A Mothy Day

I had every intention of checking on the bees. I’d gotten the smoker out and everything. When I went to open the plastic bin we keep the bee suits in, however, I found some unwelcome guests. They were everywhere, and the bee checking had to be postponed.

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It wasn’t hard to find the source of the problem. We were storing the bee suit bin on top of another bin with some old frames of comb in it. And those frames, wouldn’t you know it, were completely full of wax moths.

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Wax moths are a perpetual threat if you’re storing used comb without bees to protect it. Fans of the blog may remember that our hive was infested with wax moths last spring, after it was abandoned. Wax moths are rarely a problem in active hives, because the bees will drive them out before they can take hold. But if the comb is unprotected, like in the empty hive or the shed, moths are almost certain to move in.

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Despite their name, wax moths don’t actually eat wax. A frame of unused foundation in the same bin was untouched. What the moths like is the thin, protein-rich skin that’s left behind on the cell walls by the bee larvae when they emerge as fully formed bees. Think of it like a bee amniotic sac. Moths lay their eggs in the wax, and those eggs hatch into grubs that burrow through the wax, feeding on these old protein skins.

Because they’re disgusting.

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I thought the bin we were keeping the frames in was tight enough to keep the moths out. I thought wrong. Here you can see a few of those little grubs on the move.

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And here are some adult moths.

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Will and I dragged the bins outside to clear them out. We wiped out all the bugs and their bizarrely stretchy webbing.

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The moths clearly started in the bin with the frames, but they’d been migrating. I found a few little cocoons in the bee suits.

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I picked off all the cocoons I could find and shook everything out. For good measure, I took the suits home and washed them. I sprayed the bins down with the hose and let them dry in the sun. I’m pretty sure we’re moth-free.

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As we were working, a few of the bees came over from the hive to see what we were up to. This one found a single globule of honey on one of the frames.

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Some others flocked to the honey that dripped out of the frames onto the ground. They will have drunk as much as they could hold, then carried it back to the hive to store.

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This wasp showed up for the free food, too.

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So what became of the frames? I didn’t want to keep them around so full of moths, but I couldn’t stand the idea of throwing away all that good wax. I brought the frames home and tried to render the wax in my kitchen.

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Stay tuned for that tale of hardship and woe.

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Mite Fight

It’s hot out. So hot that I’ve been afraid to go into the hive. The last thing I need is to pass out face first in a pile of bees.

This morning, before the sun got too high, I went down to the hive to do some much-needed maintenance. Since I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I brought along my boyfriend Ben to do the heavy lifting.

It was his first time going into the hive, and he was a little nervous.

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Our first order of business was to replace the honey super. Last week we’d put a triangle board under the honey super to clear the bees out. The triangle board gives them an easy way out of the super, but an almost impossible way back in. It’s really effective if you want a bee-free honey super, but I was worried that if we left it too long they might get crowded and be in danger of swarming.

They did look tightly packed through the screen of the triangle board, but it may just have been early enough in the morning that the foragers hadn’t left for the day yet.

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We removed the honey super and set it a few hundred feet away so the bees wouldn’t steal it right back from us. Then I removed the triangle board.

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I removed most of it, anyway. The bees sealed it tightly to the frames below with propolis and wax, and a whole side of the triangle pulled free of its nails when I lifted it off. This is coming out of their wages.

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I was determined to do a successful sugar shake mite check this time, since my last attempt… left something to be desired. I shuffled through the top hive body frames for one full of brood. It took me four frames, because the first three were solid capped honey! It’s a good thing we didn’t leave the triangle board any longer – it seems like they’ve really been stocking up.

When I finally found a brood frame, I gave it a good shake over a pot. The bees dropped in, and I knocked them all into one corner and scooped ’em up in my measuring cup. I got a slightly shy half cup, which I dumped into a mason jar and set aside for later.

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Today we went for the slightly unorthodox method of treating for mites before testing to see if we needed to do it. Is this responsible beekeeping? Nope. But the day was getting hot and the bees were getting ornery, and it was a lot easier to test the bees in the shade after closing up the hive. For philosophical musings on why this probably is okay, hold out til the end of this post.

We dug deeper and lifted off the top hive body, because the mite treatment has to be applied to both. A while ago we put a shim between the two, hoping for some cool burr comb. The bees have been playing along, making this very cool structure that’s about the width of the frames but almost perpendicular to them.

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I cleared away the burr comb and applied the Hop Guard. What it is is a pack of foot-long cardboard strips soaked in something with the consistency and messiness of hot molasses. This stuff oozed everywhere. The packaging is covered in warnings about getting on your skin, but by the end of the day I had it all over my hands and legs. (That being said, I washed it right off and seem to be fine. I don’t condone eating a spoonful of the stuff, but the danger may be over-hyped).

The instructions said to apply two strips per 10 frame hive body, draped 4 inches apart over two central frames. There they are!

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We replaced the second hive body and draped two more strips in that one. Then we topped it off with the queen excluder and a fresh honey super to catch the fall honey flow. We closed up the hive and beat it out of there. All that was left was to give those bees in the jar a good shake.

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The round piece of screen I was given at bee school fit perfectly into a wide mouthed canning jar. The mesh in the screen is just the right size to let mites out and keep bees in.

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Even if the bees really want to get out.

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We dumped a few tablespoons of powdered sugar through the screen and shook the jar up for a couple minutes. It was a like a grotesque snow globe.

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Once the bees were good and coated, we turned the jar on its end and shook it hard over a white piece of paper.

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Between the white paper and the white sugar, the dark mites stand out pretty well.

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Reasonably well, at least. Can you spot the one in this picture? Zoomed in this much, he’s actually hard to distinguish from the tiny sugar clumps’ shadows. He’s in the horizontal middle, just south of the vertical middle. If you look very closely you can see his little legs in the air.

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In case you were worried, no bees were killed in the testing of these mites. They were a little dazed, to be sure, but they came out of it okay.

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I dumped them out right next to the hive. Once they got their bearings, they should have flown right back into the hive. They’ll have a wild story to tell their friends as they get licked clean. This day will pass into bee lore, and the powdered sugar will probably be turned into honey.

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So how many mites did we find? 4. From a sample of 300 bees, that’s an infestation rate of 1.33%. For this time of year, that’s actually remarkably low. In all honesty, we probably could have held off a while on treating. Given the way it went, though, I’m glad we did.

The thing is, all hives have mites, and the reasons to delay treatment hold a little less sway over us than usual. A lot of treatments are toxic to humans, meaning it’s a good idea to continually test mite levels while collecting honey, then harvest the honey and treat only when the mites get out of hand. Hop Guard, on the other hand, supposedly does not contaminate the honey, so there’s no need for strategic timing.

Another reason to wait is that mite treatment can be pretty hard on bees. If by some chance your mite levels never get high enough to have to treat, it’s better not to treat. Supposedly Hop Guard is gentler than other products, though, so it should be okay.

We got burned by mites last year, so we want to go in guns blazing this time. Our number one priority is getting these bees through the winter, and hopefully this knocks their mite levels low enough that they stand a fighting chance.

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It was a good and productive day. It was only a little sweltering, and Ben survived his first bee excursion. He says he even had fun.

Burr Comb and a Failed Scoop

I promised we’d be back with the bees soon, and here we are!

When we last left our heroes, we’d given them a honey super and some more time to build burr comb in the shim between the hive bodies.

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They’ve been hard at work since. About seven of the ten honey super frames have been filled up – this one is mostly capped. The honey starts out very moist, and the bees leave it open to evaporation until it’s distilled down to about 18% water. At this point they cap it with wax to stop the evaporation. We don’t want to harvest honey that’s mostly uncapped, since it’s likely to ferment. This frame’s probably alright, though.

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Setting the honey super aside, we tackled the top hive body. Our plan was to cut out some of the burr comb and put it in a jar to display for educational purposes. Unfortunately most of it was full of brood, but in the name of educational purposes you can let your scruples slip a little bit. We lifted a few of the frames, one at a time, and cut away the burr comb from the bottom.

Incidentally, the capped cells all have the larger, bumpier look of drone brood. Varroa mites tend to prefer latching onto drone brood, as their development in the cells takes a few days longer. One very low-impact means of varroa treatment is to give the bees special frames designed for drone brood, wait until it’s all capped, and then destroy it. So we may have inadvertently done a little mite treatment of our own.

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Speaking of mite treatment, I was anxious to try out the sugar shake method for myself. I’d brought a half cup measurer, and I was somehow under the impression that enough bees had fallen into our tub with the burr comb that I’d be able to scoop them in easily.

I was wrong. They were too spread out, and the comb kept getting in the way. I got more bees on me than in my little measuring cup, and they were getting angrier by the minute. I could understand why – I felt like some kind of deranged god shoving them around in their own honey.

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Next time I’ll do it right and knock a whole frame into the tub. Turns out bees in small numbers don’t move as a liquid.

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As we were moving through the top hive body we spotted the queen. It was very good to know we hadn’t knocked her off with the burr comb.

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At the end of the day it was a messier hive dive than we usually have. A little bit of honey spilled on the deck got cleaned up immediately.

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Likewise, a bee who didn’t survive the manhandling got cleaned up immediately by a passing wasp. Wasps can be carnivorous, and this was an easy meal.

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I found another wasp on the outside of the hive. I was worried that the honey spilled while collecting the burr comb might attract invaders. But at the time of writing this, almost a week later, the bees seem fine.

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Even if robbers are about, our colony seems pretty tough and capable of defending itself. Here are two little guys shaking their butts outside the hive to mark their territory with pheromones. They, unlike the happy bee on our sign, mean business.

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We’ll be going back in again soon. I’d like to do a sugar shake that isn’t an embarrassment and, assuming it’s going to show that we have too many mites, we want to get treating. I’ve just ordered a shipment of Hop Guard, a relatively new mite treatment regimen that’s derived from hops. It’s only just legal in Rhode Island this year, but I’ve heard good things from beekeepers just over the Massachusetts line where it’s been available longer. It’s supposed to be gentler on the bees than some other options, but still effective. And it doesn’t contaminate your honey, which is a big plus.

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I’m not advertising for Hop Guard. In fact I’ve already read complaints that its instructions are unclear and it dries out so quickly that you have to apply it three weeks in a row for it to work. But I’m excited to try. If all goes well, maybe this will turn into and advertisement – both for Hop Guard and for its necessary workarounds.

Honey Take Two

Everything’s coming up bee.

We went into the hive recently to check on the state of the honey box, and we were shocked to see that it was almost full. These bees are not playing games when it comes to preparedness. It’s bad news for the impending winter, but it’s good news for honey!

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We threw in a triangle board and a shim and waited a few days. In that time the bees not only abandoned the honey box, they also set to work on filling in the shim with comb. I’ve been reading a lot about Bee Space lately. It’s the distance we leave between frames so we can pull each out individually without ripping through comb. About a centimeter, it’s the magic distance at which bees won’t fill things in. Bees are all about filling things in – any less than a centimeter is patched up with propolis to prevent drafts. Any more than a centimeter, as we can see here, is fair game for expansion and will be filled in with comb. They built all of this over the course of a weekend. Bees don’t get time off.

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We made off with the honey box, just like last time. With all that burr comb we had to break apart to get inside, though, this theft was a little messier. Some of the equipment got sticky, and the bees were wise to it. As I was putting out the smokers, this little guy was frantically cleaning up a thumbprint of honey.

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Soon after collecting the honey, we had one heck of a storm. The bees stuck it out like champs, but we were so afraid the hive would get toppled. The fact that we’d just removed the honey box and a foot of height may be what saved us. In order to sleep a little easier, we put up this windbreak. The hive is already nicely protected to the west by a picket fence, and the lattice is at an ESE angle that should break up any gusts coming up the river.

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With the hive secure, we could turn our attention to more important things. Like honey! The bees had really done a stellar job collecting, and had filled and capped almost all ten frames.

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There were, sadly, a few casualties.

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We made sure to get another hot knife. It uncaps frames like a dream. I did drip a drop of honey from it onto my hand, however, and I got decent burn from it. I’m a little worried the heat may affect the quality of our honey…

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Heat notwithstanding, the honey is gorgeous. It’s so dark and rich it’s impossible to see through. Here it is dripping its way through our filter. Only in the thinnest spots, with the light shining straight through, does it approach a color I might be willing to call “honey.”

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We’re pretty excited about it.

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The garden is pairing with a fabulous and very locally-driven restaurant for a cooking class later this month. Kim is speaking at the class and I, purely by chance, won two free tickets to it in the garden’s fundraising raffle. Some may claim nepotism. I’m claiming that I put close to $30 worth of tickets in the cup. I also put my blood sweat and tears into this class, meticulously filling twenty little 3 oz bears to be given as favors.

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The honey is the most impressive when you look at it next to the batch we harvested in the summer. I have almost a full jar because I’m a hoarder and can’t bear the thought of it disappearing forever. Both jars were collected from the same hive in exactly the same spot, but two months apart: the jar on the right on August 10th and the jar on the left on October 12th. The difference is, as far as I know, purely floral. Spring and summer mean delicate light flowers like pea and squash blossoms, but late summer and fall mean rougher, darker flowers like Black Eyed Susans and sunflowers.

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Am I making all this up? Maybe. But whatever the reason, this honey is so dark it’s almost black, and it tastes, I swear, like elderflowers. The summer stuff was great, but this is a world apart.