Winter Prep in July?

A week and a half ago the Philadelphia Bee Guild's monthly meeting was on winter prep.  This was fabulous because I needed to get moving on things.  Yes, it's the middle of summer, but pretty much as soon as the spring harvest is over and the dearth around Philadelphia begins, you need to start thinking about the generation of bees that will take the hive through winter.  I will be away for the majority of August so it is doubly important for me to start things in July.  I thought I was taking adequate precautions last year, but I ended up having too much faith that the bees would prevail on their own.  Though I do not know for certain this was what made Queen Isabella's reign too weak to make it through the winter, I do highly suspect the Varroa Mite had a factor in their demise.  I did use a sticky board for mite counts last year, but despite me seeing deformed wing virus on the bees and mites visable on adult bees, I trusted the low count the board showed me and opted to not treat.  I don't want to make the same mistake again this year, so I am going to stay on top of things earlier and try out a new method for me, sugar rolls for mite counts!

Firstly though, I began having concerns for the hives when I was pulling supers for the honey harvest. I noticed not a small number of bees walking on the ground near my prep area that were afflicted.  When you see bees that look like this with missing or messed up wings, you know that someone near by probably has too large of a varroa mite issue:

Before I get to the sugar roll today, I started winter preparation last weekend by re-arranging the brood boxes.  I opened up every hive and they were all lighter in the bottom box than the top box.  One of the hives had almost a completely empty bottom box with a top brood box stuffed full of honeyy, brood and pollen.  To make sure the bees would work more to have enough for their winter stores, I flipped the top and bottom boxes, or in one case a few frames, so the bulk of bee stores were in the bottom box.  Bees like to work upwards, so if the bottom becomes empty it is likely they will go back down and fill it, especially if there are empty honey supers above them.  I really should have also found the queen in each box and made sure she was in the bottom as well, but based on how the brood was placed in each hive I was pretty sure she was in the top box of each of them.  This is something I can always adjust later if I need to.  September is the big build up time for the generation of bees that start to pull the hive through the winter months.

That was last week's prep.  This week I will be doing the above mentioned sugar roll.  A concept that I am sure is very bewildering to bees.  The concept is that you take a measured (roughly measured) amount of bees from frames with uncapped brood on them and count how many mites are in that group of bees.  Here is my equipment for this task:

1 large container for shaking bees into

1 pint sized mason jar with a #8 hardware cloth lid

measuring cups

paper plate

water spray bottle (not pictured)

powdered sugar

You want bees from frames with open brood because they are the most likely to have nurse bees on them, the youngest bees who are also the most likely adults to have varroa attached to them.

This young, likely nurse bee, was wandering around after I shook bees off a frame for the sugar roll.  You can tell its a young bee because its coloring is a very light, almost white, yellow and it has a lot of fuzz on it. The older bees get the darker and less fuzzy they become as the hair rubs off during their lives.

Once you have an appropriate frame selected you need to shake the bees off into a bucket or tub so you can crowd them in a pile in one of the corners and scoop out 1/2 cup of bees.  You then put this half cup of bees into a jar with a screen top and add 2 tbsp of powdered sugar to the jar with the bees.  Obviously the real point of this is to confound the bees as much as possible, not count parasites.

A jar of confused bees

A jar with powdered sugar and bees that are now further perplexed

With the bees and sugar in the jar you then shake them for 30 seconds  and then shake the powdered sugar through the screen and onto a paper plate.  The powdered sugar forces any mites on the bees to loose their grip and fall, and the mites are then small enough to fall through the screen so you can count them.  The bees are more or less unharmed, and they now get to go back and haunt their hive as ghost bees until one of their sisters cleans them up for a sugary treat.

The reason you use 1/2 cup of bees is because that is roughly the equivelent to numbers used in labs to determin how infected a hive is with varroa mites.  I believe 1/2 cup of bees is equal to approximatly 200 or 300 bees.  With that many bees and this test, you can decide if you should treat your bees with chemicals, or other methods, to remove the mites.  Anything under 10 should be ok to let go, where more than 10 mites means you should think about treating.  I did this test twice with each hive just in case I did a bad sample or picked an anomolous frame. Lets see how everyone did!

Leaf Litter is up first with Queen Elizabeth the 2nd's bees up to the test.  Elizabeth took charge in June this year, so there was definitely a break in the brood cycle with this hive.  Leaf Litter is also the hive I suspect failed last winter with the help of Varroa Mites when Queen Isabella was in charge, so hopefully this set of bees can keep varroa infestation from becoming a curse of this hive.  Results of the first frame:

Two mites!  Not bad at all.  The second frame also came back with 2, for an average of 2.  I think Leaf Litter should be good, though I will hopefully check again in very late summer/early fall.

Two of the other hives, Boatmurdered and Rhinelanders, both came back ok fine as well.  Boatmurdered actually had 0 mites for both frames, so go bees!  Rhinelanders had one frame of 0 and another of 4, so they are also ok.

The fourth hive, Cheese Palace, however...

22 mites!  The second frame came back a little better at 17, but that's still is pretty bad.  I think I know where all of those bees with deformed wings are coming from.  Cheese Palace has been by far my strongest hive, so I want to make sure to take action and make certain that I don't have a repeat of what happened to Leaf Litter last year.  Next week I will probably treat this hive with Mite Away Quick Strips (MAQS), formic acid pads that baisically fumagate the hive.  Its not good for the bees, but its worse for the mites.  I just hope Queen Bee Mary T the First is strong enough to take it.


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