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Here are somes haikus that I have addressed to the varroa mite:
Magic School Bus Ride
Takes Me Inside Hive, Where I
Punch You in the Face
You Had More Choices
Roaches, Ash Borer, but Noooo
You Kill Honey Bees
Like The Highlander
It Seems You Are Immortal
But I Will Slay You
Now onto the updates. I will be checking in every month to tell you all about how my apiary is doing and hopefully this will help you learn what to do or what not to do. To make the updates cohesive, I’ll split the updates into 4 main sections: 1. mites, 2. positive vibrations, 3. blunders, and 4. outlook.
I am having really low mite counts this August, which is unusual because this is the time of year when mite populations explode (see graph below from Scientific Beekeeping). Before I go into an analysis of my mite counts, I want to preface this by saying I have never used any chemicals in my apiary to treat for varroa mites and vow never to use it. I have had great success (80-90% winter survival rates) chemical-free beekeeping and so can you! Now as I was saying, I am having low mite counts this year. For comparison, at this time last year, my strongest hives were showing mite counts of 20-60 after powdered sugar blasting the entire hive. The weakest hives were showing 70-120 mites. Moreover, I was getting these types of mite counts weekly as I was powdered sugar blasting each of my hives every week so I could record the numbers.
Now just last week, I powdered sugar blasted my two largest hives and found 30 and 10 mites respectively. Today, I went in and blasted two of my medium-sized hives and one of them only had 3 mites! The other only had 10! That’s pretty darn low for this time of year, especially when compared to the mite counts I had last year.
Second, I believe that living in a rural area helps keep my mite counts down. This may not be a big factor, but I believe it does help. Thinking logically, there are less houses and potential beekeepers around me and therefore, less varroa mites to spread around. As I continue to knock down the mites in my apiary, I won’t have as big of a problem with more mites coming in from neighboring apiaries. On the other hand, in the suburbs, there seems to be more and more people keeping bees every year and many of them have multiple colonies. The problem arises when some of those beekeepers don’t control their mite populations and those mites spread to your colonies.
Third, I think that the horizontal orientation of top bar hives is a positive feature for controlling mites. The horizontal orientation of the top bar hive makes it less likely that a mite will fall on another bee when a bee grooms it off or when the mite simply loses its grip on the bee. In contrast, the vertical orientation of the Langstroth hive increases the chance that the mite will simply land on another bee or on top of a frame in a lower box (super). All of my top bar hives have screened bottom boards and are placed on hive stands that put the bottom of the hive 2 feet off the ground which further reduces the chances the mites will find their way back up into the colony. I know that the impact of screened bottom boards have been minimized in a lot of people’s minds, but I believe it is very necessary. Chemical-free beekeeping means using everything at your disposal.
2. Positive Vibrations
Having a honey bee business is hard. Beekeeping in general can be difficult with all of the micro-decisions you have to make every time you inspect a hive and all of the second-guessing you do after you make those decisions. So sometimes we do have to take a step back and take note of what is great about beekeeping. This month, I replaced a queen from a mean hive. I have a high tolerance for mean hives because if they survive a winter with me then I give them some leeway. However, this hive would regularly sting me through my jacket and pants and find ways up under my jacket even when I duct taped my waistband to my pants. One time, I must have gotten stung 25 times with a few being in the face. Definitely not good. I saw the hive was making some queen cells (already half full with royal jelly and almost capped) so I took the opportunity and killed the queen thinking that they were a third of the way to making a new queen. (Side note: I do understand that there was a good chance that the new queen would take after her mother and be mean as well, but I was willing to take that chance.) Well, for whatever reason (dragonfly killed her or she got caught in a sudden rainstorm) the virgin queen never made it back to the hive. I really can’t even verify if she hatched. Well, I quickly took some eggs from my favorite hive that had a dark black queen and put it into this queenless, broodless hive. Now four weeks later there is a beautiful fully black laying queen in that hive. I have had great success with black queens and so I just have an affinity for them. Nothing more beautiful then spotting a healthy laying queen to make you appreciate beekeeping and breath a sigh of relief. She is like an oasis for the lost and delirious beekeepers.
Also, look at how great one of my new hives is doing. I just love it when the bees have a good sized population and the bees start hanging out at the entrance.
Lesson: be patient with virgin queens. Sometimes it can take them 2-3 weeks to start laying after emerging. In total, it can take more than a month for a hive to go from queenless to having a mated, laying queen (16 days for the virgin queen to emerge from starting as an egg and then 14+ days for the virgin queen to bulk up, fly out to mate, return, and then start laying). Be patient. If you can’t spot the virgin queen it’s probably because you missed her or she’s on her mating flight. Don’t panic until after 5-6 weeks of not seeing eggs or a mated queen. If you are one to panic early even after reading this, you could always place a frame of eggs into the hive then go back in after a few days. If they haven’t started making any new queen cups, then the virgin queen is most likely still alive. If they have started making new queen cups and have even put an egg and royal jelly in there, the virgin queen is probably dead.
I feel good going into the Fall with such low mite counts. I do have to monitor my hives’ pollen stores because I might for the very first time ever make pollen substitute patties to feed to some of my hives. I have always been against pollen patties because I thought it was just another “thing” we had to do to keep the bees alive. I also believe it attracts small hive beetles. Lastly, I have had good success not using them. Why am I considering using them now? Simply put, I read this Randy Oliver Scientific Beekeeping blog. Also, I want to experiment and see if the bees come out of the winter stronger with extra pollen patty feeding now and into the Fall. Healthy and big colonies in Spring means more top bar nucs that I can sell. I’ll keep you updated on how this goes.