This is a recap of the Organic Beekeeping Workshop presented by Dr. Kirsten Traynor and Michael Traynor. When I say this 8 hour seminar was information packed, I am not exaggerating. The Traynors covered many topics from equipment to seasonal care of the bees. In this article, I will focus primarily on the Varroa Mite and fall hive care.

By Linda M. Elliott, AABA Member

In 2006 and 2007, the Traynors traveled throughout Europe learning beekeeping techniques.  Kirsten received a German Chancellor Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship and earned her PhD in Biology at the University of Arizona.  She is currently conducting  research at the University of Maryland, College Park on the impact of pesticides on honey bees.   Michael Traynor is a commercial and fine arts photographer. Together they operate the Flickerwood Apiary, a boutique  honey bee operation specializing in producing high quality nucs and locally adapted queens.

A major theme in the workshop was that beekeeping is a Communal Activity.  As our bees go outside our own yards and fields for nectar and pollen, they come in contact with bees from other apiaries.  Regardless of how diligent one beekeeper may be, their honey bees can pick up parasites or disease from neighboring bees.  Hence the message from the Traynors was that we should keep bees with community awareness, responsibility, and consciousness.

Another point made was the importance of learning about and understanding honey bee biology.  Having this knowledge can help a beekeeper make some logical decisions when working the bees or treating for varroa mites.  Michael repeated the phrase several times, “Let the honey bee biology work in your favor.”

WORKSHOP KEY POINTS

Records

A beekeeper should keep records on each hive every time the hive is inspected.  Note what is discovered as well as what needs to be done in the future. If the beekeeper needs to return to a hive to complete a task, use a visual reminder, such as setting a brick on end.

Queens

Mark the queens; it is the only way to know which queen is in the hive and how old she is. For example, if the queen is unmarked and is replaced by the workers, the beekeeper would never know.

Re-queening

The Traynors believe that summer is the best time to purchase queens and to re-queen. Because there is high demand for queens in the Spring, breeders are rushed to fill orders and queens are not as well mated as they might be later in the season.

Number of  Hives

They suggest keeping at least three hives for several reasons.

  • The highest hive fatalities occur when there is just one hive.
  • The beekeeper will have a better perspective of what is normal for a hive if there are other hives for comparison.
  • If something does go wrong with one hive, the beekeeper will have other hives to help solve the problem.

Inspections

Before beginning the inspection, watch the honey bees and hives for a few minutes. Are the bees bringing in pollen? Are there dead bees on the landing board? Is there robbing behavior? Keep records on each hive inspection.

Thorough hive inspections: They do 2 thorough inspections per year per hive.

Winter inspections: Do not be tempted to inspect the hives on a warm day in January. This is when many queens are killed.

Winter feeding

Place fondant or sugar candy right over the brood so the bees will get to it. Make sugar candy or buy 90-10 fondant from candy supply houses.

Equipment

Hive Tools: Some beehive tools can be purchased more economically with another name from a hardware store. Tools to have are the stainless steel J-Hook Tool and the stainless steel Standard hive tool.  Michael suggests that a beekeeper have several sets of each hive tool on hand.

Boxes: Use pine wooden boxes without dovetailing. They have observed that the dovetails are the first wood to rot on a box. They also use only medium boxes to allow more flexibility in the apiary. These are also lighter than the deep boxes. It makes no difference whether a 8-frame or 10-frame  box is used; it is beekeeper’s choice.

Outer Cover: Tip the outer cover for added ventilation by attaching cable screws to the top of each corner of one end of the inner cover to create a little extra space between the inner and outer covers.

Inner Cover: Use screen on the inner cover. The Traynors make their own inner covers with 1 x 2 boards and then staple the screening to it. If the inner cover is turned upside down, there is room for a plastic bag of sugar syrup or Sugar Candy below the screen.

Frames and Foundation: Use wax or plastic foundation in the honey supers.  If using wax (the more environmentally friendly choice), purchase frames with a groove at the top and bottom bar to secure the foundation. If using plastic foundation, Michael sprays the foundation with 1-1 sugar syrup to entice the bees to begin drawing out the foundation.  He also noted that plastic foundation, if used, should be white to make it easier to see the wax color to help determine when the foundation should be replaced. They replace foundation after two or three years.  Wax moths are attracted to older foundation so they replace it when the wax begins to darken. Additionally, for beekeepers using pesticides in the hive,  this reduces the build-up of pesticides over time.

Queen Excluders: When the Traynors add a queen excluder in the spring, they take one frame of brood from the brood chamber and place it in the super above the queen excluder for a couple of days to entice the bees up to the honey super level.  The workers may not be attracted to blank foundation. After a couple of days, they move the brood frame back below the excluder.

Bottom Boards:  Use screened bottom boards for added ventilation.

Paint:  Paint the boxes any color, they do not need to be white. Michael is an artist and loves color.

Hive elevation:  The Traynors suggest that hives be elevated 16 inches off the ground.  Position each hive  on its own separate stand because bees are sensitive to vibrations that may be transmitted from hive to hive on a shared stand.

Entrance Guards:  They use steel entrance guards, year round. These are sold in most beekeeping catalogs. These guards provide an entrance for bees and keep out mice. They do not use wooden entrance reducers. Mice do a lot of damage in a hive during the late fall and winter. Their entrance needs to be blocked.

Hive with Entrance Guard

The steel entrance guard will provide ventilation and prevent the intrusion of mice during the cold months.

What Should We Be Doing Right Now?

In general, Maryland has a large nectar flow that happens during a short span in the spring.  Then comes the dearth of summer when bees begin to use up their own honey supply because of the absence of enough nectar producing flowers.  Stronger hives are also more likely to rob honey from weaker hives.

Feed your Bees!

During the fall, the worker bees will evict the drones. At this time of year, the bees are beginning to prepare for winter by producing the longer lasting fattened winter bees. The Traynors like to send their hives into winter with about 60 pounds of honey. They are feeding their bees vigorously now and if it is a warm, prolonged fall, they will continue to feed their bees to keep up the honey stores.

What to Feed the Bees:

They feed their bees 1-to-1 sugar syrup, year round. The formula for 1-to-1 sugar syrup is by weight: 10 pints of water to 10 pounds of white granulated cane sugar. Use only white cane sugar. Do not use beet, corn syrup, or high fructose corn syrup.  They emphasized that beekeepers should never use organic or brown sugar for sugar syrup because of the ash content.  They do not add essential oil supplements to the sugar syrup. (Author’s note:  Some beekeepers have observed that their hives stopped taking the fall sugar syrup before the honey stores were established. When the beekeeper added an essential oil supplement such as Honey-B-Healthy or Pro-Health to the syrup, the bees resumed taking sugar syrup.)

How to Feed the Bees:

The Traynors use 1 gallon ziplock bags to deliver the sugar to the bees every 2-3 days. They fill the bag half-way with syrup, place it on top of the top super, and carefully poke about 10-12 holes in the top of the bag with a large gauge hypodermic needle. (This is the type of hypodermic used for horses and can be purchased from Southern States.) When they make each puncture, they wiggle the needle to slightly enlarge the hole. They do not use the crisscross cut with a razor blade technique.  They also do not use top feeders.

Weak Hives:

Combine a weak hive with a stronger hive or one that needs help.  Kill the queen from the weak hive.   Wait a day or two and then place the weak hive on the top box of the stronger hive with a single sheet of newspaper between the two boxes.   Remember this expression:  Combine in the fall; split in the spring.

Wind Barriers:

Create a wind barrier to protect the hives from the strong winter winds. Barriers can be made from stacks of straw or contractor screening.

Frames:

Beekeepers should cull out old frames in the late fall and early spring. They suggest using frames for 2 to 3 years at most.  Wax moths are drawn to old wax, and toxins such as pesticides accumulate in the foundation.  Write a date on the top of the frame when it is put into the hive.

Watch for Honey Robbing

Beekeepers need to be on the lookout for honey robbing. The worker bees of a stronger hive can easily clean out the honey from a weaker hive. They may also kill the queen in the process. The beekeeper can learn to identify honey robbing behavior by observing normal activity around the hive during the daily foraging work.

Honey robbing behavior typically will have several characteristics. There may be  a ‘cloud’ of bees in a ‘hectic’ flight behavior above the hive and in front of the entrance that is different from the activity around the hive during the daily foraging work.  Also, the honeybees defending the hive will be in attack mode/posture.  The robber’s hive exit is different. Normally, honey bees fly straight out of their own hive. However, robber bees will exit the hive by crawling up the box, and taking off backwards.

If there is honey robbing, the beekeeper can end it quickly by throwing a sheet over the hive or closing the entrance for a short time.

The following video was made by Linda Elliott

VARROA MITES

European honey bee with a Varroa mite on its back. The mites cause death and disease in bee colonies.


Photo by Scott Bauer
Courtesy of USDA

The Traynors focused on the topic of varroa mites (Varroa Destructor) because this is the major pest Maryland beekeepers face.   They discussed mite biology, how to check varroa populations, how they control varroa mite levels.

The above Illustration is used with the permission of Tony Linka of Tony Linka Illustration

Mite Biology

The mature and mated ‘mother mite’ hops into a brood cell just as it is capped. She will lay a son egg. She continues to lay eggs but these eggs are ‘daughter’ mites. The mites are safely hidden away while they feed on the developing bee larva. The son mates with the daughters. The fertile daughters leave the cell and hop onto worker bees to further mature. Because drone cells are capped three days longer than worker cells, the population of mites in drone cells is far higher than in worker cells.

A single bee may have more than one mite feeding on it. The mites tend to hide under the plates of the exoskeleton, so the presence of one on the outside of its body is an indication that there was no room for it under to the plates—if varroa mites can be seen on the bees, the hive already has a varroa problem.

A family of varroa mites found at the bottom of a honey bee brood cell.

Photo by Scott Bauer.
Courtesy of USDA

Visible as a dark, oval shape, an adult female varroa mite feeds on the midsection of a developing worker bee.

Photo by Scott Bauer.
Courtesy of USDA

Checking for Varroa

The Traynors use screened bottom board with inserts and regularly monitor to see if any mites have dropped. They suggest that there be a minimum of ½” space separating the slider from the screen to prevent the slider from rubbing against the top of the bottom board. The rubbing of the bottom board against the box causes the debris to clump together when sliding out the board. Spray the insert with cooking oil spray or brush with a light layer of Vaseline.

Note: When disposing of any debris, do not dump it on the ground because if mites are present in the debris, they can climb right back into the hive. To test for varroa mites, instead of the powered sugar test that is commonly used, they advocate an alcohol wash test. In the early fall they do an alcohol wash on each of their hives to see if they need to treat for varroa mites. This will test (and kill) about 300 bees. (Think of it as a blood sample — the loss of this number will not affect the health of the hive.)

Parasitic varroa mites attached to a sticky board removed from the bottom of a beehive.

Photo by Peggy Greb.
Courtesy USDA

Alcohol Wash Technique

This is a simple test for determining whether the hives need to be treated for mites. No special equipment is needed; the supplies are readily available in most homes.

Equipment

  • The following materials are needed:
  • 1½ cups, rubbing alcohol per hive
  • 1 large mouth jar and lid for each hive
  • ½ cup handled measuring cup
  • Rectangular tub
  • #8 Mesh strainer

Technique:

Prepare the large mouth jars with 1½ cups rubbing alcohol (one jar per hive). Take one brood frame of bees from the hive. Check carefully to be sure that the Queen is not on the frame. Check again for that queen!!

Shake the bees into a small rectangular tub/container. Check again for the queen. Tip the container and tap it so the bees fall to one corner. Scoop out ½ cup of bees — this is approximately 300 bees. Do another quick queen check. Pour the ½ cup of bees into the prepared jar with alcohol. Quickly cap and swirl the jar to cover the bees. Shake the jar vigorously for about 1 minute. Pour the liquid out into a white container through #8 mesh. Count the number of mites that fall through the screen. This test will give a mite count for 300 bees. (Alternatively, use a couple of drops of detergent in water. The alcohol wash is more humane as the bees will die immediately.)

MITE CONTROL PROGRAM

The Traynors find that they are able to control varroa mites with the biotechnical intervention with the use of drone comb cutting in the spring and a late fall treatment with the oxalic acid drip technique done after the first hard frost and when there is no brood. There are a number of commercial treatments available. They do not use them. A major point that they made was to health hazard to the beekeeper and weigh the benefit of the treatment to the hive. They also question how effective these commercial treatments are.

Drone Comb Cutting

In the late winter/early spring they place an empty frame with no foundation inside the brood box next to the brood. They  make sure that the frame is not separated from the brood with a pollen frame. They mark the top of frame with ‘Drone’. The workers will usually draw this empty frame out for Drones. (If the workers do not draw drone cells, they cross out the ‘drone’ and leave it in the hive for the worker bees to continue their work.)  They do not purchase Drone Boards, by the way.

Make a calendar notation 21 days from when the frame was placed in the hive, to remember to remove the frames. When the 21st day comes, if the brood is not capped, return in a week. Make sure that the Drone frames are removed. The point is that, if the frames are removed in time, the beekeeper will be breeding varroa mites. Remove the frames after at least 1/3 of the drone larva is capped but before the new bees begin to emerge. After removing, inspect the Drone frames by uncapping at least 25 – 30  cells, remove the larva and inspect the larva for mites under magnification. After the inspection, cut out all of the beeswax and discard, in the trash.

The Traynors do this process 3 or 4 times each spring for each of their hives. They believe that this is an important factor in keeping their mite levels at an almost undetectable level. Going back for a moment to mite biology, we know that the fertilized ‘mother’ mite enters a cell before the larva is capped and begins to reproduce. Remember that it takes a drone about 24 days to develop from egg to maturity versus 21 days for worker bee. Because the drone brood is capped three days longer than the worker brood, the mite build-up in drone brood is significantly higher than for worker brood.

When to treat

During the summer and fall, the Traynors use the alcohol wash test to test the mite level in their hives. The tolerant threshold is fewer than 9 mites per 300 honeybees. They believe that if there are more than 15 mites per 300 honey bees, the hive definitely should be treated for varroa mites. Again, they get good varroa mite management with the use of Drone Comb Cutting and Winter Oxalic Acid Drips. For summer treatments, the beekeeper has a number of commercial treatments available to them. Even though the Traynors believe that the safest of the various commercial treatments is Formic Acid, they point out that it is still dangerous to the beekeeper. Their preferred treatment is Winter Oxalic Acid Drips which is done after the first hard frost when temperatures are 35˚ – 45˚F. This treatment is done when there is no brood. The Oxalic Acid Drip technique is harmless to the bees (and Beekeeper) and  is very effective.

Note: The Traynors do not advocate the Oxalic Acid Vapor technique because it has health implications for the Beekeeper.

Winter Oxalic Acid Drips

The Winter Oxalic Acid Drip has been widely used in Europe for many years and is becoming more widely used in the U.S. It should be done once a year about two weeks after the first hard frost when the temperature is 35˚ – 45˚F. At that time, there will be no brood in the hive. The Traynors do this each year for each hive, regardless of the mite level they’ve seen for the hive. The oxalic acid drip technique is harmless to the bees (and beekeeper) and is very effective. The section below describes the technique for using oxalic acid drip.

Note: Whether using 10x sugar rolls, or oxalic acid drips, any mites found on the bottom board must be destroyed. The beekeeper should also destroy the comb after doing Drone Comb Cutting.

Oxalic Acid Drip Technique

Wear gloves and googles when handling the crystalized oxalic acid. Avoid skin contact or breathing in the crystals. Brushy Mountain Bee Supplies now sells both 35 gram treatments of Oxalic Acid or an Oxalic Acid kit with one treatment, gloves, and mask. Oxalic Acid is available through Chemical supply houses, Home Depot, and marie stores. It is also sold as Wood Cleaner but make sure to purchase 100% OA.

Make the 3.5% Oxalic Acid Solution

Make a liter of solution. Mix 200 grams of sugar and the same amount of hot water. Dissolve 35 grams of oxalic acid in a small amount of warm water. Combine the two solutions and add enough water make 1 liter of solution. This is enough to treat 20 hives. (Because the ingredients are very inexpensive, they recommend that you make this amount regardless of the number of hives to be treated and pour out whatever is not used.) This is the formula used in Germany. They found that bees groomed each other better and so they had better mite kills. This German recipe differs from the recommended oxalic acid treatment in the US, where it is suggested that one dissolve 35 grams in a 50% sugar solution.

Prepare the Hive:

Place white paper on top of the bottom screen board to see the mites.

Apply:

Dose: Use 30 ml for small hives, 40 ml for medium hives, and 50 ml for larger hives.

Use a 60 gauge syringe (think horse hypodermic with no needle) to drip the solution. Draw the recommended dose (e.g., 50 ml  for larger hives) into the syringe. This solution will be dribbled between the frames of the top box, across the bee clusters. Starting on the far side of the hive, squeeze the syringe while pulling towards the front. Deliver about 10% of the dose per seam.

Oxalic Acid Vapor Technique

The Traynors do not advocate the oxalic acid vapor technique and are surprised that it is permitted in the United States. It is not permitted in Germany, where Oxalic Acid Drips have been used for a number of years. The beekeepers should note that the Vaporization method poses serious health risks for the beekeeper. With the vapor technique, the Oxalic Acid can get into both the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause kidney stones as well. Also, the vaporized oxalic acid can leave a residue that the beekeeper can pick up when later working the hive.

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