Defecating Insects Make Angry Neighbours!

bee-poop

I have been talking about good locations for beehives, and how you can successfully move hives to these locations. Between nose and lips I have mentioned that you should always consider your neighbours when choosing a site.

But actually, the latter isn’t something we should just quickly skim over. This is a serious issue that needs some more emphasis: Respect Your Neighbours! Consider them. Keep up good “public relations”. Neighbours don’t just include the people that live next to you, but also the passing pedestrians in your street, cyclists or motorists. If your hive is on somebody’s farm – “neighbour” translates into farmer and farm-workers. Make sure you and your bees don’t get in the way of them.

This is not just to make your own life friendlier and more pleasant, but it is also on behalf of beekeepers as a group: we don’t want beekeepers to be seen in a bad light – they deserve a good name.

Besides people being scared of getting stung, there are a variety of other complaints when bees get in the way. To understand these complaints better and to understand how we can avoid them, we need to look at a few aspects of bee biology.

  1. Bees poo. And their toilet is outside. Defecating insects is not something we are usually bothered by (I know that I’ve personally never gave it a blink of a thought before I became a beekeeper). We are bothered by dog poo and cat poo, because we can clearly see and smell it if owners don’t clean up after their pets – on the beach, on the street and in the garden. This is especially frustrating in public places.  Insect poo on the other hand, is so tiny it is simply not part of our daily lives. That is, unless your washing line is on the route from a bee colony to their hive. As they come and go, they drop their dropping while flying. Now that explains those weird orange blobs on your clean white sheets! This is especially an issue in spring. Other common places where people have found patches of bee poo are on houses and cars. To avoid this, you need to consider the bees flight pattern. For example, if the current “bee line” – the route that they fly –  is a nuisance, but moving them to a completely new location is too much of a big deal, you could rotate the hives 180 degrees one night, and block the entrances loosely with grass. This could force the bees to establish new flight routes.
  2. Bees swarm – and they might settle down in your backyard. Or your neighbours one. Be quick to remove them and especially tell children to be careful. For more information about swarming (and prevention), see my post Where Are You Going, You Flying Black Cloud?
  3. Bees get thirsty. They need to drink. If you don’t provide them with anything (like a container of regularly-changed water) when there’s no natural sources  they will inspect your neighbour’s property, on the hunt for dripping water taps, wet washing or swimming pools.
  4. Bees can be temperamental – and some bees are worse then others. You can control the bees’ temperaments to a certain extent. This depends on the strain of bees you choose to have. Italian bees are known to be gentle bees, and they are well suited for the New Zealand climate. Also, to keep the temper down don’t disturb the hive too often, especially not in rainy cold weather. If your bees are moody anyway, it might be time to re-queen: a new queen means a new spirit.
  5. One sting means many more stings! It sounds perhaps counterintuitive, but it might be an idea to stop wearing gloves once your comfortable enough. Stings on your hands will only hurt briefly and you can remove the stings quickly to continue your work. If the bees sting your gloves however, you won’t feel it and the smell lingers on, attracting other bees to sting. It may not hurt you, but it might very well hurt the neighbours…
  6. Bees are robbers. When they get the chance to munch on honey or syrup sources from other hives, they will take it, especially when nectar sources are hard to find in the environment. When scout bees find a honey source – they will quickly communicate it to the forager bees. The bees will gather and sometimes they will fly out in a big group to start the invasion. You may see a mass of bees that eagerly flies back and forth to find a way in; into the treasures of the Other Hive. And they will fight! You can tell by how they fly that something is up. Their flight seems nervous and less straight forward than normally. You don’t want this nervous flying to be happening close to your neighbours! They might complain about getting stung or being “buzzed” by the bees. One way to prevent this, is to make sure you don’t spill any syrup around the hive when you feed the bees, and don’t leave any honey exposed when you put a sticky honey box on top of your hive. Conduct these activities only in the late evening.

Finally, these are some other tips&tricks beekeepers could keep in mind, with respect to neighbours:

Out of sight, out of mind. It may sound dubious, but it works. If your neighbour -who is not familiar with bees-, sees that beehive every time they hang out washing or work in the veggie garden, they are bound to get a bit of an unnerving feeling at some point. If they can’t see the hive however, at least they won’t ponder about it on a daily basis.

…Unless one of the above things is happening. Even more so, some bees will fly exactly at human head height. It might freak people out when they hear loud buzzing close to their ears. There is a trick to avoid the latter: you can force your bees to fly at least two metres high from the moment they leave their hives. It sounds silly, but the only thing you need to do is placing the hive entrance close to a screen (a fence or hedge for example) which makes them go up.

If the neighbours are still not convinced, you could always bring up the point that your bees will help pollinating the crops and fruit trees in the area, and who knows, you might be kind enough to share your honey

cabbage tree and honey

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Information from Practical Beekeeping for Beginners, p. 24-25-26

Bee-poop photo from http://spudlust.wordpress.com/

The Cycle Of the Beekeeping Season – Nuc’s!

Time for a quick re-cap: so far I’ve introduced you to some basic beekeeping issues like “what do beekeepers do?” pest and disease, bee-ethics, and an understanding of the bee’s role in ecosystems. At the same time I have followed a loose chronological time line, following the beekeeping season from the moment I started this blog in late summer/begin autumn until now (the onset of winter): from extracting honey to preparing the hive for winter.

Winter is a time to rest and breathe. There is not much to do for beekeepers once the hives are prepared for winter – except for perhaps feeding the hives if they need it.

This is why I would like to take a leap and jump to the next season: Spring!

Spring is time for renewal. This isn’t only true for beekeepers, but for most living things in nature.

For bees, spring means time for swarming (see my last post). Catching a swarm is one way for beekeepers to acquire new bees, but since the varroa invasion they are getting harder to find. So how else can we get them when we start from scratch?

We buy them.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? It gives bees almost the same status as any other pet we acquire for our own enjoyment. Bees are different of course. We can’t “pet” them as individuals: we need them as a whole colony. However, we usually don’t buy them as a complete colony.  A great way of acquiring a new hive is to buy a nucleus colony (a nuc) in spring. You can get them from a local beekeeper or from a queen bee producer.

nuc

A nuc before entering a bigger hive box (photo from www.littlehouseonthebighill.com)

A nucleus is a small colony. The bees occupy about four frames in the brood box (out of 9 or 10). You put them them in the middle of the box, next to the remaining empty frames. Then you introduce a queen. You can either choose to introduce a queen from a litte cage, or introduce a queen cell that will develop and emerge as a queen inside the hive (see my next post). From here on, your nuc is ready to go. You will find that the colony quickly expands and soon the bees will occupy all the frames, asking you for more space in more boxes.

For a successful introduction, there are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure you introduce the nuc to their new home in the late afternoon or early evening. Otherwise they will  fly all over the place!
  • It’s best to feed them every week until the main honey flow starts in summer. Commonly beekeepers feed sugar syrup to their bees, but if you want to be organic you could feed them organic honey.
  • Reduce the entrance until the bee population has expanded more (for more about entrance reducers see my post Robbers! Slime!)
  • Be wise and get at least two hives. Seriously. When I started beekeeping I made the mistake of being modest, and I started small with only one hive. It turned out my hive wasn’t that doing that well because the queen was failing. If this happens when you have two hives, you can use your other hive as a back up. You could unite the colonies together, or you could swap brood frames between them, so your weak hive has some extra brood coming up which boosts the population growth. Because I didn’t have a back up-hive, I needed to look for another solution. Luckily, I found another beekeeper to swap brood frames with. But definitely not an ideal situation. Another benefit of having at least two hives is that you can make comparisons between colonies. Valuable experience for beginners!

A last important point is location of the hives.

Make sure its sunny, sheltered from winds, the ground is flat, it doesn’t annoy the neighbours, and that there are enough food sources around. Even though bees can fly between 3 and 5 kilometres if they have to, it’s best if they can find their flowers close to home. Make sure you weed the site. The hives shouldn’t be surrounded by long grass. If it rains the grass catches the wet drops and this makes the close surroundings of the hive damp. The bees hate it!

The hive doesn’t have to be in your backyard. Many places are possible, as long as you ask for permission and the site is  easily accessible. A trend in New Zealand is to ask farmers permission to locate hives on their farm properties.

A wise beekeeper once predicted the future for me. While we have to ask farmers for permission now, in the future it might be the opposite: they will ask us to please put hives on their land and they might even pay us for it!

I hope he is right. What do you think?

Black_sheep_on_paddock_with_Lake_Rotorua_in_the_background

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ps. There are alternative ways of starting up hives, like buying established hives or buying package bees. If you would like to know more about these options, please let me know!

Ouch, A Stinger in My Skin

Beekeeping means getting stung. 

sting

No matter how much you are in tune with your bees, even the most understanding guru will receive a vicious reminder from time to time – the bees letting us know how they feel.

I can’t help but sometimes feeling that I am a troublesome invader to my beehive. I wish I could tell the bees that I mean well, and that everything I do is for their own good. But while I’m thinking this, I can quite clearly visualise what I must look like from a bee-point of view.

A giant white monster with a shaded face. I attack their house with a metal weapon. I tear off their roof, smoke out their house, and one by one I pick up their chambers and give them a good shake – a massive earthquake that causes them to fall down into the abyss. My giant eyeball inspects closely what their babies look like, where their food is stored. Their most precious goods are supposed to be hidden from the daylight, but now they are suddenly painfully exposed to enemies and weather. My giant eyeball doesn’t rest until I have found their leader, the queen, who brings order in the seemingly chaos of the hive. Sometimes I notice that my bees protect their queen by clustering up and around her: she must stay invisible for my crushing powers.

No wonder beekeepers get stung! I would do the same if I was a bee.

Getting stung is not that funny. When I was attacked for the first time – four decent pricks into my ankle, I had a good cry. I actually had to stop doing what I was doing, walk away from the hive, sit down and breathe.  It wasn’t because I was scared, but because it actually REALLY FREAKIN HURTS.

For some reason, when I get stung now it is not that painful anymore. It’s just a bit of an ‘ouchy’ feeling, and I carry on. Unfortunately, I still swell and itch for days afterwards…

When you want to become a beekeeper, you really need to consider bee stings.Bees will only sting you when they feel threatened, so if you see a bee buzzing around the fields, don’t worry too much. If you invade their house though, especially when it’s cold and wet outside, it doesn’t matter how good your protective gear is, the bees will find a way. For most people it’s no big problem, others get Severe Allergic Reactions that may even lead to Death.

So what actually happens when you get stung?

Worker bees have a barbed stinger in their bum. When they sting, the stinger lodges into the victim’s skin. It tears loose from the bee’s abdomen, digestive tract, muscles and nerves. This is what kills the bee – a few minutes later she is death. However, this only happens when bees sting enemies with a thick skin, like mammals. If they sting other insects, they can do so several times without harming themselves.

The sting consists of three parts: a stylus and two barbed slides on either side of the stylus. Instead of pushing the sting in, the sting is drawn by these barbed slides. They move up and down the stylus, gradually sliding the sting into the wound, quickly further and further. This mechanism even continues after the sting is ripped off from the bee’s body.

The sting releases a venom: apitoxin. At the same time it releases pheromones. The other bees can smell that one of their fellows is fatally injured. This will attract them to come to the “place of crime” and help out their buddy by stinging the victim even more. In most cases they will only stop stinging when the threat has gone: the victim has fled or died.

Interesting fact: Male bees can’t sting, and the Queen bee won’t sting – she has a stinger that she could use multiple times, but only in very rare cases she will use it on humans. Humans are generally not worth dying for – she will rather use it to fight another queen!

sting2

The first step you need to undertake when you get stung is to remove the stinger as soon as you can. Even when you only give it a few seconds in your skin, it will continue to release more venom. A few odd traditional “remedies” are  toothpaste, garlic, salt, baking soda or onion on your wound, but these remedies have probably mostly a psychological effect. In rare occasions people can develop hypersensitivity after being stung, which can become worse each time when stung again. They may suffer anaphylactic shock caused by certain proteins in the venom. They need an immediate treatment of adrenaline (epinephrine), otherwise it might be fatal.

Pretty scary.

Yet for most people, getting stung is no reason to not keep bees. And even after getting stung, I still always hope that at the end of the day, after I have fed my bees a big bucket full of sweet syrup, maybe they say to each other that I wasn’t so bad after all…

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Photo’s: Wikimedia Commons

Poem Of a Mutated Larva (Or Two).

afb

AFB

O, Morphous mass!
Melting

On the bottom of the cell

Are you waiting for me?

Your body porridge
Slump. A foul fishy
odour of rotten flesh

And workers stamping
on your brown, lifeless mush
Leaving, as they leave,
A tiny imprint

“Here lays a fleshy worm.
slimy tongues poke out
or dry to a stale
skeleton”

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I’m sorry, that was disgusting. What the hell was that!?

This, my dear readers, is the New Zealand Beekeeper’s Nightmare.

This is AFB, American Foul Brood Disease; or the “Aids of the Bees”. When there is AFB in the beehive, there is no cure. When there is AFB in the beehive, the only solution is to burn all the evidence.

In this weird poem I have described a few very important symptoms that help you identifying this disease. Symptoms are best recognised in the larval or pupal (post-larval) stage. To sum up a few:

Instead of a healthy pearly white creature that is curled up in a c-shape; the larva/pupa becomes

  • Body porridge
  • Slump: it lays like a flat mass on the bottom of its cell
  • Brown
  • Lifeless
  • Stinks like rotten fish
  • After a while the slimy substance dries up to hard scaly bits

However, these symptoms could be confused with symptoms of other bee diseases. This is why my poem ends with the one and only Definitive Symptom of  AFB

  • The Pupal Tongue. For some strange reason, a pupa that dies of AFB  sticks out its tongue. It looks like a thin thread that points upwards in the cell. You rarely see it, but when you do there is no doubt: your hive is infected with AFB. 
  • Another way to identify the disease is by doing the “Ropiness-test“. This is shown in the picture above. To do this test all you need is a little stick; the foot of a match stick for example, or a piece of dry straw. You poke it into a suspicious looking cell. When you lift it out again and you see a brown slimy thread roping out, there is a good chance your hive is infected.

You can start raising suspicions by looking at the wax-caps that cover the brood. (This is only the case when the larva/pupa is 9 days or older). Symptoms that they might show are:

Perforation. If you see any any caps with holes in it, it’s a sign that worker bees have “smelled” that something is wrong. They poke a hole in the cap and peer through it, to check if their babies are OK.
sunken caps
greasy texture (instead of fluffy)
grey colour (instead of light to dark brown)
spotty cap pattern (instead consistent laying pattern; however this can also be a sign of a failing queen (see my previous post).

Note: You only have to find ONE infected larva or pupa in order to diagnose AFB. When this is the case, you have to burn the whole hive (according to New Zealand regulations). It’s a nasty process. You should pour petrol over the bees first, so that they suffocate. You dig a hole, throw in the hive and set the whole thing on fire.

What is the cause of all this misery?

It’s a bacteria. Paenibacillus larvae is its name. As it develops it appears in two different forms.

  • Spore form. Like plant seeds with a hard outer coat. The spores are extremely strong: they can live over 35 years, and resist boiling water.  The bee children get infected when nurse bees feed them honey and pollen with spores on it. One single diseased larva may contain more than 2.5 billion spores.
  • Vegetative form: This is the bacteria as a reproducing agent. The spore has germinated into something that is replicating itself. It climbs into the gut of the young larva and when the larva matures to the (pre-)pupal stage, it penetrates the gut wall. It starts replicating more and more by consuming bee-tissues. Often it’s fatal. the vegetative rods turn back into spores when all tissues have been consumed. It means there’s no more food left for them. This is how the infection can start off with 10 spores and ends up with billions in one single bee.

Don’t think that bees let this disease just passively overwhelm them! They will do their best to get rid of it by taking away infected larva and excreting infected honey outside the hive.

Unfortunately, their attempts are not always successful…

Who’s to blame?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The most important source of AFB spread is the beekeeper!

  1. By switching extracted honey supers (boxes) between hives (often a year later)
  2. Transfer of brood frames between hives

At other times the disease spreads through the behaviour of bees themselves. The most important source is robbing. Robber bees are bees that infiltrate other hives. They ingest infected honey, take it into their own hive, regurgitate it there and feed to their brood.  Robbing is usually how AFB turns up out of the blue in commercial operations.

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Most of this information comes from the book “Elimination of American foulbrood without the use of drugs” by Mark Goodwin, Cliff Van Eaton, National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand. After studying this information I sat a bee disease exam, passed it, and this is how I became an “Approved Beekeeper”.