still wasn't seeing a lot of honey being put into storage, so I started feeding the girls a little (about 3 quarts for all the colonies except Peach who got none and Austeja who took only 2) because for the most part, I wasn't seeing any stores or much brood. It seems to have made a difference in what I saw in the hives this past Tuesday. So I've decided to check on them every day and feed, feed, feed until I feel comfortable going into winter.

My daughter and I went for a hike yesterday not too far my house.
The fall flowers were spectacular.
I feel like the worst beek ever because I really got sidetracked by some consulting jobs that I took on this spring/summer, company, and vacations. Except for some frantic hive building and splitting, my poor bees were really neglected this year. Perhaps if I'd coddled them more post split, the colonies would be a lot bigger by now. However, I really didn't feed very much, and a dearth hit while I was away on vacation for two weeks, so they haven't really built much comb since their splits. Currently, they each have about 8 combs apiece, except Peach which has 9 and is building a 10th.

Unfortunately, this fall is proving to be just as hectic as spring and summer, and I've been procrastinating when it comes to taking care of the bees. It's been months, and I still haven't made a roof for Peach or Persephone. I still need to build a platform for the nucs to sit on. I still haven't even finished painting Persephone or Josephine (the empty Warre). My littlest one starts preschool a couple days a week soon. Fingers crossed, I'll have some time coming up soon, but I'm not counting on it. All this busy-ness is really making me think more seriously about getting into Warres next year.

Anyway, despite my neglect, the bees, if not thriving exactly, are getting along fine for the most part.

Bubblegum -- Lots of eggs and brood. Lots of pollen. Starting to put away honey/syrup in the honey area. As an aside, I've begun dying my syrup ungodly unnatural colors this year like blue, green, and red. I figure that if the dye from an M&M factory didn't wipe out all the bees in France, a bit of food coloring isn't going to kill mine either. (Ok, it's probably not great for them either, but maybe some hyperactivity would be a good thing this fall. More red?) I did this because I was curious to see how the syrup was being used/stored. For example, how much of what was being stored was honey vs. syrup? Would they store syrup patches all by itself? Or would it be jumbled together with the honey? Would the girls move the syrup around from comb to comb? Etc. Etc. Inquiring minds want to know. Anyway, the photo below shows what I found.

Blue "honey"
You can see a bit of blue in the comb, but considering how much syrup they received, it doesn't seem like they stored much of it. My guess is that they've been using most of it for brood or just to support their daily caloric needs. BTW, in case you're interested, for the most part, it does seem that they store syrup and nectar in different cells. Also, it does appear to me that the honey and syrup are stored in groupings of adjacent cells (at least three cells in a grouping), though they don't mind storing them on the same comb. questions arise. I can envision a series of experiments on this in the future.

Also, I gave her a quart of syrup on Tuesday. By Wednesday, only 1/3 - 1/2 of it was gone. I guess she's finding nectar and preferring that.

Persephone & Austeja -- A lot of pollen & a little bit of honey starting to be stored away. Lots of brood, though. I feel like some heavy feeding should see these two through the winter -- if they'll take it.

Between Tuesday and Wednesday, Persephone had consumed only about 1/4 quart of syrup. Austeja -- well, it turns out I'd forgotten to give her any syrup. So I added a jar on Wednesday, and I guess she felt slighted because as soon as I opened her up, a guard shot out and stung me.

Comb from Austeja

Hippolyte -- Such a disappointment. No stores. Just a few measly honey bands on the brood bars. Very little brood. I was starting to think that a regicide and a combine were in her near future. There were so few bees, but I still couldn't find the queen. There were some nice eggs, though, so she had to be in there. I decided to give her a lot of syrup (1 quart jar and a half-gallon jar.) I figured that if I didn't see some real improvement in 3 days time, the queen's rule was going to come to a very abrupt end.

Unimpressive brood comb from Hippolyte

Wednesday afternoon, the entire quart jar was empty and the half-gallon jar was about 1/4 empty. So maybe this colony was just really, really hungry. I'm still waffling on the idea of combining her though. Even if she gets intensive feeding, I'm still not entirely sure she'll be able to build up enough strength in time for winter. What do you guys think? Any thoughts on this one???

 In any case, her reprieve has been extended until next week.

Peach -- I love this colony! I saved her for last, and I'm so glad I did because she let me end the inspection on a high note. Every single comb was filled with bees or honey, and she was busy starting a new comb. Just the fragrance standing when standing near her is amazing. I truly hope she makes it through to spring. It would break my heart to lose her.

Her numbers are good, too, because she's begun bearding. I've actually had to open another entrance for her.

Honey, honey, honey!

Some young'uns
Start of a new comb
The one other thing I did for all the hives was move any empty bars near the entrances to the back. I also moved any partial combs to the end. I know, I know, I should have done this a while ago, but better late than never.

How are your hives doing?