Start of the new Bee Season

To start off, I haven’t posted on this blog for some time, even though there would have been something to write about just after the winter solstice when I treated for Varroa. I didn’t post because what I found made me somewhat pessimistic for what I was going to find in spring. I had the feeling like if I put what I found to (digital) paper it would somehow make it more real.

Similarly visiting the bees now felt like opening the box to Schrödinger’s cat; leaving the box closed, my bees were simultaneously alive and dead. Which was preferable to what I thought I was going to find.

What I actually found was similar to the Schrödinger’s cat box; one hive was dead the other alive. Sif has survived, most likely due to the silent queen change at the end of the bee season last year. Artemis was dead while that was the productive colony from an F1 queen. I will have to come up with a new name for a possible next colony. If it keep going like this I will run out of Greek/Roman/Egyptian/Nordic gods, even though I have only lost two colonies and didn’t named the first. I guess I have quite a few gods to go through.

frame with dead bees
Frame with bees that died while burying into cells for some reason. Often a sign of starvation but stores are clear at the top of the image.

When I came to take my deceased hive home for cleaning out the rames (and perhaps a post-mortem) there were no signs of life from Sif even though other hives on the apiary were flying. The weather was to bad to open up the hive for a look. So my expectations for Sif were that they must have died since my last visit were they were flying during a day with better weather.

The remaining colony is tiny, I still have her on two brood boxes. I will reduce the space asap. I’ll try and remember to take pictures next time. The weird thing is I already found a queen cell. But as a queen will not get fertilized at this time of year (and after consulting a more experienced beekeeper) I removed the cell, which already contained quit a bit of royal jelly.  Apparently the bees are not happy with the current queen (who I didn’t get to see). I only hope it wasn’t a emergency queen cell, but this was the first time I opened the hive this year so I can’t imagine were the queen could have gone. We’ll see what the future brings for Sif.

Moisture Quilt

Moisture quilt by Herb Lester
Moisture quilt by Herb Lester via the Honey Bee Suite . Photo: Herb Lester

I had read about moisture quilts before in a cursory manner and at first thought it slightly ridiculous. But then I read an article (and then a series of articles) on a blog I read and take seriously: Honey Bee Suite. I know it may seem slightly like a “argument from authority” fallacy. But Rusty from the Honey Bee Suit seems an experienced, quite well informed and down to earth apiarist, as well as an accomplished blogger. Rusty claims:

“Of all the changes I made to my hives over the years, nothing has helped more than the moisture quilts. I’ve used quilts for five years now, and on average, I went from overwintering 50-60 percent of my hives, to overwintering 80-100 percent.”

But what I would be more interested in is knowing what percentage of the bees themselves survive the winter with or without moisture quilts. Rusty seems to have quite a large number of hives, estimating from other blog posts I’ve read, I’d say well over 10. My own two hives can hardly provide enough data to get any significant results on hive level. Thats why I’m more concerned with how many of the bees in the hive survive winter, if more survive then the hive will start the season healthier and grow faster.

This doesn’t look like a swarm cell to me

Sif didn’t show signs of swarming so didn’t require the making of an artificial swarm this year and had seemed to start slow in spring. Which says to me that it was a weak hive/queen to begin with. I already had a feeling that the queen was slightly sluggish in spring. I was planing on replacing her later in the season but didn’t. I have the impression that there has been a silent supersedure at the end of summer (see picture on the right) when I had started my new job and didn’t check the bees as often as I should have. I wasn’t expecting swarms so late in the season, nor did I get one. Depending on the the performance of this new queen in Sif, I will replace her with one from Artemis next season. Artemis was already a strong hive this year and I expect it to start the next season strong, the young queen comes from a pure strain mother (I forget if the mother was a buckfast or carnica). Back on topic; I’m making (actually Pieter Knorr is making them as I’m feeling slightly under the weather) moisture quilts and will report on how they seemed to perform at the beginning of the bee season next spring (The Netherlands is a quite humid place so I guess that they should do what they are supposed to). Even though it will be hard to say if any observed effect is due to the quilts or some other unknown effect(s). I have yet to see any other beekeeper in my apiary use moisture quilts but that could also be because I haven’t been looking for them. But they were also not mentioned during the beekeeper course I followed. Perhaps I will also ask a local beekeeper on the topic, even though I have no idea what to they would call these constructions locally. Andrew

Winter preperation

sugar syrup feeder
Bees feeding on the sugar syrup. The number of dead bees in the feeder is a little disturbing

I’m preparing the colonies for winter; I’ve assessed the amount of honey in the hives and the size of the colonies. There are about 7 frames of caped of honey between the two hives, perhaps 14 kilograms total. Both Sif and Artemis seem large enough to survive winter on two brood boxes. The bees need about 15 kilograms of either honey or sugar to make it through winter. Which would mean that after I divide the honey evenly between the two colonies, they both need an additional amount of about 9 kilograms of sugar in about 11 liters of sugar syrup. Then I still need to place the caped honey on the outside of the hives because caped honey is very slow to go bad and the bees spend little time at the outside of the hive. Last thing I have to remember to do is reduce the hive opening, to prevent mice and robing by other bees and wasps.

I’ve placed the (2 liter) feeders in the hives yesterday and filled them with about 2 liters of sugar syrup. I forgot to take a picture, but will add one the next time I fill the feeder, which will be in a day or two. They empty the feeder within two days. Which is extraordinary when you think about it. A bee can carry about its own body weight in honey/syrup, 0.1 gram. Which would mean that if one bee were to empty a feeder it would have to make the journey from the feeder and store it in a cell 26 thousand times… I’ll go see the day after tomorrow how far they emptied the feeders and return if they emptied them.

There are mixed reports what to do with humidity and ventilation. I’ve seen stories about constructions on top of the hive filed with wood chips to deal with humidity. But I also read somewhere else about having a sheet of plastic beneath the hive cover to provide water for the bees in the form of condensation droplets. I do’t know what is supposed to be the better choice. Likely it is dependent on climate, and I don’t know aht whould be the best strategy for the Dutch klimat. There was some fungus growth after the last winter but I read somewhere else that this is normal and should be expected.

When these preparations are finished there will be nothing for me to do, until near the winter solstice, when the bees will get their oxalic acid treatment.

I always wonder what the girl behind the supermarket checkout thinks when I come to the checkout with 9 kilograms of sugar and nothing else…

bye bye, Andrew

Edit: The bees emptied the feeder within two days, as I thought. But many bees died in the process. Perhaps that is because the second cover of the feeder is missing and the bees will enter the feeder from behind the excluder and easily drop in the syrup. I’ll order a new cover for the feeders asap, and I hope that that will help.
I left the dead bees in the feeder because bees that drop in the syrup perhaps can use the dead bees as flotation devices and crawl to safety.

Edit2: I just gave them their third serving of sugar syrup (6 liters total) and placed the second cover on the feeders so the bees couldn’t access the syrup directly and consequently fall in and drown. I talked to a fellow beekeeper visiting the apiary and he told me that he just used a tub with room for about 8 liters of syrup in which he put straw to prevent the bees from drowning. Hay would grow fungus pretty quickly (something I have already experienced) but straw wouldn’t and the bees would clean any trace of syrup from the straw. I’ll see if I can get my hands on some straw (from a local pet store or something) without turning my home into a barn, perhaps keeping the straw at the apiary would be the ticket.

Varroa explosion

Because of the nice weather in winter and spring the varroa populations have exploded. Winter treatment against varroa using oxalic acid is used during winter because that it is the only time that the colony is not expected to have any brood. A single treatment should impact all varroa as there should be no varroa protected inside caped brood cells.

But because of the mild weather this winter there is a good chance that the bees did have capped brood, most likely filled with varroa. And then there was the mild spring which gave the mites a head start in the bee season letting their population grow to new heights.
That is why this year the varroa treatments here in western Europe are especially important. Varroa can be a major cause in colony death over winter. More so than lack of food or extreme cold.

The local apiarists organisation in the Netherlands has published an article on the explosive varroa population growth. A beekeeper counted 4 times the varroa he would count in an average year. You can view a translation of the article by following this next link (in all honesty the translation isn’t all that good, but kind of readable).

I’m not sure how the varroa population is going in my hives. I’ll check the mite drop after the 5 weeks of apiguard treatment tomorrow and update this post accordingly (if the weather allows, lot of rain here lately).

Talk to you soon,

Battling Varroa

ApiguardI’m using a, for me, new tool in my effort to combat varroa in my colonies, apiguard. You place a “serving” of apiguard on top of the top bars of the frames and leave it there for two weeks and repeat.

From the Apiguard website :

Worker bees climb into the Apiguard tray, remove the gel as a hive-cleaning behaviour and distribute it throughout the colony. The gel sticks to the bees’ body hairs and, as the bees move through the hive, particles are left throughout the hive. The worker eventually throws out the gel it is carrying, but the traces remain until they too are removed later.

The gel acts like a slow thymol release agent. Thymol is a naturally occurring substance that has proven to work as an anti varroa agent as well as being an antimicrobial and fungicidal substance.  Seeing my earlier experience with formic acid, this perhaps is a good alternative. Although I forgot to place a bottom board in the hives to see the varroa drop, thus making it hard to compare it to the formic acid treatment. But perhaps I’ll see less varroa in December when I treat with oxalic acid because of this treatment.

You do need to be done with your honey harvest because the thymol will also dissolve into the honey giving it a distinctly unpleasant taste. You should also not feed the bees while giving this treatment because the bees will be to busy with storing the feed syrup to disperse the thymol gel.

Otherwise Sif and Artemis are looking good. Next on the todo list is judging the fitness of the colonies in the light of winter survival. Will need to asses their size and food supply to estimate how much feeding they will need.


Colony naming

The Diana of Versailles
Diane de Versailles Leochares
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As I said in my last post I wanted to name my colonies. Having thought it over and discussed it with my wife, who is more familiar with Greek mythology. I came to choose two names. I first came up with Sif for my old colony in reference to the old Nordic goddess “associated with earth”. I wanted to call the second colony in reference to a Greek goddess and my wife came up with Artemis who is in part a Greek equivalent of Sif. Artemis, from Wikipedia; is the goddess of the hunt, wild animals, wilderness, childbirth, virginity. Which apart from the first and last part I think is quite appropriate.

So in following blog posts I will be referring to the colonies under those names. (Dutch version: link)


Quiet here -updated

I haven’t posted for a while, partly because I have a new job and partly because very little has happened with the bees. I just put on a second brood chamber and I’m still not sure if I’ll have to create an artificial swarm this season and if I’ll be using a honey chamber this year or not. I think not as it is already past the summer solstice. I’m still not so sure about this queen the colony seems to be growing very slowly, maybe I’ll remove her next month if I feel the colony is still lagging.
I met a fellow apiarist at the apiary this Friday who I hadn’t seen there before (although that isn’t saying much). He told me he had 5 hives there which were proving more work than what he had bargained for. and was willing to sell a colony to lighten his load. As I haven’t heard anything about the other colony I maybe could take over, I am anxious to get my hands on a second colony from somewhere.
Update: Well I bought a colony from the guy I mentioned above. The fellow apiarist had just taken an artificial swarm from the colony and was waiting for the new queen to start laying before selling it. Well, the queen is laying like crazy as far as I can tell. We checked the hive today and the colony, on a single brood chamber right now, is already pretty big with about 7 frames full of brood at the moment. I’ll have to add the second brood chamber pretty soon or the single brood chamber will start feeling cramped.
I’ll try to take a picture of the queen next time I see her, in my eyes she is enormous. Unmarked as of yet something I would like to start doing but that requires some . Certainly compared to the queen in my first colony. I’ll have to start naming the colonies which I have read people do, to help keep them apart on the blog. I’ll have to put some thought in that.
My first colony is still plodding along, no hurry. I think I’m going to replace the queen, hopefully with a queen from this second colony. I think I’ll remove the queen and then add a frame with eggs from the second colony, hoping that eggs from the second queen will produce a queen with a similar productivity. I wan’t to face the winter with two strong colonies.
I’ll keep you updated. (Dutch version: link)


Replacing comb influences colony health?

The bee research group in my country, bijen@wur, organized a symposium last month which I didn’t attend. One of the speakers there was bee researcher Dennis van Engelsdorp (weirdly dutch sounding last name, translates to “English village”).  He presented statistical data from a beekeeper survey that suggested that annually replacing to much of the comb (50% or more) negatively influences colony health. Often the idea of replacing comb is to prevent buildup of pesticides and/or pathogens, but it also looks ugly blackish comb. But the data shows that beekeepers who replaced 50% or more of their comb compared to beekeepers who don’t replace any, lose more colonies over winter.

It is unclear what causes this, the survey was not comprehensive enough for any analysis like that but the data is clear. They suggest not to replace more than about 20% of your comb annually. I was aiming to replace about a third of the comb but according to this information I will have to amend that. Apparently reusing comb from old colonies is also not advised as it also caused more winter deaths. The only problem is the lack of additional information in the survey. For instance it is unclear what the origins where of the reused combs. Perhaps the old colony died of disease.

So much is unclear, it wasn’t a study but only a survey. What is clear is that you shouldn’t renew  to much of your combs annually. See the accompanying video for yourself (there is also a link to the web page in its description):

New hive?

I may be able to acquire a new colony with hive soon, from a beekeeper who want’s to reduce his number of colonies. I’m not sure yet on the details on this colony or if I actually will be able to get it but I hope I will, certainly now I’m slight unsure on the survival of my remaining colony. I would have liked to begin the season with two colonies, which I would have done if both my colonies had survived, but having at least one colony of bees is I’d say a prerequisite for being able to call yourself a beekeeper. When you have more than one colony you can supplement one colony with a possible excess in the other, either with stores or brood or a queen(cell). That is, if my last remaining colony/queen is still viable. Which I hope to find out on tomorrow when the temperature is predicted to exceed 18 degrees (64 F).

There is also a little voice in the back of my mind saying that it would be a bad idea to hand me another colony, seeing how the last one and perhaps the last two fared. I guess I’m going to ignore that voice and if the chance presents itself I will gladly take on a new colony. I would like to have about 5 colonies in total, in a few years. I suppose that way my beekeeping life will be a much more relaxed one. Loosing one colony would be regrettable but not catastrophic. When you have “x” chance on losing each colony you are expected to loose a percentage of your colonies over winter. Say each colony has a 20% chance (made that up on the spot) not to survive winter. If you then have 5 colonies you will expect to loos one colony over winter. This is a bummer but an expected risk of being a beekeeper, it comes with the territory. But losing a percentage of your colonies when you only have two, can easily mean you lose all your colonies and in a sense you will have to start over.

If you have also paid money to acquire a carnica or buckfast queen then losing that colony also means loosing an investment. Now for me that isn’t the case as of yet, although I do plan on becoming either a buckfast or carnica beekeeper in the future and maybe even try my hand at queen rearing. For now I’ll just concentrate on the colony in the apiary.

Taken with my phone holding the frame with one hand, handling my phone with a gloved hand…

Edit: I went to the apiary today. Beautiful weather, warm and sunny although there was a lot of wind. I went mainly to find brood and eggs. I checked all the frames this time and I found caped brood, larva swimming in their food and eggs. There wasn’t all that much brood in my opinion. But perhaps that is just my inexperience and this amount of brood is normal for the time of year. If I had to guess I’d say there was perhaps a little over one side of a frame of brood divided over three frames. The frames also containing stores, fresh pollen and either sugar syrup or honey.

I also found the queen (see image to the right). This is the first time I have seen this queen because she was reared late last year. I thought she looked slightly small, compared to the other queens I’ve seen. Perhaps that is the reason she doesn’t give as much brood. I’m just speculating here. Time will tell as I can’t replace her before the swarming season in June.

Extraordinary weather

Better, less stressful times
Better, less stressful times

(a short update mainly written 6 days after the fact)

The temperature is a sunny, record setting 18 degrees here in Groningen (the Netherlands). As I knew it was going to be warm I went to have a look in my remaining hive. At first I was planning to do some major “remodeling”. Like reducing the size of the hive and cleaning out dead bees. But more experienced beekeepers advised against this and to wait with this major work until the end of march. So I just took a thorough cursory (can you say that?) look, to check if they had enough stores and see if I could find what we in Dutch abbreviate to BIAS, Brood In All Stages. Stores galore but I didn’t find any brood. I didn’t go through every single frame, only the two or three center frames in both brood boxes. I also forgot to check for eggs but I didn’t find any larva or closed brood. I don’t know for sure but I guess that isn’t a good sign. Perhaps I should check better in a week or two or I will have to clean out a second dead hive when all the long living winter bees have died off. There were bees with pollen coming in not all that many nor did they seem to have full pollen baskets, this then would be a positive indication for brood.

No brood would have to mean that the colony is without a queen. I hope this isn’t so but seeing the luck I’m having with bees so far I’m not keeping my hopes up. If the colony is indeed without queen there is no hope for them as there is no possibility to replace the queen at this time of year. Queen rearing will not start for a few months yet and the first queens will most likely not be ready before June. So all I can do right now is wait and hope for the best.

I Never thought keeping bees would be this difficult or stressful.