Bee days

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The last few days have been bee-days for me here at Runamuk. I’ve been more hands-off with the bees this year, which is odd for me, but good for the bees I think. However when I began to see bees crawling down the driveway with shriveled and deformed wings, I knew something was wrong in my hives.  Saturday I needed to pull at least one hive apart in order to put frames in the observation hive to take to the Madison Farmers’ Market’s second annual “Family Farm Day”, so that seemed like a good time to do mite tests on the hives.

I wrote an informative article about “How and why to do mite-tests in your apiary” last year, and I’m not going to rehash it here.  If you are a new beekeeper, or even a beekeeper with a couple of years under your belt, and you haven’t kept up with mite-testing, please click on the link above, and read the post for details about why mite-testing is so crucial, and to learn several methods you can choose from to do your own mite-testing.

Here at Runamuk, we want to be treatment free in the worst way–like Kirk Webster of Vermont, who spoke at last year’s Maine State Beekeepers’ annual conference (read about that here)–we’ve even ordered a number of Kirk’s hygienic Queens for next year.  But studies done by the University of Maine have proven that hives left untreated will die within 2-3 years, and after this last winter when I lost 7 hives to a combination of mites and bitter cold, when I see sickly bees parading down the driveway away from the hives, I know that I need to take action–else I might not have hives to put Kirk’s Queen’s into next year!

Saturday I spent a good 3 hours going through the hives, taking samples and performing alcohol washes on them (my preferred method for assessing the level of the mite populations in my hives).  I tested 3 of the 4 hives here at Runamuk, and came up with counts of 32, 11, and and whopping 90–ouch!

The tolerable level of mites in a hive is going to be different for every beekeeper, depending on his or her methodologies and principles.  My own threshold is 8 mites in a sample of 300 bees.  I had expected after the brutal winter the hives had endured, reducing the numbers of bees in the majority of the colonies, and after swarming–that the mite levels would have been more reasonable.  Hive number 4–the bearer of the 90-mite sample–I had fully anticipated would have a high mite count–as that hive was the only one to come out of the winter strong, and has been roaring all season.  And as predicted, when I looked over the frames of bees and brood–I saw a number of workers with shriveled wings–a virus known as the Deformed Wing Virus.  Not good.

I’m ashamed that I didn’t get into the hives a few weeks ago after I pulled the spring honey off.  That would have been an ideal time to treat, as we typically have a nectar derth (a lull in the season’s nectar flow between the spring and fall).  Now my bees are just beginning to bring in the fall honey and I need to do something about the mites.

I console myself to some degree, knowing that I’ve been out straight with everything happening here at the farm this year, but it does not do much to ease my wounded pride.  Now I’ve lost 7 of my hives, and the remaining few are over-loaded with mites.  Sigh.

On Sunday, with the observation hive at market, I passed out small cups of vanilla ice cream with a teaspoon of honey drizzled over it, and contemplated my options, and the fact that hive #2 had supercedure cells on their frames.

Doing nothing was not an option–because, I knew, with mite-levels such as these, I would be likely have no hives left next spring.  By the end of the day, I had resigned myself to making the trip to Swan’s in Albion to purchase some kind of treatment.

If I must treat, I prefer to use the softer, organic treatments–which are derived from substances found in nature.  HOP-guard is new in the last couple of years, which offers a couple of benefits: 1) the mites have not yet built up a resistance to the substance, and 2) it’s less expensive than some of the better established treatments.  And just as the name implies–HOP-guard is made from our favorite beer-brewing herb: hops.

swan's apiary & beekeeping supply

Swan’s apiary and beekeeping supply store is located practically in the middle of no where–surrounded by fields and forests, which suits their bees just fine!

Yesterday morning I left early to make the hour-drive to Albion–two-hours round trip.  Once you get out of Fairfield, heading through Benton and towards Albion, there’s a lot of beautiful farmlands, so it’s a nice drive–tunes cranking, kids at home with Keith, I fully enjoyed myself.

For $36, I retrieved the silver foil package that contained 50 cardboard strips soaked in the rank hop-ooze, and came home to get to work.

Once I had the hives apart, I found not only supercedure cells in hive number 2, but also several swarm cells.  I hesitated only a moment, considering the possibilities and their consequences, and then sprang into action–collecting more equipment: bottom boards, inner and top covers, and brood boxes.

Hive #4 is so big, has so many resources, and has such a high infestation of mites, that it seemed to me that breaking up the colony in addition to treating the hive would give the bees a better chance of survival.  So that is exactly what I did–I broke the massive colony up into 3 different hives.  One retained the original Queen, and the other two each received a frame from hive number 2 bearing capped Queen cells.  I was able to fill 3 deep brood boxes, and half of the second with the frames of brood, honey, and pollen from hive #4–which makes my risky maneuver plausible.

Note: When you transfer frames from one hive to another, you need to be careful not to unintentionally transfer the Queen with it.

Since hive #2 has been building supercedure cells, that tells me the bees in that colony are not satisfied with their existing Queen; it could be that she is getting old, causing her pheromone levels and egg production to drop.  So I made sure to leave a few supercedure cells in that hive.

That’s the beauty of honeybee hives.  When they decide to re-Queen themselves, or that they want to swarm–they’ll raise a number of new Queens, and you can take those Queen-cells and build new colonies with them.  As long as you provide the right ingredients, they’re generally a successful start to new hives.  You can learn more about making splits and nucs here.

Beekeepers would generally make their hive splits in the spring and early summer; making them as I have, at the end of August is a risky maneuver.  These new colonies need to build up their population to an acceptable level, and store enough food for them to subsist throughout our long Maine winter.  In each of these 3 splits I was able to fill the bottom boxes with brood in all stages, and in 2 of the splits I was also able to add a second box, with another frames of brood, pollen and honey, and a couple of empty frames for them to fill, and I’ll add more empty comb from my stash in the up-coming week.

While beekeepers in the southern part of the state, and even beekeepers down in the valley, are well underway with their fall nectar-flow–at our altitude, ours is just beginning.  Even so, I will be feeding these 3 colonies sugar-syrup to spur on brood production in a major way.

In farming, timing is crucial.  If you procrastinate you can miss those opportunities to plant, or to harvest at the peak of readiness.  And the same applies to beekeeping.  If you procrastinate, or don’t make time to perform those necessary tasks such as mite-testing, there are consequences.

For me–because I missed that window of opportunity to test and treat my hives for mites–I am risking my fall honey crop.  I will probably be able to save the bees, and the bees may make honey while they are being treated–but I won’t harvest that honey for human consumption.  There’s a chance that I may get some honey once the treatments are finished, but it’s a slim chance.  That is the price I pay for missing that window of opportunity–but it is a price I will gladly pay if it means I can keep my bees alive through the winter.

On the other hand–my timing in making these splits may be just right.  Everything may line up perfectly, and instead of 5 sickly hives, I may go into winter with 7 healthy hives with an extra honey super each, which can’t hurt either.

Time will tell.