Spring after winter in Indiana

Larry from Indiana wrote me March 30 about spring approaching at his side of the globe on about 39° latitude:

Mother Nature continues to exact her winter revenge in the Midwest USA. Once again rain mixed with snow dominates the day. I have yet to see foragers returning with pollen in my northern (40° N) yards this year. The local growing degree days are at only 36% of that of the same period last year and have increased only so slightly in the last 2 1/2 weeks.

Tomorrow’s forecast is a calm and sunny 12° C so on this rainy morning, despite leaving ample amounts of honey on my colonies last fall, I began preparation to feed my emergency rations of honey (my own) and MegaBee supplement. I will check each colony tomorrow and feed as needed..

Larry's beefeedF

Larry, you’ve had a severe winter, while we here in Sweden on (59° latitude where I live) have had an unusually mild one, only real winter in the latter part of January though bees have been confined to the hives without cleansing flights for four months, instead of five. Here bees have normally plenty of stores. I never feed pollen collected the year before or pollen substitutes. Enough good quality pollen normally comes in, especially when willow starts to bloom.

Multitest colony prepare to boom

MT-colony 30Mars

You know the MT-colony – testing natural positioning, plastic frames,  mostly honey as winter store, and a mouse nest…

A couple of days ago, about 12°C (52F) and sunny, still no fresh high value pollen (some from early blooming trees). I was visiting this apiary taking care of the fistsize colony mentioned in an earlier post. It was robbed and had just a few bees of their own left. Shook off the bees and took home the boxes to sort the frames, some for the solar wax melter, some with food to give to others and those nice looking empty drawn combs for increase later on.

The colony was heavy of stores and warm. The queen is laying good now preparing for the early flow…

Honey for winter

In US I understand it’s more common than in Europe to let the bees keep honey for winter. On the other hand I’ve heard more and more beekeepers giving sugar for winter. And the discussion which sugar is the best for wintering. It seems sucrose is the best, from cane or beet. Of the sugars. The very best is of course honey. But is it, if sugar is much cheaper? And how is it, doesn’t honey produce a lot of residues filling up the guts and producing dysentery and bad overwintering? Yes it might, if you have bees making a lot of brood during winter, thus having to eat a lot. And without any possibility for cleansing flights.

In older times in Sweden honey was used a lot for wintering bees. In fact I saw a comment in an old beekeepers magazine that this particular year the autumn flow had been bad so the bees had had no opportunity to gather winter stores on the Heather. Heather honey today is said to create big problems for bees’s if overwintering on it. A tixotropic dark strong honey. In Sweden normally the bees are confined to the hive without any cleansing flight for at least five months.

What’s happened I think is that bees that brood too much in winter to be able to winter on difficult honeys are surviving because they have been wintered on sugar to the biggest part. We have weakened the bees and because of greed, thinking we are smart. It had been a better investment letting the bees keep enough honey for winter to make up at least the major part of the winter food.

Tobias Olofsson and Alejandra Vasquez have discovered many lactic acid bacteria are important for the health of bees. They live in the guts of bees and feed on nectar, honey and pollen, just as bees. They originate from other bee guts, not from flowers, but bees that visit flowers share these microbes that way too, besides directly in the hive to new generations.

They are continuing their research concerning overwintering on honey or sugar.

In an article in the Swedish journal Bitidningen Tobias is describing a new product for boosting bees with lactic acid bacteria. http://dmweb.v-tab.se/webpages/Bitidningen/bitid-13-0010.html, page 11-13. He is also describing a small test finding out what happened with the lactic acid bacteria when wintering on honey (2 colonies) and on sucros (2 colonies). The number of bacteria was much lower in the sugar colonies. These colonies used much more food, their colony strenght was much lower and they were irritated in temper.

Olofsson and Vaquez have produced a product they call SymBeeotic which is supposed to be used to boost a colony with low amount of lactic acid bacteria, for example after winter. But of course it’s better to leave enough honey in the colony for winter.


Plastic positioning and the mouse

You remember the previous post about the “multiple test”(MT)-colony, natural positioning, plastic frames, a mouse (or mice), mild winter and what a good condition this colony came out with now in spring. I’ve been thinking about it.

Mild winter

Yes the mild winter has contributed to the good condition. But what about varroa and viruses? Mild winter doesn’t help if you have too much of both in a colony. I would say maybe the contrary, or at least questionable. A lot of varroa triggers extensive brooding, to kind of replace the affected sick brood resulting in a bad rat race.

But less treatment

In fact one of the colonies in the apiary died during winter due to what looked like virus problems, in spite of some more treatment than the good colony got. And another colony which hadn’t received any treatment last year because it didn’t need it, it seemed, no DWV-bees, strong and healthy look – came out with fist size cluster and asking for survival until fresh pollen and steady temp around 60F (15C). We’ll see.

And this good colony got less Varroa treatment 2013 compared to 2012, actually half – at the most only a tenth compared to non-selected bees for Varroa resistance. With the same queen 2012 and 2013.

 Weaker varroa pressure

Now I think in spite of the dead colony and the one with the fistsize cluster, the average Varroa pressure, total amount of mites in the apiary, was less in 2013 compared to 2012. In fact I think this is the case in all my apiaries. Because I used in average about half the amount of thymol I used in 2012. This good colony I’m talking about specifically now got the average amount, 5 grams. Also, only 50% of the colonies going into winter had been treated during 2013, compared to 80% 2012. And, this spring winter die off will be less than 5% compared to more than 15% last spring.

The Varroa pressure I think is lower due to better Varroa resistance in average in my stock, also in this apiary. The least good ones are showing up every spring, either they die in spite of treatment, or they show up weak and get treatment and later their queens are shifted.

 Epigenetics and social learning

Also, from other beekeepers experiences, after about 5 years, mite pressure becomes weaker without any obvious reason. Probably some kind of epigenetic adaption (genes turned on and others turned off) is taking place that takes about 5 years from the first time the mites created problems. This spring is the fifth since the mites gave big problems the first time in all my apiaries.

This adaption to the presence of the mite and fighting it probably also involves social learning. Bees learning to handle the mite and pass this knowledge on to other bees in the hive (http://www.hindawi.com/journals/psyche/2013/768108/). Therefore it’s important not only to propagate good resistant bee colonies by making new queens from it, but also by making new bee colonies from it, including worker bees that can pass their knowledge to new generations of bees.


 Uniform small cells

From the dead colonies through these diffcult years with Varroa I have harvested quite some badly drawn small cellsize combs. With too many patches of drone comb, and too many patches of bigger sometimes irregular “worker” cells. Good they have been culled.

These plastic frames with plastic foundation with cellsize about 4.95 from Mann Lake (http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=119) that was used in the bigger part of the third (the uppermost) broodbox in the MT-colony at least didn’t have a big negative impact on the colony health. Plastic haters might draw such a conclusion right away. Now, I’m not a plastic lover. I don’t like using plastic. That’s because in general it isn’t degradable in nature. That’s what I want, degradable plastic. But here it is in our world and I tried it.

These plastic frames might even have contributed to the good health of the MT-colony. 10% more cells per comb, still quicker build up. No drone patches (BUT there should be drone patches here and there in the brood area to catch the mites that are there), no patches of bigger and irregular “worker” cells. No wavy combs (I use no wiring in my wax combs). No big bridges of hindrance of wood for the queen between brood boxes.

So I plan to try some more plastic frames from Mann Lake in brood boxes. But there should be a good balance between plastic and wooden frames as long as I will be using the plastic.

Natural positioning, plastic frames and a mouse

Mousehome1b The bottom box with the cozy home of the mouse. To the right the two upper boxes full of bees, waiting for return on top of the bottom one.

You know there is a front and a back, and up and down, and sideways, on combs and foundation. Ever seen the Y at the bottom of the cells? The side of the comb with upside down Y:s is said to appear towards the middle of the bee cluster, when the bees build their own home of combs. When Y is facing up, or down, the cells have tips pointing upwards and downwards. Are tips pointing sideways (and not parallel sides sideways) Y at the cell bottoms (hold the comb or foundation against the light and it’s easier to see) is facing right or left. Such combs is said to appear sometimes in the middle of the cluster of naturally drawn combs.

To place combsides with Y pointing downwards towards the middle of the box (easiest marking new combs with foundation on the toplist) is said to be beneficial for the bees – where they sit in the box, development, harmony, etc. Anyway I couldn’t figure out that it could be possible to be negative for the bees. So I started to mark new combs last year and had the intention to test natural positioning. But it turned out I seldom put on a whole box of foundation. I did though on one hive, almost. And it happened to be mostly plastic frames with plastic foundation from Mann Lake, with cell size slightly bigger than 4.9 mm. I tested Mann Lake’s standard plastic frames and foundation last year too. And this hive turned out to be the one receiving highest number of plastic frames for testing.

So this hive became a testhive for both plastic frames and natural positioning. A bad test actually. Just using one colony and for two parameters. Anyway, had the colony died or dwindeled or turned out to develop weird in any way it had pointed to negative effects for at least one of the tested two parameters.

At best one could say now that it would be interesting to continue the tests, with both parameters. Because the outcome seems to be positive. It turned out to be a hard test concerning overwintering. Not though because of hard weather. The winter before (2012-13) was colder and longer and the colony came out weaker from winter than this spring 2014. 2012 it was treated against Varroa with 10 grams of thymol in total and nothing else (two pieces of dish cloth with 5 grams each).

The colony came out of winter in a weaker state 2013 so the bottom box was culled and a new third box for brood was added when it was time for that (12 frames of shallow size, 448 x 137 mm). This box mostly consisted of plastic frames and foundation, but with a few drawn combs in the middle of the box. And the sides of the combs with Y facing downwards was pointing inwards to the middle of the box. Honey production was average 2013. 2013 the colony was treated with only 5 grams of thymol, with the same queen, half the amount compared to 2012. (Now this amount of thymol is low compared to recommended amounts for bees in general, at least 10 times more would be normal.)

The colony was wintered on three shallow boxes (12 frames) full of bees with 25 kg of honey (>50 pounds) and 10 kg of sugar (>20 pounds). It came out of winter (March 1) as strong as it went into it and heavy of food. Though I had forgotten to put on the entrance reducer so that a mouse had made it comfortable for itself as its winter house, both warm and food nearby, cozy. The bees hadn’t had their cleansing flight yet, confined to the hive since middle of November. The cleansing day came March 9.

After cleaning the bottom box from eaten empty frames and the cozy remnants of the mouse March 1 I returned two weeks later and the colony was happy, and no bee droppings on the front of the hive, still full of bees out to the sides also in the top box. With so much honey in the stores for long winters like ours it’s not unusual with bee droppings on the front of the hive.


So what’s the cause of the good standard of the colony this spring:

  1. the mild winter,
  2. natural positioning in the upper third box, or
  3. the plastic frames in the upper third box
  4. – maybe all three of these parameters?

First cleansing flight after winter


Autumn was warm, with bees flying in november. That’s rare. Winter was mild, only 2-3 weeks with steady freezing temperatures day and night in January. That’s rare too. Spring has come slow with temperatures just above freezing. Sun is rising more and more above horizon. Those days we’ve had sun, which havn’t been many. Now it’s warming in the middle of the day.

Sunday March 9 the great day came, when the bees flew out in their big bathroom after confined to their bedroom for many months. I wasn’t careful where I parked the car, in the open about 100 meters from the hives. The bees happily spotted the shining roof and shouted: Toilet! And dropped what they had had collected during winter.

Last year I used treatment against Varroa on much fewer part of my hives than previous years, 50%. That’s because no more had given me the sign for treatment, wingless bees.

And 36 colonies were potential breeders in autumn, the bees in those colonies hadn’t been treated last year or the year before. All of these have wintered very well so far. The year before (2102) I wintered 11 potential breeders. I used 5 of them for breeding last year (2013). 2011 I wintered 3 potential breeders. 2012 I used 1. Regardless of how many pass the test for breeding this year, I will probably not breed from more than about 5. The others I will at least take a walk away split from.

Two colonies have died so far, out of 170+. That’s 1%. I can’t remember when I had such a good overwintering before. But probably some more colonies will die.

Vårrensning9mars2 These two colonies are both afterswarms (with virgin queens)  in July last year, from the same colony. A colony that have never been treated against Varroa. It have VSH-index 40%, but somewhat grumpy in temper and gave a small crop. Both colonies were of course small going into winter, but have been sitting still with a tight cluster until March 9. They have eaten very little food until now.


Only real treatment tell real mite population

Marco Moretti made a valid comment to the sugar shaker post. It doesn’t surprise me that Antonio Nanetti found checking mite populations besides a real treatment is unreliable. It is many factors making the results uncertain. Why beekeepers want to do this anyway is to get an idea when it’s time to treat against the mite.

If you do an oxalic dribble, or trickling, you make a real treatment. And that’s okey with me, if you choose to do that. Before making a real treatment the most reliable mite test is said to be alcohol washing like with the bee shaker described in this blog. The sugar shaker might do well for others. According to findings in USA described by Dennis van Engelsdorp those beekeepers that checked mite populations with alcohol wash, thus keeping track of the mite population had the lowest winter losses, of those beekeepers treating regularely.

John Harbo and his collegues at Baton Rouge lab found in the early 1990:s when they took help of a statistican to find out that checking mite population increase during a period of time was not a good way of testing mite resistance. That’s why they finally ended up checking  infertility of the mites, which finally became the VSH method. (Information from Harbo)

That’s also one of the resons I don’t count mites. I check for virus problems in the hive before treating. The easiest virus and the one most common when mites are becoming many is Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). Maybe that’s too late normally to save the colony. I don’t know. But fortunately I don’t have ”normal” bees. Also a reason for me not counting mites, but looking for DWV, is that I want my bee stock to develop strong varroa (and virus) resistance.


Sugar Shaker


Larry Garret uses the powdered sugar shaker method to count mites. The method works well for his smaller number of colonies at each apiary and the tools are very easy to transport and store. Although there may be a slight difference in the actual counts provided via sugar shaker from those provided via alcohol wash the key is that the method and counts are consistently reproduced for comparison, he says. Above is a picture with his tools, below a result.

Ssugarshake2 Ssugarshake3

After each “shake” he writes the results on the back of the hive. The photo below shows a “hive log” of 2.3% mite infestation on 4 October with an oxalic acid dribble on 1 November.


Randy Oliver tells us: The alcohol wash methods have the drawback of killing the bees, and possibly the queen if you’re not sharp eyed. Paula Macedo and Marion Ellis came up with a bee-friendly jar test (Macedo & Ellis 2001). Set up a jar as for alcohol wash, with a 1/8” screened lid. Shake in 300 bees from the broodnest, put on the lid, and sift 1 rounded tsp of powdered sugar through the lid onto the bees. Roll the jar until the bees are all white, then let them sit for a minute. After one minute, invert the jar over a white surface (or better yet, a white pan of water so wind doesn’t blow the mites away), and shake the sugar and mites out for a full minute (continue if mites keep falling). Macedo recovered about 80-90% of the mites; in my own tests, we recovered about 65-70%. The bees can be returned to the hive unhappy but unharmed. http://scientificbeekeeping.com/fighting-varroa-reconnaissance-mite-sampling/