Thursday, October 18, 2012

Some Girls Have all the Moxie

I am coming down from my relief about Colleen's Royal Ruckus, disappointed yes, but the relief that I don't have AFB is just tremendous! Finally I can focus enough to get our winterizing plan mobilized.

At the last Minnesota Hobby Beekeeper's meeting a beekeeper asked for donations to a research project. He was looking for weak hives, less than five frames of bees that probably wouldn't overwinter. I thought of Mr. Abbott, our little divide from The Turquoise Bee.  Although they seemed to be making some momentum they would fit his criteria. They didn't have any honey and probably wouldn't make it through the winter. I gave the beekeeper a call, offering the bees but said I needed one more week to make a final check on them. I was actually worried they wouldn't make it through the week and didn't want him to get his hopes up. I just can't wrap my mind around what these girls are working off.

Paula and I headed down to the bee yard early with a brilliant sky blue pink on the horizon and barely a chill in the air. We had more mouse guards and winter covers for the hives. I was curious about what we would find. Would more hives have absconded? Would Crazy Comb be dying off without her queen? Would The Turquoise Bee behave so we could inspect her? Would we find a great deal more honey in Drone Den from robbing? If was full of questions.

We moved all of our gear out of the car and down to the bee yard. Paula couldn't get the smoker light so we just move ahead without smoke.  First things first, get the mouse guards in place while there wasn't a bee stirring. The hammering would surely rile the bees and we couldn't wear gloves while getting the nails in place. It would be easier to get them in now before any activity from the bees. We did a cursory inspection in Katrina's Drone Den. I do think these girls may have robbed Royal Ruckus. They have great honey stores, more than I remember and seem strong. Note to self, we should probably keep better records of our frame inventories in each hive. We would have been wise to do a powdered sugar test for mites. Doing so would tell us our mite load which would be a good predictor of surviving through the winter. After the vanishing act of Royal Ruckus I am starting to rethink our mite management. I am not contemplating treating but knowing mite loads could help us make other decisions about how we manage wintering and maybe even help us figure out how many new packages to order. Food for thought. We fitted Drone Den for her cover, made a cut out for the bees and placed the moisture board in place. One hive tucked in for winter.

Next we looked through Mr. Abbott and found a robust group of bees. true grit and spirit to boot. These girls have some moxie to be sure! I started wondering about their genetics. The more populated they got the more they acted like The Turquoise Bee. I wondered if we could figure out their lineage. Brood and bees moved from Turquoise but a new Queen would reset the genetic make up in any hive but we had two queens running amok in Mr. Abbott for at least a month. Did the unmarked queen come from Turquoise Brood?  I told Paula I was rethinking the donation. But without any honey it didn't make since to keep them.

I was anxious to see how Crazy Comb was doing without their queen. When we open up the hive it was clear the population was declining and they had a fair amount of honey. Paula suggested we move frames of honey over to Mr. Abbott and try to keep her going. I agreed it was a great idea. We had two boxes to go through and could pick out the heaviest frames to move. As we started sorting I noticed we had queen cup after queen cup. Holy mother of Apis these girls are fixing to re-queen themselves. We took our time and removed every single queen cup and agreed, we would need to come back next week to check on them. After taking out the queen it would be something if they re-queened. I don't know if a queen could actually take a mating flight at this time of year but I didn't want to risk it. We painstakingly removed every queen cell we saw. Paula had some news paper in the car so instead of brushing the bees off the frames of honey we wanted to move we placed newspaper between the old and new box. By the time the bees ate through the newspaper they would be attracted to their new queen and wouldn't have a brawl on our hands. It was a lot easier than brushing bees even though there weren't that many bees. As we worked I noticed that the bees from Mr. Abbott seemed riled up and I reiterated my concern about their lineage. We put her winter cover on and moisture board in place. Two hives tucked in for winter. I'd have to call David, the beekeeper hoping to get some bees from me and tell him no go.

Finally we decided we had to check The Turquoise Bee, it was now or never. We have not dealt with those renegade girls in months. We had to get a better idea of what was going on in that hive and hopefully extract the queen. As always they were agitated beyond measure. There was a reasonable amount of honey and a fair amount of brood. I immediately caught sight of an unmarked queen. When had Snow White been replaced? How long had this queen been at it? I'd have to go back in our records and see when we last saw her. I took her out, swiftly! These girls have to go, no matter what. I was delighted with myself for locating her and doing the deed with such precision. That being said there is a tun of brood and probably some eggs in the hive leaving the girls plenty to work with to re-queen themselves. We will have to watch them like a hawk for the next three weeks and remove any attempts they make.

Our work is hardly done. We will have to return weekly for the next three weeks or so making sure Crazy Comb and Turquoise Bee meet their demise and then pull the boxes and store the frames. Anything with honey, well we might be begging for some walk in freezer space to store it. Nothing would be better than a few frames of frozen honey to slip into an over wintered hive in the spring. We loaded Paula's minivan up, throwing in our workbench and headed for coffee. I was was pleased with myself and my queen spotting skills and had to brag a bit on the way home.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Anxious Bee Keeper

Bee with Varroa Mite, that red dot on the head of the bee.

I am an anxious person. I fret, I stew, I worry. It is who I am. Half measures avail me nothing so I do it well and I do it with enthusiasm. Colleen's Royal Ruckus has been the object of my worry since we last went to the bee yard. After reading and consulting as many folks as possible, I just couldn't get AFB out of my head. Experienced beekeeper after experienced beekeeper weighed in. They all said Verroa. It was unanimous. Not a single bee keeper suggested something other than demise from the mighty mite! I meant to bring some of the frames from Royal Ruckus to the Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers meeting earlier this month but I was so preoccupied with Marla showing up as the guest speaker that I forgot.

To make matters worse, Gary, Marla's side kick and beekeeper extraordinaire decided it would be a good night for show and tell and brought in some frames with AFB. "Can you smell that?" he asked the group. The telling sign of AFB, its stench. I moved closer to the desk to inspect and smell the frames. Damn they smell and look like my frames. Gary started pulling out the scales left on the bees from the AFB spores and used an ultraviolet light to show them to us. I started to panic, my heart was pounding.

I was sick, really. It was like discovering I had sexually transmitted disease. I felt dirty! All of my equipment would need to be burned to the ground. Nothing short of that would stop the spread of the disease. I imagined my next trip to the bee yard finding more hives gone. I could hardly listen to Marla. I wanted to get home and look at my frames again. I "borrowed a UV light" thinking somehow I might see the scales Gary showed up. Mostly the sweet stench of the frames stayed in my nose.

I inspected, smelled, inspected, smelled some more, watched ytube videos, read and looked at those frames until my anxiety completely consumed me. Finally I got up the courage to email Jim. Before I got my bees from Kentucky I ordered bees from Jim. He emailed back immediately. "You are more than welcome to bring the frames to me to look at but your bees left because of Verroa" I stewed all day until 4pm and then packed the bee mobile with my over sized Tupperware containers filled with frames from Royal Ruckus. I had to know for sure. When I got to Jim's and started unloading containers from the car, all three of them he laughed. "Verroa, Verroa, Verroa".  I explained that after Gary's show and tell at the last meeting I just couldn't get AFB out of my head and that the smell of my frames was just like the AFB frames Gary had. Jim opened the Tupperware. "These smell fine, that's just the smell of dead brood. Your bees had Verroa." He looked through the frames, opened a few caps and then commented on how much pollen and wax there was. "These will be great in the spring, just spray them with sugar water and put them in a new package. You will have honey in June." He also confirmed that robbing had taken place. I more or less knew that from the torn open cells but since I had never seen it before I showed him some of the super frames that were all torn apart.

Before I left Jim advised me to put the frames out in the cold and make sure they get frozen through and through. I could have small hive beetle or wax moths in the frames and the only way to kill them is to freeze them. As soon as it is cold enough leave them outside until they freeze through, he told me. I sort of figured I should do this but I can use all the help I can get! It would be just as shameful to loose all my comb to wax moth as it would be to have AFB. Well maybe not just as shameful but it would be really sad and wasteful especially since I can prevent that.

Beekeepers are the most generous folks in the world. I continue to be amazed by their generosity. I can show up anywhere any time at a hobby bee keeping meeting, send out emails to bee keepers I hardly know and they always respond quickly and with insight. They offer to look at anything, come down to my apiary, what ever might help to solve my delima. They offer up suggestions and ideas, never hiding behind the family recipe for success. They genuinely want everyone to be successful. I still feel like a novice, heck I had never seen comb torn up by robbing before and had to have someone look at my comb to tell me that is exactly what I was looking at. Right now my email box is hardly filling up with requests for help and no one is seeking me out at the meetings for an opinion but some day I hope to return the generosity and be there for that novice like myself who doesn't know the difference between the stench of dead brood and AFB.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Grim News: Royal Ruckus Has Vanished

I am too puzzled to be sad.

It has been cold here in Minnesota, last weekend there was snow up north and this weekend we had a hard frost in the cities. During our last trip to the bee yard, three weeks ago, we didn't really do any winterizing. It was 80 degrees that day. While it isn't quite time to cover up the hives it is time to put in mouse guards, plug up any openings and make some last minute calculations about survival. So Paula and I headed down to the bee yard yesterday morning, hammer in hand and boat load of news to catch up on between us. We gabbed the whole way down, didn't bother playing our theme song and then mapped out our plan. I had not really prepared so we were short on mouse guards but at least we could get the entrance reducers in.

The yard was quite. I expected this as it was chilly and early.  I found a few piles of drones in front of two of the hives, a good sign that the girls are getting ready to hunker down. When the weather changes the bees and the beekeeper get ready for winter. Worker bees kill all the drones and throw them out of the hive. They don't do anything other than consume honey stores so the girls just get rid of them. The queen slows down and eventually stops lay. The bees form a cluster and starting at the bottom of the hive they work their way through the winter stores moving up as they need. By spring time a happy beekeeper will find a cluster of bees still eating away at the honey left in the hive, usually in the top box. An unhappy beekeeper might find a dead out, bees that died of disease or starvation.

Winterizing for the beekeeper includes looking for evidence of disease, evaluating food stores and preparing the hive for winter. We looked around the yard. Typically we don't see any evidence of disease but we don't check to hard since we are not going to treat the bees. The most common disease is nosema, a condition that affects the intestinal health of the bees. You can usually catch this disease by very distinct markings of bee excrement on outside surface of the hive boxes. Basically bee diarrhea. It is more prevalent in the spring but we have a box or two that might have some of the characteristic markings.

 I started plugging holes and checking hives while Paula worked on the mouse guards which were too big and needed to be bent to get them in place. I felt foolish for not having ordered enough to go around and not having the right sizes for the smaller hives. Mice love to burrow in the warmth of a hive box during the winter and will destroy all and any comb. Paula worked long and hard to make sure we had adequate protection against these little rodents! Anything to protect our precious comb. I would be devastated to have all our comb torn apart by mice!

I was a little dumbfounded to find Mr. Abbott still thriving although there is some evidence of nosema outside her top box. I am confident they won't survive but it is really quite something to watch them just carry on.  The Turquoise Bee was her usual angry self and we couldn't really get in to check her out. We opened up Crazy Comb, found her Queen and "took her out".  I am really feeling guilty about it but it had to be done. Katrina's Drone Den seem to have more honey than I remember her having and like Crazy Comb, The Turquoise Bee and Mr. Abbott the bees all seemed to be clustered in the top box. I wasn't too happy about that as I think the bees should be in the bottom boxes going into winter. Could be a sign that they don't have enough honey to survive. Time will tell.

Then we went to check on Colleen's Royal Ruckus. Nothing in the top box at all, well maybe that was good and they were all in the bottom box. Nothing in the middle box. I starting wondering where all the honey was that was there three weeks ago. We put both boxes aside and then discovered there was nothing in the bottom box. NOTHING! No bees, no pile of dead bees at the bottom of the box, NOTHING. We started to rifle through the frames to see if we could figure out what happened. There was some scant patchy brood, nothing substantial at all. Bees won't abandon a brood nest ever but what was left hardly constituted a brood nest,  just patches of spotty brood here and there on about half the frames. There were some dead emerging bees, no evidence of disease save something weird looking on the outside of the middle box that looked sort of like nosema but not really. We looked closely at the frames, all the honey was gone, every last lick gone and the comb in some areas but not all seemed to be torn apart like it had been robbed out. The frames did seem full of pollen.

What the heck? Is this what colony collapse looks like or is this just old school absconding? I don't really understand the difference to be honest. Absconding usually happens when conditions in the hive just are not right for survival. A desperate hive leaves with all the bees, queen and everything else except the honeycomb. Our honey was gone but the pollen was left behind. Colony Collapse Disorder is characterized by honey and pollen and brood all being left left behind and usually  the queen and a few nurse bees are left. Its all to weird and confusing to me. Some of the frames are torn apart like they were robbed but there was a patch of honey on one frame left undisturbed. When I got home I read threw my books and poked around online. For a fleeting moment I worried about American Foulbrood a disease that would mean burning all of our equipment and I mean all of it. It would mean starting over. It one point I even tried poking a match stick end into the brood to test for ropiness but who knows if the brood was past the point of maturity for this particular indicator.

I am going to my monthly beekeepers meeting tonight where wiser minds prevail. My other girlfriend Marla is the guest speaker so I am going to have to work extra hard to pay attention, focus. Hopefully I can get some answers about what may have happened to the hive from the more experienced beekeepers. I may just throw a box of the frames into the car and bring them in for those wiser minds to inspect and postulate over.