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alive but not thriving, our first hive inspection

We opened up the hive this afternoon for the first time since the winter.  We’ve been seeing a fair bit of activity coming and going from the hive for the last couple of weeks, so we weren’t too worried about the hive as a whole, but were looking forward to seeing what had happened in there over the last seven months.

Our top-bar hive with the lid removed

Our top-bar hive with the lid removed

It looks like we’ve had some moisture problems with the hive, especially near the back.  There was quite a bit of black mould on the bottom of the hive and some bits of mould on the empty combs that were near the back of the hive as well.  There were a handful of dead bees and some other litter on the bottom, so as we pulled combs out, we scraped at the bottom of the hive to clean out a lot of that mess.  There weren’t many bees on the combs near the back and we pulled any of the empty combs that had any mould on them out and set them aside. According to “The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture”, mould issues on the combs are common in the spring (especially after damp weather) but usually clear up on their own once the weather warms up (A.I. Root, 1978), but we didn’t read about that until afterwards.

You can see the mould in the bottom and the corners of the hive

You can see the mould in the bottom and the corners of the hive

 

Some mould on an empty comb that we pulled out of the hive

Some mould on an empty comb that we pulled out of the hive

Another comb with some mould on it

Another comb with some mould on it

As we moved through the bars, we saw more and more bees, which is a great sign.  Overall, we estimate that we have around 5,000 bees which would have been close to what we started with last year. We did see a few troubling signs, though.  On one bee, we spotted a clearly visible mite.  We did only see the one bee and were carefully checking all of the others, but it is likely that we’ll see more mites as we go along.  Hopefully the bees are able to keep them under control on their own; if not, we’ll work on culling drone brood (mites’ favourite breeding grounds) and maybe switching our bottom board to a screen (to help keep mites out once the bees have flicked them off of their backs).

A mite on the back of a bee - 5 down from the top of the chain of bees

A mite on the back of a bee – 5 down from the top of the chain of bees.  Click to zoom and you’ll see the nasty little red mite.

Another sign that is not encouraging is that we saw between 10 and 20 bees with Deformed Wing Virus.  This is a really upsetting thing to see in bees as the virus causes the bees to be born with almost no wings.  DWV infected bees usually die quickly and are often expelled from the hive (Highfield, et al. 2009).  While the virus is often not the cause of an entire hive collapse, it is implicated in conjunction with varroa mite infestations and thought to be transmitted through the mites as well as through worker bee saliva.  Most often, the bees can clear themselves from this infection, but it is thought to be the potential downfall of hives over the winter, though.  There have even been studies that have shown that bees infected with DWV have learning deficits.  Bees will have impaired associative learning and memory formation (Iqbal and Mueller, 2007).  We hope that our bees will kick this virus, but in the meantime it is pretty heartbreaking to see bees with no wings crawling around on the ground.

Bee with Deformed Wing Virus near the bottom of the photo

Bee with Deformed Wing Virus near the bottom of the photo

Some positive signs were also present in our hive.  There was plenty of honey left over in combs that we had left full of honey back in October.  There were no signs of starvation, which would usually present with dead bees with their heads inside the comb (reaching for that last drop of honey).  There were really nice looking stores of pollen and new brood in uncapped cells.  We also saw the queen surrounded by bees on one of the combs with new brood!

Comb with honey from last year

Comb with honey from last year

For general hive spring maintenance, we had a goal of pulling out some of the oldest comb that had come from the nuc last year and was still on a plastic frame.  It is generally a good idea to cycle old comb out of the hive as old comb starts to darken and can host additional bacteria or viruses that isn’t desirable in the hive.  We were able to pull three of the four old combs as they were almost empty of any nectar, pollen or brood and none had many bees on them.  We left the fourth comb as there was new brood cells and a good stock of pollen stored.  Finally, we inserted some new top bars and moved the brood nest closer to the front of the hive.

We hope that with the “spring cleaning” the bees will be able to grow their hive and overcome any nasty health issues that are lingering from the winter.  We’ll be doing some brainstorming this season on how to deal with the obvious moisture issues that must have been present over winter and see if we can do a bit better for next year.  Thank goodness for the dandelion flow that has started in Calgary – our bees should have no problem finding a plentiful source of nectar and pollen for the next few weeks.

How have your first inspections gone?  Any advice as we get through our spring sniffles? Leave us a comment!

Works Cited

  • Root, A.I. 1978. The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. The A.I.Root Co. (page 194)
  • Highfield AC, et al. 2009. Deformed wing virus implicated in overwintering honeybee colony losses. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 75:7212–7220.
  • Iqbal and Mueller. 2007. Virus infection causes specific learning deficits in honeybee foragers. Proc. R. Soc. B 274:1517-1521.
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7 comments on “alive but not thriving, our first hive inspection

  1. Did you do any treatments for varroa last autumn or winter? Having a screened bottom board is a good idea for losing mites and also because it helps with ventilation.

    I’d be worried about seeing mites and deformed wings – think doing some drone uncapping to see how bad the problem is would be a good idea. Get an uncapping fork and put it in deep into the drone cells. Fork out a hundred drones and count how many larvae have mites to get an idea of mite numbers in the hive: 5% infestation is light; between 5-10% light control techniques like drone trapping can be used; at over 25% infestation is severe and you’ll need to do a treatment that has a 90%+ efficiency rate – not sure what treatments are available in your area. Note that younger varroa mites are pale coloured and the mites move rapidly away from the light, so rotate the uncapping fork to make sure you see all mites present.

    • Hi Emily,
      thanks for the advice – we didn’t do any treatments for varroa last summer, because we really didn’t see a lot last year (or see many sign of them either). We’ll do some drone uncapping, but we actually haven’t seen many drone cells yet, just larvae for worker bees. From what I’ve read, it seems like DWV is pretty common if you have moisture problems while overwintering bees, so that is something we are definitely going to have to fix going forward. DWV alone should be something they get over themselves, but DWV + mites – yikes!
      Cheers,
      Candice

      • Don’t rely on not seeing any mites as a sign that they’re not there. Unless you have a really bad infestation, you generally won’t see any – because most of them are busy reproducing inside the capped brood cells. There are some ‘soft’ varroa treatments you can use which have a high mite kill rate but don’t harm the bees. For instance, I usually use Apiguard in the autumn, which has thymol (from thyme) as its active ingredient. Best of luck, hope the bees get better soon.

  2. 😦 Sounds like you have some work ahead. Think positive and the hive will be better in no time!

  3. Hi,

    Oh dear, that is too bad…a learning lesson for sure. Bees are always busy so will you be :-)))

  4. […] very little disruption and we have been a part of the clean up crew in Sunnyside. Our friends at Inner City Farmers experienced sever flooding in their century home so we have been there helping out. The great crew […]

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