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Ross’s Bee Journal, #5: Starting Over in Spring

February 14, 2006

Square one. Well, that’s not quite accurate. We have all the equipment and hives and frames with drawn comb this time around. But the bees will all be new to us this spring. Our colony did not make it through the winter. It wasn’t for lack of food; there are still full frames of honey in the hive. We think it may be that the mites were still too numerous after our three treatments, and that it weakened the bees.

Or it may be that on one of the oddly warm days we had in December and January the bees broke their cluster and started moving around the hive, only to be caught off guard when the temperature plummeted in the evening. We haven’t yet taken the hive apart to fully inspect it, but a cursory exam in the field suggested the latter scenario. Bees were scattered throughout the hive in a variety of positions, frozen in the act of burrowing into a cell for food, for example. Janice said it reminded her of Pompeii.

Our bee teacher, Jeff, recommends a philosophical attitude toward such loss. He sees it as nature selecting the stronger, more mite-resistant bees for survival. The weak die, the strong survive. And he had losses this winter as well. Of nineteen colonies he tends in the high prairie at the Byron Forest Preserve only five survived.

We had some bitter cold, high wind days in December, and then some unusually warm ones, too. Our bees were from California. They probably weren’t expecting our weather. Then, too, there were the mites.

I’ve been reading a book about migratory beekeepers (Following the Bloom, by Douglas Whynott) that was written in the late 1980s and first published in 1991. It is an interesting snapshot of the beekeeping industry at a critical point in time. It was in the 80s that both tracheal and varroa mites first appeared in US bees.

There were many heroic attempts to stop the spread of mites at the time, mainly through the destruction of infested colonies and through state quarantines. But those migratory beekeepers are a crafty, and at times desperate bunch. They find ways to avoid state inspectors and sneak across state lines at night on little-used country roads. Their whole business model depends on their ability to move from the blueberry fields in Maine to the orange groves in Florida to the clover, alfalfa, and sunflower fields in North Dakota and the almond groves in California. We’re talking semi-truckloads of hives, thousands of colonies.

It was also in the 80s that the African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutella and Apis mellifera adansonii, a.k.a. "killer bee"; remember the Saturday Night Live skit?) that had been brought to Brazil in 1956 started to appear in Central America and further north. European bees had not done well in the hotter climates of South America, so African bees were introduced experimentally. They escaped and began to crossbreed with the existing European stock and eventually infiltrated all of South America.

Again, heroic plans were made to stop their northward migration or at least further dilute their genes with European bees. But gradually they made it all the way to California. The Africanized honey bee can now be found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Africanized honey bees are generally more aggressive than Europeans, but their reputation as killers has been exaggerated as a result of a few mass stinging incidents that were fatal.

But getting back to the mites. Since eradication attempts in the 80s failed, we now have to consider mites an ongoing pest management problem. We learned how to detect and treat for them well into the season last year. I intend this year to start much earlier. Again we are getting our bees from California (two packages this time, for two colonies). It’s very possible we’ll get mites along with them. I’m guessing last season’s package came with some mites.

You might ask, why buy bees from California if they’re going to come with mites? Apparently, the alternative for those of us in northern states who must get new bees from a warm state would be one of the southern states, like Florida or Texas. And then you have to worry about the small hive beetle. Luckily, SHB is not yet a problem in northern Illinois. So until we can get successful local queen-rearing programs going, new packages will come from California.

As soon as our two new colonies have built up their numbers I plan to do the sugar roll test for mites. Then we’ll treat them earlier and perhaps keep the mite population lower this year. I want to go into next winter with two strong hives.

Optimistically, we bought five more supers for this season. With the three we had, that will give us four supers per colony. We plan to try producing comb honey this year, in addition to the extracted and bottled variety. Before extractors were invented there was only comb honey, and even today many folks prefer it.

If you’ve never had comb honey you ought to try it sometime. True to its name, comb honey is honey that’s still in the wax comb the bees put it in. You can scoop out the honey and wax and spread it on toast or stick it right in your mouth. The wax can be swallowed or chewed like gum and later spit out. It’s quite tasty. The wax adds a nice texture to the honey.

As we wait for our new bees to arrive, we’ll be cleaning hive bodies and supers and repainting the ones that need it. I intend to be better organized this year, for easier management. A small table in the apiary, and an empty hive body will come in handy during frame inspections. And a better sprayer for the mite treatments will be needed.

Our bees will have a head start this year, thanks to the industrious 2005 colony. They’ve left us many frames of drawn comb, and some are packed with honey and pollen. You may recall that last year, starting with a brand new hive, our bees had only foundation (except for one frame of comb and honey) and had to make a lot of comb before they could really get into high gear with brood raising and honey production. It takes eight pounds of honey to make one pound of wax, so having the comb already available means the bees can produce a lot more extra honey.

With two colonies and the head start we should more than double our production this year. We’ll have to work on our marketing.

Ross Thompson

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