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Survivor Bee Traits

When we incorporated the “Survivor Bees” text into our company logo, we started getting lots of questions (mostly from non-beekeepers) with regards to what this means. Since then, I’ve wanted to write a blog to explain a little bit more about survivor bees (I also mentioned in a previous blog that I would write a follow up blog with regards to the traits that make a survivor hive a survivor hive).  I warn the readers that much of what they will read in this blog is my opinion based on observations that I’ve made on our survivor stocks of bees. To date we haven’t spent much time documenting or doing scientific analysis to back up these observations with hard data (but I’d love to get to that point). Survivor bees in other regions, I suppose, could be different than ours.

For those people not familiar with our operation, we have been exclusively propagating/breeding bees that started as wild swarms for a decade now. For a few years (circa 2009-2013) we were very active in hive removals and swarm collections. We were fortunate enough to catch some truly “feral” bees that now make up the foundation of our honey bee genetics. It has been exciting to keep bees the “natural” way, completely treatment free, while we read articles and publications discussing the best treatment methods for pests such as varroa. I believe that there are plenty of other “treatment free” beekeepers with bees that can survive against varroa, so why have survivor bees not caught on with other beekeepers? The answer is simple, survivor bees are not for everyone, and as a matter of fact most beekeepers wouldn’t appreciate survivor bees. It seems that the traits that make survivor bees great are actually traits that beekeepers have been breeding against for years. Without further ado, let’s jump into these “survivor” traits:

Long broodless periods in dearth times (Winter/Summer)

Survivor bees tend to be very cautious about building up brood. They usually lag behind in spring buildup and tone down (shut down) brood production during the summer dearth. However, they will often turn up production again in the fall before shutting down for winter. On the more extreme end, some bees would be content living in a double deep hive the entire year without outgrowing it; often, if you open the hive in late summer, you’ll find four to five frames of bees in the bottom box and the top box full of honey. But the average is quite a bit higher, maybe 10 to 15 frames. We do get “jumbo” hives that are on the other extreme, which rival “regular” bees in population size and strength.

The negative implications of this trait:

Well, less brood production means fewer bees and less honey yields. If you make a living from pollinating crops, you need a lot of bees. If you make a living selling honey, well, you want lots of honey. Small winter clusters also affect those pollinators who want large bee populations early in the winter (for almond pollination). I would say that for most beekeepers, this is a pretty big drawback.

The Positive implications of this trait:

Being stingy with brood production really leads to fewer bees, which leads to smaller hives. But fewer bees also means fewer drones and in general fewer bees for varroa mites to parasitize. So even if varroa mites infest a hive, the infestation doesn’t reach catastrophic levels and the bees are more likely to successfully fight off the infestation. So in general, brood breaks are a useful tool for controlling varroa mites. However, don’t confuse being cautious with being slow. In the spring, these bees can really turn up production if they want to (which may be why they always keep plenty of pollen around).

Very clean

Survivor bees are obsessive compulsive when it comes to keeping a tidy hive. They concentrate a lot of resources on cleaning and general housekeeping. You’ll see them working hard hauling off hive debris and will notice the cleanliness of the hive during an inspection.

The negative implications of this trait:

This is an easy one. If the hive spends more time cleaning their hive, then it means that they spend less time foraging for nectar. In this manner, this trait also contributes to lower honey yields.

The positive Implications of this trait:

I believe that it is this cleaning impulse that drives the hygienic behavior and their overall low tolerance of pest infestations. It seems to me that “regular” bees are so consumed with foraging that they disregard an infestation. Survivor bees understand that they need to deal with the pest problem since there is no sense in dying and leaving behind a hive full of honey. They simply don’t tolerate invaders and will generally fight off pests such as varroa, wax moth, hive beetles, and ants. Having said that, a hive that is too weak will get overran by any of the above pests. I’m sure that every year we lose some hives to varroa and ants. Hive beetles aren’t a big issue and wax moths can get out of control especially on weak hives. But a strong survivor colony will usually fare very well against these invaders. As far as I’m concerned, the more that a hive cares for itself, the less work that I have to do, so I enjoy this trait.

Multiple queens and cells

This survivor bee trait can be confusing to beekeepers. It is confusing to us as well, but we’ve learned to accept it (as with most things bees, working with them and letting them do what they instinctively want to do is easier than trying to fight them). Survivor bees seem to like “queen insurance”, in other words, they like to keep a spare queen or queen cell around just in case the old queen fails. After all, when you have to survive on your own and margins for error are razor thin, you can’t afford to be without a queen when you need her most (at least that’s what I think that they are thinking). During a hive inspection on a hive that shouldn’t want to swarm (too small or wrong time of the year) you might find a ripe queen cell or two (usually big beautiful ones). It gets better, sometimes you’ll find a marked queen (your original) and there’s an unmarked virgin queen running around (we see mated queens too). I wouldn’t be surprised if the hives often do swarm, but it seems like many times they just kill one of the queens after a while. It is my suspicion that the old queen gets killed and the bees are simply superseding a perceived failing queen. However, this doesn’t explain why we often find queen cells in colonies with good new queens. So I just assume that the bees want to preempt any queen issues and always want to be two steps ahead on rearing a new queen. Without frequent inspections and very good record keeping, it’s hard to determine the frequency at which this happens, but if you check 50 hives between late spring and late summer, maybe 4 or 5 will be expressing this behavior at any given time.

Last year I tried hard to document this behavior, mostly by trying to snap a picture of an old marked queen next to a virgin new queen. It turns out that this was pretty hard to do as queens don’t just sit around waiting for their picture to be taken, however, we did run into plenty of instances of 2 queens in a hive. Finally, I got a big break (got lucky really) and managed to take a cell phone video of a mated new queen fighting and killing the old queen.  The video itself is really bad because I was working alone, but I did manage to extract a few good still images from it that show the action.

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My brother suggested that some may think that we simply added a queen to a queen-right hive to get a picture of two queens fighting. My answer was that any seasoned beekeeper would know that the worker bees are the first to attack a foreign queen and would never allow it to fight their queen. In the pictures, you can obviously tell that the worker bees are “hands off” and letting the two queens fight it out. But having witnessed the whole event, it wasn’t much of a fight. It was more like the old queen was running for her life and the new queen was out to murder her as she was clearly the aggressor. The new queen was for sure mated, as I checked back a couple of days later and there were freshly laid eggs.

The negative implications of this trait:

There really isn’t a big negative aspect to this trait assuming we are within the context of a survivor hive. Obviously if you have a huge hive with many resources, a ripe queen cell means you are about to cast a swarm (or already did). So generally speaking, queen cells are viewed as detrimental by beekeepers. It could also make selective breeding a bit harder if queens are superseded more often (but again, we don’t have hard data to quantify the implications of this).

The positive Implications of this trait:

Well consider this: during some hive inspections in one yard, I marked 3 hives that needed to be re-queened in one yard. During my inspections in an adjacent yard, I found two hives (one was a strong nuc) that had two queens, so I promptly marked them and placed them into the hives that needed to be re-queened (what else should I do with extra queens?). I also found a hive with a good queen and some beautiful ripe queen cells, so I took the frame with the queen cells and put it in the third hive that needed to be re-queened in the other yard. So as far as I’m concerned, extra queens and queen cells are a good thing.

Forage hard for pollen

Survivor bees seem to be more interested in pollen that most “regular” bee breeds. Maybe because they know that the pollen patty will never arrive during winter and that they better have enough pollen stored. But mostly, I think that they keep plenty of pollen around to be able to quickly ramp up population should they want to. Often when inspecting around the brood chamber, you’ll find many frames of pollen and bee bread, sometimes brood and pollen on the same frames.

The negative implication of this trait:

Foraging more for pollen means foraging less for nectar, which will negatively impact honey production.

The positive Implications of this trait:

If you collect pollen, then you’ll have more pollen than you know what to do with. I also believe that more pollen means better fed bees and overall healthier bees. Also, if you pollinate crops, then survivor bees will be more effective at pollinating crops.

 

Pest fighters

Survivor bees are so good at taking care of themselves that they employ a variety of tactics to fend off pests. When it comes to fighting varroa, the biggest trait that they employ is what is known as Hygienic behavior. If you want to read more on this, you can ready my previous blogs on the subject (Hygienic bees and summer inspection). In a nutshell, hygienic behavior is when the bees detect pupa that are infested with varroa and remove the pupa in order to prevent the varroa mite from breeding. It is really great to see this behavior in action. Another tool against varroa is that the hive will simply not rear any brood during an infestation. They somehow know that varroa cannot breed if there is no brood and so shutting down brood helps control the infestation.

Last year, during our second round of Nuc production (mid-april), I found a hive with unacceptable varroa levels. It made it through winter (probably with a high mite load) but was now in bad shape. That same day I saw a Nuc from our first batch (in March) that had a mated queen but most of the bees had drifted back to the original hive and the Nuc only had about one frame of bees. So I killed the queen from the struggling hive and introduced the frame of bees from the Nuc with the new mated queen. I checked the hive a few weeks later and the population had dwindled, but noticed that the bees were expressing the hygienic trait and pulling out infested brood. I worried that they had missed the better part of the spring flow and might not make it. However, during a later inspection (in late August) I found the ten-frame hive full of bees, honey, pollen, and best of all no varroa infestation. It’s hard to tell whether they eradicated the varroa, but at least they got it under control. Either way, they recovered nicely. This new queen perfectly demonstrated the survivor bee intolerance for pests and how they will not grow the hive (even during spring) before the infestation has been dealt with. I had written off this hive at first, but instead I ended up marking it as a potential breeder for next year if it overwinters well.

The negative implication of this trait:

Yet again, honey production is sacrificed when a hive has to go broodless in order to control a pest. I will not collect one drop of honey from the hive in my story above. As a matter of fact, it yet has to be seen whether they will even store enough honey for themselves to survive the winter (although I’ll feed some if necessary).

The positive Implications of this trait:

Having bees that fight off pests by themselves is the key to having treatment free bees. If you don’t have survivor bees, don’t think about going treatment free as your bees will just die, plain and simple. But as part time beekeepers, having bees that keep themselves means the world to us. We just enjoy having them and collect a little honey from those that can afford to lose some.

More aggressive on average

It goes without saying that bees that don’t like intruders (think varroa) won’t like a beekeeper tearing their hive open and blowing smoke in their faces. I would say that on average survivor bees will be more aggressive than your average hive of gentle Italian bees. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that they are killer bees either (trust me, I’ve ran into some savage killer bees). I often work a hive that is pretty hot (may even get labeled for re-queening due to it) only to open it up a couple of weeks later to find them very gentle. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that they can be more aggressive but often it depends on when and how you do the inspection (which is largely true of bees in general). I always wear a jacket with veil when working the bees and about half of the time I will use gloves as well. If I am going to inspect a few hives and can afford to be gentle, I won’t wear gloves (often I don’t even use smoke). If I need to get through many hives and run a higher risk of making them mad, I’ll wear gloves (often after I get my hands stung up).

The negative implication of this trait:

Well nobody likes to be stung, so more aggressive bees will lead to more stings. It’s hard to say how many more stings, but do expect a few more. If you wear protective equipment and use smoke, largely you won’t even tell the difference.

The positive Implications of this trait:

I may only open a hive a handful of times any given year. So knowing that they are “equal opportunity aggressors” gives me peace of mind that they are aggressively fighting off pests as well. Having said this, I would like to point out that any overly aggressive hive in our operation gets culled/re-queened. There is simply no point in keeping bees that are so aggressive that they take the fun out of beekeeping. I have begun taking my seven-year-old daughter to the bee yards and the last thing that I want is her being stung up to the point that she does not enjoy the bees. In fact, she did not get stung at all working the bees with me all of last year (but she is wearing a full bee suit).

Closing thoughts

Survivor bees are easy to understand. They are simply bees that are working for themselves and looking after their own interests and not the interests of the beekeeper. To survivor bees, there is more to life that just foraging for nectar. They have a more balanced lifestyle in which survival to next year is the most important goal. A more balanced lifestyle means that they will control their populations to not consume too many resources during lean times. It means that they will clean their hives and keep them free of pests. It means that they may keep multiple queen cells throughout the year ready to deploy a new queen quickly should she be needed. It means that they will forage for pollen as much as they forage for nectar. It also means that they will be a bit more aggressive when defending their hives.

Unfortunately modern domesticated bees have been bred to lead an unbalanced life style. Imagine a person who works two full time jobs to make a lot of money and have a huge bank account, but their house is a mess, they are sick, and they can’t care for their children. You’d say that they have their priorities backwards and are living an unbalanced lifestyle. Yet this is exactly what we’ve bred modern bees to do. They take big gambles raising much brood when the resources are not yet available. They tirelessly forage for nectar and produce huge honey crops. But in doing so, they neglect other aspects of their life that adversely affect their own survival, to the point that these bees cannot survive without the beekeeper.

Our philosophy at Estrada Farms is to breed from our productive hives as much as we can, but we always keep the best survivor hives around to keep a strong presence of their genetics in the gene pool. Two years ago, out of five queen batches, four were of our biggest, healthiest, most productive queens and one was from our best survivor queen. Last year the ratio was about half and half. Every year, we straddle the line between best survival and best production, always trying to improve the genetics to see if we can get the best of both worlds. However, as this blog points out, (honey) productivity and survivability have (a sort of) inversely proportional relationship where too much of one leads to not enough of the other. The good news is that at least for us, our bees get the job done. We use them for pollination (almonds at that) and we collect plenty of honey, even if our honey yields are half of what you’d expect from “regular” bees. All things considered, we wouldn’t trade our bees for any other breed.

So there you have it, the Estrada Farms guide to Survivor Bees. Feel free to leave any questions in the comments section or use the Contact Us form to send us an email; we’d love to hear from you.

Hive Brander

Every year during the almond pollination, we hear stories of beehives being stolen or vandalized. Unfortunately most of the time its other beekeepers doing the stealing (which is a big shame). Last year a Russian beekeeper from Sacramento was caught with thousands of stolen beehives in Fresno County. He was caught when he tried selling beehives to another beekeeper that had been branded by the original owner. This is exactly the reason why we started branding our equipment a few years ago. In the unfortunate event that our hives are stolen, we have a chance of recovering them if they have been marked with our Apiary registration number.

We’ve been using one particular brander with great success. It is the model 2100 “beekeepers brander” from Brand New Industries. The model 2100 will set you back $550 and comes with everything included to start branding (torch, brass branding head, propane hose, and nice metal case). Ours has been working flawlessly for a couple of years now and it makes nice deep brands that look great even when painted over. When you get the brass head hot enough, you can very quickly brand a lot of wood. For anyone looking for a beehive brander, we highly recommend this particular model.

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We are not affiliated with Brand New Industries in any way. We just happen to really like their product and feel confident referring them to others. Here is a link to their website:

http://www.brandnew.net/estore/shopexd.asp?id=130

We’ve been building equipment like crazy lately and we certainly don’t want it stolen. I wish that we could keep a few Africanized beehives as decoys so that the bee thieves would learn their lesson when trying to haul them off. However, That idea is just too impractical as it would be ourselves getting stung most of the time… Our second best idea has been to brand our equipment and it does give us a little peace of mind.

Happy beekeeping

The Franken-Hive

Cleaning around the apiary last weekend, I ran into an old creation of mine. A beehive of my own design which I lovingly referred to as the “Franken-hive”.

Several years ago, I became fascinated by top bar hives. I really liked the simplicity of them and especially liked the ability to manipulate the entire hive without moving boxes around. I built a few traditional top bar hives and the biggest issue that I had was getting bees into them because all of our existing equipment was 10 frame langstroth hives. Yes you can always “shake” bees into the top bar hive from an existing hive, but that leaves the brood behind and in the same bee yard all of the bees want to fly back to their original location anyway. So my Engineer side took over and I proceeded to design a top bar hive that had a top bar bottom and a box that held regular langsthroth frames on top. It would basically be a top bar hive with a rectangular super on top. If you removed (or left a gap) in the top bar frames, the bees would actually be encouraged to build in both the top bar bottom as well as the super on top (careful consideration to bee space must be given so that the bees don’t build comb where you don’t want them to). Believe it or not, this franken-hive actually worked for transitioning bees from langstroth hives to top bar hives. It also worked well as a standalone functional beehive.

I tinkered around with this hive for a few seasons, but ultimately abandoned the idea. Mostly because such a design is not practical on a large scale (if you move your bees like we do). However, a hobbyist beekeeper looking to leverage the advantages of both top bar (clean wax) and langstrogth (can use honey extractor) hives can certainly find this design useful. Unfortunately I lost the original detailed design files so I cannot post them. However I did create some rough sketches for the purposes of this post. I figure that anyone with the drive to build their own hive can probably fill in the gaps in the design.

All that remains of the hive is the bottom top bar portion. So the top box is not shown in the actual picture, but it was long enough to hold 13 deep frames.

Anyway, I thought that I’d share one more of my crazy ideas. Maybe somebody will benefit from it.

IMG_4303

Plan 2Plan 3Plan 1

 

 

The Coming Varroa Storm

 

varroa on bee
A varroa mite sucking on a bee. If left untreated and if the hive cannot control the infestation, the hive will collapse. Survivor bees are better at dealing with varroa.

In my previous post about almond pollination I mentioned how mild our winter was here in California this last year. That was a very good thing for our almond pollination contract as we easily met the 10 frame contract requirement. Not only that, strong hives early in the year means that we should be able to double our operation this year. However, all of the good news comes with a catch. Since the hives never shut down brood production over winter, neither did the varroa mite.

The overwintering period with a “brood break” is one of the natural varroa control processes that favors the honeybee. During this period of time the bees don’t raise any drones, which the varroa mite prefers to parasitize because they get more bang for their buck. The bees also raise worker brood in very small batches, so the varroa mite is just out of luck and declines in population. Unless… the winter is very mild and the bees never go into full overwintering mode. When this happens, the varroa mite population levels begin the year dangerously high. Couple that with an exponential growth model and the severity of the matter becomes obvious.

Let’s explore an example of exponential varroa growth and the implications that it will have on us this year. I don’t know if there’s an actual exponential growth model for varroa (I assume that researchers have some), but let’s keep it simple and use the following equation P = N * 2s. Where “P” is the final varroa population, “N” is the starting varroa count, and “s” is the varroa reproductive cycles. We’ll use a simple doubling of population every brood cycle and disregard any other factors that affect population size. On to the example: Let’s assume that in a regular year, we enter February with 10 varroa mites. If so, in 8 reproductive cycles (about 6 months) the varroa population will be 2,560 (P=10*28). Now let’s assume that the mild winter allowed 15 varroa mites to survive AND they start reproducing one brood cycle earlier. In this case the mite count would be 7,680 (P = 15*29).  Clearly you can see how a mild winter, which allows the varroa mite to get a slight head start in the year could easily triple your mite count by fall of the following year. For this reason we are forecasting a varroa storm this fall for California beekeepers. It would be wise to have a varroa management plan in place early in the year. If you treat your bees for varroa, you may want to begin your treatments earlier than usual, at least one brood cycle earlier.

[If there are any biologists in the audience. The equation described above is oversimplified and used to attain a solution accurate enough for a rough order of magnitude – to illustrate an exponential growth rate.  An actual Dynamic model of varroa population should and would include negative/positive reinforcing loops for input parameters such as honeybee brood rearing patters at different times of the year, natural mite fall, mite re-infestation, weather, etc.]

Here at Estrada Farms our plan is to closely monitor the situation and employ natural varroa control tactics whenever possible, such as making splits with a prolonged broodless period (preferably after they’ve made some honey). If the mite levels are too high going into the fall, this may be the year that we deploy oxalic acid as a last ditch effort (ill write about our results if we do). However, our first line of defense is the bees themselves. They haven’t failed us yet and even if we do end up losing some hives to varroa, it will certainly cull out the least varroa resistant bees from our operation. The reverse is also true, and this type of year should highlight which hives manage to thrive despite the high varroa infestations. This would allow us to select the best queens to use as breeders for the next few years.

Every beekeepers goal should be to be treatment free. If we ever get there, it would mean that we finally allowed the bees to evolve natural mechanisms to deal with varroa (much like the Asian honey bee). So even in a year like this, don’t be afraid to let your bees feel the varroa pressure a little bit. If you can afford to lose half of your bees, then lose half of your bees. At least you’ll know that your bees next year will be better because of it.

Knowing that the storm is underway is the first step to being prepared. Good luck and whatever you plan to do to control varroa, make sure to start early.

2018 Almond Pollination

IMG_4729The 2018 almond pollination season is over and boy was it an eventful one. I am reminded of how massive the honeybee migration in and out of the state of California is when I see the steady stream of trucks hauling bees down the central valley. When I worked out of town I saw beekeeping trucks parked at every hotel off of highway 99, which runs through the heart of almond country. I took the time to meet a few of these beekeepers from all over the US. There were two main narratives that I heard. The first was that it was an usually high winter loss year (one beekeeper I spoke to had 60% winter losses). The second was the terrible pollination weather we had.

As far as winter losses go, we didn’t have that problem. As a matter of fact, we slightly exceeded our target hive count for pollination. Also, due to the very mild winter that we had, our hives were unusually strong for the month of February. In California we are spoiled anyway, but our winter this year was so mild that the hives never really shut down brood production for winter. I recall seeing drones in the hives even in January.

Then there was the weather. We hadn’t gotten a drop of rain all winter until the almonds started to bloom. Right around mid-February (when the almonds started to bloom), winter finally decided to show up. We had a one week long storm that dumped quite a bit of rain (I won’t mention the inches of rain as our east coast friends would probably laugh out loud). The following week we had a freeze followed by more rain.  To make a long story short, it’s not looking like a good year for almonds. On the Brightside, we did get a couple of days of decent flight weather and our girls rose to the occasion. When we were picking up our hives we noticed how much fruit-set our customer had. Those strong hives really made a difference when it came to crunch time. However, the weather did fake out our hives. The average hive actually lost weight during pollination. In other words, the bees were consuming more resources than they were bringing in. Some hives even went into emergency mode and began kicking out drones. Even so, we should be poised to have a good year.

in the video below, I managed to catch a worker bee pulling a drone with chewed up wings out of the hive. It just demonstrates how ruthless honeybees can be when it comes to survival. When things get though, the drones get going.

 

Our customer is bringing another almond orchard online in 2019 and we need to double our operation in order to keep up with demand. That means that our next move is to begin queen rearing. Your operation is only as good as the queens you produce and there are many factors that contribute to quality queens. It is this challenge that makes queen rearing one of my favorite things to do. So for me, the fun has just begun.

I hope that you all have a wonderful beekeeping year and make lots of honey!

 

First Hive Removal of 2018

 

In January we got a call from somebody who wanted a beehive removed from their garage wall. Those who are familiar with our operation know that we like doing hive removals, especially if they are survivor bees. In this case, since its February, most hives that would have collapsed from Varroa should already have collapsed (assuming the hive has been there over one season). So chances are that this particular hive may have good survivor genetics. In general, mid-winter is not the best time to perform hive removals, but in this case the bees either got removed or they were going to be killed, so we decided to remove them and hope that they survive.

In this post we’ll try to explain some of the hive removal basics, for those who may find removing a hive a daunting task (or who may never have performed one).

Every hive removal is different based on where you are removing them from (a tree, a wall, an attic, etc). But the general concept is the same. First you want to locate the entrance and blow some smoke into the entrance to calm the bees and reduce the chances of them “going crazy” and stinging everyone in the neighborhood.

 

 

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Expose the hive and locate the brood chamber. The bees will follow their brood, so capturing plenty of brood will increase the chances of the bees moving into your hive box. A mixture of open and capped brood is best.

 

Capture
This piece of comb has a good mixture of capped and open brood. “Spotty” brood pattern is not uncommon in an overwintering colony.

There are many ways to encourage the bees to build their wax into the frames. We like to cut pieces (very carefully) of their existing comb that fit into a frame. We then secure the wax into the frame using fishing string. If you secure the comb well enough, the bees will glue everything together in the coming weeks.

 

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Inside the beehive, you always want to put the brood frames in the middle and any honey or pollen frames on the outside.

 

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The final part is to get the bees into the box. Many people use a bee vacuum to suck up the bees. It certainly would help, but we’ve successfully removed many beehives without one. You’ll find that if you smoke the bees, they will form big “clumps” which you can just grab (gently) and throw into the box. If you are lucky enough to see the queen, you definitely want to grab her and throw her into the box as well. Having the queen and brood in the box will pretty much guarantee that the rest of the bees will follow.

After you have brood and bees in the hive box, place the hive close to the original entrance (if possible). The bees that flew out during the removal will want to return to their original hive location going through the original entrance. In our case, the entrance was a small hole, which we plugged so that they would go into our hive box instead.

If possible, leave the new hive in place for a couple of days so that all of the straggler bees make it into the hive. You can come back a few days later after dark, screen the entrance shut and take the bees to their new location.

In our case, we were unable to find the queen during the original removal. However, we found her on our follow up inspection. Three weeks later, the hive is thriving and exploding in population. We have marked the hive so that we can track its behavior throughout the year. If it shows good signs of “survival” traits, we may even incorporate it into our breeding program next year.

Capturing established survivor hives is the best way to incorporate survivor genetics into your bee stocks. Once upon a time we were into ordering VSH, Russian, and any other bees that were advertised by commercial breeders as the “next big thing” in varroa resistance. That road only led to varroa infestations and high winter mortality rates. In the last (almost) decade, capturing and propagating survivor bees acclimated to our area is what has given us the ability to operate treatment free as well as to regard varroa as a nuisance and not an existential threat.

We encourage everyone to at least consider this approach.

 

Oxalic Acid Calculator

On my previous post “Nuc Calendar Generator”, I wrote about a spreadsheet program that I created in order to help us quickly generate a calendar with all of the necessary information that we need to aid us in making our nucs. At the end of that post I mentioned that I would be writing a follow up post to tell the story behind the “Oxalic Calculator” tab. So without further ado, here is story:

Soon after I had finished my Nuc Calendar Generator program, I was invited by a friend to attend a social gathering. During this gathering, I ran into a gentleman that mentioned that he was making mead (honey wine) for his brother’s wedding. Being a mead maker myself, we struck up a great conversation. The conversation soon transitioned to beekeeping after he mentioned that he would like to keep his own bees to make mead using his own honey. He had already done a lot of research on bees, so he was full of questions. Of course, being a “treatment free” beekeeper, I had to give him my thoughts on treatment free beekeeping and why its the best approach for a hobbyist (in my humble opinion). During that entire conversation, I noticed an elderly gentleman (that neither of us knew) that was “hanging around” listening to our conversation, so we asked him to come join us. It turns out that the elderly gentleman was a retired beekeeper (that still kept several hives “just to stay busy”). He immediately corrected me on why it was so foolish to be treatment free. After all, he had ran a business for years keeping happy bees with the good old (over) treatment method. I respectfully disagreed, but we did have a good conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of treating bees, specifically for varroa. It turns out that this gentleman had used a varroa treatment for his bees (and still treats his current ones) using a chemical smuggled in from Mexico, as it is illegal to use and purchase in the US. He didn’t give me the name of it, because he couldn’t remember, or at least that’s what he said.

I have much respect for old-timer beekeepers and when I am fortunate enough to speak to one, I always try to learn from them. This particular beekeeper left me thinking about something. He said that when you have lots of beehives in one location, sooner or later you’ll have a varroa outbreak that will take out most of your bee yard. After all, having such a high concentration of hives in one area is not natural. He mentioned that not having a backup treatment plan is just plain foolish. On that point we could both agree. In past years, before we were in the almond pollination business, we weren’t afraid to lose bees to varroa. It’s how we ended up where we are today with very good survivor bees. However, we are now in a position where we must deliver a specified number of hives to our almond grower. This year, it means that we can only afford to lose about 8% of our bees and still meet our target. As a smart business decision, we should have a backup plan.

I personally don’t like to take medicine, although I’m not opposed to it either, and I will certainly take any medicine in a life and death situation. I think that I feel the same way about bees now. We need to have a backup treatment plan in case we ever experience a severe varroa outbreak that represents a life and death situation for our business.  I’ve thought about this before and I’ve even done some research on the best “organic” treatment methods but haven’t really taken any actions. I’ve decided in the past that if I had to treat with something during an emergency, it would be Oxalic acid. It’s not as effective as the hard chemicals because of the small residual time and the fact that it won’t kill mites present inside the capped brood. However, it can be pretty effective especially if you treat during broodless periods, and the best part is that it is an organic acid (like citric acid).

Well, since I had just finished making a Nuc calendar generator, I figured why not make an Oxalic calculator as well? If you are going to treat by using vaporized Oxalic acid then you don’t really need a calculator. I suppose that vaporizing Oxalic acid is a good way to go if you only have a few hives, but it can be slow and time consuming and the vapor is hazardous if you inhale it. For these reasons, I would use the liquid sugar/Oxalic dribble method instead. With this method you can make a big batch and treat as many hives as you need to fairly quickly and the solution is safe to handle. If you want to read more on the Oxalic acid treatment methods, I recommend reading the articles on the subject written by Randy Oliver on his website.

If you are going to use the liquid sugar/Oxalic mixture, you will need to follow a specific recipe. How strong you want the mixture will determine what recipe you follow. Also, the recipe changes if you are using wood bleach (diluted Oxalic acid used for commercial applications) or pure laboratory grade Oxalic acid crystals. Lastly, when following the recipe, you will need to make sure that your measurement units are correct (as everything needs to be weighed). There is a specific range of treatment where Oxalic acid is effective. Too little and it won’t kill mites and too much and it will kill your bees, so you need to be careful to get the mixture right. I’m the “measure twice cut once” kind of guy, except in this case its “get the calculations right once and use them forever”.  With this in mind, I created the “Oxalic Acid Calculator” and included that into the Nuc Calendar spreadsheet. This way if we ever need to treat, I can pull up the calculator and quickly generate a recipe without having to do lots of research.

Like I mentioned, treating with Oxalic acid is most effective if done during a broodless period when all of the mites will be exposed to the treatment. When you create nucs, you are making a broodless period between the time that the last eggs from the old queen hatch and the new queen’s larvae are capped. If you wanted a “clean” start to the nuc colony, it’s a very good time to treat them. For this reason, the Nuc Calendar Generator also provides the best dates to treat the nuc, reference Figure 1 below:

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Figure 1: Treatment window shown in the Nuc calendar

 

To end this post, I will describe how the calculator works:

You go to the “Oxalic Calculator” tab. Then you go to the “Input Parameters” section (at the very top) and select your four input parameters. Your options for mixture strength are Strong, Medium, and Weak. The options for Oxalic type are Pure and Wood Bleach. The number of colonies is simply how many colonies you wish to treat (at a dose of 50 ml per colony). The last input parameter is to select large units or small units. Large units are Kilograms (kg), Pounds (lbs), Liters (l) , and Gallons (gal). Small units are grams (g), Ounces (oz), milliliters (ml), and quarts (qt). I included this feature because if you are making a small batch, you likely don’t want to see 0.062 pounds. You are going to be measuring in ounces. The inverse of the same concept applies to large batches. I find the metric system to be much easier, so I use metric personally, but I included the US standard units for those who like harder math conversions. Reference Figure 2 below:

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Figure 2: Input parameter of the Oxalic acid calculator

Once you’ve entered the inputs into the calculator, you can find the recipes in both metric and US standard units, reference figure 3 below:

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Figure 3: Oxalic recipes in metric and US standard units

The page can easily be printed for your records. It might look something like what is shown in figure 4 below:

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Figure 4: a printed Oxalic calculator form with notes.

 

I’ve already tested the calculator by creating a batch of medium strength Oxalic solution and treating 10 hives. The results were inconclusive as I didn’t have any baseline varroa counts prior to treating. However, after 48 hours, I inspected the hives and found a few dead varroa mites on the bottom boards. The most that I counted was around 10, but I suppose that the bees could have removed some as I wasn’t using sticky boards (I have never actually used a sticky board). At the very minimum the solution killed mites and didn’t kill bees, which is a good sign. I used the treatment tables provided by Randy Oliver (very knowledgeable in Oxalic acid) to calibrate my formulas, so I am confident that the calculator will work as intended.

Well, it took an unexpected run-in with a retired beekeeper to finally  motivate me to get in motion with a backup treatment plan for varroa. Our long term strategy will never change as we firmly believe that the best plan to fight varroa is breeding bees that fight varroa (I’ve documented this in previous posts). But in a pinch, we now have a viable backup plan.