The Battle of the Bees Begins

The battle begins against the varroa mite.

In my last beekeeping post, I talked about the worrying number of varroa using the drop count method, although the same was not witnessed on our drone brood.  We’ve not inspected since, believing that risk of swarming was still relatively low, and needlessly interfering with their activity is stressful to them.  How would you like it every nine days or so, someone came into your house, went through all your closets and drawers, and let in an almighty draft on the babies of your household? But there is a reason for doing so which I’ll explain below.

However, we have kept a very close eye on bee activity, the health of the external bees, and the smell and sound of the hive – all indicators of how the colony is faring.  As part of this schedule of observation, I’ve been watching the varroa count using the drop count method.

Bee activity has been good, plenty of pollen being brought in, and on sunny days, it looks like many thousands of bees are out, all clamouring over each other with their bright yellow, orange or creamy white sacs upon their legs.  But the number of varroa mite has continued to increase rapidly.  It’s time to treat the colony.

We decided on apiguard.  The active ingredient in apiguard is thymol.  Its a slow release gel, and its vapours fill the hive, much like using olbas oil for your cold.  Mite don’t like it, it is safe for the bees, but the down side is that the queen may stop laying temporarily, and honey will be tainted for human consumption.

We removed the bulk of existing stores (the colony seemed to have residual stores after the winter), placed the apiguard over the brood boxes without disturbing them and closed the hive without appearing to upset them too much.  They remained good natured and non-aggressive.  Now it’s sit back and wait before the count in a couple of weeks’ time.

Rationale for inspecting a honey bee hive

One reason is to check on the health of the hive.  Signs of eggs, larvae and capped brood is an indication of a healthy laying queen.  Drone brood can be sacrificed, since the sole role of a drone (male) bee is to mate with a queen, and therefore checked for varroa mite infestation.

A second reason is to check their stores to ensure they do not starve.  This is usually a minimal intervention inspection as the stores are kept at the top of the hive, and it is not necessary to disturb the queen and her brood.

A third reason is to check for signs that the colony might swarm.

Bee swarms

Bee swarms occur when a new queen is bred within the colony.   This happens when the colony becomes so large that many of the bees lose access to queen pheromones.  They then act as if she is not there.  They begin to feed one or more larvae royal jelly, and hence begin the development of a new queen.  The old queen leaves with about 60% of the original colony, leaving the new virgin queen with the remainder.  It is a dramatic sound and sight.  But as alarming as it might sound, the bees are generally non-aggressive.  They are focused on finding a new home rather than attacking.    If you do dare to go close enough to a swarm (often in a tree branch, where they take a temporary rest to save the energy of the queen), you will notice that those on the outside of the ‘clump’ stick their tail ends in the air, and their wings flap furiously.  They are emitting a pheromone that ensures that all the workers stay together, protecting their queen.  Scouts are sent out to seek out a suitable home, and when they return, they ‘report’ on their findings.  It is like a democratic process of persuasion.  Each scout tries to persuade the other workers that a particular site is the best focus for a new home.   The swarm finally concurs and it will take off to the new ‘hive’.  The process is a natural means of reproduction for bees, and in truth should be allowed to do it naturally.  But for many humans, bee stings are life threatening (as we discovered ourselves in the last inspection).  And most of us don’t really want to share residence with a colony of bees.  Beekeepers, therefore act to prevent upsetting the neighbours.

Checking for signs of a potential swarm

One reason for inspecting a hive is to check for signs of any capped queen cells.  This is a sign that a new queen is about to emerge.  Queen cells form vertically rather than horizontally and look like a peanut shell.  They do stand out from the crowd of worker brood and drone cells.  This may be an indication that a succession is about to take place, the colony is replacing an old queen whose egg laying productivity is declining, or that the old queen is about to swarm with more than half of the colony.  A beekeeper can guess at the likely scenario depending on the age of the queen.  If a potential swarm is suspected, then the imminent queen can be sacrificed.  A preferable alternative is to artificially split the hive, and you have two, instead of one colony.  You could also leave things to chance, place a good hive close by, and hope that the swarm will choose it as their new best home.  We did gain a colony from a neighbouring beekeeper this way.   When I tell my students this story, they look aghast, as if I’d stolen bees from my neighbour.  I must often look aghast at how little they seem to understand.  (Beekeeping does put me in the category of weird teacher, although I do admit, it is not the only reason).

I would like to improve my skills this season by splitting the hive, but I think it will take a bit of courage and serious planning.  I will report if I take the plunge, and even then, it will be with the cooperative help of my partner, which I might not get, as he now may have a serious allergy to bees (in my last post I did advise – avoid being stung in the nostril!).


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