Monday, February 20, 2006

Dirty Bees

bee sucking dirtWant to know a dirty little beekeeper secret? Bees prefer mucky water. Yup, they gather nectar, pollen, tree sap, and H2O to bring back to the hive, but they take the latter from the yuckiest place they can find. MaryEllen told me that an expert once claimed that the bees were trying to gather protein with the water, but I have my doubts.

Since this is the city, my garden is mostly containers, and many of those are "Earthboxes", biggish boxes with black plastic covers that keep water in and weeds out. The tomatoes that once grew there are long gone, but the honeybees have converted the openings in the covers into places of pilgrimage. On almost any above-40 degree day, I can pull back the cover and see some girls sucking dirt.

bee with tongue in dirtCan you see the little red tongue of the bee at right? It took 20 shots to get that for you (fuzzy as it is). Gotta get my viewfinder fixed. My bees are clearly somewhat soiled, in a couple of ways.

It is extremely comforting to see the bees, in this case almost certainly the cold-weather-loving Carniolans, around and about the yard, not just because they anticipate Spring. At a state beekeeper meeting last Saturday, there was a lot of advanced info around that once again put a scare into me. This blog has more crises than a bad soap opera, and I am afraid that the meeting will only induce more of the same. Like someone who sees a medical show on TV and becomes convinced that she has a terminal illness, the talk of mites and viruses has me shaken up about the girls. Again.

My mite counts are very, very high. The treatment I used is not proven — while it was the best available alternative and one clearly used by a bunch of us (gathered in a group like giggling high school girls, "Did you use it, too?! Tee hee!"). Add the concern that it might be too little too late! One presenter talked about a truly scary relationship between high mite counts and terminal loads of deadly viruses that go on and on even if the mites don't.

The wing deformation that I showed you earlier is not a result of just plain old mite vampires, but of a virus they deliver to the poor developing bees. Apparently almost every bee has some of it (and every part of the hive except the wax can harbor it), but the mites appear to do a one-two punch:
  1. weakening the bees by parasitizing them; then
  2. delivering enormous quantities of virus to the enfeebled host.
The deformed wings don't come from varroa mites, they come from the "Deformed Wing Virus (DWV)," and you don't see it unless the infection rate is very high.

It seems to work like human epidemiology. Name your bad infection (SARS, Spanish influenza, the plague, anything): all were present in the environment, perhaps for centuries, before becoming epidemic killers, or even getting a name. If the numbers of ambient infective agents get high enough, some diseases can make the jump from rare disease (or benign chronic bother) to rampant pestilence. It take billions of virii or bacteria, and hundreds or thousands of potential hosts, and they all need to be closely associated. At some point, a saturation point is reached or a mutation takes place, and the disease explodes.

Varroa mites operate in a large and crowded place full of life, a hive, an easy place to get into the disease delivery business. If you keep the numbers of the varroa low, the amount of virus they pass around never hits the critical mark. Once you have enough virii in place, though, you don't need the varroa around anymore to support the epidemic. The DWV virus can jump the rest of the way up a hyberbolic curve all by itself, and there is no cure. You lose the bees and all the hive products — anything that can't survive a fumigation —because all the bee accessories are now full of virus, too.

I completed a 4-day mite drop count this afternoon. Twain dropped 97 a day, and Wilde is back up to dropping 237. I have a lot of mites, still. During the last warm day (February 16), I saw many dozens, maybe hundreds, of girls with deformed wings creeping around the roof. The speaker at the meeting told us that the deformed bees only live 2 days, so (counting back 21 days plus or minus 48 hours) I know that they hatched on either February 15th or 16th, and the Queens laid the eggs from which they were hatched around January 25-27. These bee larvae should have been exposed to the first oxalic acid treatment (January 27): their honeycomb cells were still open. But they say that the oxalic takes up to a week to kill the mites once it is in contact with them, so it might just have been too late for this generation. The mites could have delivered the virus THEN died.

From the information that the speaker gave, and the many observations of creeping bees and medical mysteries that you can see in this blog, a kind of story line about the health history of Twain and Wilde is emerging.

Last year's weather was great for mites, and stimulated brood rearing until quite late, and the temperatures were too high to use my chosen treatment. I helped this along, by trying everything in my power to raise the number of bees in the Wilde colony before winter. So a really wonderful and prolonged breeding ground for mites was provided.

It was hot right until the temperatures began their drop in late September. The rapid change hard up against the start of winter weather meant the hives were exposed to the mite treatment for only a minimal time. Also, let's not forget the beginner errors that I almost certainly made. So the mite treatment took place under sub-optimal conditions.

Winter usually puts a temporary stop to brood rearing, and knocks down mites. A mild winter here, however, caused it to start up again almost immediately.

With a large initial population, few checks, and a return to pro-mite conditions, the varroa population exploded. The creeping bees I saw in November and again in latter weeks are the effects of the virus ramping up behind the mites. The first wave of DWV girls came when the inital varroa population crested in October, the second when they swung into action in January.

This is the story so far. The ending has not yet been written.

Two weeks ago I still had a lot of vibrant bees. The only question now is whether the oxalic acid nailed the mites, and whether it did so soon enough to stop a viral implosion.

I think there is hope. Some of the dirty bees in today's pictures were very young, newly hatched, and decked with perfect wings.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Gift of Bees

Heifer International Gift Card Today my honey gave me a gift of bees, though they are a bunch of buzzers that I will never actually see, and I love it! Click the pic for details...

Heifer International gives families throughout the developing world animals and know-how for sustaining themselves, their communities, and the environment. It is extremely cool: you can donate a hive of bees, or a trio of bunnies, or a quackful of ducks, and the world is a bit better off. Everyone who receives such a gift is required to pass it on to another family.

Therefore, this is a perfect Valentine's gift! I have received the gift of honeybees and love in my own life, and hopefully that sunshine has already reached somebody else.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Snow bees

roof beehives in the snowThis picture captures the vision of winter beekeeping that danced in my head as the cold weather came...then went, then came again.

That pink-sky feeling of beehives at the end of the world is just how it looked at 10:30 this AM, when the snow finally stopped, and my boots were found, and I remembered to go back for the camera.

A couple of minutes later, imagine the snow stomped all around, a result of making sure that the entrances to the hives were clear and no puddles of melt water were undercutting the girls' efforts to stay warm.

From a bee's point of view, snow beats wind any time, and this is finally a snug winter's nap.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Spaghetti Method

sticky board with miteAnd on the fifth day (which would have been Friday), she counted. And what did she count? Nasty little pin-head sized mites, my dears. By the hundreds.

There is only one way to find out if a treatment for varroa mites is working (or isn't working, or whether you should be working on putting together a treatment): you count mites. In my case, I count the mites that fall down from the hive onto a greased up bottom board below it.

I felt sorry for myself three weeks ago (before it was clear that there was a problem): the bottom boards came out, and there were about 150 mites to count on the worst one. It's a very nit picky business (to mix buggy metaphors), because the mites are so tiny and the bees tend to drop a bunch of other stuff, too, like pollen grains, wax flakes, ex-bee body parts, and unidentified beekeeping objects.

To my earlier self, I now say "Hah!" If you have a good treatment going, you will get hundreds to fall every day, at least at the beginning. After four days exposure, the board from Wilde pictured above contained 814 dead varroa mites (by my count). The board from Twain, surprise surprise, totalled 1514! This is a lot of mites by anyone's calculus, and kinda hard on a poor aging beekeeper's eyes.

The boards are about 2 feet by 18 inches, and I kept getting lost ("Have I counted this mite before? Where did I stop last time?"), and needed a way to mark out territory. Therefore, I have developed the Spaghetti Method (TM) for counting Dropped Varroa Mites. You, however, are hereby licensed to use this technology for your own apiary endeavors if you think nice things about my bees while you use it.

It works like this: the stuff on the bottom boards tends to fall in a way that shadows the frames of bees hanging in the boxes above. Basically, there are rows of assorted crud that overlap a bit. Grab some dry spaghetti (use the straightest ones you can find) and use it to mark off the spaces between rows, pushing the odd mite to one side or the other if you need to. Make sure you count any mites that end up stuck to the spaghetti (there is absolutely not a single cooperative feature of a varroa mite, I assure you). Take a little broken bit of pasta to use as a pointer, and begin working your way along each row, poking around in little blobs that might conceal a mite. Write down your count for each row, then total all the rows when you finish.

By the way, I could go all legal on you and tell you not to eat the pasta afterward, but it's probably safe if you did not use some kinda funky oil on your bottom board. Buon appetito.

The folks on the Beesource bulletin boards seem to think my daily mite counts were in line with an ongoing treatment (203 and 379 for Wilde and Twain respectively), but some thought perhaps a fourth application would be in order. I just completed the third, and possibly final, treatment today, and kind of want to know if this is "too much of a good thing" territory. Therefore, you can guess what's coming next week: another mite count.

So Tuesday, otherwise known as Valentine's Day, I'll be up on the roof, placing clean sticky boards. It's just as well that I lurk up there, because that Animal Planet show for which we (the girls and I) were interviewed is airing that day.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Battling the Midwinter Mite Menace, Part 2

applying evaporated oxalic acid to Twain colonyOn Sunday, my husband helped me apply the second round of oxalic acid treatments to my varroa-mite infested colonies of honeybees. We were actually a couple of days overdue, because the whole idea is to time at least 3 different treatments to catch every cell in the bees' brood nest at least once while it is open. This is an actual real-life picture of me with my genuine propane torch doing the deed. You can see a movie which demonstrates the low flame and positioning in either Quicktime (.MOV, 5.5 MB) or generic (.AVI, 2.7 MB) formats.

homemade oxalic evaporatorIn case you are wondering what the copper thingum in my hand really looks like, this is the version I whipped up from bwrangler's specs. It has been used a few times, and I am a little bent out of shape about fumes, so I put extra teflon on the outside of the joints. This was whipped up from less than $5 worth of pipe scraps and caps from the hardware store, and $5.88 for a pound of oxalic acid, more than I will need in a life time.

Why repeat all this treatment stuff?

Whipping up a batch of baby bees usually takes about 21 days, and the whole first part of the beekeeping short course seemed to be all about these stages. Unfortunately, I sat there hearing "blah blah blah," thinking the important stuff was coming later. Um, this was the important stuff though.

You see, I can only treat bees that are either already hatched, or in the first phase of being hatched, when the bee egg's comb cell is still open. The order of operations is that the queen comes around, drops in an egg, the nurses feed it lots for a while, and after about 8 days they come by and seal up the cell for the "cocoon and pupa" stage. And varroa LOVE it in there. None of the medications for varroa can get through the beeswax capping, though.

So, to ensure that the whole colony gets treated, you end up doing a bit of bee biology math. We know that it takes about 3 weeks to bake the average bee. We know that each bee only spends about a week developing in the open. Therefore, each bee spends about 2/3 of the hatching cycle, or two weeks, unavailable to me. So on any given day, only 1/3 of the cells receive my ministrations. So the calculator says, if you are giving a treatment, you need to repeat it 3 times at one week intervals to even hope to cover all the bees.

After treating the bees this time, I slid in clean sticky boards at the bottom of the hives, and will count three days' worth of dropped mites tonight. I'm not sure what to expect, because there might be lots of dead mites because of the treatments, but there might be fewer because many have already been sent to the great pestilential arachnid playground in the sky. Probably, the best approach is to take a count after each treatment, and then a little later. If there is one thing that beekeeping teaches, it's to try to get a longer term, more integrated view of the goings on, rather than trying to read the truth from adrenalin-producing snap shots.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Let's Not Split Quite Yet

beeswax versus propolis with Italians versus CarniolansMaryEllen came over yesterday to help me find out if the Carniolan bees of my Wilde colony were on the verge of swarming (due to crowded conditions and, perhaps, overbearing mothering), and we went through all the boxes of both colonies, all the way down to the bottom board in the case of the Twain honeybees. She came bearing gifts of extra brood comb and hive covers and stands and bottom boards...she came riding to the rescue like those knights in shining armor of which little girls dream.

But a lot like little girls who dream of heroes, however, it seems we did not need much rescuing after all — though a helping hand (and a knowing eye) still makes the day.

We opened up Wilde first, working our way down to see if they had built queen cells beneath the top brood box (the second box from the bottom) and MaryEllen spotted only two empty queen cups, no source of alarm at all!

We also saw bees, frame after frame after box after box of bees! Carniolan bees form a winter cluster (to keep warm) which is smaller than any other, often only a bit larger than a softball, according to the experts. I'm thinking we were seeing something more like a small beach ball in there. I slipped a semi-empty frame of comb into the middle of the deep box above the brood nest, so Queen Elizabeth could have a place to move up and lay some more eggs if she wanted to.

We also saw honey, loads of it. MaryEllen says I should stop feeding the bees, at least for now. It appears that I overfeed my bees just like I do my dogs and husband: a preferred vector for nurturing.

So we turned to the Italian honeybees of the Twain colony. They were slightly more cranky, because they prefer slightly higher temperatures. Once again, lots of honey, lots of bees. When we reached the bottom of the colony, there was brood (bees-to-be) in the second and third boxes from the bottom, but none in the last: the queen had moved up, as they tend to do.

I had the option of taking out the box and having a a whole medium super of my very own drawn comb to use later for a "split" (to start a new colony split off from one of the first ones) or perhaps placing it on top of the brood nest as a place the queen could move into. MaryEllen cautioned against that, saying that until the weather got better I should not put any kind of separation between the bees and their honey stores, and she was right.

So now I have a box of comb stored in the basement, ready for later adventures — and MaryEllen did not have to lend me any of her precious reserves (though she is always terribly generous that way). She told me I should be singing from the rooftops, with two strong and stable colonies more than halfway through the winter, with new bees on the way and a promising new year ahead.

I'm still a little nervous about the future, because it appears that I will soon need to make those splits, and become the mother of 2 more colonies in addition to the one which will be part of a project MaryEllen and I will be doing at a park outside the city. Did I tell you about that? Well, maybe next time.

Finally, today's picture is a comparison of differences between bees. The top picture shows the front top edge of one of Twain's boxes, on the side facing the wall. The girls have made lovely lacy comb out of beeswax in order to weld those frames in place. The bottom half of the picture is similar work, as done by the workers of Wilde. They cement the front edges of the frames in place with lavish slavers of propolis (the stuff in the picture has already been pried up). Just like two different smart people, they tackle the same problem using preferred tools and practices. And no book can tell you how your particular bees are going to be(e).