Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Latest Buzz

...



After weeks and weeks of sloppy chilly rain, and sloppy headcolds, Robb and I were finally able to find a moment to open up our Gloriana hive, and assess the condition of this colony of honeybees.

Earlier this winter, we had "parked" a hive box on our beehive, as a favor for a couple of would-be beekeepers. Our bees would build comb, and raise young bees, and in a few months, Gerry and Laurel would be able to retrieve their box, and start a colony with the offspring of our bees. Unfortunately, we had not had a chance to check how this was going until now, because we didn't want to chill our bees.

As it turned out, we made a pretty foolish error, in that we stuck Gerry and Laurel's hive box on the tippy-top of our colony, too far away from the "brood chamber." When we finally got into the hive boxes today, we realized that we were going to have to shuffle this donor box nearer to the nursery, if we wanted to see any action.

(While we used Gerry and Laurel's frames, we actually used our own hive body, and an unpainted wooden shim. They're using "deep" frames, in a size box that doesn't fit our system. We did some adjustments, in order to keep water from getting into our hive. Cold is bad for bees, but we're told that water is way worse. And it has been a long, wet spring.)




It has been so cold that we didn't want to disrupt the bees by shuffling around their boxes until now. While this may have seemed prudent, it did not encourage the bees to lay eggs in the donor box. The queen didn't have access to the new box. Queens apparently won't cross over honey stores, when laying their eggs.

So instead of raising baby bees in the new box, our bees got to work, raising bees just about everywhere else.

The top box of the stack was the donor box, then came a box crammed full of honey, and next down in line was the box that you see in the labeled photograph. You can see that the bees have built all sorts of structures on the top of the frames in this third box.

(The third and fourth box in the stack were filled with developing bees in the brood chamber. And we didn't look any lower, because the weather was turning sour.)

If you scroll back up, and read the labels, you'll see the three kinds of brood comb that bees make, for queens, female workers, and male drones. You'll also see where we accidentally ripped open some brood comb, and exposed the white grub-like pupa. Bees go through several distinct stages in their development, and this is the last stage before the fully formed bee emerges out of its cell.




I'm not sure what these bees were trying to do to this pupa. It could not survive outside of its wax cell.



Here's another cell that got damaged by the inspection. If you look very closely, you'll see a shiny round red shape on the left of the white pupa. That's a parasitic varroa mite, one of the major pests of the hive. They creep into developing bees' cells, just before the cells are closed up for the pupal development stage. While inside the cell, the mites reproduce, and the young mites suck the vital fluids of the developing bees. (Bees don't really have blood.)

Gross.

This thing actually scurried out of the cell as we watched.



Here's a close up shot of the mite.

Beekeepers are actually advised to tear open capped brood cells, to check for varroa infestation. I think this is the first time we'd seen mites on developing bees.




Bees that have been attacked by mites have compromised immune systems, and often contract Deformed Wing Virus. I spotted one drone who clearly had this problem. I've written about this before, and you can read more about it, here.

The more I learn about beekeeping, the more I suspect that all hives are afflicted with a variety of parasites and illnesses, and that any beekeeper who says that their bees are totally healthy just isn't paying attention. It's like saying that every single person who lives in a huge city is in perfect health. That's just not possible.

Like public health officials, beekeepers are forced to choose what route they'll take, with regards to the well-being of their communities. Robb and I try to put as few chemicals inside our hives as we possibly can. But this method isn't perfect, and we have a hard time "doing nothing" when the bees are struggling.

The bees in the Elizabeth Taylor colony, who abandoned their hive, probably did so to escape the mites. Bees will give up all their offspring and all of their food, in a desperate attempt to get away from the parasites.




Despite what I've just written, things looked pretty good in the Gloriana hive. So good, in fact, that Robb and I split off part of our colony, to start a new hive. We took one of the brood boxes and set it up in the cleaned-out Elizabeth Taylor hive.

We also rearranged the order of the boxes, and stuck a few frames of brood (flanked by plenty of food) in Gerry and Laurel's box. The frame in the photo above is one of their frames, which uses a molded plastic foundation. I had heard, anecdotally, that bees aren't very fond of this kind of foundation, and will take their sweet time building comb on it. I don't know if it was our poor placement, or the bees' reticent to build on plastic, but things weren't moving very quickly, in terms of comb construction. Hopefully, the addition of brood and the new location will encourage more activity.




Here is one of the brood frames that we stuck into the donor box. As you can see, it's covered with large queen cups. We're hoping that by restructuring the hive, and by splitting up the brood into two colonies, we can keep our bees from producing a batch of new queens, and then swarming. (For more on queen cups, click here, and also here.)

As it is, Robb and I are terrible at finding our queen. However, in this case, it doesn't really matter. If she's still in the Gloriana hive, then she'll keep on laying, and the bees will raise a new queen in the split-off hive.

Likewise, when we send the donor box back with Gerry and Laurel, the bees in that box will be able to raise a queen from the eggs that the box will contain.

Our colony has been "booming" all winter, flying in all but the most dismal weather, so we're very hopeful that we can establish several more colonies from the Gloriana hive. Mites notwithstanding, our bees are insanely vigorous. Besides, we got all of our bees from other folk's generosity. So it's time to pay back that favor.

8 comments:

ajt said...

That's very cool. I love reading about your bees. It makes me dream of a day when I'll have a real house with a real backyard... and maybe a hive of my very own.

shiloh said...

From what I've read so far I think you're right about parasites in the hive. It seems like that a hive, like a person can take some infection without much harm. I only know what I've read so far as I've yet to get bees.

Good lick with your splits.

Anonymous said...

I too love to read about the bees!

You are doing a great job showing me what interesting animals they are!!!

And your photos are as always excellent:)

Curbstone Valley Farm said...

I agree, a beekeeper who proclaims they're pest and disease free isn't being honest, or hasn't scrutinized the hive well enough. Nice shot of the Varroa mite. Not that mites are nice in the least of course. They're pure unadulterated evil. Do you, or have you considered doing drone trapping at this time of year? I know it's a double edged sword, but some beekeepers we've spoken to feel it does help to decrease the Varroa load per hive due to their exponential rate of growth through the season. I was concerned about culling excessive numbers of drones that way, but it was recommended to me that you trap, then inspect 10-20 cells to do a mite survey of sorts, and if you're not finding mites on drone larvae, put the frame back. If you do find mites, freeze/clean the frame. I think I'm willing to try almost anything to avoid treating the hives, even though I expect that to be a reality. I am having trouble finding drone frames to fit medium hive bodies though :(

Kristen said...

Urgh, I had heard about wasps that stunned, buried, and laid eggs in live grasshoppers, but somehow little tick-like critters climbing in with gestating bees seems more vile. Maybe because I have less respect for grasshoppers.

TaylorM said...

Yay! I'm so glad Gerry and Laurel will be getting some bees! :)

J said...

I cant wait to keep some bees!~

Nancy Lewis said...

Speaking of the habits of gross varroa mites, I'm sending you a link to something I watched in an Integrated Pest Management class. I challenge you to a gross-out match :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMG-LWyNcAs

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