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/

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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!

Hidden Poisonous Potions and Intruders

Do you ever sit around in the grass and watch how bees fly by, hopping from flower to flower and happily buzzing to and fro?

bee

I sometimes do. And sometimes it strikes me how good they look.  Nice wings with patterns and a sharp defined edge. Nice striped coats on their fuzzy bellies. Beautiful bags stuffed with colourful pollen. Cool skinny little legs and black shiny eyeballs. They look  like they are on a mission and it looks good.  They seem to know exactly what they’re doing and their bodies seem perfectly designed to make their purpose in life come true.

pollen basket

                                        I recommend to click on this photo

Until you see a sick bee.

Until you see that a bee comes home to a hive that is stuffed with sick, mutated larvae.

Until you see a hive that is destroyed by mice, moths, beetles or the freezing cold.

In my previous post I’ve fully concentrated on a fatal bee disease: AFB. But, you might have felt it in your gut, this was not a complete story. Unfortunately, there are lots of other things that threat our precious bees. From freezing to death to starving to death to being chewed by pests or being poisoned by pesticides.

In this post I’m concentrating on two Hot Topics: Varroa Destructor and the mysterious effects of pesticides on bees.

Varroa Destructor is a Parasytic Mite Syndrome. At the moment varroa is one of the greatest reasons for hive loss in New Zealand, and it is also the reason why it basically impossible to be an organic beekeeper these days.

Varroa is not a disease,  it is a mite – a pest, a parasite. It’s a little creature that chews on the bees and deforms them.

Varroa_on_larvae

                                        Mmm yum yum, chew chew, says the happy mite.

                                                The bees die in agony.

This it how it works.

Varroa life cycle

  • The varroa jumps into the brood cell during the larval stage of the bee. It jumps into the brood food. There it waits until the larva matures and stretches out. When ready, it emerges from the food and climbs into the larva by chewing a hole. The larva is bleeding. It establishes a feeding station anywhere inside the larva that suits it, and starts laying eggs.
  • The first egg that hatches is always male, all the following ones are female.
  • They all form their own feeding station and chew away.
  • They eat body fluids, and while chewing they deform the brood.
  • Often the bee simply dies and doesn’t emerge.
  • The more the brood gets chewed the less survival chance. The consequence is less vigour in the hive.
  • When workers chew cap open varroa comes out of the cell and spreads.
  • The length of the varroa life cycle depends on the bee life cycle. Male drones take longest to emerge from their cells (24 days, whereas workers take 21 days and queens only 16). The longer they take to emerge, the longer the mite can chew and live. This is why the mites prefer drones (And this is also a reason for some beekeepers to scrape away drone cells from the hive)

Currently bees are being genetically selected to improve their hygienic behaviour. This would improve their ability to clean out the mite out of their cells, and hopefully will contribute to eradication of the pest.

Yet, before we get to that stage the most common solution for now is suppressing the mite is by a non-organic chemical treatment. Special Varroa strips are often used. Mites that have emerged from cells and start spreading throughout the hive, are the ones we can kill off. And it has proven to be successful.

varroa strips

The treatment we choose depends on the scale and type of our apiaries. There is a lot of discussion between commercial, organic and hobby beekeepers. Some organic beekeepers suppress the mite with organic chemicals like oxalic and thymol. Also, hobby beekeepers with hives on a small scale might choose more natural and labour-intensive ways of dealing with varroa. Some of them have been successful, others haven’t been.

 

The common treatment

  • There are two different chemical groups for varroa strips
  • You need to keep on changing between chemical groups, otherwise the mites develop resistance against the strips.
  • As soon as you take strips out of the hive, varroa starts winning the battle again. But you can’t leave the strips in continuously either. They should be removed in winter and when you’re going to harvest honey. The chemicals aren’t good for human consumption. (It may sound dubious, but it is fine to feed bees “chemical honey”…..)
  • Mind you:  bees hate the strips. They will move away from them. The queen is likely to not relay her eggs in the area where the strips are. The longer you leave strips in the same place, the more effective the bees get in avoiding them. This is why you need to keep on moving them around inside the hive, every 6 weeks or so.

Sigh.

Breathe again.

It’s not all doom and gloom. For the region where I live, Otago, New Zealand, there is a hopeful prospect. It gets very cold in winter and therefore there is the possibility that not every hive will have brood all year round.  This increases the chances you kill off varroa in winter when you have been treating your hive with chemical strips.

Does this mean we should embrace the use of pesticides in beekeeping practices completely?

No!

magazines

There are many other pesticides out there, some of them are frequently used in agricultural practices with beehives. One important group of pesticides is called neonicotinoids. They are used for a wide variety of common seeds: grass seed, rye, maize, squash, sweet corn, pumpkin and brassicas. A lot of people don’t even relate the use of plant pesticides to the welfare of bees. The plants get sprayed for “better” crop yields; and the bees help pollinating the crops. No worries?

This is a pressing topic that urgently needs more attention.

Various articles have been published and speculate about mysterious hive losses. Bees feed from the flowers of these neonicotinoid-sprayed plants: the pesticides work their way up from the seed, through the plant, into the pollen and nectar. In other words: the bees feed on (small doses of) poison. The poison attacks their central nervous system and causes disoriented behaviour.

And there are many other types of pesticides of which the effects on bees haven’t been properly researched yet. They could be highly toxic . They might reduce their immune systems, which makes them more susceptible to external threats and diseases………..

Could this be one of  the reasons why we lose so many hives?

Let me know what your thoughts are, feel free to comment!

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Information about pesticides obtained from Organic NZ, March/April 2013 Vol.72 No.2.  The first three photos in this post kindly retrieved from Wikipedia