Winter ready

Feeding tray

Giving back to your bees something like what you’ve been stealing from them throughout the season. That is what you need to do at the end of august, after you are finished treating them against Varroa. Even though I didn’t see a drop of honey from them this year it doesn’t mean I don’t have to help them prepare for the coming winter. They need to have enough food stocked to be able to keep themselves warm throughout the cold period. You do this by feeding your bees with sugar syrup in a ratio of 3 to 2 sugar to water. A colony of bees will need about 15 kilo’s of food storage. Depending on how much honey your colony has left you will need to feed them  up to 15 kilograms of sugar or 20 liters of sugar syrup. You can present you bees this syrup in a few ways. Most often you will use a feeder like shown here on the left (2 liters). The bees will be able to empty a feeder like this in about a day. And they will store the syrup in the frames like they would do the honey. A kilogram of sugar is about the equivalent of a kilogram of honey for the bees and a full brood box comb of honey weighs about 2,5 kg.

But preparing your bees for winter isn’t all about food. You need to make sure your bees have the right amount of room, too much and they will have to use up too much energy to keep warm, too little and they will not have enough room to store all the food they will need during winter.


You can limit the room in the hive by replacing the outside frames with side frames in the hive as shown here on the right. You will also need to limit the opening to the hive to deter mice, move sealed frames to the outside of the hive so frames with winter store that is not jet sealed doesn’t mold, make sure there is enough ventilation so there will be as little condensation as possible.

Making the right decisions when preparing your colony for winter can mean the difference between life and death for an colony and for an inexperienced beekeeper this can bee a stressful time.


Formic acid treatment

mierenzuurAugust is the time to treat the bees against Varroa infection. This mite, aptly named Varroa destructor, is one of the most serious enemies of the honey bee. It is a pest imported from the far east and has been spreading over Europe and the rest of the world for the last 40 years or so. Only Australia is free of this pest and I’m sure they hope to keep it that way.

Without treatment your colony will surely die. Most likely not of the Varroa mites them selfs but of secondary/opportunistic  infections like deformed wing virus (DWV). In the Netherlands organizations, like bijen@WUR, researches bee health and are on the lookout for causes of bee disease and research and test treatment plans. So far there is no sure way to be rid of the Varroa, all we have so far are means to keep the Varroa at bay.

One of the treatments against Varroa is drenching your bees in formic acid vapor for about 14 days. The time to do this is after you have harvested the last of the honey so at the end of July or at the beginning of August. There are other treatments but this is article is about the treatment I performed.

You can perform this treatment in a number of ways, the one I employed, which I think is the easiest and cheapest one, is by placing a clean household cloth on top of a queen excluder on the top brood box, placing an empty honey super on top and soaking the cloth in a certain amount (30 ml per brood box) of formic acid (60%). You will leave this cloth with acid in the hive for 4-5 days and repeat the procedure twice to get a treatment totaling about 14 days, to get all the mites also in closed brood.

Liebig dispencer

Perhaps an easier way but one requiring buying some gear entails buying a Liebig dispenser shown in the image below. It requires a little less effort and uses 85% formic acid in stead of 60%, which is the concentration that is readily available and so doesn’t require diluting. The dispenser is not expensive, so I guess that will be the method I will be employing in the future. I am myself the best example why not having to dilute you formic acid is an advantage. Having worked in chemical/biological labs for in total well over a year, and having instructed young students in lab practices, I didn’t think to much of working with 85% formic acid. As I had bought 85% formic acid and needed 60% it needed to be diluted, no big deal I thought until the bottle of formic acid slipped out of my wet gloves fell and bumped on the bottom of the bath where I was doing the dilution and sprayed 85% formic acid in my face. I got it on my cheeks and on my throat and a droplet in my eye. After dosing my face under the tap for about a minute, while all the formic acid went down the drain, I opened the bathroom door which my wife was about to break down having heard the commotion. After a visit to the doctor I had to have a large band aid covering my eye for a day and had to drop antibiotic liquid in my eye for three days. The burn marks in my face and throat were gone in a little over a week. It didn’t really hurt but the acid did burn in my eye. There is no lasting damage but I was obviously mortified that I could have been so clumsy and careless.

I finally bought a new bottle and performed the dilution at a lab of a biologist friend, no drama what soever…and the procedure with the hives went down without a hitch. I could have done it easily in a sink, the bath was not the best choice. You just have to be careful, wear eye and hand protection and be organized. And if all else fails find a place that sells it at the right concentration for your method or use a method that uses the 85% concentration.

So the take home message is; don’t spill formic acid in your eye, it hurts and is a major bother.


Egg laying worker bees

eieren-kleinMore panic ensued when I found this in my artificial swarm hive (image on the left) multiple eggs per cell is an indication of egg laying workers. I didn’t know this at first. At first I just thought “Wow, multiple eggs per cell, thats weird”. I only found out what it actually meant when I shared the picture with fellow beekeepers. After I found out what it was I did more research. The weird thing is that workers bees don’t start laying eggs until the have been queen-less for at least 3 weeks, and I had seen the queen a few days earlier (image below).

A fellow beekeeper hypothesized that I may have an infestation of worker bees from someone else’s colony, who had given up on the colony by shaking the bees off the comb and taking the hive away, because of this the same reason I was having problems. Worker bees will often successfully try to get themselves accepted into a different colony when his happens. But egg laying worker bees will not stop laying eggs and often will kill the queen of the new colony as a competitor even though eggs from workers will only produce drones and will often get eaten by workers as sub-par eggs. Egg laying workers will secrete the same pheromones as the queen does so the colony does not realize it is queen-less. So introducing a new queen will not work, the colony will get rid of that new queen by killing her.

There are ways to get rid of egg laying worker bees but it take a lot of effort and resources, things I didn’t have, with only one other colony that did not jet have an egg laying queen. The safest and easiest option in this case would be to let the colony die, which would happen regardless as there will come no more new worker bees. But the right thing to do if you are giving up the colony would be to kill it by burning phosphorus in the hive in stead of letting the colony slowly die off, and have the chance that some of the egg laying worker bees leave and go and “infect” an other colony with a repeat of the problems.

Mijn koningin
The queen

If you really want to save the colony you would need to introduce comb with young developing eggs and larva twice over two 9 day periods. As open developing brood will give off pheromones that suppresses egg laying by worker bees. After this you can try to introduce a new queen in a special cage, although there is still a chance that this will fail. This wasn’t an option for me at that moment as I didn’t have the resources like enough open brood. I’d say you would need at least two other hives with a good size colony to provide open brood and not be slightly crippled by these actions.

I’d already come to terms with the fact that my seconds hive would be dying when I found my queen again in the second hive, apparently she had never been gone. So how then can the multiple eggs per cell be explained? I have no idea, and neither did the other beekeepers I asked about this. Younger queens can lay multiple eggs per cells by mistake but worker bees will clean this up by eating the eggs. But this queen was already over 2 years old, this was her 3rd season. So I still don’t have an explanation but I’m sure that the next time something like this happens I’ll be sure to do a thorough search for the queen before jumping to conclusions.


Why keeping the bees is important

CCD, so many reasons

Bees are an essential part of our ecology, not only are they responsible for the pollination of many of our food crops, some sources say that about a third of the human food crops require honey bee pollination. Although there obviously are more pollinating insects none are as productive or fastidious as the honey bee. But honey bees not only pollinate they also produce honey, propolis, wax and royal jelly.

Throughout the world we see a decline in honey bee populations as well as in the population of wild bees. Beekeepers will visit their hives one day and find some simply empty, a phenomenon termed colony collapse disorder (CCD). Or beekeepers will come to their hives after winter and find up to half the colonies died over the winter, although that can also be attributed to bad management.

The cause of honey bee population decline is a topic for hefty debate and scientific study. There are a number of possible culprits for the global decline of honey bees, like pesticides (specially the neonicotinoid variant); mite infections (mainly the Varroa destructor and to a lesser extent Acarapis); habitat destruction (see below); pathogens. Especially in the US the apicultural practices are also a cause with beekeepers driving their bees around in trucks carrying more than a few hundred hives. It is most likely a combination of these factors as none of these factors on its own seems serious enough to cause such devastation.

The green desert, that is what us beekeepers aptly name most farmland, especially farm land used for animal (mainly cow) farming. There is nothing for the bees or other insects in these meadows. Cattle farmers want to grow grass and only grass. Dandelions mixed in with your grass? Heresy! (bees like dandelions) Habitat destruction seems one cause that can be easily mended by adjusting the agricultural practices. Have borders to agricultural plots with wild flowers which would break up the green desert. This is also the main reason why these days bees tend to prosper in urban areas. Bees can find the things in gardens and public parks they can’t find in rural areas, food.

Bee Hotel
Okay this is slightly over the top

The question is can “we the people” do something about this? Yes! I guess you could buy a flowering plant seed mix specially designed for bees. Then go looking for some unused plots of land in you neighborhood and sow some of the seeds there. Perhaps a more constructive and longer lasting way would be to petition you local counsel to use any unused land specifically for growing wild flowers useful for bees. I’m sure your local beekeepers as well as any wild (solitary) bees and bumble bees will be very thankful. An other thing you could do, this time not specifically for honey bees, is buy or make a bee hotel. This way you would be supporting the local solitary bees even more. There are over 20000 species of bee most of them solitary, the honey bee (Apis mellifera) is just one species of bee.


(List of crop plants pollinated by bees (wiki)Colony collapse disorder(wiki))

Waiting for a queen

En maar wachten
En maar wachten

After making an artificial swarm from my main colony, by taking a portion of the colony and the queen and putting them in a separate temporary hive box, my main colony had to make a new queen. They already had started by making queen cells before I made the artificial swarm, which is a good indication you need to take action or they will do it for you. I removed those queen cells because you want to know when you can expect a new queen. They had comb with new eggs so there was ample opportunity to make a new queen.

A few days after making the artificial swarm and taking the queen I went back to see if they had reacted to the emergency supersedure by making emergency queen cells. The had, I had to go through the entire hive an decide which two queen cells I wanted to keep. I ended up keeping three, you don’t want to keep to many or you still end up getting a swarm because of to many queens hatching, which can happen.

After two weeks I came back to check if the queens cells were empty. They were completely gone, the workers had already cleaned them up. Looking for the queen at this stage is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Normally is tough to find a queen even if she is marked, but a new queen is even more difficult to distinguish from worker bees. So I didn’t even try. It was easier to wait until you find eggs. I thought that little more than a week would be enough time for a new queen to get impregnated and start laying eggs. Apparently that wasn’t, there were no eggs to be found. I found out later that in a larger colony it can take the queen longer to start laying eggs. I got slightly worried then as at that time I thought I was also having trouble with my colony from the artificial swarm, it seemed the workers were laying eggs (more on that later)… So I was in a situation where I thought I had no queens and no eggs, so no opportunity for the creation of new queens. The honeybee season was nearing the end so there was not a lot of time for a new queen to get impregnated as at the end of the season all the drones die.

Just to be on the safe side I got a comb with eggs from a fellow beekeeper to see if the bees would make emergency queen cells on that comb. If they didn’t then I could be quite certain that I had a queen. After a few day I checked and the new comb was free of emergency queen cells so I could be sure I had a new queen, panic averted. Next more panic…


Swarm preventative measures

WP_001406After buying a bee colony which you will probably do in June or July, the important action you most likely will have to perform first is taking swarm preventative measures.

When a colony exceeds a certain number of bees it will want to swarm. If a colony becomes to big it will most likely overheat the hive, which will kill the colony. A colony will swarm irrespective of the amount of room it has. The colony will need a new queen to swarm, worker bees will initiate the swarming by building queen cells. The old queen will take about half the colony and leave the hive to find a suitable place for a new colony.

To prevent loosing half your colony you will have to anticipate the formation of a  swarm by being watchful and notice when the colony begins to make queen cells. When you notice queen cells you can immediately make an artificial swarm. If you’re not quite ready removing the queen cells will give you some time. When you have decided to make an artificial swarm there are a number of ways you can proceed, some methods require more work than others, I’ll cover a few here.

You will need to make a number of decisions when making an artificial swarm. You first decision concerns the old queen, do you keep her with the old colony or will she accompany the artificial swarm. When you put the old queen with the new colony the old colony will need freshly lain eggs (up to 3 days old) with which they can make a new queen. The same thing goes if you keep the old queen with the old colony, the new colony will need freshly lain eggs to create a new queen.

Then you have to choose where you want to place the new colony. If you want to put the new colony close to the old colony all the gathering bees will fly back to the old hive. You have to take that into account when adding bees to the artificial swarm as it will lose many bees to the old hive. The new colony also will need food to last until the younger bees start foraging. Also bees that are to young to forage don’t yet protect the hive, you will have to keep the hive entrance very small to ward of stealing, which bees will do. In time the young bees will be old enough that they will start to protect the entrance and go forage.

When you don’t place the new colony close to the old colony you have to make sure the distance to the old colony is at least 6 kilometers (3.7 miles), that is about as far as honey bees fly when foraging. Placing the hive inside that range will cause many bees to return to the old hive.

Getting a new queen in the old or new colony also takes some doing. When the bees notice that they are queen-less, which happens quite soon after they become queen-less, they will make what is apparently called a emergency supersedure (wiki) by converting a normal worker cell with a young egg into a queen cell and feeding the developing larva royal jelly. As beekeeper you should either remove all but two queen cells or be very attentive or risk an after swarm. The development of a queen takes about 16 days and the egg that occupied the cell that was made into a queen cell could have been as old as 3 days. After 13 days a beekeeper should start listening at the hive, if a queen has hatched you will be able to hear make a noise by vibrating against the comb. The queens still in their cells will do the same in their cells which will sound slightly different. When you notice this you will need to remove the other queen cells to prevent getting an aforementioned after swarm.

Mijn originele moer
My original queen

The new queen will most likely kill the virgin queens in their queen cells for you but just to be on the safe side removing them is best. Normally virgin queens will continue leaving the colony if they decide the colony is still to large. Having one artificial swarm per year is most often enough. Needing a second one is very rare.

An other thing you can do, instead of letting the colonies make their own queen, is introduce a new fertilized queen from a pure breeding line. You can do this to get a colony with more desirable traits, like docility, increased honey production and low swarm tendency. However doing this is something for the more experienced beekeeper, because it can go wrong and the bees may not accept the new queen and kill her.

After a number of generations of queens from a pure line queen the colony will lose the traits associated with the original subspecies of the first queen. They will most likely become more aggressive and the tendency to swarm will increase. Swarm management is one of the most important tasks in beekeeping, only varroa treatments are about as important to the survival of you colony.


New beekeeper

imker cursus
Looking for the queen

Also through my background as a biologist, even though I’m not a entomologist or anything, I am interested in everything animal and science related. Because I keep up with current issues related to the natural world I knew of the plight of the bees, not only the honey bees. Even before I knew this I have been trying for years for my parents to get bees in their garden. Although I know now that wouldn’t have worked without a load of help. As I have been, fruitlessly, trying for a long time I thought it time to take some initiative and research the profession of keeping bees. Together with my mom I went to visit a view day for the north Netherlands beekeeping society. After talking to the beekeepers there we learned that the next year an introductory course would be given in beekeeping.

We decided to enroll for this class. The course started in the beginning of the year in February and would last until the beginning of the fall in October and would end in an exam where we would receive a diploma stating we were beekeepers. Which would not allow us to do anything we would otherwise not be allowed to do except take an “expert” course the next year. We would get 7 theoretical lessons and 10 practical lessons throughout the beekeeping season. We were told to buy a book that would serve as basic course theoretical information. The practical lessons were given at a beekeeping society apiary where the had a number of bee colonies specially for the students, which were….. . As you shouldn’t bother the bees when it’s to cold we started the course with a number of theoretical classes, which lasted longer than anticipated because of the cold weather at the beginning of last year.

The theoretical lessons were slightly dry so to speak, without practical interaction with the bees. It would have been better when the theoretical classes would have been given together with the practical lessons. It would have put the lessons in perspective and made them better to grasp as we could have related the theory with practice.

So started my journey on the road to being an apiarist. The course is only a begining and will not make you an experienced beekeeper but you have to start somewhere. I now continue my journey of learning by letting them teach me what I need to know.