Thursday, June 8, 2017

Day 47: Adding New Brood Boxes and Checking For Varroa Mites

Hives 1-4, left to right
Today was the first varroa check for hives and it had to be a really quick one as it was also my birthday and I had pampering to do. I approached the activity as if I were storming the beaches of Normandy and every second counted. Not to imply that getting a massage and a facial is comparable in effort, but you wouldn't know it for the planning!

Today's agenda was simple: collect a sugar sample from three of the fives hives (the ones with either screened bottoms, removable bottom boards, pull-out plastic trays in the bottom of the hives, or some combination of the above), store the samples in individual plastic 1-lb frit jars labeled for the hive the sample came from, put the new medium brood boxes on top of two hives, and add closed-top division ladder feeders to all the hives but the Topbar. Get in, get out, analyze the data later after pampering.

I started with Hive #1 which doesn't have a screened bottom board so I planned to pick up the entire hive body (it was only one deep brood box) and put it on a piece of paper on which I could catch the sugar. The paper was on an aluminum tray across the top of my green garden wagon (I should've taken a picture--it was a great set-up). This initial foray almost got derailed when I picked up the hive to put it on a paper-covered tray because the bottom board came with the hive because it was stuck on with the bees' propolis. Bees don't like gaps in the structure of their hives as they can allow increased vibration and decreased structural stability hives and are a security risk. So the bees collect resin from trees and some plants, mix it with beeswax and spit, and make a glue out of it. They had very efficiently glued the bottom board to the hive so I needed a little help to get it back onto the hive stand after I got it off.

Devon (one of the contractors working nearby on the pond) was conscripted to assist me. Between his nervousness at being naked around the bees (well, naked as in not wearing a bee suit, he did have a t-shirt and jeans on), and my terse focus on getting the job done we fumbled around a bit while I held the hive in the air and he moved the bottom board here and there until he put it on the stand and I was able to put the hive on the paper. Whew! Everything else went easy-peasy. I took the lid and the inner cover off the hive, scooped a cup of powdered sugar out of by baggie and sprinkled it on top of the frames concentrating on the central brood frames, and brushed all the sugar down between the frames. Then I closed the hive back up and moved on to Hive #2. That one has a screened bottom and a plastic tray in it so all I had to do was take off the lid and the inner cover, sprinkle the sugar in as before, and close it up.

The third hive I did was Hive #4, aka the Cranky Hive. Hive #3, the hybrid, has neither a screened bottom, nor a removable plastic insert, nor a removable bottom board so to do a varroa check on them I would have to use the scoop-a-1/2-of-a-cup-of-bees-into-a-glass-jar (that's about 300 bees) method. I wasn't too confident about my ability to do the scooping so I gave this hive a pass for now. Hive #4, the Flow, has both a screened bottom board and a removable plastic insert. However it already had a medium brood box on it so I had to take the new box off and put it on the ground before doing the sugar test. It wouldn't have made any sense to sprinkle sugar through both boxes as there were no bees to test in the top (they haven't started building it out yet) and the sugar would just have got caught up on the frames.

As usual, when I opened the brood box up the bees got all pissy and immediately started dive bombing my head. I ignored them and calmly sprinkled in the sugar, brushed the excess between the frames, and put the lid back on. I left the medium super out for now.

Interesting side note here: I just watched a video on Facebook produced by the wonderful Flow people and they are now making a hybrid honey super which has the patented Flow honey frames, and it also has regular frames for the bees to build their own comb and store honey. The honey super is still protected against brood being laid in it as there is a queen excluder (a plastic screen with holes big enough for the workers to get through, but too small for the queen) but the honey frames in it can either be cut up into comb for harvesting, moved down into the brood box as winter stores for the bees, or extracted like any other Lang hive frame. They happened to have some of the hybrid supers in the size matching the 10-frame Lang hive body in a warehouse sale for 10% off and they are currently offering 15% off everything through the end of June so I got one for 25% off! I'm going to put it on one of my Langstroth hives next summer.

Anyway, back to the varroa checks. I waited 10 minutes from the time of my first powdered sugar sprinkle and then lifted Hive #1 back onto its stand. Then I removed the lid and the inner cover and placed the new medium brood box with the 1-gal closed top, division ladder feeder already in it onto the brood box. The inner cover went onto it followed by the lid. Then I carefully poured the powdered sugar on the paper into a plastic jar and labeled it. Before collecting the sugar from the next hive I turned the paper over exposing a clean side. I know it was overkill as I'm not testing for anything too small to see with even my tired, old, naked eyes, but it made me feel more scientific.

Then I pulled the plastic tray from the bottom of Hive #2 and repeated the addition of a medium brood super. The sugar from the plastic insert got dumped onto the paper and then funneled into the jar which was then labeled. Hive #4 was the same as Hive #2, but instead of adding a new medium brood box, I put the feeder into the existing second box and then replaced it and the cover and lid on the hive. So far so good, time to go inside and do counts in the coolness of the kitchen.

Just a few mites
For the first count I dumped the contents of jar#1 onto a white plate and, wearing my reading glasses, used a corn cow prong to push the sugar around checking for mites. As I've said before, the mites wiggle their legs when you poke them. I counted five mites in this batch which is just below the recommended threshold for treating. Then I thought, hmm, I bet I could be even more sure of my results if I sifted the sugar with a strainer it would pass through but the mites wouldn't. I neglected to tell Dave that I used his fine kitchen strainer for the sifting, but I did wash it really well in really hot, soapy water. After I was left with just a little sugar, mites, ants, and some debris in the strainer I dumped the strainer contents out onto another plate and still counted five mites. Hive #2, the package, netted no mites at all (Huzzah!). But Cranky Hive #4 had so many mites that I stopped counting at 16. There were probably 18 in there--three times the number of the mites you need to see to warrant treating.

Lots of mites
I spent the next two hours researching what treatment I should use and how many hives I should treat. Opinions amongst beekeepers on this subject are strong and polarizing. I followed up with three very knowledgable, very qualified, very strong local beekeepers, and all three of them have vastly different management strategies for and philosophies about varroa mites. At the end of it all, I decided that my best course of action at this time is to re-queen Hive #4. The bees are overly aggressive, and they are not either varroa resistant or hygienic about the mites. To get those characteristics, I need to change the genetics of my hive--which is what they do at Bee Weaver (where I got most of my bees). So Danny Weaver is coming over on Sunday with a new queen, and we're going to find and replace the current queen. It wasn't an easy choice, but there is no way to eliminate varroa from your hives: if your bees don't have now, in a few weeks they will--at least around here. So I'm going to go with bees bred for hygiene and resistance as a first step. I am sorry that I'll have to commit regicide to do it, but it is for The Greater Good.