Thursday, June 25, 2015


Faithful Reader Anita asked me to explain varroa.

Sigh. That's a huge topic, and one that is fraught with opinions and lots of things I don't completely understand.

The short answer is that there are two creatures living in my hives: honey bees (Apis mellifera) and varroa mites (Varroa destructor). Varroa is a mite that came from Asia. There, the mite causes little damage as the Asian bees are more tolerant. Since the 1980s, however, varroa has spread around the world. Our Western honey bees are much more susceptible to the varroa, which is credited as being one of the many things contributing to colony collapse disorder.

What happens is that the mites lay their eggs in the bees' egg cells. They are particularly fond of drone larva as those cells are bigger and the gestation period is longer and more to their liking.

Mite infestation weakens and maims the bees, causing them to be vulnerable to other parasites and diseases. Google for images of varroa and varroa damage. It's grim.

I do have varroa in my hives. Everyone does. When I did a basic count recently I was pleased to not see much. From time to time I see varroa on a bee. That makes me sad. One of my more experienced beekeeper mentors told me that this year has been good for bees in that the varroa doesn't seem to be as evident as in past years. Last year was apparently really bad. I don't know how much weather contributes to varroa levels in bee hives.

There are wildly disparate schools of thought on treating for mites from doing nothing (the idea being to encourage the bees to, via natural selection, breed themselves stronger as the mites only become resistant to treatment) to a variety of commercially available treatments. Somewhere in the middle are methods that include encouraging and then culling drone brood or splitting hives (artificial swarms) to disrupt the mite life cycle or sprinkling powdered sugar on the frames (the bees clean themselves, removing the mites, the mites have difficulty maintaining purchase and fall off).

I know beekeepers on both ends of the spectrum. I ask lots of questions, read as much as I can, but mostly I worry.

I worry a lot about my bees anyhow. Are they okay? Am I doing what is best for them? Am I too intrusive? Am I not reacting quickly enough? It's very stressful, and I lie awake at night often, fretting about my responsibility to all these creatures living under my watch.

This is a very short and vague answer, but I hope it helps.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Welcome Queen Isabel

Look who I spotted in the Little Hive last week:

There she is: a queen! All sleek and regal. We are calling her Isabel. 

I had run over to the hives last Tuesday (June 16) to pop in the white plastic boards that fit in the base of the hives. I was curious about varroa. You leave the white board in place for 2-3 days, and then you count the varroa that fall. This gives you some indication of your level of infestation. 

On Thursday, I retrieved the boards. I lined the mites up in groups of five to make them easier to count. I still needed a magnifying glass and the flashlight feature on my iPhone because I am old and Luxembourg is grey and gloomy. (Oddly, both hives had the same number of mites. Shouldn't the bigger hive have had more?)

Anyhow, I couldn't resist opening the Little Hive on Tuesday to see why everyone was so zen in there. And there she was: a queen. I wasn't convinced I knew what I was looking at at first. And she is spritely, moving around the frame very quickly. But I managed to take a picture which I then sent to my husband. He called me immediately and said, "Hey, look at that! We have a queen!" So I felt validated. 

I ran over to the Bee Store to get a queen marking kit, but then we had several days where it was too rainy and too cold to open the hive. (I don't want to open it if the temperature is below 16C, which, even in June happens here -- I even had the heat on last week.) In the end I didn't get back to the hive until yesterday (June 23). 

I took my oldest daughter with me to man the smoker, and together we looked at every frame (and there are only ten) twice. But no luck. The mood in the hive was still zen. Foragers were bringing in pollen. And we could see eggs and larvae. We knew she was there. But we could not find her. 

Today I couldn't stand it, and we went back again. We looked at every frame without any luck and were working our way back through the frames when we finally spotted her. Again, she was moving very quickly, and what followed was a series of amateur moves while we managed to catch her, glue a blue dot to her, and return her to her people. 

Now I'm convinced we manhandled her, and while I want to give them a break from my intrusiveness, I'm dying to spy on her now that she will be easier to see. Maybe Sunday. 

In the meantime, I have this picture of bees with propolis on their legs:

See the reddish-brown dots? We also saw a lot of grey pollen on bees, which, according to my sources, is probably poppy or berries (blackberries and raspberries). 

We also added some bee candy (sugar paste) to the Little Hive. The idea here is that you want the hive to reach a critical mass (10,000 bees) before winter. By feeding them, the foragers don't have to work so hard, and the queen has the energy for all the egg laying she needs to do to get the hive strong enough to winter over. 

Tonight I went to see an organic beekeeper. He has a small hive in a glass frame. You can see the bees working and doing their bee dances. And you could see their queen. She would look around for an empty cell, and then lay an egg in it. It was so cool to watch. Another thing to look for at my hives. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Honey Harvest Follow Up (Thurs, June 4, 2015)

After I brought home my giant bucket of honey on Tuesday, I decanted it into about 36 500 gm jars. I did not whip it, as is the custom here in Luxembourg. Yes, I will undoubtedly have crystallization. But I like runny honey.

After completing the extraction, I had ten frames that had previously held honey. We took these back to the hive on Thursday (this was when the DH got stung on his hand). We put two of the frames into the brood box of the Big Hive. To make room for these, we took out two frames from the Big Hive brood box that had uncapped brood/larvae. We brushed off most of the worker bees, and put these two frames in the Little Hive (which only had about five frames in it anyhow). In retrospect, we figured any Big Hive bees left on those frames would eventually exit the Little Hive, be a bit befuddled, and then just go home to the Big Hive.

We added five other honey-extracted frames to the Little Hive. It is now just one brood box with ten frames in it. We have not yet seen anything resembling a queen in it, and those bees were fractious and angry. Hopefully those workers will turn one of those new eggs we added into a queen.

Below, you can see Charlotte, Queen of the Big Hive (green spot).

Morgan Freeman Is a Beekeeper Now

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

First Honey Harvest (Tues, June 2, 2015)

I was fortunate to have a bee friend offer me use of his extractors this week. To prepare for this, Sunday night we went to the Big Hive and put in what's called an escape board. This is a wooden contraption that has a one-way door: the bees can leave the honey super, but they can't get in it. You place it below the honey super you want to clear of bees and usually within a day or so (one of my books says 48 hours) the bees will move down into the rest of the hive. Apparently the bees in and around the honey stores are foragers, so they want to get back to work in the fields. 

This morning we went over and took off the honey super and the escape board. The method worked well, and there were very few bees in the super. We gently brushed people off into the hive. Then we moved the super to the car. It was very heavy. This is why some beekeepers prefer half-size honey supers. 

Later we learned that the super (with the frames and honeycomb) weighed about 23 kg (about 50 lbs). 

I took it to my friend's house. He has two extractors. The one in the back of the photo below is electric, but, sadly, my frames don't fit in it (too small). So we used the hand-crank one in the foreground. It could hold two frames at a time. 

But first we had to cut the caps on the wax cells. I did this with a special fork. After you uncap both sides of the frame, you can put the frame in the extractor and give it a spin. 

Uncapped frames look like this. 

Here you can see me uncapping the wax with the fork. 

The honey comes out a valve in the bottom of the extractor and into a special bucket with a valve. I have a plastic one, but it leaks a little. I can see that it might be a good idea to use a stainless steel container (#ChristmasWishList). 

When I got the honey home, I weighed it. I forgot to weigh the empty bucket, but together they are a little over 19 kg (just under 42 lbs). 

Later this week I will dispense the honey into jars. Many beekeepers in Luxembourg like to whip their honey to prevent it from crystallizing. But this creates spreadable and not runny honey. I may take my chances, although this honey has a rather low water content (about 15%), which, as I understand it, is good, but might lend itself to crystallizing sooner.