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.

One dead hive after all

Image Image

Apparently I was too soon with my celebration that both my hives survived winter. As it would seem that my second colony, which was the weakest by far, didn’t make it after all. There were apparently too few bees to make it through the colder nights since the last time I checked. Beside that the frames on the outside of the hive were filed with mold, quite badly (the first picture above). My parents made the discovery of the passing of the colony today. They also made the pictures. If I have to make an artificial swarm this year I’ll make sure to keep it at my local apiary so I don’t have to make the thirty minute drive to check on my bees in my parents garden. I also wasn’t taught that you could keep an artificial swarm next to the original colony, but you can (when taking the right precautions).

Looking at the top-bars  it doesn’t look good but reading this article (as well as this article from the same source) I gather that mold in a hive in/after winter is not so strange. This second colony had the old queen (from 2010) that I was going to replace this year anyway but loosing the entire colony was not part of the plan. I guess I’ll have to see it as a learning experience, that what I actually should have done is combine the colonies at the end of summer to create one strong one. But I reasoned that if I were to do that I would be left with one colony anyway because my first colony looked to be strong enough to survive winter I was in no real danger of losing that colony. So I gambled the second colony and I lost.

Now the time for questioning my decisions has arrived. What could I have done better? What could I have done to ensure the survival of the second colony. I think the answer to that is most likely that I shouldn’t have placed the hive in a food desert, which my parents home apparently is. There are some gardens in the vicinity, my mothers being one, but I guess they weren’t enough to support a viable colony, most is farmland. The smaller town at bout 3-4 kilometres (2-2,5 miles) apparently was slightly too far and/or didn’t have enough flowers for the bees.

To end on a more positive note; my wife took these pictures bellow in the city where we live. Crocuses are literally all over the place, especially in the parks but also by the roadside. I will visit my city bees in my first hive (to which I should simply refer to as “my hive”, as it now is my only hive) this weekend to do some housekeeping. Select which frames I will scrap this year and which will last for another year, reduce the size of the hive from two to one brood box and see if they need some additional feeding. Then I will leave them to their own devises for about two weeks?

IMG_20140305_143811 20140305_123206

They survived winter!

Crocus, early pollen source

I went to visit my bees today and both colonies have made it through the winter! As you may remember from this post, I was unsure about the chances of my secondary colony. As long as the end of the winter keeps on being as warm as the first part was all will be well. I expected my primary colony to survive but I actually was expecting the secondary colony to have died, but they didn’t. Admittedly the secondary colony at my parents house are a pity full lot, they seemed to be happy with the sugar syrup I made for them. I’ll take a picture of the simple syrup setup (unintentional alliteration there) if I remember to do so. It’s a very simple setup, just a jar with syrup (1:1, sugar:water) with small holes in the lid placed on top of the  frames in a hole in the top cover (the holes are so small that the surface tension and the low pressure above the syrup keeps it from dripping out). I’m unsure as to what is the best method to provide the bees with extra food, at this time of year with this weather, the sugar syrup was my first inclination but perhaps bee candy/sugar candy/fondant would have been a better choice considering the possibility of fermenting, I’m not completely sure.

Winter has been extremely mild and so far. Last year the weather was lagging two weeks behind in spring now it seems that it will be two weeks early. This winter here in the Netherlands is going into the books as either the third or second warmest winter since they started recording the weather (for meteorologists the winter ends at the end of February). If it hadn’t been so warm I am quite sure my secondary colony would have perished.

I’d say there were between five hundred and a  thousand bees, occupying just one space between the frames in my secondary hive. I can’t wait till the weather warms a little more so I can do some spring cleaning in both hives, they are a mess. The hive at my parents house, what I call my secondary hive, is full of mold and dead bees. From the primary hive I took a frame out, away from where the bees were,  a frame almost directly against the outside of the hive. The outside of that frame had mold on it. So perhaps the honey/syrup inside wasn’t ready yet when the cold weather started or this is just something that can happen.

Mold frame
You can’t really see but this frame is full of mold, when zoomed in you can kind of see it as white and green spots (unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to take this picture myself)

I didn’t want to bother the bees to much so I left the inspection at that. The bees were already going out to forage, so were bees from other hives in the apiary. I didn’t spend much time checking if the bees were returning with pollen, as the crocus is in bloom here as well as the snowdrop. In the short time I did look I couldn’t see any bees returning with pollen. Shortly after the winter solstice the queen will start laying eggs again. Pollen is the most important resource right now because it is needed to feed the new larva, it is the bees only real source of protein. The larva are fed a mix of pollen and nectar called beebread.

Another thing the bees are able to do in this weather, and have most likely already done a number of days ago, is relieve themselves the so called “cleansing flights”. The worker bees don’t defecate inside the hive, so all through the cold weather they will be storing faeces in there intestine waiting for a spot of mild weather, with mild I mean a temperature above 8 degrees (47 Fahrenheit ). When the weather is milder the colony will “en mass” go for a flight outside the hive to take a “cleansing flight”. Imagine how you would feel after not taking a shit for a month or two. As the queen only eats royal jelly which hardly contains any indigestible components she doesn’t have to relieve herself nearly as often and if she does she will do this inside the hive and the worker bees will clean up the mess. Obviously royalty doesn’t have to concern itself with excrement.


PS, in doing some research on beebread I found this article about the possible  influence of bee pollen on osteoporosis and the possible influence of bee pollen on allergies do with it what you will.

Colony organism.

Simple ant simulator

A colony of bees (or ants or termites for that matter) can and should be viewed as a singe organism. The individuals within that organism do not act in their own interest, they act in the interest of the colony organism. Evolutionarily seen the unit on which selection takes place is of importance. For bees that is not the single bee but the bee colony.

John Maynard Smith (an evolutionary biologist and geneticist) sums it up generally in the following way 1988: “Any population of entities with the properties of multiplication (one entity can give rise to many), variation (entities are not all alike, and some kinds are more likely to survive and multiply than others), and heredity (like begets like) will evolve: A major problem for current evolutionary theory is to identify the relevant entities.” For the bees this “entity” is clearly the colony.

In the same sense it is evident that the queen is not the boss/leader of the colony, she serves the colony just as much as the worker bees do. If she fails or wavers at her task the workers will dispose of her and promote a sibling to the position of queen. They do not come to this decision collectively, there are no bee comities that come to these decisions. A certain circumstance automatically results in a certain predictable outcome without intervention of any authoritative figure. There is no one telling the workers bees to forage or feed the larva or clean cells or do any of the myriad of tasks the workers perform but they still perform them. This behavior is “preprogramed” genetically.

You can compare the individuals in a bee colony with computer programs that reacts to certain inputs in predictable straightforward ways. Programs that simulate the behavior of eusocial insects (from wikipedia: “Eusociality, the highest level of organization of animal sociality, is defined by the following characteristics: cooperative brood care (including brood care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups”) often use ants as a model organism as ants don’t have to deal with a 3D world outside of the colony.

myr medrome
A slightly (!) less basic ant simulator

From the site of one such ant simulator the principle is describes aptly (corrected for grammar): “The simulation is based on the fundamental principle that each ant is not intelligent enough to understand it lives in a complex community, nor is it able to organize tasks in its colony. Therefore, each ant lives and works following some simple rules interacting (unaware of it) with the others through chemical signals. From these thousands of connections a self-organization of the whole colony arises, which leads an observer to believe that someone has imposed some kind of strategy.”

Further reading:
Social Insects and the Individuality Thesis. Andrew Hamilton et al. (PDF)
Identity in social insects (wikipedia)

Maya the Honey Bee annoying

mayaNot really within the scope of this blog but seeing there is little to do and little to talk about at this time there is time and space for an off topic intermezzo.

I don’t know how popular Maya the Honey Bee is outside of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands but here the animated cartoons have been a popular children’s cartoon for 40 years. Starting in 1974 with a now somewhat dated animation and revamped in 2012 into a 3D animated series.

My 3 year old loves the series, both old and new and so I have had more than enough opportunity to witness many episodes most more than once (or twice) to be generally annoyed by the series, both the old one and the new one. It bothers me how far the series is deviates truth.

I made a short list of a number of things that are plainly wrong, I made the list from the top of my head so I’m sure there are more things that could be added to the list, here goes:

  • Bees do not hatch out of the comb as young underdeveloped bees, they are fully developed adults when they hatch. They perform duties in the hive for the first 3 weeks like cleaning cells cleaning and other bees, seeing to the queen and accepting nectar from foraging bees and help converting the nectar into honey. After this time they will have a number of weeks in which they gather nectar, pollen, water and protect the hive. Which depends on the time of year. Winter bees can live for months summer bees for a few weeks. Summer bees spend a large part of their life in the hive (so do winter bees but that’s just because it is cold).
  • Male bees, the drones, do not function as the guards of the hive, it is part of the duty of the foraging bees. Drones are the slackers of the hive, all they do is assemble with other drones every so often and wait to have sex with a queen. When the are not doing that they are just kind of chillin in and  around the hive and get fed by the female worker bees. At the end of the summer, when they have outlived their usefulness the worker bees stop feeding them and all but, literally, chase them out of the hive.
  • Bees don’t help other insects.
  • Honey isn’t stored in a kind of lake in the hive, but gets put into the comb to finish “drying” to the correct water concentration.
  • Bees do not carry pitchers to collect and in which to transport the nectar. They have specialized stomachs to carry the nectar. When they come home the transfer the nectar to other bees for further refinement.
  • Flowers don’t make honey, that is obviously done by the bees. They add certain enzymes to the nectar and let most of the water evaporate out of the nectar (honey less than 20% H2O). They do that by regurgitating the nectar onto their tong and exposing it to the warm air in the hive so a lot of the water evaporates (honey is bee puke).
  • Bees wax doesn’t come out of a can but is produced by the bees themselves, they have special glands to do this named mirror glands that produce wax scales that the bee then processes further to make it usable to make comb or the covers over cells filled with either honey or pupae, pollen doesn’t get capped.
  • When bees see a bear during their foraging, which they wont, they don’t give it a second glance or a first. They don’t hurry back to the hive to get all the bees to pack up and leave. Bees will defend their hive to the death, be it against beers or beekeepers, which all beekeepers can attest to.
  • If it becomes to hot in the hive, bees don’t go and flap their wings in the hive to try and cool it down, this would actually have the reverse effect and warm up the hive. This is what bees do in the winter to keep warm, they flex their flight muscles without flapping their wings, this created heat.
  • In one episode Maya threatens to sting a fly as a payback for some prank it pulled. This would actually kill the fly in real life. Which seems kind of a steep punishment for a prank, the death sentence…

That is about what I could remember of the episodes I saw. It wasn’t as short as I would have thought but there are still points I could come up with if I tried. So okay, I know this is a children’s cartoon but I am a beekeeper and a biologist and I cant turn that off when looking at…well anything (call it “job” conditioning if you will). In this way you give children some wrong romanticized idea about bees and insects in general.

Okay, you could also argue that by romanticizing insects in such a way you get kids more interested in the natural world and I should only be applauding that. But somehow I can’t. Anthropomorphizing animals is something that biology teaches against because it tends to skew the results of research…Now we are obviously not talking about research here, but I can’t easily get that out of my system. So perhaps I have to make more of an effort keep the suspension of disbelief going but the people who write the scripts for these kinds of cartoons could also make some of an effort to stay as close to reality as the story line will allow. Perhaps the following example takes it a bridge to far but, maybe somewhere in the middle…


Oxalic acid treatment

oxalic acid
Oxalic acid winter treatment

I treated the colony in the city against Varroa the Saturday before last by what here is called the dripping method. In this way you can start the season with a colony relatively free of Varroa. This treatment is meant to be performed in the middle of winter December till January. Even though here the winter has hardly shown its face, with temperatures as high as 10°C (50°F). The day I performed the procedure it was around -1°C  (30°F) but felt like -5°C (23°F).

The bees were relatively calm, a few flew up, no more than about 15, one landed on my sock on the edge with my shoe and stung me when I started walking because it got stuck between my ankle and my shoe. The procedure took no time at all. I filled a 60 ml syringe with the oxalic acid mixture (9 grams oxalic acid, 150 grams  sugar, and 150 ml water) and dripped about 5 ml per “lane” (room between the frames) that was occupied by the bees.

This method needs to be done in the winter time, which feels all wrong because at the beekeeping course I followed I was taught that you do not bother your colony when the temperature drops bellow 14°C (57°F). You perform this method in winter because in this season there should be no brood, any mites present will be on the bees. According to the organization that does research in the Netherlands on Varroa treatments (and on bees in general) there are no detrimental consequences for the colony by opening the hive in winter. I guess I’ll trust their judgment/research. What I think happens is that when the bees clean each other of the sticky sugary liquid they also ingest the oxalic acid. The oxalic acid enters their hemolymph on which the Varroa feed and this will then kill the mites.

After the oxalic acid treatment I placed a styrofoam sheet on top of the top cover (supposedly against the cold somehow) and replaced the lid. I can now only hope that the colony will be able to survive the rest of the winter. The colony was no longer as large as I would have liked. In a few months I will reduce the size of the hive and place the honey super back on top of the hive (I trust that they will start to use it in stead of using the second brood box as honey super).

I found a video of the kind of treatment I performed, it’s a video of Dutch origin so don’t expect English commentary.


Deformed wing virus

Deformed Wing virus
Deformed Wing virus

Siting in front of my hive one day, the hive at my parents house, I saw a bee stumble out of the hive and drop onto the ground. On the ground the bee continued to crawl on. I was surprised and concerned. I gathered up the bee to get a better look at it. There was clearly something wrong with it’s wings. It didn’t try to fly and fell to the ground when falling off of my hand. I had recently read about deformed wing virus (DWV) and that it could be an indication of a Varroa destructor infection as an opportunistic pathogen. After reading some more I was quit sure this was DWV. The wings were clearly deformed, not as bad as you can find on the interwebs, but you’ll see if you click on the image on the left it’s bad enough.

It was right before the time I needed to treat the colony against varroa with formic acid so I was hoping that would take care of the problem. Other beekeepers I knew didn’t seem all that concerned so I reasoned that it wasn’t extraordinary. Still after my previous troubles, I wasn’t all that certain. Apparently the formic acid treatment was enough, I saw no more bees with DWV, the bees don’t last long after crawling out of the comb with this affliction so I guess no more bees with clear DWV were “born”.

Without Varroa the bees can handle DWV fine but Varroa makes them more susceptible to any disease. Varroa mites will often be carriers of DWV and in that way infect the bees. According to the Wikipedia article Varroa will serve as a kind of incubator for DWV and only colonies with a serious Varroa infestation suffer from it. I can only hope that the bees are relatively free of Varroa now and will make sure to treat them against Varroa next year so they stay or become healthy.


Surviving the winter

Krant methode
Newspaper method

Making sure my colonies survive the winter period is, after egg laying workers and a queen-less colony the most stressful thing I have had to deal with. A colony needs to be big enough to have a chance of surviving the winter. During the winter time the bees will congregate into a ball of bees inside the hive. The bees have to keep this ball at a relatively constant temperature of around 18-35ºC (35ºC being an indication that the colony has brood), averaging at about 24ºC, even if the temperature outside gets as low as -15 ºC outside the hive. The bees will only be able to maintain this temperature when there are enough bees. The bees vibrate their flight muscles to generate heat. During winter many, many bees will die, only hives that can sustain this die off will survive.

A beekeeper is supposed to asses his colonies strength in late summer to early fall and decide if he thinks this colony will survive the winter or not. If there is any doubt the beekeeper should combine colonies to create a stronger colony of which he can be sure it will survive winter. A colony should  occupy at least 6 frames in a hive to have any chance of surviving the winter. If a colony doesn’t meet this requirement then the beekeeper should combine this colony with an other weaker colony. As I only have two colony I either combine them or I don’t.

The easy way to combine colonies is by placing a newspaper on top of an open hive box of the one colony and spraying the newspaper with sugar water. Then you place the brood box(es) of the second hive on top. The bees will have to eat through the newspaper to reach each other. The hypothesis is that by chewing through the newspaper they will all smell the same (newspaper ink) and hostility will be averted. You obviously will have to kill one of the two queens, do this a few days before uniting the hives and place the hive that still has it’s queen on top. Just parroting theory here…

As I was reasonably sure my original colony was big enough to survive winter I didn’t unite my two colonies, the colony that was the result of my artificial swarm was borderline big enough. But as I would end up with one colony either way, I chose the selfish option and I kept both colonies separate. I hope to start the next season with two colonies. I’ll be kicking myself if both colonies end up dying, that will be about 150 euro’s down the drain. I now know my original colony is still alive (because of the oxalic acid treatment I had to perform) but it wasn’t as large as I would have liked. And there are still 2 months of possible freezing weather ahead. If I were a religious man I would be praying, but me I’m just hoping for the best.