Category Archives: Varroa control

Midwinter, no; mites, yes

There’s a certain irony that the more conscientious you are in protecting your winter bees from the ravages of Varroa in late summer, the more necessary it is to apply a miticide in the winter.

Winter bees are the ones that are in your hives now 1.

They have a very different physiology to the midsummer foragers that fill your supers with nectar. Winter bees have low levels of juvenile hormone and high levels of vitellogenin. They are long-lived – up to 8 months – and they form an efficient thermoregulating cluster when the external temperature plummets.

Winter bees production

In the temperate northern hemisphere, winter bees are reared from late summer/early autumn onwards. The combination of reductions in the photoperiod (day length), temperature and forage availability triggers changes in brood and forager pheromones.

Factors that influence winter bee production

Together these induce the production of winter bees.

For more details see Overwintering honey bees: biology and management by Döke et al., (2010).

Day length reduces predictably as summer changes to autumn. In contrast, temperature and forage availability (which itself is influenced by temperature and rainfall … and day length) are much more variable (so less predictable).

All of which means that you cannot be sure when the winter bees are produced.

If there’s an “Indian summer“, with warm temperatures stretching into late October, the bees will be out working the ivy and rearing good amounts of brood late into the year. The busy foragers and high(er) levels of brood pheromone will then delay the production of winter bees.

Conversely, low temperatures and early frosts reduce foraging and brood production, so bringing forward winter bee production.

It’s an inexact science.

You cannot be sure when the winter bees will be produced, but you can be sure that they will be reared.

Protect your winter bees

And if they are being reared, you must protect them from Varroa and the viral payload it delivers to developing pupae. Most important of these viruses is deformed wing virus (DWV).

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Aside from “doing what it says on the tin” i.e. causing wing deformities and other developmental defects in some brood, DWV also reduces the longevity of winter bees.

And that’s a problem.

If they die sooner than they should they cannot help in thermoregulating the winter cluster.

And that results in the cluster having to work harder to keep warm as it gets smaller … and smaller … and smaller …

Until it’s so small it cannot reach its food reserves (isolation starvation) or freezes to death 2.

So, to protect your winter bees, you need to treat with an appropriate miticide in late summer. This reduces the mite load in the hive by up to 95% and so gives the winter bees a very good chance of leading a long and happy life 😉

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Time of treatment and mite numbers

I discussed this in excruciating detail in 2016 in a post titled When to treat?.

The figure above was taken from that post and is described more fully there. The arrow indicates when winter bees are produced and the variously coloured solid lines indicate mite numbers when treated in mid-July to mid-November.

The earlier you treat (indicated by the sudden drop in the mite count) the lower the peak mite numbers when the winter bees are being reared.

Note that the mite numbers indicated on the right hand vertical axis are not ‘real’ figures. They depend on the number present at the start of the year. In the figure above I “primed” the in silico modelled colony with just 20 mites. This will become very important in a few paragraphs.

Late season brood rearing

Compare the blue line (mid-August treatment) with the cyan line 3 (mid-October treatment) in the figure above.

The mid-October treatment really hammers the mite number down and they remain low until the end of the year 4.

The reason the mite numbers remain low after a mid-October treatment is that there is little or no brood being reared in the colony during this period.

Mites need brood, and specifically sealed brood, to reproduce on.

In the absence of brood the mites ‘colony surf‘, riding around as phoretic mites on nurse bees (or any bees if there aren’t the nurse bees they prefer).

And that late season brood rearing is the reason the end-of-year mite number for the colony treated in mid-August (the blue line) remains significantly higher.

Mites that survive the miticide in August simply carry on with their sordid little destructive lives, infesting the ample brood available (which could even include some highly mite-attractive and productive drone brood) and reproducing busily.

So, the earlier you treat, the more mites remain in the hive at the end of the year.

Weird, but true.

Early season brood rearing

The winter bees don’t ‘just’ get the colony through the winter.

As the day length increases and the temperature rises the colony starts rearing brood again. Depending upon your latitude it might never stop, but the rate at which it rears brood certainly increases in early spring.

Or, more correctly, in mid- to late-winter.

And it’s the winter bees that do this brood rearing. As Grozinger and colleagues state Once brood rearing re-initiates in late winter/early spring, the division of labor resumes among overwintered worker bees.”

Some winter bees revert to nurse bee activity, to rear the next generation of bees.

And this is another reason why strong colonies overwinter better … not because they (also) survive the cold better 5, but because there are more bees available to take on these brood rearing activities.

Strong, healthy colonies build up better in early spring.

Colonies that are weak in spring and stagger through the first few months of the year, never getting close to swarming, are of little use for honey production, more likely to get robbed out and may not build up enough for the following winter.

Midwinter mite treatments

Which brings us back to the need for miticide treatment in midwinter.

The BEEHAVE modelled colony shown in the graph above was ‘primed’ at the beginning of the season with 20 mites. These reproduced and generated almost 800 mites over the next 10-11 months.

What do you think would happen if you start the year with 200 mites, rather than 20?

Like the 200 remaining at the year end when you treat in mid-August?

Lots of mites … probably approaching 8000 … that’s almost as many mites as bees by the end of the season.

So, one reason to treat in the middle of winter is to reduce mite levels later in the season. The smaller the number you start with, the less you have later.

Vapour leaks out ...

Vaporisation … oxalic acid vapour leaks out …

But at the beginning of the season these elevated levels of mites could cause problems. High levels of mites and low levels of brood is not a good mix.

There’s the potential for those tiny patches of brood to become mite-infested very early in the season … this helps the mites but hinders the bees.

Logically, the more mites present at the start of brood rearing, the more likely it is that colony build up will be retarded.

So that’s two reasons to treat with miticides – usually an oxalic-acid containing treatment – in midwinter.

Midwinter? Or earlier?

When does the colony start brood rearing again in earnest?

This is important as the ‘midwinter’ treatment should be timed for a period before this when the colony is broodless. This is to ensure that all the mites are phoretic and ‘easy to reach’ with a well-timed dribble of Api-Bioxal.

In studies over 30 years ago Seeley and Visscher demonstrated that colonies have to start brood rearing in midwinter to build up enough to have the opportunity to swarm in late spring. These were colonies in cold climates, but the conditions – and season length – aren’t dramatically different to much of the UK.

Low temperatures regularly extend into January or February. The temperature is also variable year on year. It therefore seems (to me) that the most likely trigger for new brood rearing is increasing day length 6.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

I therefore assume that colonies may well be rearing brood very soon after the winter solstice.

I’m also aware that my colonies are almost always broodless earlier in the winter … or even what is still technically late autumn.

This is from experience of both direct (opening hives) or indirect (fresh brood mappings on the Varroa tray) observation.

Hence the “Midwinter, no” title of this post.

Don’t delay

I therefore treat with a dribbled or vaporised oxalic acid-containing miticide in late November or early December. In 2016 and 2017 it was the first week in December. Last year it was a week  later because we had heavy snow.

This year it was today … the 28th of November. With another apiary destined for treatment this weekend.

If colonies are broodless there is nothing to be gained by delaying treatment until later in the winter.

Most beekeepers treat between Christmas and New Year. It’s convenient. They’re probably on holiday and it is a good excuse to escape the family/mince pies/rubbish on the TV (delete as appropriate).

But it might be too late … don’t delay.

If colonies are broodless treat them now.

If you don’t and they start rearing brood the mites will hide away and be unreachable … but their daughters and granddaughters will cause you and your bees problems later in the season.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there’s no need to coordinate winter treatments. The bees aren’t flying and the possibility of mites being transferred – through robbing or drifting – from treated to untreated colonies is minimal.


 

Beekeeping economics

You are not going to make a million being a beekeeper. Or even a fraction of that.

I know a couple of beekeepers who have all the trappings of wealth … the big house, the big car with the personal number plate, the holiday place in France and the beesuit with no smoker-induced holes in the veil.

Neither of them made their money beekeeping.

Anyone aboard Murray?

I’ve met a few of the large commercial beekeepers here and abroad, operations with 500 to 1000 times the number of hives I’ve got.

None of them seemed to have yachts or Ferraris.

Or any free time to enjoy them if they had 😉

If you want to have a lot of money when you finally lose your last hive tool you probably need to start with lots more 1.

But the vast majority of beekeepers aren’t commercial. Most are hobbyists.

A hobby that (sometimes) makes a profit

In the UK there are ~25,000 beekeepers. Of these, the Bee Farmers Association represent the interests of the ~400 commercial beekeeping businesses.

Over 98% of UK beekeepers therefore do not consider themselves as commercial. These amateur or hobby beekeepers have on average 3-5 hives each, according to relatively recent surveys. Most probably have just one or two, with a few having more 2.

It’s worth emphasising (again) that it is always better to have more than one colony. The small increase in work involved – the apiary visits, the inspections, extracting all that honey 😉 – is more than justified by the experience and resilience it brings to your beekeeping.

Two are better than one …

For the remainder of the post I’m going to consider a (hypothetical) beekeeper with four colonies.

What are the costs involved in running four colonies and how much ‘profit’ might be expected?

Inevitably, this is going to be very, very approximate.

I’m going to make a load of assumptions, some loosely based on real data. I’ll discuss some of the more important assumptions where appropriate.

I’m also going to ignore a load of variables that would be little more than guesstimates anyway e.g. petrol costs to get to your apiary 3, the purchase of additional hive hardware or rent for the apiary.

Why four hives?

I’ve chosen four hives for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a small enough number you could house them in a small(ish) suburban garden and, wherever they’re sited, they will not exploit all the forage in range.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives on wooden pallets

Secondly, it’s a manageable number for one beekeeper with a full time job and lots of other commitments. However, it’s not so many you have to buy an electric extractor or build a honey-processing room 4.

Finally, some expenses are for items sold in multiples e.g. frames or miticides, and it saves me having to slice’n’dice every outgoing cost too much.

This hypothetical four hive beekeeper also, very sensibly, belongs to her local association. She therefore has access to the shared equipment (e.g. a honey extractor) that the association owns.

The costs of starting beekeeping

I’ve covered this before and will just summarise it here.

I reckon the minimum outlay is a bit less than £500. This covers the purchase of two hives (Thorne’s Bees on a Budget @ £160 for a complete hive, two supers, frames, foundation etc.), a good quality beesuit (perhaps another £100) together with the peripheral, but nevertheless essential, smoker, hive tool and gloves. It does not cover the cost of bees.

Two hives really should be considered the minimum. Even if you only start with one colony, swarm control or colony splits in your second year will necessitate the purchase of a second hive.

So, for the purpose of these back of an envelope calculations I’ll assume our hypothetical beekeeper has already spent about £1000 on starting up and then doubling up the numbers of hives.

Cedar or polystyrene hives should last more than 25 years. I’m not going to work out the depreciation on this initial outlay 5.

So, let’s get back on track.

In an average year, what is the expenditure and potential income from these four hives.

Expenditure

The outgoing costs are associated with maintaining a good environment for the bees, minimising disease and ensuring they have sufficient food for the winter (or during a nectar dearth).

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

The first annual expense is the replacement of ~30% of the brood comb every season. This is necessary to reduce the pathogen load in the hive and to replace the old, black comb with fresh new comb.

Frames and the foundation to go in them are generally bought in 10’s or 50’s. With four hives (assuming Nationals) that means you need a fraction over 13 new frames a season. First quality frames bought in 10’s, together with premium quality foundation 6, work out at £2.99 each i.e. ~£40 for the year.

To control mites you need to use miticides 7. For the purpose of this exercise we’ll assume our beekeeper chooses to use Apivar in the autumn. This costs £31 for 5 hive treatments 8 and is required once per year. In midwinter our beekeeper wisely chooses to use an oxalic acid trickle as well, knowing that – while the colony is broodless – the mites are easier to slay. £13 buys you a ten-hive (35 g) pack of Api-Bioxal 9 which has a shelf-life of more than a year, so for one year the expense is £6.50 (which for convenience I’ve rounded up to £7).

Food is essentially sugar in some form or another. A single colony needs 10-20 kg of stores for the winter (depending – very much – upon the strain of bee, the harshness of the winter etc.). You therefore need to feed about 12.5 litres of heavy syrup (2:1 by weight, sugar to water) which weighs about 16kg (and finally generates ~14 kg of stores) and contains about 10 kg of sugar. Tesco sell granulated sugar for 64p per kilogram. So, for four colonies, our beekeeper needs to purchase ~£26 of granulated sugar.

Remember two of those figures in particular – 14 kg of stores and the 10 kg of sugar that needs to be purchased to make them 10.

Expenditure totals

In total, four hives are likely to cost about £104 to maintain per year.

Yes, I know I’ve omitted all sorts of things such as stimulative feeding in the spring, replacement super frames and hive tools. I’ve not costed in the honey buckets or any number of other ‘odds and sods’ like replacement Posca pens for queen marking. Let’s keep this simple 🙂

The essentials work out at a little over £25 per hive.

But wait … there is something I’ve omitted.

Not expenditure per se, but losses that have to be made good to ensure that our beekeeper still has 4 colonies in subsequent seasons.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

These are the ‘losses’ due to colonies dying overwinter or during the season. I think these should be included because they are the reality for most beekeepers. On average ~20-25% of colonies are lost each season. Not by everyone (which I’ll cover in a follow-up article on economies in beekeeping) of course, but winter losses are so common for most beekeepers that they need to be factored in – either by making increase or by avoiding losing them in the first place.

Enough on these hidden costs, what about the the income?

Products of the hive

Bees, as well as providing critical ecosystem services (pollination) and being fascinating animals, also produce very valuable products.

The best known and most obvious product is of course honey. However, the products of the hive also includes wax, propolis and Royal Jelly.

Local honey

I’m going to ignore everything but the honey. Royal Jelly and propolis are too specialised for the sort of ‘average beekeeper’ we’re considering and four hives produce relatively small amounts of wax each year.

There’s an additional product of the hive … bees. Don’t forget these as they can be the most valuable product made in any quantity.

You can sell complete hives, small nucleus colonies (nucs) and mated queen bees 11. For convenience I’m going to assume the only ‘live’ product of the hive our beekeeper might sell is a five frame nuc if they have one spare. What’s more, I’m going to assume that our beekeeper either recoups the cost of the box or has it returned (but pays £15 for the frames and foundation in the nuc).

So, how much honey and how many bees?

Income from honey

The average honey yield in 2018 in the UK was ~31 lb per hive.

2018 was a very good season.

The annual BBKA survey of 2017 showed the average that year was ~24 lb per hive.

Yields vary year by year and according to where you keep bees. The 2010 figure was ~31 lb, 2012 was a measly 8 lb per hive and 2014 was ~31 lb. I can’t find a record of the 2016 figure (but haven’t looked too hard).

Yields are higher in the south and lower in the north.

I’m going to err on the slightly generous side and assume that the honey yield per hive is 25 lb and that our hypothetical beekeeper therefore generates 100 lb of honey per year.

More local honey

As we saw last week, honey prices vary considerably across the country.  For the purposes of these calculations we can use the BBKA survey which showed that ~56% of beekeepers sold honey at an average price of £5.49 per lb (cf. £5.67 in 2017).

And here’s the first dilemma … did the 44% of beekeepers who did not sell honey not have any honey to sell?

How does this affect the average per hive?

Or did they simply give everything away?

Or just eat it themselves 😉

The annual BBKA surveys are not ideal datasets to base these calculations on. They are voluntary and self-selecting. Perhaps the 23,000 beekeepers who did not complete the survey 12 produced 150 lb per colony.

No, I don’t think so either.

I’m going to make the assumption that the average yield per hive was 25 lb and that our beekeeper chooses to sell her honey at an average price of £5.50.

So the gross income from honey is £550 13.

However, selling this honey requires packaging – jars, labels etc. Like everything else, costs vary, but 12 oz hexagonal honey jars plus lids from C Wynne Jones cost ~39p each, with a standard custom label and a plain anti-tamper label adding a further 10p per jar.  Therefore to sell that 100 lb of honey our beekeeper will have an outlay of £63, reducing the net income to £487.

Income from bees

A strong hive in a good year should be able to produce both bees and honey. With good beekeeping, good forage and good weather it is possible to generate a super or two of honey and a nuc colony for sale or to make increase.

However, you can’t produce large amounts of both from a single hive … it’s an either or situation if you want to maximise your production of honey or nucs.

I’m not aware of any good statistics on nuc production by amateur beekeepers (or even poor statistics). My assumption – justified below – is that the majority of beekeepers produce few, if any, surplus nucs.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Why do I think that?

Firstly, nuc and package imports from overseas are very high. Demand is enormous and is clearly not met by local supply 14. Secondly, winter losses (25%, discussed above) need to be made good. I presume that this is what many/most nucs are used for.

If they’re produced at all.

There are some major gaps in the available information meaning that the next bit is a guesstimate with a capital G.

For the purpose of this exercise I’m going to assume that our hypothetical beekeeper produces one nuc per year that it is used to compensate for overwintering losses, thereby keeping colony numbers stable.

In addition, she generates one surplus nuc every four years for sale.

I’ve chosen four years as it’s approximately every four years that there is a ‘good bee season’ giving high yields of honey and the opportunity for good queen mating and surplus nuc production.

This surplus nuc is sold locally for £175 which, after subtraction of £15 for the frames, leaves an annual profit from bees of £40 (£160 every 4 years).

Income totals and overall ‘profit’

That was all a bit turgid wasn’t it?

Here are the final figures. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum (4 year average).

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Experienced beekeepers reading this far 15 will appreciate some of the assumptions that have been made. There are many.

They’ll also probably disagree with half of the figures quoted, considering them too high.

And with the other half, considering them too low.

They’ll certainly consider the average ‘profit’ per hive per year is underestimated.

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

But remember, our hypothetical beekeeper is based upon the average productivity and number of hives reported in the BBKA annual surveys.

As you will probably realise, a limited amount of travel to and from the apiary, or to shops/markets to sell honey, very quickly eats into the rather measly £102 “profit” per hive.

Observations

I think there are two key things worth noting immediately:

  1. Miticide treatments cost ~£7.50 per hive per annum. Even at the rather derisory £5.50/lb honey price quoted, this is still less than one and a half jars of honey. It is false economy to not treat colonies for Varroa infestation. If you compare the cost of the treatment vs. the ‘value’ of a replacement nuc to make up losses (£175) it further emphasises how unwise it is to ignore the mites.
  2. Some beekeepers leave a super or two at the end of the season ‘for the bees’. This is also false economy if you want to have any profit. The ~14 kg of stores (honey) needed will be replaced with a heavy syrup feed containing 10 kg of granulated sugar. At £5.50 per pound this honey could be sold for ~£170 16. The granulated sugar costs about £6.40. Do the maths, as they say. There is no compelling (or even vaguely convincing) evidence that bees overwinter more successfully on honey rather than after a granulated sugar feed. None 17.

Summary

This article highlights some of the major expenses involved in beekeeping. Where possible I’ve based the figures on a hypothetical ‘average’ beekeeper with an average number of hives.

I’ve assumed that all outgoing costs were at list price from large suppliers (and excluded shipping costs).

I’ve left out the almost invaluable pleasure you get from working with the bees to produce lovely delicious local honey (or wax, or propolis, or bees or queens).

Do not underestimate this 🙂 Many – and I’m one – would keep some bees simply for this pleasure and the odd jar of honey.

No one is going to get rich quickly on £100 per hive per year 18. However, the purpose of this post was to provide a framework to consider where potential cost savings can be made. In addition, it will allow me to emphasise the benefits, to the bees and the beekeeper (and potentially her bank balance), of strong, healthy, highly productive colonies rather than the ‘average’ 25% colony losses per autumn with less than a full super per hive honey … which is then sold for less than it’s worth.

But that’s for another time …


Colophon

Beekeeping economics as in “The management of private or domestic finances; (also) financial position.” which is distinct from economy in beekeeping (which I will cover in a later post) meaning “The careful management of resources; sparingness”.

Cabinet reshuffle

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about the totally dysfunctional state of British politics at the moment 1.

Once the honey supers are removed there’s seemingly little to do in the apiary. There is a temptation to catch up on all those other jobs postponed because I was “just off to the bees”.

Well, maybe temptation is a bit strong. After all, like all good procrastinators, I can usually find an excuse to postpone until next week something that could be left until at least tomorrow.

However, as I said last week, preparations for winter are very important and should not be delayed.

I covered feeding and the all-important late summer mite treatments in that post. Here I’m going to briefly discuss the various late season hive rearrangements that might be needed.

Clearing additional supers

I use very simple clearer boards to get the bees out of my supers. However, there are a couple of instances when not all the supers end up being removed:

  1. If some frames are empty or fail the ‘shake test’ I’ll rearrange these into the bottom super 2. I then clear the bees down into the bottom super and leave it for the bees.
  2. If the colony is really strong and is unlikely to fit into the brood box(es) I’ll often add a super above the queen excluder to clear the bees down into. Sometimes the bees will add a few dribbles of nectar to this … not enough to ever extract, and I’d prefer they put it in the brood box instead.

In both these situations I’ll want to remove the additional super before winter. I don’t want the bees to have a cold empty space above their heads.

Feed & clear together

I usually do this at the same time that I feed the bees.

I rearrange the boxes so that the ‘leftover’ super is above a crownboard on top of the super that is providing the headspace to accommodate the fondant blocks.

Since access to this top super is through a small hole the bees consider it is ‘outside’ the hive and so empty the remaining nectar and bring it down to the brood box 3.

If there are sealed stores in any of these super frames I bruise 4 the cappings with a hive tool and they’ll then move the stores down.

Substandard colonies

A very good piece of advice to all beekeepers is to “take your winter losses in the autumn”. This means assess colonies in the late summer/early autumn and get rid of those that are weak or substandard 5.

Substandard might mean those with a poor temper.

This is the colony which you put up with all season (despite their yobbo tendencies) because you believe that aggressive bees are productive bees’.

Were they?

Was that one half-filled super of partially-capped honey really worth the grief they gave you all summer?

Unless substandard (not just aggression … running, following, insufficiently frugal in winter etc.) colonies are replaced the overall standard of your bees will never improve.

I’ll discuss how to ‘remove’ them in a few paragraphs.

It’s probably a reasonable estimate to suggest that the ‘best’ third of your colonies should be used to rear more queens and the ‘worst’ third should be re-queened with these 6.

Over time 7 the quality will improve.

Of course, a substandard colony might well make it through the winter perfectly successfully. The same cannot be said for weak colonies.

TLC or tough love?

At the end of the summer colonies should be strong. If they are not then there is probably something wrong. A poorly mated queen, an old and failing queen, disease?

The exception might be a recently requeened colony or a new 5 frame nuc.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Colonies that are weak at this stage of the season for no obvious reason need attention. Without it they are likely to succumb during the winter. And they’ll do this after you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of feeding and treating them … 8

There are essentially two choices:

  1. Mollycoddle them and hope they pick up. Boosting them with a frame or two of emerging brood may help (but make sure you don’t weaken the donor colony significantly). Moving them from a full hive to a nuc – preferably poly to provide better insulation – may also be beneficial. In a nuc they have less dead space to heat. An analogous strategy is to fill the space in the brood box with ‘fat dummies‘ or – low-tech but just as effective – a big wodge of bubble wrap with a standard dummy board to hold it in place.
  2. Sacrifice the queen from the weak hive and unite them with a strong colony.

Sentimentalism

Of the two I’d almost always recommend uniting colonies.

It’s less work. There’s no potentially wasted outlay on food and miticides. Most importantly, it’s much more likely to result in a strong colony the following spring.

However, we all get attached to our bees. It’s not unusual to give a fading favourite old queen ‘one more chance’ in the hope that next year will be her last hurrah.

Uniting notes

I’ve covered uniting before and so will only add some additional notes here …

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

  • You cannot generate a strong colony by uniting two weak colonies. They’re weak for a reason. Whether they’re weak for the same or different reasons uniting them is unlikely to help.
  • Never unite a colony with signs of disease. All you do is jeopardise the healthy colony.
  • Find the queen and permanently remove her from the weak or poor quality (substandard) colony.
  • If you can’t find the queen unite them with a queen excluder between the colonies. In my limited experience (I usually manage to find the unwanted queen) the bees usually do away with a failing queen when offered a better one, but best to check in a week or so.
  • I generally move the de-queened colony and put it on top of the strong queenright colony.
  • Unite over newspaper and don’t interfere with the hive for at least another week.
  • You can unite one strong colony and two weak colonies simultaneously.
  • Uniting and feeding at the same time is possible.
  • You can unite and treat with a miticide like Amitraz simultaneously. You will have to make a judgement call on whether both boxes need miticide treatment, depending on the strength of the weak colony.
  • If you’re uniting a strong substandard colony and a strong good colony you will need to use an amount of miticide appropriate for a double brood colony (four strips in the case of Amitraz).
Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

The goal of all of the above is to go into autumn with strong, healthy, well-fed colonies that will survive the winter and build up strongly again in the spring.

A very small or weak colony 9 in autumn may survive, but it’s unlikely to flourish the following spring.

“It takes bees to make bees.”

And a weak colony in spring lacks bees, so cannot build up fast.

In contrast, an overwintered strong colony can often yield a nuc in May the following year. You’ve regained your colony numbers, but have a new, young queen in one hive with most of the season ahead for her to prove her worth.

I’ve merged three topics here – clearing supers, stock improvement and getting rid of weak colonies before winter – because all involve some sort of hive manipulation in the early autumn. I usually complete this in late September or early October, with the intention of overwintering strong colonies in single brood boxes packed with bees and stores.


Colophon

The heading of the final paragraph is the opening line of To Autumn by John Keats (1795-1821). Keats wrote To Autumn exactly two hundred years ago (September 1819, his last poem) while gradually succumbing to tuberculosis. Despite this, and his doomed relationship with Fanny Brawne, the poem is not about sadness at the end of summer but instead revels in the ripeness and bounteousness of the season.

Of course, all beekeepers know that the first stanza of To Autumn closes with a reference to bees.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

 

The flow must go on

Except it doesn’t 🙁

And once the summer nectar flow is over, the honey ripened and the supers safely removed it is time to prepare the colonies for the winter ahead.

It might seem that mid/late August is very early to be thinking about this when the first frosts are probably still 10-12 weeks away. There may even be the possibility of some Himalayan balsam or, further south than here in Fife, late season ivy.

However, the winter preparations are arguably the most important time in the beekeeping year. If you leave it too late there’s a good chance that colonies will struggle with disease, starvation or a toxic combination of the two.

Long-lived bees

The egg laying rate of the queen drops significantly in late summer. I used this graph recently when discussing drones, but look carefully at the upper line with open symbols (worker brood). This data is for Aberdeen, so if you’re beekeeping in Totnes, or Toulouse, it’ll be later in the calendar. But it will be a broadly similar shape.

Seasonal production of sealed brood in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Worker brood production is down by ~75% when early July and early September are compared.

Not only are the numbers of bees dropping, but their fate is very different as well.

The worker bees reared in early July probably expired while foraging in late August. Those being reared in early September might still be alive and well in February or March.

These are the ‘winter bees‘ that maintain the colony through the cold, dark months so ensuring it is able to develop strongly the following spring.

The purpose of winter preparations is threefold:

    1. Encourage the colony to produce good numbers of winter bees
    2. Make sure they have sufficient stores to get through the winter
    3. Minimise Varroa levels to ensure winter bee longevity

I’ll deal with these in reverse order.

Varroa and viruses

The greatest threat to honey bees is the toxic stew of viruses transmitted by the Varroa mite. Chief amongst these is deformed wing virus (DWV) that results in developmental abnormalities in heavily infected brood.

DWV is well-tolerated by honey bees in the absence of Varroa. The virus is probably predominantly transmitted between bees during feeding, replicating in the gut but not spreading systemically.

However, Varroa transmits the virus when it feeds on haemolymph (or is it the fat body?), so bypassing any protective immune responses that occur in the gut. Consequently the virus can reach all sorts of other sensitive tissues resulting in the symptoms most beekeepers are all too familiar with.

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

However, some bees have very high levels of virus but no overt symptoms 1.

But they’re not necessarily healthy …

Several studies have clearly demonstrated that colonies with high levels of Varroa and DWV are much more likely to succumb during the winter 2.

This is because deformed wing virus reduces the longevity of winter bees. Knowing this, the increased winter losses make sense; colonies die because they ‘run out’ of bees to protect the queen and/or early developing brood.

I’ve suggested previously that isolation starvation may actually be the result of large numbers of winter bees dying because of high DWV levels. If the cluster hadn’t shrunk so much they’d still be in contact with the stores.

Even if they stagger on until the spring, colony build up will be slow and faltering and the hive is unlikely to be productive.

Protecting winter bees

The most read article on this site is When to treat? This provides all the gory details and is worth reading to get a better appreciation of the subject.

However, the two most important points have already been made in this post. Winter bees are being reared from late August/early September and their longevity depends upon protecting them from Varroa and DWV.

To minimise exposure to Varroa and DWV you must therefore ensure that mite levels are reduced significantly in late summer.

Since most miticides are incompatible with honey production this means treating very soon after the supers are removed 3.

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Once the supers are off there’s nothing to be gained by delaying treatment … other than more mite-exposed bees 🙁

In the graph above the period during which winter bees are being reared is the green arrow between days 240 and 300 (essentially September and October). Mite levels are indicated with solid lines, coloured according to the month of treatment. You kill more mites by treating in mid-October (cyan) but the developing winter bees are exposed to higher mite levels.

In absolute numbers more mites are present and killed because they’ve had longer to replicate … on your developing winter bee pupae 🙁

Full details and a complete explanation is provided in When to treat?

So, once the supers are off, treat as early as is practical. Don’t delay until late September or early October 4.

Treat with what?

As long as it’s effective and used properly I don’t think it matters too much.

Amitraz strip placed in the hive.

Apiguard if it’s warm enough. Apistan if there’s no resistance to pyrethroids in the local mite population (there probably will be 🙁 ). Amitraz or even multiple doses of vaporised oxalic acid-containing miticide such as Api-Bioxal 5.

This year I’ve exclusively used Amitraz (Apivar). It’s readily available, very straightforward to use and extremely effective. There’s little well-documented resistance and it does not leave residues in the comb.

The same comments could be made for Apiguard though the weather cannot be relied upon to remain warm enough for its use here in Scotland.

Another reason to not use Apiguard is that it is often poorly tolerated by the queen who promptly stops laying … just when you want her to lay lots of eggs to hatch and develop into winter bees 6.

Feed ’em up

The summer nectar has dried up. You’ve also removed the supers for extraction.

Colonies are likely to be packed with bees and to be low on stores.

Should the weather prevent foraging there’s a real chance colonies might starve 7 so it makes sense to feed them promptly.

The colony will need ~20 kg (or more) of stores to get through the winter. The amount needed will be influenced by the bees 8, the climate and how well insulated the hive is.

I only feed my bees fondant. Some consider this unusual 9, but it suits me, my beekeeping … and my bees.

Bought in bulk, fondant (this year) costs £10.55 for a 12.5 kg block. Assuming there are some stores already in the hive this means I need one to one and a half blocks per colony (i.e. about £16).

These three photographs show a few of the reasons why I only use fondant.

  • It’s prepackaged and ready to use. Nothing to make up. Just remove the cardboard box.
  • Preparation is simplicity itself … just slice it in half with a long sharp knife. Or use a spade.
  • Open the block like a book and invert over a queen excluder. Use an empty super to provide headroom and then replace the crownboard and roof.
  • That’s it. You’re done. Have a holiday 😉
  • The timings shown above are real … and there were a couple of additional photos not used. From opening the cardboard box to adding back the roof took less than 90 seconds. And that includes me taking the photos and cutting the block in half 🙂
  • But equally important is what is not shown in the photographs.
    • No standing over a stove making up gallons of syrup for days in advance.
    • There is no specialist or additional equipment needed. For example, there are no bulky syrup feeders to store for 48 weeks of the year.
    • No spilt syrup to attract wasps.
    • Boxed, fondant keeps for ages. Some of the boxes I used this year were purchased in 2017.
    • The empty boxes are ideal for customers to carry away the honey they have purchased from you 😉
  • The final thing not shown relates to how quickly it is taken down by the bees and is discussed below.

I’m surprised more beekeepers don’t purchase fondant in bulk through their associations and take advantage of the convenience it offers. By the pallet-load delivery is usually free.

Fancy fondant

Capped honey is about 82% sugar by weight. Fondant is pretty close to this at about 78%. Thick syrup (2:1 by weight) is 66% sugar.

Therefore to feed equivalent amounts of sugar for winter you need a greater weight of syrup. Which – assuming you’re not buying it pre-made – means you have to prepare and carry large volumes (and weights) of syrup.

Meaning containers to clean and store.

But consider what the bees have to do with the sugar you provide. They have to take it down into the brood box and store it in a form that does not ferment.

Fermenting stores can cause dysentry. This is ‘a bad thing’ if you are trapped by adverse weather in a hive with 10,000 close relatives … who also have dysentry. Ewww 😯

To reduce the water content the bees use space and energy. Space to store the syrup and energy to evaporate off the excess water.

Bees usually take syrup down very fast, rapidly filling the brood box.

In contrast, fondant is taken down more slowly. This means there is no risk that the queen will run out of space for egg laying. Whilst I’ve not done any side-by-side properly controlled studies – or even improperly controlled ones – the impression I have is that feeding fondant helps the colony rear brood into the autumn 10.

Whatever you might read elsewhere, bees do store fondant. The blocks I added this week will just be crinkly blue plastic husks by late September, and the hives will be correspondingly heavier.

You can purchase fancy fondant prepared for bees with pollen and other additives.

Don’t bother.

Regular ‘Bakers Fondant’ sold to ice Chelsea buns is the stuff to use. All the colonies I inspect at this time of the season have ample pollen stores.

I cannot comment on the statements made about the anti-caking agents in bakers fondant being “very bad for bees” … suffice to say I’ve used fondant for almost a decade with no apparent ill-effects 11.

It’s worth noting that these statements are usually made by beekeeping suppliers justifying selling “beekeeping” fondant for £21 to £36 for 12.5 kg.

Project Fear?


Colophon

The title of this post is a mangling of the well-known phrase The show must go on. This probably originated with circuses in the 19th Century and was subsequently used in the hotel trade and in show business.

The show must go on is also the title of (different) songs by Leo Sayer (in 1973, his first hit record, not one in my collection), Pink Floyd (1979, from The Wall) and Queen (1991).

Droning on

This post was supposed to be about Varroa resistance in Apis mellifera – to follow the somewhat controversial ‘Leave and let die’ from a fortnight ago. However, pesky work commitments have prevented me doing it justice so it will have to wait for a future date.

All work and no play …

Instead I’m going to pose some questions (and provide some partial answers) on overwintering mites and the use of drone brood culling to help minimise mite levels early in the season.

Imagine the scenario

A poorly managed colony goes into the winter with very high mite levels. Let’s assume the beekeeper failed to apply a late summer/early autumn treatment early enough and then ignored the advice to treat again in midwinter when the colony is broodless.

Tut, tut …

The queen is laying fewer and fewer eggs as the days shorten and the temperature drops. There are decreasing amounts of the critical 5th instar larvae that the mite must infest to reproduce.

At some point the colony may actually be broodless.

What happens to the mites?

Do they just hang around as phoretic mites waiting for the queen to start laying again?

Presumably, because there is nowhere else they can go … but …

What about the need for nurses?

During the Varroa reproductive cycle newly emerged mites preferentially associate with nurse bees for ~6 days (usually quoted as 4-11 days) before infesting a new 5th instar larva.

Mites that associate with newly emerged bees or bees older than nurse bees exhibit reduced fecundity and fitness i.e. they produce fewer progeny and fewer mature progeny 1 per infested cell.

I’m not aware of studies showing the influence of the physiologically-distinct winter bees on mite fecundity.

Similarly, I’m not sure if there are any studies that have looked at the types of bees phoretic mites associate with during the winter 2, or the numbers of bees in the colony during November to January 3 that might be considered to be similar physiologically to nurse bees.

Whilst we (or at least I) don’t know the answer to these questions, I’m willing to bet – for reasons to be elaborated upon below – that during the winter the fecundity and fitness of mites decreases significantly.

And the number of the little blighters …

Mite longevity

How long does a mite live?

The usual figure quoted for adult female mites is 2-3 reproductive cycles (of ~17 days and ~11 days for the first and subsequent rounds respectively). So perhaps about 40 days in total.

But, in the absence of brood (or if brood is in very short supply) this is probably longer as there is data linking longevity to the number of completed reproductive cycles i.e. if there is no reproduction the mite can live longer.

It is therefore perhaps reasonable to assume that mites should be able to survive through a broodless period of several weeks during midwinter. However, remember that this increases the chance the mite will be removed by grooming or other physical contacts within the cluster, so reducing the overall population.

Spring has sprung

So, going back to the scenario we started with …

What happens in late winter/early spring when the queen starts laying again?

Does that 5cm patch of early worker brood get immediately inundated with hundreds of mites?

If so, the consequences for the early brood are dire. High levels of mite infestation inevitably mean exposure to a large amount of deformed wing virus (DWV) which likely will result in precisely the developmental deformities you’d expect … DWV really “does what it says on the tin”.

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

My hives are carefully managed to minimise mite levels. I don’t really have any personal experience to help answer the question. However, in colonies that have higher (or even high) mite levels I don’t think it’s usual to see significant numbers of damaged bees in the very earliest possible inspections of the season 4.

My (un)informed guess …

My guess is that several things probably happen to effectively reduce exposure of this earliest brood to Varroa:

  1. Varroa levels in the colony drop due to the extended winter phoretic phase. More opportunities for grooming or similar physical contact (perhaps even clustering) increase the loss of mites.
  2. Mites that remain may have reduced access to brood simply due to the mathematical chance of the bee they are phoretic on coming into contact with the very small numbers of late stage larvae in the colony.
  3. Mites that do infest brood have reduced fecundity and fitness and may not rear (m)any progeny.

There are a lot of assumptions and guesswork there. Some of these things may be known but discussions I’ve had with some of the leading Varroa researchers suggest that there are still big gaps in our knowledge.

OK, enough droning on, what about drones?

Back to the imagined scenario.

What happens next?

Well, perhaps not next, but soon?

The colony continues to contract (because the daily loss of aged workers still outnumbers the daily gain of new bees) but the laying rate of the queen gradually increases from a few tens, to hundreds to a couple of thousand eggs per day.

And the colony starts to really expand.

And so do the mite numbers …

Pupa (blue) and mite (red) numbers

And at some point, depending upon the expansion rate, the climate and (probably) a host of factors I’ve not thought of or are not known, the colony begins to make early swarm preparations by starting to rear drones.

Drones take 24 days to develop from the egg and a further 12-16 days to reach sexual maturity. If the swarming period starts in the first fortnight of May, the drones that take part were laid as eggs in late March.

And drone larvae are very attractive to Varroa.

9 out of 10 mites prefer drones

Varroa replicates ‘better’ in association with drone pupae. By better I mean that more progeny are produced from each infested cell. This is because the drone replication cycle is longer than that of worker brood.

The replication cycle of Varroa

The replication cycle of Varroa

On average 2.2 new mites are produced in drone cells vs only 1.3 in worker cells 5. From an evolutionary standpoint this is a significant selective pressure and it’s therefore unsurprising that Varroa have evolved to preferentially infest drone brood.

Irrespective of the mite levels, given the choice between worker and drone, Varroa will infest drone brood at 8-11 times the level of worker brood 6.

Significantly, as the amount of drone brood was reduced (typically it’s 5-15% of comb in the hive) the drone cell preference increased by ~50% 7.

I hope you can see where this is now going …

Early drone brood sacrifice

As colony expansion segues into swarm preparation the queen lays small amounts of drone brood. These cells are a very small proportion of the overall brood in the colony but are disproportionately favoured by the mite population.

And the mite population – even in a poorly managed colony – should be less (and less fit) in the Spring than the preceding autumn for reasons elaborated upon above (with the caveat that some of that was informed guesswork).

Therefore, if you make sure you remove the earliest capped drone brood you should also remove a significant proportion of the viable mites in the colony.

Drone brood is usually around the periphery of the brood nest, along the bottom of frames with normal worker foundation, or on the ‘shoulders’ near the lugs. The drone brood is often scattered around the brood nest.

As a consequence, if you want to remove all the earliest capped drone brood you have to rummage through the frames and ‘fork out’ 8 little patches here and there.

It can be a bit of a mess.

Is there an easier way to do this?

Drone cells

Beekeepers who predominantly use foundationless frames will be aware that they usually have significantly more drones (and drone comb) in their colonies than equivalent sized colonies using embossed worker foundation.

Depending upon the type of foundationless frames used the drone comb is drawn out in different positions on the frames.

Horizontally wired foundationless frames can be all drone brood or a mix of drone and worker. However, the demarcation between the brood types is often inconveniently located with regard to support wires.

In contrast, foundationless frames constructed using vertical bamboo supports are often built as ‘panels’ consisting entirely of drone or worker comb.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

Which makes slicing out one or more complete panels of recently capped drone brood simplicity itself.

There are no wires in the way.

You can sometimes simply pull it off the starter strip.

Drone brood sacrifice

Check the brood for Varroa 9, feed the pupae to your chickens and/or melt out the wax in your steam wax extractor.

The bees will rapidly rebuild the comb and will not miss a few hundred drones.

They’ll be much healthier without the mites. Importantly, the mites will have been removed from the colony early in the season so preventing them going through repeated rounds of reproduction.

This is the final part of the ‘midseason mite management‘ triptych 10, but I might return to the subject with some more thoughts in the future … for example, continuous culling of drone brood (in contrast to selective culling of the very earliest drone brood in the colony discussed here) is not a particularly effective way of suppressing mite levels in a colony.


 

 

 

 

 

Window of opportunity

I’ve recently discussed problems faced by beekeepers trying to control high Varroa levels in colonies during the ‘body’ of the beekeeping season. Essentially the problems are two-fold:

  • Many miticides need to be used for several weeks to target mites in capped cells.
  • The soft or hard chemicals used for Varroa control are – with the exception of the formic acid in MAQS – incompatible with honey production.

This type of midseason mite management should not be needed if parasite levels are controlled in late summer and midwinter.

If it is needed it suggests that the treatment(s) failed or that mites are being acquired through robbing or drifting from other colonies in the neighbourhood (either your own, a nearby apiary or a feral colony).

Opportunity knocks

However, all is not lost. Most seasons offer at least one opportunity to intervene and control mite levels.

Knowing when and how to exploit it requires an appreciation of the development cycle of the bee.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

The important numbers are the 21 and 24 day development cycle of workers and drones respectively, the 16 day development cycle of the queen and the time it takes for eggs to hatch, grow as larvae and pupate in capped cells.

Not shown is the maturation period after emergence for the queen (5 to 6 days) before she goes on a mating flight, or the delay after returning before she starts laying (2-3 days) 1.

Swarms

The easiest scenario to discuss is when the colony swarms.

Consider the swarm first. A prime swarm is broodless, contains a mated queen and ~35% of the mites that were present in the issuing colony. All the mites will be phoretic. Assuming there’s drawn comb available the queen will start laying soon after the swarm is hived (or conveniently moves into your bait hive).

Eight days later the first eggs will have hatched, the larvae grown and the brood will be capped.

At which point the majority of the mites will start to become inaccessible again.

However, during those 8 days it’s ‘open season’ for those phoretic mites.

It is sensible to quarantine swarms from an unknown source and treat for mites in the first 8 days if needed.

If the swarm is a cast with an unmated queen you’ve got a bit more time. The virgin queen needs to get out and mate, mature and start laying. This tends to happen in just a few days if the weather is accommodating, so don’t leave things too long.

The swarmed colony

Now consider what’s left in the colony that swarmed 2. There will be sealed and unsealed brood and – notwithstanding the reduced egg laying by the queen as she’s slimmed down in preparation for swarming – there are also likely to be some eggs.

There will also be a sealed queen cell (and, in a strong colony, several sealed and unsealed queen cells).

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Without intervention the queen(s) will start emerging about 9 days later. If you intervene, knocking down all the sealed cells and leaving just one good charged open cell 3, it will be a couple more days before the queen emerges.

Weather permitting it will be a further 8 days before the newly mated queen starts laying. In reality, this is the absolute minimum and is rarely achieved in a full hive 4.

Simultaneously, in the requeening hive, the open brood is maturing and being capped and the capped brood is emerging (releasing more mites).

About eight days after the swarm leaves all the worker brood in the hive will be capped.

Twenty one (or 24 in the case of drone brood) days after the last egg was laid by the queen all the brood will have emerged.

Consequently all the mites in the colony will be phoretic.

The window of opportunity

So, if you need to treat 5 the window of opportunity is between the last of the brood from the old queen emerging and the first of the larvae from the new queen being capped.

You can determine when this is likely to be based upon the known activities of the old and new queen during the swarming period.

The window of opportunity

The diagram above makes a number of assumptions. As presented, all minimise the duration of the minimum broodless period:

  • The old queen continues laying until the day she swarms
  • The colony swarms on the day the queen cell is sealed
  • The beekeeper does not intervene to leave an open, charged cell of a known age
  • The new queen takes the minimum amount of time to mature, go on a mating flight and start laying

It should be self-evident that more realistic timings applied to these will only increase the length of the minimum broodless period.

For example, the weather will have a significant impact. Swarming may be delayed due to adverse conditions. During this time the slimmed-down queen will probably lay very few eggs.

Similarly, only 8 days are shown for maturing, mating and starting to lay. Mating flights are very weather-dependent and this period could easily take a week longer (or more).

Splits and artificial swarms

If you practice swarm control using the nucleus method, vertical splits or the classic Pagden artificial swarm the same types of calculations apply.

These three methods all share two features:

  • They involve the physical separation of the box with the old queen and the new developing queen
  • The old queen is isolated with a very small amount of brood – either open brood or emerging brood

The queenright component of the split (whether nuc box or new brood box left on the old site) will follow the right hand part of the diagram above i.e. everything to the right of the vertical red line labelled laying. Here it is expanded a bit:

Queenright splits and the window(s) of opportunity

The queen should start laying almost immediately if drawn comb is provided meaning this new brood will be sealed in a further 8-9 days. The timing and duration of the minimum broodless period depends upon whether you prime the queenright split with a small amount of open or emerging brood.

  • Open brood will be capped within about 6 days of the eggs hatching. If the frame contains nothing older than 3rd instar larvae (about mid-size) you will only have about 3 days before the cells are capped – indicated by bracketed region labelled (A) above, with capped pupae shown by the dark shaded arrow.
  • Emerging brood offers a bit more flexibility. If all the brood emerges in the first 2-3 days after the split (shown with the pale shaded arrow) then the duration of the broodless period, shown in (B) above, lasts about 5 days.

Queenless colonies after splitting

The queenless part of the split will behave like the swarmed colony in the upper line diagram. All capped worker brood will have emerged 21 days after the split (drones after 24 days).

Capped brood arising from eggs laid by the new queen in this colony will depend upon the origin of the queen.

If the colony is left to rear its own queen then the timing will be similar to the upper line diagram plus the additional time required to create a capped queen cell (which rather depends upon the state of the colony when split).

However, if you add a mature queen cell a day off emergence you will reduce the time to the appearance of new capped brood by ~8 days. Consequently the colony will probably never go through a phase with no capped brood present. This is the same, but even more so, if you requeen the colony with a mated queen.

The miticide of choice

Of all the (rather limited range of) miticides available, an oxalic acid-containing treatment is the most appropriate. Oxalic acid (OA) is well-tolerated and, if used on a colony that lacks capped brood, over 90% effective. In addition, and critical for treatment in a narrow window of opportunity, only one treatment is required.

OA can be administered by trickling or sublimation. I’ve covered both methods in detail previously so won’t repeat what’s required, or the recipes, here.

Note that in many cases although the colony will have no capped brood it will not be broodless. For example, larvae from eggs laid by the new queen will be present but uncapped.

This is important because trickled oxalic acid-containing treatments are toxic to open brood. Under these conditions the treatment of choice would be sublimated oxalic acid.

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser …

Finally, note that if you are going to sublimate Api-Bioxal you’ll either have to spend ages cleaning the pan of the vaporiser, or line it with aluminium foil in advance.

The treatments outlined here are not intended for routine use. They should be used only if needed based upon mite counts or overt signs of DWV-mediated disease.

However, if you do need to treat make sure you do it when the treatment will be most effective.


 

Leave and let die

If you follow some of the online discussions on Varroa you’ll see numerous examples of amateur beekeepers choosing not to treat so as to ‘select for mite-resistant bees’.

For starters it’s worth looking at the ‘treatment-free’ forums on Beesource.

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

The principle is straightforward. It goes something like this:

  • Varroa is a relatively new 1 pathogen of honey bees who therefore naturally have no resistance to it (or the viruses it transmits).
  • Miticide treatment kills mites, so favouring the survival of bees.
  • Consequently, traits that confer partial or complete resistance to Varroa are not actively selected for (which would otherwise happen if an untreated colony died out).
  • Treatment is therefore detrimental, at the population level if not the individual level, to the development of Varroa-resistant bees.
  • Therefore, don’t treat and – with a bit of luck – a resistant strain of bees will appear.

A crude oversimplification?

Yes, I don’t deny it.

There are all sorts of subtleties here. These range from the open mating of queens, isolation of apiaries, desirable traits (with regards to both disease resistance and honey production 2), livestock management ethics, our responsibilities to other beekeepers and other pollinators. I could go on.

But won’t.

Instead I’ll discuss a short paper published in the Journal of Apicultural Research. It’s not particularly novel and the results are very much in the “No sh*t Sherlock” category. However, it neatly emphasises the futility of the ‘do nothing and expect evolution to find a solution’ approach.

But I’ll start with a simple question …

How many colonies have you got?

One? (in which case, get another)

Two?

Ten?

One hundred?

Eight-two thousand? 3

Numbers matters because evolution is a numbers game. The evolutionary processes that result in alteration of genes (the genotype of an organism) that confer different traits or characteristics (the phenotype of an organism) are rare.

For example, viruses are some of the fastest evolving organisms and, during their replication, mutations (errors) occur at a rate of about 1 in 104 at the genetic level 4.

This is why we treat ...

This is why we treat …

But so-called higher organisms (like humans or bees) have much more efficient replication machinery and make very many fewer errors. A conservative figure for bees might be about 10,000 times less than in these viruses (i.e. 1 in 108), though it could be as much as a million times less error-prone 5

There are lots of other evolutionary mechanisms in addition to mutation but the principle remains broadly the same. The chance changes that are acquired by copying or mixing up genetic material are very, very infrequent.

If they weren’t, most replication would result – literally – in a dead end.

OK, OK, enough numbers … what about my two colonies?

So, since the evolutionary mechanisms make small, infrequent changes, the chance of a beneficial change occurring is very small. If you start with small numbers of colonies and expect success you’re likely to be disappointed.

Where ‘likely to be’ means will be.

The chances of picking the Lotto jackpot is about 1 in 45 million for each ticket purchased. If you expect to win you will be disappointed.

It could be you … but it’s unlikely

If you buy two tickets (with different numbers!) your chances are doubled. But realistically, they’re still not great 6.

And so on.

Likewise, the more colonies you have, the more likely you’ll get one that might – by chance – acquire a beneficial mutation that confers some level of resistance to Varroa.

Of course, we don’t really know much about the genetic basis for resistance (or tolerance?) to Varroa in honey bees. We know that there are behavioural changes that increase survival. We also know that Apis cerana can cope with Varroa because it has a shorter duration replication cycle and exhibits social apoptosis.

There are certainly ‘hygienic’ and other traits in bees that may be beneficial, but at a genetic level I don’t think we know the number of genes that are altered to confer these, or how much each might contribute.

So we don’t know how many mutations will be needed … One? One hundred? One thousand?

If the benefit of an individual mutation is very subtle it might offer relatively little selective advantage, which brings us back to the numbers again.

Apologies. Let’s not go there.

Let’s cut to the chase …

Comparison of treated vs untreated colonies over 3 years

Miticides – whether hard chemicals like Amitraz or Apistan or organic acids like formic or oxalic acid – work by exhibiting differential toxicity to mites than to their host, the bee. They are not so specific that they only kill mites. They can harm other things as well … e.g. if you ingest enough oxalic acid (5 – 15g) it can kill you.

Amitraz

Amitraz …

Jerzy Wilde and colleagues published their study 7 comparing colonies treated or untreated over a three year period. The underlying question addressed in the paper is “What’s more damaging, treating with potentially toxic miticides or not treating at all?”

The study was straightforward. They started with 100 colonies, requeened them and divided them randomly into 4 groups of 25 colonies each. Three received treatment and one was a control.

The ‘condition’ of the colonies was measured in a variety of ways, including:

  • Colony size in Spring (number of combs occupied)
  • Nosema levels (quantified by numbers of spores)
  • Mite drop over the winter (dead mites per 100g of ‘hive debris’)
  • Colony size in autumn (post-treatment) and egg laying rate by the queen
  • Winter losses

The last one needs some explanation because in one group (guess which?) there were more winter losses than they started the experiment with.

Overwintering colony losses were made up from splits of colonies in the same group the following year, so that each year 25 colonies went into the winter i.e. surviving colonies were used to generate additional colonies for the same treatment group.

Treatment and seasonal variation

To add a little complexity to the study the authors compared three treatment regimes:

  1. Hard chemicals only – active ingredients amitraz or the pyrethroid flumethrin (the research group are Polish, so the particular formulations are those licensed in Poland – Apiwarol, Bayvarol and Biowar).
  2. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – a range of treatments including Api Life Var (primarily a thymol-based treatment) in spring, drone brood removal early/mid season, hard chemical or formic acid in late summer/autumn and oxalic acid in midwinter.
  3. Organic (natural) treatments only – Api Life Var in spring, the same or formic acid in late summer and a midwinter oxalic acid treatment.

The fourth group were the untreated controls.

To avoid season-specific variation they conducted the experiment over three complete seasons (2010-2012).

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

The results of the study are shown in a series of rather dense tables with standard deviation and statistic significance … so I’ll give a narrative account of the important ones.

Results …

The strength of surviving colonies in Spring was unaffected by prior treatment (or absence of treatment) but varied significantly between seasons. In contrast, late summer colony strength was significantly worse in the untreated control colonies. In addition, the number of post-treatment eggs laid by the queen was significantly lower (by ~30%) in untreated control colonies 8.

Remember that early autumn treatment is needed to reduce Varroa infestation and so protect the winter bees that are being reared at this time from the mite-transmitted viruses.

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

The most dramatic effects were seen in winter losses and (unsurprisingly) mite counts.

Mites were counted in the hive debris falling through the open mesh floor during the winter. In the first year the treated and untreated controls had similar numbers of mites per 100g of debris (~12). In all treated colonies this remained about the same in each subsequent season. Conversely, untreated controls showed mite drop increasing to ~43 in the second year and ~114 in the final year of the study.

During the three years of the study 30 untreated colonies died. In contrast, a total of 37 colonies from the three treatment groups died.

The summary sentence of the abstract to the paper neatly sums up these results: 

Failing to apply varroa treatment results in the gradual and systematic decrease in the number of combs inhabited by bees and condition of bee colonies and consequently, in their death.

… and some additional observations

Other than oxalic acid, none of the treatments used significantly affected the late season egg laying by the queen. Api Life Var contains thymol and many beekeepers are aware that the thymol in Apiguard quite often stops the queen from laying. Interesting …

I commented last week on queen losses with MAQS. In this Polish study, 8 of 50 colonies treated with formic acid suffered queen losses.

In the third season (2012) 45% of the 100 colonies died. More than half of these lost colonies were in the untreated controls. In contrast, overall colony losses in the first two years were only 9% and 13%. Survival of untreated colonies for a year or two is expected, but once the Varroa levels increase significantly the colony is doomed.

Overall, colonies receiving integrated pest management or hard chemical treatment survived best.

Evolution …

March of Progress

Evolution …

Remind yourself where the colonies came from that were used to make up the losses in the treatment (or control) groups … they were splits from colonies within the same group. So, colonies that survived without treatment were used to produce more colonies to not be treated the following season.

Does this start to sound familiar?

Jerzy Wilde and colleagues started with 25 colonies in the untreated group. They lost 30 colonies over a 3 year period and ended up with just two colonies. Had they wanted to continue the study they would have been unable to recover their losses from these two remaining colonies.

If you don’t treat you must expect to lose colonies.

Lots of colonies.

Actually, almost all of them.

… takes time

This study lasted only three years. That’s not very long in evolutionary terms (unless you are a bacterium with a 20 minute replication cycle). 

It would be unrealistic to expect Varroa resistance to almost spontaneously appear. After all, there are about 91 million colonies worldwide, the majority of which are in countries with Varroa. Lots of these colonies will not be treated. If it was that easy it would have happened many times already.

What happens when you start with more colonies and allow more time to elapse?

Well, this ‘experiment’ has been done. There are a number of regions that have well-documented populations of feral honey bees that are living with, if not actually resistant to, Varroa.

One well known population are the bees in the Arnot Forest studied by Thomas Seeley. These bees have behavioural adaptations – small, swarmy colonies – that lessen the impact of Varroa on the colony 9.

Finally, returning to the title of this post, there is the so-called “Bond experiment” conducted on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Scientists established 150 colonies of mite-infested bees and let them get on with it with no intervention at all. Over the subsequent six years they followed the co-evolution of the mite and the bee 10.

It’s called the “Bond experiment” or the Live and Let Die study for very obvious reasons.

Almost all the colonies died.

Which is why the title of this post is more appropriate for those of us with only small numbers of colonies.


 

Midseason mite management

The Varroa mite and the potpourri of viruses it transmits are probably the greatest threat to our bees. The number of mites in the colony increases during the spring and summer, feeding and breeding on sealed brood.

Pupa (blue) and mite (red) numbers

In early/mid autumn mite levels reach their peak as the laying rate of the queen decreases. Consequently the number of mites per pupa increases significantly. The bees that are reared at this time of year are the overwintering workers, physiologically-adapted to get the colony through the winter.

The protection of these developing overwintering bees is critical and explains why an early autumn application of a suitable miticide is recommended … or usually essential.

And, although this might appear illogical, if you treat early enough to protect the winter bees you should also treat during a broodless period in midwinter. This is necessary because mite replication goes on into the autumn (while the colony continues to rear brood). If you omit the winter treatment the colony starts with a higher mite load the following season.

And you know what mites mean

Mites in midseason

Under certain circumstances mite levels can increase to dangerous levels 1 much earlier in the season than shown in the graph above.

What circumstances?

I can think of two major reasons 2. Firstly, if the colony starts the season with higher than desirable mite levels (this is why you treat midwinter). Secondly, if the mites are acquired by the colony from other colonies i.e. by infested bees drifting between colonies or by your bees robbing a mite infested colony.

Don’t underestimate the impact these events can have on mite levels. A strong colony robbing out a weak, heavily infested, collapsing colony can acquire dozens of mites a day.

The robbed colony may not be in your apiary. It could be a mile away across the fields in an apiary owned by a treatment-free 3 aficionado or from a pathogen-rich feral colony in the church tower.

How do you identify midseason mite problems?

You need to monitor mite levels, actively and/or passively. The latter includes periodic counts of mites that fall through an open mesh floor onto a Varroa board. The National Bee Unit has a handy – though not necessarily accurate – calculator to determine the total mite levels in the colony based on the Varroa drop.

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

Don’t rely on the NBU calculator. A host of factors are likely to influence the natural Varroa drop. For example, if the laying rate of the queen is decreasing because there’s no nectar coming in there will be fewer larvae at the right stage to parasitise … consequently the natural drop (which originates from phoretic mites) will increase.

And vice versa.

Active monitoring includes uncapping drone brood or doing a sugar roll or alcohol wash to dislodge phoretic mites.

Overt disease

But in addition to looking for mites you should also keep a close eye on workers during routine inspections. If you see bees showing obvious signs of deformed wing virus (DWV) symptoms then you need to intervene to reduce mite levels.

High levels of DWV

High levels of DWV …

During our studies of DWV we have placed mite-free 4 colonies into a communal apiary. Infested drone cells were identified during routine uncapping within 2 weeks of our colony being introduced. Even more striking, symptomatic workers could be seen in the colony within 11 weeks.

Treatment options

Midseason mite management is more problematic than the late summer/early autumn and midwinter treatments.

Firstly, the colony will (or should) have good levels of sealed brood.

Secondly, there might be a nectar flow on and the colony is hopefully laden with supers.

The combination of these two factors is the issue.

If there is brood in the colony the majority (up to 90%) of mites will be hiding under the protective cappings feasting on sealed pupae.

Of course, exactly the same situation prevails in late summer/early autumn. This is why the majority of approved treatments – Apistan (don’t), Apivar, Apiguard etc. – need to be used for at least 4-6 weeks. This covers multiple brood cycles, so ensuring that the capped Varroa are released and (hopefully) slaughtered.

Which brings us to the second problem. All of those named treatments should not be used when there is a flow on or when there are supers on the hive. This is to avoid tainting (contaminating) the honey.

And, if you think about it, there’s unlikely to be a 4-6 week window between early May and late August during which there is not a nectar flow.

MAQS

The only high-efficacy miticide approved for use when supers are present is MAQS 5.

The active ingredient in MAQS is formic acid which is the only miticide capable of penetrating the cappings to kill Varroa in sealed brood 6. Because MAQS penetrates the cappings the treatment window is only 7 days long.

I have not used MAQS and so cannot comment on its use. The reason I’ve not used it is because of the problems many beekeepers have reported with queen losses or increased bee mortality. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate MAQS Summary of the product characteristics provides advice on how to avoid these problems.

Kill and cure isn’t the option I choose 😉 7

Of course, many beekeepers have used MAQS without problems.

So, what other strategies are available?

Oxalic acid Api-Bioxal

Many beekeepers these days – if you read the online forums – would recommend oxalic acid 8.

I’ve already discussed the oxalic acid-containing treatments extensively.

Importantly, these treatments only target phoretic mites, not those within capped cells.

Trickled oxalic acid is toxic to unsealed brood and so is a poor choice for a brood-rearing colony.

Varroa counts

In contrast, sublimated (vaporised) oxalic acid is tolerated well by the colony and does not harm open brood. Thomas Radetzki demonstrated it continued to be effective for about a week after administration, presumably due to its deposition on all internal surfaces of the hive. My daily mite counts of treated colonies support this conclusion.

Consequently beekeepers have empirically developed methods to treat brooding colonies multiple times with vaporised oxalic acid Api-Bioxal to kill mites released from capped cells.

The first method I’m aware of published for this was by Hivemaker on the Beekeeping Forum. There may well be earlier reports. Hivemaker recommended three or four doses at five day intervals if there is brood present.

This works well 9 but is it compatible with supers on the hive and a honey flow?

What do you mean by compatible?

The VMD Api-Bioxal Summary of product characteristics 10 specifically states “Don’t treat hives with super in position or during honey flow”.

That is about as definitive as possible.

Another one for the extractor ...

Another one for the extractor …

Some vapoholics (correctly) would argue that honey naturally contains oxalic acid. Untreated honey contains variable amounts of oxalic acid; 8-119 mg/kg in one study 11 or up to 400 mg/kg in a large sample of Italian honeys according to Franco Mutinelli 12.

It should be noted that these levels are significantly less than many vegetables.

In addition, Thomas Radetzki demonstrated that oxalic acid levels in spring honey from OA vaporised colonies (the previous autumn) were not different from those in untreated colonies. 

Therefore surely it’s OK to treat when the supers are present?

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

There are a few additional studies that have shown no marked rise in OA concentrations in honey post treatment. One of the problems with these studies is that the delay between treatment and honey testing is not clear and is often not stated 13.

Consider what the minimum potential delay between treatment and honey harvesting would be if it were allowed or recommended.

One day 14.

No one has (yet) tested OA concentrations in honey immediately following treatment, or the (presumable) decline in OA levels in the days, weeks and months after treatment. Is it linear over time? Does it flatline and then drop precipitously or does it drop precipitously and then remain at a very low (background) level?

Oxalic acid levels over time post treatment … it’s anyones guess

How does temperature influence this? What about colony strength and activity?

Frankly, without this information we’re just guessing.

Why risk it?

I try and produce the very best quality honey possible for friends, family and customers.

The last thing I would want to risk is inadvertently producing OA-contaminated honey.

Do I know what this tastes like? 15

No, and I’d prefer not to find out.

Formic acid and thymol have been shown to taint honey and my contention is that thorough studies to properly test this have yet to be conducted for oxalic acid.

Until they are – and unless they are statistically compelling – I will not treat colonies with supers present … and I think those that recommend you do are unwise.

What are the options?

Other than MAQS there are no treatments suitable for use when the honey supers are on. If there’s a good nectar flow and a mite-infested colony you have to make a judgement call.

Will the colony be seriously damaged if you delay treatment further?

Quite possibly.

Which is more valuable 16, the honey or the bees?

One option is to treat, hopefully save the colony and feed the honey back to the bees for winter (nothing wrong with this approach … make sure you label the supers clearly!).

Another approach might be to clear then remove the supers to another colony, then treat the original one.

However, if you choose to delay treatment consider the other colonies in your own or neighbouring apiaries. They are at risk as well.

Finally, prevention is better than cure. Timely application of an effective treatment in late summer and midwinter should be sufficient, particularly if all colonies in a geographic area are coordinately treated to minimise the impact of robbing and drifting.

I’ve got two more articles planned on midseason mite management for when the colony is broodless, or can be engineered to be broodless 17.


 

Pedantically not phoresy

The life cycle of the ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor essentially consists of two stages. The first is within the capped cell, where reproduction takes place. The second occurs outside the capped cell when the recently-mated female progeny mites matures while riding around the colony attached to a nurse bee.

Almost without exception this second stage is termed the phoretic phase.

It isn’t.

Phoresy

Phoretic is an adjective of the word phoresy. Phoresy is derived from the French phorésie which, in turn, has its etymological origins in the Ancient Greek word φορησις.

And φορησις means being carried.

Which partly explains why the correct definition of the word phoresy is:

An association between two organisms in which one is carried on the body of the other, without being a parasite [OED]

Phoresy has been in use for about a century, with the word phoretic first being recorded in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America (25:79) in 1932:

It is possible, as suggested by Banks (1915), that such young mites are phoretic, being carried about from place to place on the host’s surfaces.

And, no, they weren’t discussing Varroa.

“Without being a parasite”

These are the critical words in the dictionary definition of phoresy which makes the use of the word phoretic incorrect when referring to mites on nurse bees.

Because mites on nurse bees are feeding – or at least a significant proportion 1 of them are.

They are therefore being parasitic and so shouldn’t be described as phoretic.

Om, nom, nom 2

Last week I discussed the recent Samual Ramsey paper presenting studies supporting the feasting of Varroa on the fat body of bees.

In the study they harvested bees from a heavily mite-infested hive and recorded the location on the bee to which the mite was attached.

The majority were attached to the left underside of the abdomen. More specifically, the mite was wedged underneath the third abdominal tergite 3.

What were they doing there? Hiding?

Yes … but let’s have a closer look.

Ramsey and colleagues removed some of the mites and used a scanning electron microscope to examine the attachment point on the bee. Underneath the tergite there is a soft membrane. The imprint of the body of the mite was clearly visible on the membrane.

Varroa feeding location on adult bee

Scanning EM of Varroa feeding location on adult bee

The footpads of the mite were left attached to the membrane (left image, white arrows), straddling an obvious wound where the mouthparts had pierced the membrane (black arrow). Between them, the inverted W shape is presumably the imprint of the lower carapace of the mite.

The close-up image on the right even shows grooves at the wound site consistent with the mouthparts of the mite.

These mites were feeding.

Extraoral digestion

Varroa belongs to the order (a level of classification) Mesostigmata. Most mesostigmatids feed using a process termed extraoral digestion.

Extraoral digestion has also been termed ‘solid-to-liquid’ feeding. It involves the injection of potent hydrolytic enzymes which digest solid tissue, converting it to a semi-solid that can be easily ingested. It can reduce the time needed to feed and it increases the nutrient density of the consumed food.

If Varroa fed on haemolymph it wouldn’t need to use extraoral digestion. Instead it would need all sorts of adaptations to a high volume, low nutrient diet. Varroa doesn’t have these. It has a simple tube-like gut parts of which lack enzymatic activity … implying that digestion occurs elsewhere.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Do the images of feeding mites support the use of extraoral digestion?

EM cross-section of Varroa feeding

EM cross-section of Varroa feeding

The image above 4 shows the cross-section of a Varroa (V), wedged under the tergite (Te), feeding through a hole (arrow in the enlargement on the right) in the membrane (M). The fat body (FB) is immediately underneath the membrane. The scale bar is incorrectly labelled 5.

A close-up of the wound site shows further evidence for extraoral digestion.

Feeding wound at higher magnification

Feeding wound at higher magnification

Beneath the wound site (C, arrow) are remnants of fat body cells (white arrow) and bacteria (black arrow; of two types, shown in D). A closer look still at the remnants of the fat body (E and F) shows cell nuclear debris (blue arrows) and lipid droplets (red arrows).

These images are entirely consistent with extraoral digestion of fat body tissue by feeding Varroa. The presence of bacteria near the wound suggests that bacterial infection may result from Varroa feeding, possibly further contributing to disease in bees.

So, pedantically it’s not phoresy

So-called phoretic mites, unless they’re on the thorax or head of the bee, are not really phoretic. They are being carried about, but they are also likely feeding. By definition that excludes them from being phoretic.

Instead they are ectoparasites of adult bees.

What are the chances that beekeepers will stop using the term phoretic?

Slim to none I’d predict 6.

And, of course, it doesn’t really matter what the correct term for them is.

What’s more important is that beekeepers remember that it’s at this stage that mites are susceptible to all miticides.

The June gap

But it’s also worth thinking about the potential impact of brood breaks.

During brood breaks all the mites in the colony must be ‘phoretic’.

Generally, the majority of the mites in a hive are in capped cells. Depending upon the stage of the season, the egg-laying rate of the queen and other factors, up to 90% of the mites are associated with developing pupae.

But as the laying rate dwindles more and more mites are released from cells and become ‘phoretic’, unable to find a suitable late-stage larva to infest.

And which bees do the mites associate with?

Nurse bees primarily, for reasons I’ll discuss in the future. But – spoiler alert – one of the reasons is likely to be that they have a larger fat body.

So, a mid-season brood break (e.g. the ‘June gap’) is likely to result in lots more nurse bees becoming both the carriers and the dinner of the mite population.

Some or many of the nurse bee cohort may perish, perhaps from damage to the fat body or from the viruses acquired from the mite. However, bees exhibit phenotypic plasticity, meaning that older bees can revert to being nurse bees when the queen starts laying again.

Late season brood breaks

In late summer mite levels are usually at their highest in the hive. A brood break occurring now will release a very large number of mites to parasitise the adult bee population.

Presumably these mites select the bees best able to support them 7.

And which bees are these? The nurse bees of course. But it’s also worth remembering that there are key physiological similarities between nurse bees and winter bees. Both have low levels of juvenile hormone and high levels of vitellogenin (stored in the fat body).

So I’d bet that the ‘phoretic’ mites during a late season brood break would also preferentially associate with any early-produced winter bees.

Furthermore, once the queen starts laying again – perhaps in early/mid-autumn – the winter bees being produced would be subjected to the double-whammy of high levels of mite infestation and potential damage from ‘phoretic’ mites.

Practical considerations

More work is required to model or actually measure the impact of late season brood breaks, high levels of ‘phoretic’ mites, nurse bee numbers and winter bee development.

Compare two colonies of a similar size with a similar mite load, treated at the same time in early autumn with an appropriate miticide. If one of them experienced a late summer brood break (pre-treatment) and consequent high levels of ‘phoretic’ mites, does this reduce the chances of the colony surviving overwinter?

Who knows? Lots and lots of variables …

Fundamentally, it remains important to treat colonies early enough to protect the winter bee population. You’ve heard this from me before and you’ll hear it again.

However, it’s something to think about and I can see ways in which it might influence the strategy and timing of mite control used. I’ll return to this sometime in the future.


 

Convenience or laziness?

It’s cold and dark and all is quiet in the apiary. Hives appear somnolent. Colonies are clustered 1 and, other than the odd corpse or two on the landing board, I’ve not seen a bee for at least a fortnight.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

Based upon previous experience I suspect colonies are – or very soon will be – broodless. I usually reckon that the first extended (2-3 weeks) period of cold weather 2 in the winter is the most likely time for the colony to be broodless.

In 2016/17 this was the first week in December.

In 2017/18 it was just a day or two later.

In both instances, when the hives were checked, they had no brood.

What’s all this about being broodless?

If a colony is broodless there are no capped cells in which the Varroa mite can ‘hide’. As a consequence it’s an ideal time to apply a miticide like a trickled solution of Api-Bioxal 3.

There are very good reasons why a midwinter OA treatment is necessary, particularly if you treated early enough in the autumn to protect the overwintering workers from the ravages of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). High DWV levels reduce the lifespan of bees and contribute to many (possibly most) winter colony losses. I’ve even suggested here that “isolation starvation” might actually be due to Varroa-transmitted viral disease.

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Early autumn treatment protects the winter bees but also leaves the long autumn for the residual mites to continue replicating.

And there will be residual mites. No treatment is 100% effective.

So, paradoxically, if you treated early enough in the autumn to really help protect the winter bees, your mite levels will be higher at the end of the year.

Which also means they’ll be higher at the beginning of next year.

Not a good start to the 2019 season 🙁

Convenience or laziness?

Many beekeepers, for convenience, laziness or historical precedent, choose to apply the winter OA treatment between Christmas and New Year. I suspect that this is often too late. If the queen starts laying again around the winter solstice there will be sealed brood – and therefore unreachable Varroa – by the end of the month.

I’d prefer to have a cold and damp afternoon in the apiary slaughtering Varroa now than the convenience of treating them less effectively during the Christmas holiday period.

The latter might be more convenient … the office will be closed, I’ll be replete with turkey and sprouts and it will be a good excuse to ‘escape’ visiting relatives and yet more mince pies 4.

But is it the best time for your bees?

We have the technology

We have a couple of hives with Arnia hive monitors fitted 5. These have a temperature probe inserted into the brood nest. Brood rearing temperature is around 34°C. Here is a trace of one colony over the last month.

Arnia hive monitor temperature

Arnia hive monitor temperature

The colony temperature was pretty stable (around 33-35°C) until about the 19th of November and has dropped about 10°C since then. Although I’ve not opened the colony I think that this is additional evidence that the colony is broodless 6.

Beekeeping by numbers

Keeping bees properly involves being aware of the seasons, the available forage and the state of the colony. This varies from month to month and year to year 7.

You can’t mechanically (‘by the numbers’) add supers on the 5th of May and harvest honey on the 15th of June. Sure, it might work some years, but is it the best time to do it?

Similarly, you can’t optimally treat a colony for Varroa on the 30th of December unless the climatic conditions and state of the colony coincide to make that the best time to treat.

It might be, but I suspect that generally it’s a bit late if there is a brood break.

If you’re going to the trouble of preparing the OA treatment, donning the beesuit and disturbing the colony you might as well do it at the right time for the bees.

I’ll be treating in between the predicted sleet showers and sunny periods this weekend.

Time to treat

Time to treat

Isn’t evolution a wonderful thing? This post started with a working title of Know your enemy” and was on a different topic altogether. I’ll save that for next week.


STOP PRESS

The above was written at the beginning of the week. Now the weekend is closer it’s clear the weather is going to be cold with heavy snow predicted. Unless the forecast is wrong (and how often does that happen?!) I’ll hold off treating until a) it’s over 5°C, and b) the roads are safe.