Monday, October 29, 2012

Halloween Bees

After several weeks of cooler rainy weather we had a bit of sunshine Sunday and the girls were clearly happy to be out working.  The hives were doing orientation flights and bringing in lots of orange and pale yellow pollen.  In this area the orange is likely from Asters or Dahlias and the pale yellow is from ivy.  The girls will fly in the cooler weather and they have to be careful to not let themselves get chilled, which will leave them stranded without a way to warm up and fly back to the hive.  They also need to stay alert for wasps looking to take advantage of tired bees.

The hives are ready for winter and are around their winter cluster size and I won't be disturbing them much in the coming months.  I do plan to periodically check in to make sure they still have food, especially around early February when they are most likely to be at risk of starving.  Granted there isn't much I can do in a top bar other than to move a honey or sugar frame directly next to the brood nest or cluster as a last resort.  They should continue to raise ever smaller patches of brood in November and on nice days will fly to collect water or any pollen that's out there.  As the nights get colder they also seem to really bring in the propolis to seal up the hive against drafts and pests.

Resting briefly after bringing back a haul of pollen.  

Hummingbirds love the hardy fuschia blooms, and the bees only seem interested in the pollen.

On a recent trip to Yakima, WA to visit family I was talking with my grandfather about the family apple orchard and what they do for pollination.  In addition to planting pollinator trees at the ends of rows they also rotate varieties between rows to increase the odds bees will visit two trees of different varieties and cross pollinate the flowers. He showed me a pollen tray he adds to the hives entrances loaded with apple pollen.  The bees walk through the pollen on their way out of the hive and get a foreign variety of apple pollen to the area which will improve the odds to cross pollinating.  It's an interesting idea and I can see how the bees would get a light coat of pollen on the way out if they were on a nectar trip.  However I'm not sure what would keep them from just collecting all the pollen out of the tray and taking it back into the hive.  I'm curious to check them out in action this spring.

Bigger tastier apples are the rewards of cross pollination.

Hive checks (10/28/2012)

Plum Creek
They have several frames of brood and continue to build up slowly.  They didn't do much with the syrup I gave them and I pulled the excess out and tightened up the follower board.

They had a small amount of syrup left.  Removed the syrup and tightened up the follower board.  They have a good amount of honey stored and I pulled a frame of honey.  Unfortunately they are showing signs of DWV virus and if it's anything like what the Geeks had I think it will be unlikely they will make it till spring.

Gluttons Nuc
They finished off their syrup and I gave them leftovers from the other hives.  Their numbers look good and I'm curious if they will finish the leftover syrup this late in the season.

Icon Daughter Nuc
They look good and are still raising brood.  The boost of foragers to this hive has really made the difference. While I can't assume that this queen only lays darker bees I do know that the hive only had light worker bees and a handful of dark bees when merged.  You can see the number of darker bees that she has produced in the last 5 weeks vs the lighter forager bees that are likely left over from the Rebel hive.  They are still allowing drones in this hive as well.

Even a tiny queen can produce a nice solid brood pattern.

Librarian Daughter Nuc
There was some syrup left and I pulled it out and tightened up the follower board.  They have brood, but their numbers are less than ideal for a winter cluster.

They also finished the syrup they had and I gave them some of the leftover syrup.  They have good activity and numbers and seem to have picked right up with the Geek queen.  No inspection.  I found two wasp queens in hibernation under the cover waiting for spring to start new colonies.  Unfortunately for them they picked a bad location to hide out for the winter and got introduced to the hive tool.

They finished the syrup they had and I also gave them some of the extra to see if a bigger hive would still take it.  They have good activity and numbers.  No inspection.

They had good activity and they appear to have built back up.  No inspection since I pulled their syrup and tightened up the follower board back in early October.

Ready to carve.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff

Friday, October 19, 2012

What Are Resistant Bees?

Over last couple days I've been reflecting on how the hives did this summer and wanted to note my observations around what happened with a particular hive.  This hive came close to dying out but somehow was able to recover, and I have a few thoughts on how it pulled off this feat.  First it is important to know that I inspect my hives often, despite any setbacks it may cause in the hives.  This allows me to document what is going on in the hive and collect data can be invaluable in identifying issues later on such as in this case.  Hive dynamics change so quickly that if you aren't watching weekly you can miss something unexpected that is worth looking into further, and I would encourage all beekeepers to take good notes during inspections.

To add some background here I need to define treatment free or survivor bees and how I use those terms vs how another beekeeper might define them.  I think of treatment free bees as bees that have been exposed to pathogens or parasites and survived without "help" from the beekeeper.  They would also have to be easy to work (not too aggressive), not prone to frequent swarming and good honey producers.  I put "help" in quotes because there are many things beekeepers may add to that definition as a result of trying to maximize a honey crop or pollination.  This also means that a hive in an isolated location that has survived without help for years and has tons of honey might not be very resistant but rather lucky that they haven't been exposed to anything yet.

The girls are working hard to store an abundance of pollen for spring.

This year has been an interesting year with the hives and seeing the damage that mites can cause.  The mites themselves do not directly kill the bees (their hosts), but rather steal energy/resources and spread diseases around the hive from bee to bee, similar to how mosquitoes spread Malaria.  When the bees are building up they can out-pace the mites by creating new bees faster than the mites can keep up and the hive stays healthy.  However after the flow ends mid-summer that pace slows down and an abundance of mites is left behind for a decreasing population of bees to deal with and viruses can quickly spread.  While there currently is nothing available to stop the viruses, there are ways to suppress the mites which in turn slows the rate they spread diseases.  One natural way bees indirectly suppress the mite levels is to swarm which causes a brood cycle break.  However beekeepers work pretty hard to prevent this to maximize the colony size and resulting honey surplus so we look to "treatments" or genetics to solve the mite problem.

Now that we know a little about what damage the mites are doing in the hive here is a summary of my observations of the Librarian hive this year.  This was a second year hive with a late season queen from 2011.  The hive suffered all spring and into July with high varroa levels and deformed wing virus (DWV).  The population was never able to build up and they dropped down to just a few frames of bees limping along on the stores collected the previous year.  However a rather surprising thing happened mid summer in that the varroa didn't go away but the DWV suddenly cleared up.  I had long given up on powdered sugar treatments and yet somehow this hive turned around when it should have perished and the queen was able to lay frames of healthy brood and the hive started thriving again.
This type of recovery has also been observed by other researchers but is not fully understood.  It appears that the bees are able to transfer genetic code to each other that makes them resistant to DWV or another virus.  This immunity is most likely transferred in the royal jelly nurse bees make and feed to the next generation of bees, which then become resistant and can pass it on again to the next.  Perhaps a little like how mothers transfer their immunity to viruses on to their children through breast milk.  Unfortunately the queen of this hive died suddenly last month and had to be replaced.  She was replaced by a queen from a hive that did great up until the end of July when it too was overtaken by DWV.  Unfortunately that hive and another one could not recover from the viral outbreak and dwindled to nothing in a matter of weeks.  Those hives both collapsed with symptoms that could be described as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Should this hive survive the winter and show signs that they have passed on DWV resistance to the bees raised in spring I have plans to explore how this resistance can be shared with other hives.  I also have the late season daughter queen from this hive with bees and frames that came form this hive that might also carry this resistance.  I do find the idea exciting that a mechanism may exist that doesn't solely rely on a queen passing on a genetic trait to the next generation.  Of course this also means that you could mistakenly think you have a queen line with resistant qualities when in fact the hive is thriving due to a an immunity that isn't passed on through daughter queens, but through the workers.

Dahlia blooms last until the first freeze in fall.

Crape Myrtle is another late September bloomer that the bees love. 

Hive checks (10/7/2012)

I've decided to give all the hives names this week so everyone is easier to keep track of.

Plum Creek
They have taken some syrup and they have good activity.  They have built up fairly well and should be good going into winter if they make the most of the nicer October weather.  I've been noticing a small amount of bearding on this hive during the day.  My thoughts are they are trying defend hive or regulate the hive temperature.

Bearding around the entrance.

The queen is back in the swing of things and had laid out a solid pattern over several frames.  Not the full frames she was doing two months ago, but hopefully enough to pull this hive through winter.

The queen seems to have been accepted well by her grandchildren.

Nice patch of brood surrounded by bee bread and several types of pollen.

Nuc 2 - Architects
This hive is a daughter of the Engineer hive so the name Architects seems fitting for them.  These girls have built up and are still taking syrup.  They inherented several honey frames from the Engineer hive.

They are taking syrup and have good activity.

Librarian Daughter Nuc
They are taking syrup.  Two frames with nice solid patches of brood.  This queen might work out after all and no more signs of them trying to make queen cells.  My winter concern for them is they are still a small hive and they really need to make the most of whatever nice weather is left for the year to build up.  They got an extra frame of honey from the Engineer hive.

Icon Daughter Nuc
They seems to have accepted their new queen and there are no signs of queen cells.  The queen has kicked up her laying and has fairly large patches of brood over a couple frames.  There are a lot of bees in here, but I don't know how many are old foragers and how many are winter bees.

Nuc 3 - Gluttons
These girls are a daughter of the Geeks, and they continuously suck down the syrup but never seem to have much of a growth spurt so I'm guessing they are quick to substitute syrup for good forage and the Gluttons seems like a fitting name for them.   They should be in good shape for winter as they have been sucking down the syrup.  They got an extra frame of honey from the Engineer hive.

Engineer Hive
Sad news, the queen was gone and there was a handful of bees and a couple cells with larvae showing signs of DWV.  Broke up the remaining honey frames for other hives.  They stopped taking food weeks ago and I noticed a big cutback on brood, but I took it to be a sign she was shutting down early for winter when really DWV was taking it's toll on the hive.

Northgate Swarm - Rebels
These girls probably have some Russian genetics and raise a lot of brood and have good stores.  They are a little feisty too which is why I'm calling this hive the Rebels.  There is a lot of uncapped honey in this hive and I'm not surprised they really aren't doing much with the syrup all the way at the back.  They have several frames of solid brood coming and are building back up quickly.  They don't store much surplus pollen which could be an issue in Spring.  I've read that Russian brood up/down based on available pollen so watching the flowers should be a good indicator of what they will be doing.

They took about a half gallon this last week.

There are a lot of bees in this hive now.  No new comb this week and only took about half the syrup from the week before.  They have built up amazingly well this summer and have packed the frames with stores for Spring.

We seem to be loosing daylight hours pretty quickly now and the bees aren't as active at the start/ends of the day, but still have good mid-day activity.

Here's a worker taking advantage of the last hours of light to bring back a little more pollen.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Borage a Forgotten Herb?

Borage is one of those plants every beekeeper should be familiar with.  It is a great producer of nectar and pollen and ranks pretty high on the list of favorite plants for honey bees.  Oh and don't forget that it is also their favorite color.  Borage is a self seeding annual and if you stagger the seeds you can produce crops in spring and fall at times when the bees are in need of good nectar and pollen sources.

Borage has star shaped flowers that typically hang downwards.

Speaking of fall crops, now is the time to start prepping your gardens for winter cover crops.  Cover crops are good for holding nutrients in the soil and depending on what you plant might even enrich the soil.  Kale and Collards will mature and bloom early spring and the flowers are very attractive to bees.  Other good choices are Crimson Clover and Winter Peas.

I've been asked a few times why I've been feeding syrup.  In some areas there are good patches of Knotweed to provide winter feed, but I just don't see those patches here in Queen Anne and I don't see the girls bringing in much surplus nectar.  Feeding works well in August and September when the nights are still warm, but come October the bees can have trouble drying it in time for winter and it can ferment.  The colder October nights also means that the syrup doesn't have much time to warm up during the day and the girls don't like cold syrup any more than Seattleites like cold coffee in the morning.

In top bars you will run into problems if they go into winter without enough honey saved.  In Langstroth hives you can always use the mountain camp method (dry sugar above the top frames) for a light hive.  I did try putting dry sugar in empty combs last year that helped to some extent but isn't really comparable to mountain camp.  You can also get them to take syrup longer in cooler weather if you have syrup directly above a warm brood nest in a Langstroth hive instead of the back of a top bar hive.

There are still a few flowers out there blooming to keep the foragers busy.  In addition to what I've discussed in previous posts here are some new ones I found this week.  None of them were in abundance and will likely only provide enough to keep the foragers going.

Fall blooming crocus.

Dahlia blooms.

Nasturtium flowers.

Mallow flowers (same family of plants used to make traditional marshmallows).

Wild Geraniums.

Another late season flower that people often forget about is ivy.  Yeah it stinks a little and the honey crystallizes quickly but if it has been a tough year it can offer the bees a little late season boost.  Pollen has a limited "shelf life" and having a few late season pollen sources like ivy can help them build up a reserve for the early spring bees.  There are other winter pollen sources but you never know with the weather around here if they will be able to get to them.  Ivy also seems to attract a lot of other flying bugs and I often see a lot of hover flies and wasps after the nectar.

English Ivy provides fall pollen and nectar.

In addition to seeing the syrup intake slowing down the hive actively has also been winding down for winter.  The girls seem to be a bit more cautious in their foraging and staying closer to home.  For the most part winter prep is done and the hives aren't trying to build up but rather to simply maintain themselves and conserve resources.  Inspections are little more than checking syrup and looking at brood on the weak hives.  There is still time to combine hives, but otherwise manipulations are pretty much done until March.

Hive Check (9/29/2012)

There is a small patch of larvae, but not as much as I would have hoped for.  They are taking feed.

Nuc 2
Taking a little feed.

They are taking feed.

Librarian Daughter Nuc
There was a queen cell, and a small patch of worker larvae on the way.  I removed the queen cell.  They aren't taking much feed.

Icon Daughter Nuc
Small patch of brood, lots of bees.  They were making queen cells in here as well that I removed.  I'm guessing that the foragers don't think she's a very strong queen.  I removed the queen cells on both hives because there is no time for them to be successful.  If the queens aren't working out then a combine is the only salvage option left.

You can see the white pupa and all the white royal jelly at the bottom of this opened queen cell.

Nuc 3
They are taking feed.

Engineer Hive
Not much brood.  They are taking feed.

Northgate Swarm
They have a lot of brood and they are light on pollen.  They are not taking much feed.  Gave them a frame of bee bread from the nuc they were in.

Queen Castle 1 - Slot 3
Moved into a new Nuc (Plum Creek) and added feed.  They have built up well. Decent amount of brood on the way.

The Plum Creek Nuc has a wood stamp on the lumber from Plum Creek showing right on the front of the hive and the name stuck. I'm been debating the naming of queens vs hive boxes and am thinking about a new system to track everything next year.

Hive Check (9/30/2012)

Gave them more syrup.  They took a half gallon this week.

Gave them more syrup.  They took a half gallon this week as well.  I was a little surprised to see these girls building new comb with a whole frame of solid eggs and several frames of brood coming.  Maybe they didn't get the memo that fall is coming.  This hive gets a lot of sun and I'm sure that is helping to extend the season just a bit beyond the other hives.

Observation in the below picture.  This comb is upside down so the honey arch is at the bottom of the pic.  It's a little hard to see unless you enlarge the pic but the capped honey cells are elongated more than the brood cells and you can see the cliff between the two cell heights where it transitions to brood comb (with eggs you can't see).  When you have natural cell you can also get shallower cells in addition to smaller width cells for brood.  Typically you only hear discussions about cell width being in the 4.9 -5.4 mm range.

Cell size differences.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff