As beekeepers, we’re supposed to know what is happening in our hives. But really now…do we? Today is Labor Day. Any idea what your mite infestation level is now that the bees are making the bees that will take us through winter? If you have actually done a sugar or alcohol roll and truly know the number, CONGRATULATIONS! You are probably ahead of half of the beekeepers out there and, provided that number is less that 1-2%, your bees already have a decent chance of surviving winter.
A recent trip Rick and I took to the 2016 Eastern Apicultural Society meeting showed me I had become one of the beekeepers that did not know. I started beekeeping the right way, monitoring my mite load, breaking brood cycles, trying sugar dusting (I think all it does is tick them off), using a screen bottom board, small cell foundation, etc. My bees seemed to easily make it through winter the first few years and I
thought I was really enjoying the no treat life. Unfortunately, I became too involved at work, greatly reducing my apiary time just as my number of hives was peaking in the mid 20s. I only had time to do an occasional 24 hour mite drop test, didn’t worry about breaking the brood cycle and suddenly I was loosing bees. In retrospect, my bees may have been doing OK and figuring out a way to live with mites (maybe?) but they certainly could not figure out how to live with all of the diseases mites bring into the hive. I went from being a beekeeper to a bee buyer. I hate being a bee buyer and I am determined to do what I can to give the bees under my care the best chance I possibly can.
Managing by Monitoring
I took the “Varroa Track” at the EAS meeting. Almost every one of the short courses I attended was about how to best deal with mites. Yes, that means treat. What I wanted to learn is what is the softest way to do so and still have the affect my bees need to survive.
We all know V.destructor is the primary vector for spreading diseases to your bees. Diseases that weaken bees so they are not healthy enough to overwinter. Control the mites, you directly impact the spread of disease inside the hive. It’s hard to manage a problem if you do not know you have one though. Not seeing mites on your bees during an inspection is no surprise. 80% of the mites in your hive are hidden in the capped brood cells, not waving at you while riding the back of your bees like a bronco buster. While still valuable information, counting mites on a mite drop board isn’t really accurate, either. While still valuable info, what it shows you is how the hive is trending. It does not give you an accurate infestation level. The best way for a backyard beekeeper to check their mite infestation level is via a sugar or ether roll. To learn more about how to do this, look at the last post and follow the link.
I came home from the meeting once again jazzed about monitoring and determined to develop empirical data to guide me in my hive preparations for winter. After doing a sugar roll on 4 of my large hives, I found all but one of the Palmer hives had mite infestation levels between 1 and 3%. Not bad but it’s the time of year where based on declining bee populations, mite levels soar. The 5th hive is the Georgia package that had just made a new queen after the package queen died (SURPRISE…not!) I did not test it as it just had a month long brood break.
After having learned about all of the possible ways to treat hives while at the meeting, I decided to use Mite Away Quick Strips (MAQS) to knock down the infestation rate. MAQS, a formic acid based fumigant, is considered an organic treatment safe to use with honey supers in place. That being said, I removed mine and placed 2 strips in each of the 3 remaining hives needing treatment as soon as the weather cooperated. If you decide to try this, read the instructions carefully as MAQS is known to cause serious queen and brood issues if used when external temps are over 90ºF. With our hot summer, I had to wait a week until there was a 5 day window when the ambient temperature would remain below 85º. I would like to tell you I did the right thing and followed up with more sugar rolls to see if the levels decreased but I did not due to other priorities. I am happy to say that all of my queens made it through perfectly, I saw zero affect on the brood and my sticky board mite drop counts have shown zero mites (a decrease from the 3-4 prior). Next is a follow up treatment using OAV when the hives are broodless late November/early December. That should put my mite threshold going into winter at less than 1%. The bees currently making the winter bees are now the healthiest I can make them, increasing the probability of healthy disease free bees this winter.
Oh? But what about Nosema?
Yeah…That (and using homosote moisture boards that did not work) is what killed my bees in 2014. I really do not want to use Fumigilan-B. I consider it a “hard” treatment and my “no treat” side still hates prophylactic treatments. Instead, I have opted to try Hive Alive by Advance Science. This is a syrup additive similar to Honey-B-Healthy etc and supposedly provides beneficial nutrients to the bee gut, reducing the likelihood of Nosema. It is available through Brushy Mountain Bee Farm. All of my hives are currently being treated with it, including my 4 nucs. Could all be marketing but I’ve read several reports of beekeepers who love it and have had the results I hope to achieve. We’ll see this winter and spring . I will be sure to let you know what I find.
Current Results (as in keeping my fingers crossed)
For the first time in probably 4 or 5 years we actually have had a honey harvest. Without being greedy, we will pull a total of 130-140 lbs of honey from 3 hives this year! That is easily a record for us. We harvested about 100 lbs of that and have frozen the remainder as a safety net for feeding it back to them this winter. Besides every hive getting a gallon of syrup to deliver the Hive Alive treatment, I am also feeding the nucs 2:1 syrup to get them built up to winter weight. I am adding Honey-B-Healthy and Vitamin-B-Healthy to the syrup, plus 0.5 tsp/gal of organic apple cider vinegar to adjust the pH. Once we get a bit closer, I’ll look at the population in each nuc and decide if I can keep them as 4 nucs or if I need to do a paper combine. I hope to know in 2-3 weeks…
New Toy – BroodMinder
Lastly, one cannot go to EAS and see all of the vendors without bringing home something new to try. This year, I bought a BroodMinder Citizen Science Package. This is a hive scale with an ambient temperature sensor plus 2 internal hive sensors; one for humidity and temperature, the other temperature only. Naturally, there is an app for all of this. If you want to be on the bleeding edge of hive monitoring, you can get this package for about $240, a GREAT price for a hive scale by itself!
We have found this to be more of a beta test level device than a finished product. The data is very interesting tho’ and I do believe once they work through some of the kinks,this is going to be a great device and will provide valuable
information throughout the year. I will report on this during the winter. Meanwhile it is at times frustrating and other times interesting what info it provides. The data can tell us when there is brood, when a hive goes queenless, when the flow starts/ends, if we have winter ventilation issues and more without having to wait for an inspection. Most importantly, the folks at BroodMinder are serious beekeeping geeks who truly want to help honey bees, as well as beekeepers, while providing valuable data to the apicultural research community. Tho’ they may not always think so from my postings on their forum, I am a believer that they will pull this off and I am glad I made this investment in hive monitoring technology! Stay tuned for more info…
Meanwhile, I hope your grill is ready for the last burgers of summer and your bees are happy and buzzin’. Macaroni salad, home grown corn, tomatoes and greens with burgers on the grill! Man, I am going to miss summer… Happy Labor Day!