Last week I gave my hives their first treatments. I started with gathering data: I had the joy of doing sugar shakes on all my colonies, in rainy weather (underneath a big tent I put up). Boy, bees sure do love being shaken up in a jar during the rain! After gathering data, I knew which hives were in worst shape and which weren't, with one of my seemingly best nucs coming in at a whopping 25% infestation rate! Ourward appearances can be and ARE deceiving.
I've spent the past 5 years treatment-free. Until now. With Old Man Winter approaching, I wanted to give my 8 nucs the BEST chance they had at success. So with the advent of oxalic acid now permissible in the U.S. (thank you, Mr. President), using something that occurs naturally in honey, vegetables and even the bees, as well as being super cheap and easy to do seemed like a no-brainer to me. So I will give my next 5 years a shot using oxalic acid treatments, maybe others, and see how that plays. My mentee Rod created his own vaporizer and it works like a charm. He lent me his equipment. He also provided a great example to me, as did another mentee. It's great to learn from your "students". They can teach you so much!
Something my wife said recently about a fellow beekeeper made me think, and hard: "I think he would do whatever he needed to do that was best for his bees." That really sunk in. Would I do whatever I knew to be best action, or would I adhere to one philosophy, one approach to beekeeping - that being treatment-free - regardless of the cost? I am more scientific than that. My first mentor's words also echoed relentlessly in my ears this year: "Experiment. Try different things. See what works, what doesn't, draw your conclusions and go from there." Also my oldest brother Tim's being an excellent scientist also has impressed me over the years. Gather data and go from there. So I have, and I am.
I spent the year doing brood breaks by making splits and increases. That one hive came in at 25% infestation? That one recently HAD experienced a brood break, having spent a month queenless and raising a new queen (which is doing great, by the way), and yet its Varroa number was still sky high. I want to be the best steward I can, and regardless of where you fall on the treatment argument, if you have only tried one method and not another then how can you call yourself objective? Bees depend on beekeepers being objective, calm and methodical. That is the lesson they teach us time and time again. I am following their lead.
It was easy to see the results of the sugar shake, shaking out into a white tray filled with water. Out of 8 colonies tested, I only netted two bee fatalities from the sugar shake that I could see. But once all these little Varroa vampires started falling off the bees, I knew just how real these blood suckers are.
This is what a 12% infestation rate looks like: 18 Varroas shaken out, divided by 3 (I collected approximately 300 bees or 100 millileters for each test), times 2 (to account for the mites not phoretic but under the cell cappings of emerging brood) = 12%. This was from a relatively small colony at that.
T's Bees is no longer treatment-free, at least for the next 5 seasons. I will give everything a fair shake and let the experiences and data sort itself out. But I can tell you this: it is today MUCH more free of Varroa Destructor mites than a week ago. Oxalic acid vapor works. I definitely killed off a huge load of the mites off the bees from the first treatment, and as far as I could tell was gentle on the bees, based off their behavior that night and over the next few days. I am amazed at initial results. I did not wear gloves while administering the treatments, and the bees didn't seem to care. They were calm and collected after treatment. The only difference before and after was hearing the hive HUMMMMMMMM along after the vapors had been given, spreading the oxalic throughout the colonies with the hum of their wings. I administered 1 gram of oxalic acid per each deep box of brood (and a half gram per nuc), using a digital scale. This hive only had one deep of brood and one shallow super, so it got 1 gm of OAV. Also, my bees appeared to like the cedar mulch I put down on top of the asphalt shingles to dress the place up. Sure does smell great! And it's nice not to always be slipping on shingles and plastic while in the bee yard.
One trick I learned along the way: put the sugar into the container first and coat the sides of the jar. I got that tip from Rod and sure enough it worked, keeping the bees more in the jar and from flying out as I was still rolling them into the jar off the frames. I only collected bees for sampling, by the way, once I'd spotted the queen. When I could not, I waited a day, and re-inspected and then gathered the data. Another trick: turn the jar of sugar-coated bees upside down, leave the jar on the top bars for a couple seconds, then one swift shake out and immediately cover with a screened inner cover (then cover with the outer cover and get the heck outta Dodge!). Sugar shakes really ticks off the bees, let me tell you. But, it's for the best.
After 3 days I checked the oil trays and sticky boards. This is what it looks like when a hive has only a 6% infestation rate. This is my BROODLESS hive, no queen, so seeing so many just floored me (and a high % number given the fact they're broodless). TONS more dead Varroas were floating in this tray. Flooding rains from Hurricane Joaquin washed some of the evidence away. Here you can see dead Varroas on the bottom of the tray, under the water, as well as floating on top. With oxalic acid vapor, the effect is cumulative and the suckers drop dead over a series of days as they come in contact with the acid throughout the hive. The ones on the bottom were after the first day, before the storms came, and the ones on top after all the rain. I was shocked at how many there were and about half spilled out when I checked the tray. TONS of those things in there, but at least they're off my bees. I am amazed at the effectiveness of the oxalic acid vapor. I will be treating each hive two more times, for a total of 3 treatments 7 days apart, so that in 21 days all Varroas hiding underneath any cell cappings will have emerged and met their fate.
Beekeeping is all about screwups and rebounds. Sometimes it works in your favor. Due to a fulfillment screwup, someone in our bee club who ordered 2 queens was sent 52 instead! So an email blast went out and I was first to arrive, netting two Carniolan queens for myself and two hygienic Italians for Rod.
It pays to be Johnny on the spot. I didn't have time to make the splits right away. These black beauties came without candy or attendants in the cage (all the attendants were outside the cages in the box), so I banked them atop this queenright colony for a couple of weeks until I could put them into a queenless hive. Turns out my "biggest" hive was queenless ... new queen laying wonderfully and them voila, no brood, eggs or anything ... I must've rolled her on my previous inspection when using 11 frames in the brood chamber. Of course, I switched that out to 9. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. I was just glad to have two extra queens ready to roll. The adopted hive did a fine job of attending them day and night until it was time to put them in their new homes.
Working this super last year and throughout the season made me fall back in love with 9-frame spacing. I just love it. Everytime I work a 9-frame box I am loving it. AND, I love the 9-frame metal spacers! At first I cursed the things. But as I learned how to use the spacers to my advantage, it made for cool, calm, quick and efficient inspections without rolling bees (and precious queens, as well). I'm going back to 9 frames all the way! Folks caution that the metal spacers create hiding places for beetles, but my bees propolized the crap out of the spacer so it didn't seem to be a problem for this colony. THIS is what a lovely super looks like to work.
I've tried 9-frames, 10-frames and narrow 11-frame spacing. My bees created small cell combs off the narrow spacing, and I recently destroyed a wonderful new queen with so many frames jammed in one box. Live and learn, figure out what you LIKE, what the bees like and come to conclusions. I am back in love with 9-frame spacing, by the way!
My big brother, Tim, came over again to help with this year's honey harvest. The harvest was small, but I was delighted to actually have any to harvest. It was a low year all around Mecklenburg for honey, but mine had enough surplus to feed the beekeeper for a year and a little more to share. Plus, the bees were busy making more and more bees.
Above is what it looks like when you use a fume board and an "all natural" bee-go spray made of almond extract and other natural substances. Yes, every bee in this hive did "go" allright, right onto the front of the hive! Now, after that I had to deal with removing boxes that had tons of bees plastered to the front in 98 degrees. Egads! This was the last time I am using a fume board to harvest honey. Next season I'll try using a bee escape board instead. I started the day in flipflops and shorts. Quickly after this, I suited up in long sleeves and pants!
So this is what it looks like when you use a slatted rack, even a horribly looking, rough-cut homemade one like the one I made. Once I installed the slatted rack, the queen started laying from top to bottom of all the combs in the brood chamber. I am a true believer in the power of slatted racks.
I never get tired of watching my bees festoon and create combs, like these above. Even while the combs were under construction all the queens loved to lay in the fresh combs.
T's Bees had a great time with few beetles this year, thanks to my ongoing commitment to solid cover underneath each hive AND an oil tray regardless of hive size. I had a couple of expensive Freeman bottom boards with beetle traps (right), but also bought a bunch of more affordable West beetle trays. All I needed to do was make a one-inch shim and put the West trays underneath. Much more of a pain to remove and clean, BUT the West traps performed great. They seemed to catch a good bit of pollen, on the down side, but just a little more than the Freeman traps. Few if any bees got caught in the West trap, so thumbs up on this cheap beetle tray, all in all.
Speaking of cheap and effective, this simple use of hardware cloth as a robbing screen on all entrances proved highly successful this year. Robbing is ALWAYS an issue beekeeping in the city, especially during the summer dearth. I fed ALL colonies very well, which helped out tremendously, but even still robber bees kept us on our toes.
Several times I had to throw a tarp or table cloth on my nucs as robbing attempts were underway. This year, though, was MUCH better than last year, where I had the hives set up in one long row. Switching to individual hive stands worked. This was a nuc made up of a hugely successful 2014 queen that I made several splits off of this year. I love this queen, and she and the nuc are going strong. At times I didn't think they'd make it, and it was the one colony I didn't feed other than putting in a full frame of nectar and pollen to go with its one frame of bees and queen. Somehow they made it. The robbing screen certainly helped! And their sugar shake netted 0 Varroas, the only colony to give none on the test.
An example of robbing before I threw the tarp over the nuc. The robbers just cling to the front of the screen, while the home bees know to come and go from the sides. The screen gives them the advantage they need to take out those robbers one by one instead of en masse while defending their entrance. Everytime I used a tarp over a hive during a robbing attempt this year it only took 20 minutes or so for things to calm down. And I definitely became a believer in using these super quick, cheap and effective screens cut out of some 1/8" hardware cloth.
This season I have had so many blessings, experiences, screwups, successes and lessons along the way. It has been fabulous. I am looking to go into winter with 6 colonies, out of the 2 I started the season with. AND, if either or both of the new queens and splits work out, make that number 8! The clock's ticking. I hope I can outrace it. I'm sure I can't, but hopefully I can get done this year what the bees need me to before Old Man Winter sets in.
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Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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