Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What to do with a dead-out?

I made a sad discovery yesterday when I found a colony that had recently been visited by the Grim Keeper. I don't get upset like I used to when I have a dead-out. I have come to expect them in the winter and almost every beekeeper experiences them from novices to experts. Since I have not been using any chemical treatments against parasites, pests, and diseases dead-outs are sometimes unavoidable. However I feel that maybe this dead-out could have been prevented if it had not been for my lack of better judgment as beekeeper.

The best thing that I could have done for this colony would of been to requeen it last August. The colony was outperformed by my other over winter colonies. I feel that the queen had lost her fecundity and her ability to to produce queen mandibular pheromone due to her age. Not only had the queen lost her fecundity, or ability to lay a large amount of eggs, but she also shut down earlier than the other colonies. This resulted in a smaller size winter cluster. By lacking the ability to produce a sufficient amount of queen pheromone the hive began to have a sense of queenlessness and became hot and harder to work. I was going to requeen the colony in the spring when I raised some queens but for now on I'll go ahead and purchase a queen to requeen in the fall. That would have been the smart thing to do because the colony would have had a large enough population to overwinter successfully and would have been going into a new season with a new and more vigorous queen.

When I inspected the colony on the 6th of this month the cluster was in the upper deep. The upper deep had very little stores in it but the lower deep was pretty much full. I should have reversed the positions of the hive bodies then but thought I would have been better off waiting until the first of February when I was planning on putting some pollen patties in the hives and giving them syrup. It may have help the colony to survive but I feel at this point it would of only prolonged the inevitable. I know better than to procrastinate when it comes to the bees but I still inadvertently make mistakes. Now I can honestly say that a winter cluster will not move down to food stores and a beekeeper should definitely make sure to keep stores directly above the cluster. If you can't use honey as stores above the cluster be sure to at least put some sugar or fondant above them.

I originally obtained this colony form an older gentleman who had become unable to care for his bees. He told be that he hadn't been in his colonies for three years. Being confined to wheelchair and partially paralyzed from multiple strokes he could only sit on porch and watch the bees work. When I picked up the hives from him in July he told me he probably had about twenty swarms that spring. He said it broke his heart to see the swarms cluster in one of the trees in his yard to only leave for a new home a few hours later. I hate to even think of it.

I opened the colonies before I bought them home and gave them a good inspection. The supers were only half filled with frames and the bees had drawn comb in all the empty spaces. He said he had a neighborhood kid to rob him a few frames of honey every now and then and neglected to put any frames back in. The supers were a real mess and were very hard to remove from th top bars of the brood chamber. The brood combs were old and black but there was not any signs of disease. I would not have been surprised to find Apistan strips in the colonies but when asked he said he had never treated against mites. After inspecting the colonies I decided to start culling the old comb as soon as I got them home. That was four years ago.

Last October I sent some samples of bees to the Beltsville Bee Lab for disease diagnosis. In this colony that died out there were no traces of nosema disease or tracheal mites. However they did find one varroa mite in the sample from this colony. I numbered the colonies as I took samples so I could easily identify the colonies with the results from the lab.

I'll usually write info about the colony on the back of the hives but this year as my apiary numbers increase and with the addition of a few outyards I will be using colony strength and health record sheets in order to keep up with all my colonies. If I would have been keeping records last year maybe I would have requeened the colony simply by reminding myself about it every time that I would read the record sheets.

So now I'm looking down into the dead colony and wanting to know why this colony died when there was only one mite in the sample. I don't even think that were enough bees left to stock a mini-mating nuc with.

One of the big reasons is that the colony dwindled away to a very small cluster outlined in the picture above. Maybe when I collected the sample to send for diagnosis all the mites were in the cells with capped larvae. I physically examined every bee as I removed them from the comb. I counted sixteen mites from the bees on the combs and four mites from the ones on the bottom board.

I wish I would have taken better pictures. All the pictures I took with a bee in my hand are blurry. You cant see it but there is a mite between the scales on this bees abdomen.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, here is a picture of part of the cluster and the queen.

I removed the queen and placed her in a ziplock baggie. I placed all the bees in the same bag as I removed them and inspected them. Pictured below is where the bees starved out. The arrow pointing to the left is pointing to some bee bread. The bees were watering it down so they could eat it. I tore open the abdomen of some of the bees and the contents were the same color as the bee bread. I guess bees can't live on bread alone. The other arrow pointing down is pointing to a mite. You can click on the picture to make it larger and you should then be able to see the mite.

Here is a picture of the other side of the comb where the cluster was.

After I removed all the bees from the surface of the comb I proceeded to remove the ones that were head first in the cells with tweezers. When bees die head first in the cells it is usually indicative of starving but there could always be other factors just like in this case.

Looks like the bees had built a supersedure cell cup in preparation to replace their old failing mother last autumn. Maybe it got too late for them to replace her or it was one of those cell cups they start "just in case" they need it. I unintentionally tore apart a lot of the bees as I pulled them out of the cells but some came out easily and ended up in the baggie with the other bees. After I got finished with the combs I moved on to the bottom board.

On the bottom board I found three bees that had mites on them. One of these bees had two mites on the underside of her abdomen between the scales. I found a couple more mites on the landing board and I wish I would of had a magnifying glass handy. I don't think they overwinter very well when their host dies. I also put the bees from the bottom board into the baggie.

The reason I put them in the baggie is that I am going to send them in for testing. I am very curious to learn if they had managed to acquire any nosema or tracheal mites since I submitted my last sample. When you collect a sample you need to add some alcohol to preserve the bees while they are in the mail. They can not use decayed bees so if you wait too long to collect samples they can not be tested. Since we have had freezing temperatures here for the last few weeks I believe the bees are in good enough shape to be tested. When you add the alcohol to the bag you don't need to drench the bees. You only need enough to get all the bees wet.

I had been culling comb from this colony for four years. This year I would have had all the old comb replaced with new comb. Here are a few pictures of the frames with honey from the lower deep.

While culling the old comb I mostly gave the colony starter strips cut from Dadant's thin surplus wax foundation which is 5.05 mm and the most cost effective starter strip when using wax. The bees in this colony seemed to consistently draw out 5.0 mm cells for worker comb. When using foundation I use Kelley's crimpedwired wax foundation with hooks which is also 5.05mm. Below is a picture of a frame of the original natural comb that was going to be culled this spring.

If you count the cells between the arrows you will see that there are ten cells to five centimeters. This works out to 5.00 mm per cell. I would like to know why the bees picked one of the oldest combs in the hive to cluster and die on, especially when they had freshly drawn comb to cluster on. Maybe the cocoons in the wax absorbs and holds heat and makes it easier to keep the cluster on or the older comb has more pheromones embedded into it and is more attractive to them than newer comb. Hopefully someone in college who needs to do a thesis might read this and decide to do a study on it.

Above is some natural comb that was drawn out last spring. The cells are still very near to averaging 5.00 mm. Below is some natural comb drawn out last year as well. Where the tape measure is it looks as if the cells are closer to 4.9mm than 5.0mm.

After working on this colony for the last four years to cull the old comb and to help keep it healthy I am quite disappointed with myself for letting this happen. I can't blame the bees because I knew to do better than I did in my management of this colony. The only good thing I can say about this dead-out is that I had the opportunity to share it with you so that you can learn from my mistakes. The only other thin that is good about it is that I know have two deeps full of drawn comb with some honey. The best way to store drawn comb or honeycomb is in a freezer.

Do not ever store comb that has honey in it with Para-Moth or Para Dicholorbenzene Crystals. I no longer use any chemicals so I either freeze the comb or use blue painter's tape from 3M. The painter's tape will seal the supers together and if you do it right the moths can not get in. I really don't know what I'm going to do with the drawn comb. I do have some options. I could use them for swarms, packages, making nucs, bait hives or swarm traps, or could use them bolster existing colonies. Whatever I us them for I need to make sure they are protected form pests until I use them.
I hope that by reading this that you will requeen your colonies as soon as they need it. It is a part of practicing good beekeeping management. Keeping a young queen helps to prevent swarming, provides more bees from a queen with a greater fecundity, and will give a larger surplus of honey. Be sure to feed you bees early in the autumn or summer until the colonies have enough stores for your area and climate. Here we need about 70 pounds of stores for overwintering. Make sure your bees have their stores above them and can remain in contact with them while they are clustering. Just by doing these few simple things this will help your bees avoid the Grim Keeper. Don't make the same mistakes that made with this one colony. I hope you enjoyed the post. Thanks for letting me share this with you. Keep checking back for new posts.