Winter is Coming

Winter is coming, and like the Starks and people of the north (for all you Game of Throne fans), the bees have known this for quite a while. But now it is time for the beekeepers (and Lannisters) to prepare as well. First off, we needed to evaluate the health of each hive. We looked to be sure that there was plenty of brood in the hives, and it looked like our queens were doing their jobs. There was a lot of brood, and any open cell had an egg in it. These will be the bees that will take the colony into the spring, so we’ve got to be sure there are plenty of new brood to survive the winter.

Next we looked at the honey stores. The top brood boxes were being packed with honey as the bees begin to prepare to store their winter food in the top and move the brood rearing to the bottom.

We looked for any diseases like foulbrood, chalkbrood, or American foulbrood. We found nothing there. Given the finding of American foulbrood at a nearby apiary, we were very pleased to see everyone looking healthy.

Possibly most important, we needed to access the mite load of each hive. A high level of varroa mites can decimate a hive, and is a contributing (or perhaps main) cause of over-winter losses. To get a rough idea of the number of mites, we did a quick sugar roll test. A half cup of bees (~300) were placed in a jar with a tablespoon of powdered sugar. After shaking for a minute, the mites dislodge from the bees do to the sugar. The sugar and mites were shaken through the #8 mesh lid onto a white surface. We had a mite count that was a little on the high end – one hive had around 6 mites (2%), the other had 12 (4%). The actual mite count is likely to be higher since the number of mites in the brood is not accounted for in this test. The hive with 6 mites is on the low end of needing treatment, and the hive with 12 mites is definitely in need of treatment.

We’re not hippies, but we don’t want to add synthetic chemicals to our hives, as there is a tendency of these chemicals to permeate the wax and contaminate any future honey stored in that wax. We decided to treat with Apilife Var, which uses thymol (extracted from thyme) to kill the mites. It has little effect on the bees (though they don’t particularly like it in their hive), and it doesn’t leave any chemical residues in the wax. The treatment regimen is three weeks, and after that is completed we will perform another mite count to be sure the treatment was effective.

Finally, we needed to be absolutely certain the hive had enough food for winter. They bees have been hard at work collecting nectar from goldenrod, asters, and jewelweed, but to ensure they have enough food stored for winter we supplemented their food with sugar water. We will continue to monitor their food storage, and later in the month we will weigh the hives to be sure they have the 80 pounds or so of food they will require to make it over the winter.

Winter is coming.

How to Build a Pro-Drown Bee Feeder

We were ready.  The hives were assembled and painted, the foundations were on the frames, the bottom boards, top screens, and roofs were handmade to (almost) perfection.  We even made our own entrance reducers.  It all looked serene sitting in the garage waiting for tens of thousands of buzzing inhabitants.  The only thing we needed yet was the feeder.  That didn’t seem like a problem.  A dish with some sugar water, right?  Apparently there are as many plans for feeders as there are opinions on which feeder is the best.

bad bee feeder
What I thought would happen

A feeder touted as “no-drown” seemed the way to go.  That narrows it down by 5%.  After some careful thought and deliberation – and a little too much time in beekeeping forums – a screened ladder looked like a good way to go.  The principle is quite simple.  Bees fly up into the feeder through a small opening in the bottom, walk down a ladder made of hardware mesh, take a drink, and walk out.  Perfect.  The design looked simple enough to make.  No problem.  Besides, I thought this through, and if there was a glaring design problem, I’m sure Andy would point it out.  The problem is that I’m a scientist, not engineer, and I took it upon myself to come up with the final design.  The box was simple, just a medium super with a plywood bottom and a 4″x2″ inch opening at the one end for the bees to travel up.  The opening was flanked by some 3 1/4″ high wood to enclose it.  On the other side we added a 10″x10″ aluminum pan for the sugar syrup.  Done.  For the ladder we simply cut a piece of #8 hardware cloth and stapled it in place.  There, the bees can eat.  We didn’t want bees flying around in the feeder, so the ladder was stapled on the top of the opening then leading down into the syrup.  We effectively made a nice roof to protect our bees from flying around the feeder.  We wouldn’t want them to accidentally land in the syrup and drown.  There was no mesh bottom for the bees to walk down, but that wasn’t a problem, I reasoned.  The bees would fly up to the opening, make a short jump to the mesh roof and crawl upside down to the sugar syrup, and return the way they came.  They’re smart, right?  As I’m writing this, I cringe at how stupid my logic was.  Really?  The bees will just crawl upside down to eat?  What was I thinking?

pro-drown bee feeder

What did happen

Nonetheless, the feeder went onto our newly installed packages.  We were so careful during the installation.  Everything was perfect.  Only a few squished bees.  Nothing to worry about, we’ve got plenty.  The next day I peaked in to see if the bees were eating.  It seemed odd there were a dozen or so dead bees floating in the pan.  No matter, they’ll figure out how to eat.  I’m sure there’s some worker doing her waggle dance telling the rest they need to suspend upside down to eat.  But alas, there is not.  The following day I returned to find a even more drowned bees.  I witnessed the atrocities.  The bees were just flying up to the opening and taking a step off into the abyss of sugar syrup.  Trying their best to fly out, their flight to safety was impeded by the cleverly built upside down ladder, forcing them to plunge back into the syrup, sealing their fate.  I had build a bee death trap.

no-drown bee feeder
The fix

Quickly I called Andy who realized the error of my plans.  He immediately went to work on making and installing a proper ladder that is fully enclosed, complete with a mesh bottom.  The next day I once again peaked in.  There they were, walking down the ladder, drinking up till their hearts’ content.  The bees seem quite happy no one is trying to kill them.