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Archive for March, 2010

How a Honeybee Swarm Decides Where to Nest

My friend, Water Buffalo and the Swift Clicks, starts awesome rumors about me, like: “i was talking with my friends about bees and pollen today and you came up. i said you were a troll and that you whisper to the bees in beeish and they do your bidding and all that you sleep curled up in a potato sack underneath the hives and protect the bees from bears.  something like that anyway.”  She doesn’t capitalize and had asked me a while ago in response to my Please, someday enjoy bees over tea entry, “were there female bee keepers in medieval times?”

I haven’t discovered a suitable response to that question, but in the spirit of that question I want to tell you about three remarkable women and their passion for bees:

  1. Annie D. Betts (1884-1961) was an engineer and scientist who worked on aeronautical research during the First World War.  Her contribution to beekeeping history was the discovery of a common fungal disease effecting beehives, Chalk Brood.  She was also involved in the founding of the Apis club in England and served as Editor and President in 1930.  She was known to ride a motorcycle to work.  *
  2. Dorothy Hodges (1898-1979) was an artist and began beekeeping at 42 years of age, acquiring a small colony with no previous experience or handling knowledge.  From there she began drawing and painting bees, especially those carrying pollen loads, and that grew into an avid study of pollen, their seasons of production, color, size and shape, all drawn from images through a microscope.  She is best known for her book, “The Pollen Loads of Honey-bees.” *

    Juliana Rangel-Posada

  3. Juliana Rangel-Posadais is studying swarm behavior at Cornell University Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.  She has recently released a video of the changes inside a hive in the hour before and as a swarm occurs.  Swarming is a vibrant, populous hive splitting off to form a new hive.  She has discovered that a small percentage or oligarchy of bees release a piping sound that instigates the rest of the bees to swarm.  Although we know that swarming is influenced by over-crowding in the hive, the lessening influence of queen pheromone in the hive, and adequate honey and nectar available in the field, what we don’t know is the actual mechanism and trigger through which this event happens.  Her research is cutting edge and awesome to watch:

Video Link: Bee swarms follow ‘pied pipers’

*Information on Annie D. Betts and Dorothy Hodges was gleaned from Great Masters of Beekeeping, Brown, Ron, Bee Books New and Old, Somerset, UK, 1994.
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The Good:

Having missed my chance to open Michael and Kelle’s hives in Maple Leaf, as well as Matt and Monica’s hives in the Central District, back in February when we had several amazingly flyable days, I waited for the weather to turn and was well rewarded.  Last Monday was incredible with temperatures over the 60 degree mark and the sun out in full force.

Big Leaf Maples are a major, April nectar flow in the Pacific Northwest

Three of the four colonies survived the winter in Seattle, two Italians and one Carniolan.  The Carniolans had consumed just about all of the honey they earned for the winter, and the nest was up into the top of the second box and about the size of a large football.  This was a really great opportunity to see just how much honey a colony needs to survive an average winter with several cold snaps, as well as the opportunity to learn what to expect in terms of colony size in mid-March from the Carniolan race.  They winter in a smaller cluster than the Italians, and although kinda small, the colony showed promise of being up and running at full steam by mid to late April.

The Bad:

Oddly, the strongest hive last year, the Italians at Matt and Monica’s house, perished.  There were a lot of dead bees beneath the hive and a lot of honey was left–at least 70 pounds.  They were also looking vibrant and mildly ornery when we lifted them up to put a new hive stand beneath them in late January.  This colony was huge in the fall… from their beginning as a small package in April they developed into two boxes full of bees and brood and almost two boxes of honey in September.  This was the only colony that offered up any honey to harvest–a beautiful 20 lbs worth in July.  There were some honey placement issues that could have been better on my part in the fall, but there was no sizable cluster of dead bees, there was no queen to be found, and some of the bees showed signs of Dwarfism, which I have learned means they were malnourished in their larval stage.  At some point this colony either became too weak to feed the young larvae or they became too hungry having clustered away from the honey.  Although I may have made some mistakes wintering this colony, this was a surprising loss and may be a result of Colony Collapse Disorder.

With reports arriving on the status of honeybees in the U.S. and the effects of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) this year, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the loss and our ignorance.  Almond pollinators in California are reporting up to 50% losses, and nationwide predictions are that this year could be worse than the 32%, 36%, and 29% losses of the previous three years.  And no one seems to understand the problem yet either.  One recent study from August 2009 found unusually high levels of ribosomal RNA strands in the bees’ stomachs, indicating  “that honey bees in colonies diagnosed with CCD had reduced ability to synthesize new proteins.”  Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, fungus, mites, viruses, pesticides and stress are still suspects, though as contributing to a cocktail of conditions resulting in collapse.

Updates on CCD:  Washington Post, Miami Herald, Capital Press, Discovery News, Mother Nature Network, The Why Files, and Desdemona Despair.  You can also read my Book Review for A World Without Bees and check out their website.

Recent report and study on pesticides in Honeybee hives as a contributing factor: Plos One (peer reviewed science), The Barefoot Beekeeper

Where government funding for CCD research is going: The Daily Green

RNA study: USDA and recent blogs on CCD by experts in the NY Times: NY Times

and The Beautiful:

Seattle bees busy in mid-March

Opening three hives in mid-March on a beautiful day is definitely a gift.  The Italians at Michael and Kelle’s house had enough bees to fill nearly two boxes, and the brood nest was approaching the box-and-a-half size.  There was so much brood!  Some of the brood was going to emerge soon, there were frames of newly laid eggs, and everything just looked like spring!  All over the city the flowers are blooming and I’m certain there is enough nectar and pollen available that these colonies just might grow quickly enough to make some Maple honey this April.

In all of the hives I lowered the brood boxes to the bottom levels, gave them a little extra honey from the colonies that had perished, and put honey supers on all of them except the Italians that swarmed last year.  I felt they needed a week more to develop before giving them some extra storage space.  In hindsight, I thought it might be a little too early to manipulate the frames with our evenings still getting cold, but it’s a lesson I’ll definitely learn based on observations in the coming weeks.  I feel like there is so much I don’t know about tending bees… I haven’t had the opportunity in the past to experience bustling hives so early in the year… but observing and interacting with all of this sweet life, the lingering scent of honey, wax, and propolis on my hands, the promise of a population explosion to go out and pollinate the world–it’s the ultimate cure for colony loss.

PS I posted a video from Michael and Kelle’s hives’ perspective on the Audio/Visual page.

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It’s funny the way the mind works.  To me, beekeeping is primarily an exercise in observation.  One approaches the hive, observing the comings and goings of the bees, noting the particularly strong hives, questioning the less active ones.  As you come closer, you observe what the bees are doing around the entrance: some are departing, others are fanning, some are coming out to greet those that are returning.  Of those that are returning, some have their pollen baskets full and others I assume have their honey-guts filled with nectar.  One can just tell, by the power of observation alone, that all is well.

As you open the hive, recollections appear of the last time you were here.  Maybe the top box is filled with capped honey, when last time is was just beginning to be filled.  Moving deeper, one can see where the new brood is being laid by the queen, and the old cells, the ones that were young last time you were there, are turning gray and crinkly, with new life ready to emerge.  The weather changes of the last few weeks go through your head, as well as those nearly unconscious observations of what’s blooming in the field.  All of these things begin to take shape in the mind and you try to understand the life of your bees.  How are they?  What’s going on?  How can I be of assistance to make their lives fuller?  Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don’t.  But each time you grow a little closer to the bees, and they repay you kindly with stings for your transgressions.

When a hive dies, it is particularly hard.  You aren’t given the opportunity to make amends.  They are gone.  No more looking forward to the dandelion bloom, or a Big Leaf Maple with its drooping blossoms filled with bees.  Those families of bees, their genetic strengths and weaknesses, all of that which wished to develop through future descendants, are gone.  Aristaeus, son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene, brought the gift of bees down from the mountain for humankind, and I was not prepared for the responsibility.

You can only begin again.  Thankfully, new families of bees will be available soon, and maybe some will take kindly to us.  And maybe I will have learned just enough of helping sustain life to make here their home.

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As we could see all around us, dark bees, probably of the Carniolan race, were coming and going.  Some were entering the middle hive, with the Carniolans, and others were going into the third hive, the other Italians.  When we checked the Carniolans in early October, we could see the entire top box filled with capped honey, and so we didn’t look too deep.  “They would be fine,” we thought.  “So much honey they gotta make it through the winter.”  From our initial glance, it seemed like the other Italian hive had died, and the Carniolans coming and going were robbing the other Italian hive of its left over honey.

All that was lost.

“That’s okay,” I thought.  “At least the Carniolans made it.”

Terrance and I cracked the Carniolans open.  A couple of living bees, but primarily just a top box filled with honey.

We went down a level.  Half-filled frames of honey abounded, but no nest or cluster of bees, just the odd stragglers.

At the bottom, there was nothing.  No dead bees, no dead cluster, no dead anything.  Literally an empty hive filled with honey.  There is absolutely nothing to report.  130 lbs of honey and no bees.  Those few stragglers were from a neighbor’s hive, presumably, come to rob this empty hive.

In the other Italian hive, a similar situation appeared, just not so much honey left-over.  There were a lot of dead bees on the screen at the bottom, but upon closer examination they must have been from the summer, or even from the bottom of the package when we introduced them because they were nearly decomposed.  A mouse had moved in beneath the carcasses under the bottom board.  I did find a few Varroa mites on the bottom board, but no signs of infestation.  There was no dead cluster of bees, no sign of supersedure, just an empty hive with some honey.  Ironically, these bees were observed in the top box when I fed them in January, so some time in the last month they just disappeared.

Is this CCD, aka Colony Collapse Disorder?  I’m not sure.  Could we have done things differently last fall?  Yes.  The two Italian colonies were borderline strong enough to survive the winter, and they should have been combined.  Did that kill them?  Probably not.  Is it possible that we killed the queens when we were performing maintenance, and the colonies failed because of that?  The occasional accident with a queen is not unprecedented, and maybe that happened in the first hive we opened, but the likelihood of all three perishing that way is highly unusual.  For these two hives, I don’t know what to call the phenomenon, but I had the same first thought as the guy who first reported CCD, “All the bees are gone.”

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Saturday, February 20th was a totally flyable day, and Terrance and I opened each of the hives for a late winter, early spring inspection at Smoke Farm.

A living bee's proboscis.

I knew from my mid-January feeding up there that one of the hives had died.  Between two of the boxes, a few bees’ heads were popping through, their proboscis hanging out.  When you see their tongues hanging out like that, it’s usually an indication of starvation, and it was horrifying to see them like that.   I didn’t tell anyone for a few weeks what had happened.  It hit me hard, but by this Saturday, I was through the grief and ready to see what had happened inside the hive.  I was also extremely excited to see how the Carniolans were doing; they had so much honey going into the fall, I anticipated a bustling, beautiful hive.

We began opening the hive I knew had died, the Italians on the left from the front of the bee-house.  Usually in a starved hive, one will find the cluster of bees around the queen and many bees head first in empty cells of honey.  It’s a very clear portrait of their last moment of life.  As we opened the hive, we observed the top frames all half-filled with capped honey, about 40 lbs worth.  So I thought, “Maybe they clustered away from their stores during a cold snap and couldn’t make it to the honey.”  That will happen from time to time.  The bees will cluster up to keep warm but be just a little too far away from the bulk of their stores to survive the cold snap.  There were also queen-like cells on one of the frames with bees in them.

Oddly, there were not many bees at all.  We found one cluster of 20 bees, but there was no queen present in it.  Many frames were completely absent of bees, and others had only 1-3 on them.  The brood box below was empty.  At the bottom of the box in the screened area there were about 250 dead bees.  That might sound like a lot, but this hive had 20-30,000 bees going into the fall.  I collected the dead and inspected them later.  No queen was present and some of the bees were unusually small, like they had either been raised in a small cell or perhaps had gotten chilled toward the end of their development.  There were no mites present on the bottom board or that I could find when I shook the bees out on white paper.   Nothing really made any sense to me.

The queenless cluster of the Italian hive.

In hindsight, I now know that this colony was a little too small going into the winter because they need a mass of bees to maintain heat, but still, many thousands of bees disappeared between October and February.  Did the living bees manage to drag them out when the weather got warm?  They had eaten very little honey, so does that mean they perished in late autumn?  Did the queen die unexpectedly and the bees try to raise a new one?  Did the colony leave as a new wave of brood was about to hatch?  Were these smaller bees the result of chilled brood that managed to survive, or is there a disease at work? Was this a case of Colony Collapse Disorder that left young brood ready to emerge, only to find their sisters gone?  There is just so much I don’t know.

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