Monday, October 19, 2009

Autumn beekeeping

Who would have thought that a hand full of powdered sugar would make a hive of bees so mad. Well it does.

My amazing beekeeping mentor and fellow journey-woman beekeeper came over to help me ready my hives for winter. I had been feeding the girls sugar syrup (2:1 sugar to water, pretty gooey) for about a month now.

We found that the girls have been quite industrious in converting the syrup to honey and if I keep at it over the next few weeks they hopefully will have enough food to get through the winter. Remember, since these are first year hives, I did not take any honey from them this year. Also both of my hives swarmed (one in May, the other in July), which set them back a bit in honey production, so winter starvation is a real threat for them.

To check for varroa mites I had put in a card board grid that slides in under my screened bottom board. Varroa mites are perfectly horrid little parasitic insects that not only fix themselves on adult bees and suck life fluids, but also get into the sealed brood and suck on the baby bees. And it is here that they do real damage; in addition to depleting life resources, the mites also can transfer diseases to the bees.

We found that - no surprise - both of my hives have mites. Almost all hives in North America (and in most of the word) do. But in one of my hives - Kathryn - a few of the bees had deformed wings - Deformed Wing Disease is something that bees can get from varroa mites. This is what my bees have.

I was so mad. And I felt I'd let my girls down by not checking earlier (I should have started checking in late summer). And furious at the mites.

My bee mentor had me dust my hives with powdered sugar, an increasingly common method of dealing with mites in a non-pesticidal way. The sugar makes the bees groom themselves more assiduously and also causes the mites to not be able to stick to the bees with their horrid little sticky feet so they fall off (and through the screened bottom board, where they fall out of the hive. If you have a solid bottom board they can climb back up and on the bees again). The bees do *not* like the sugar dusting. They came boiling up out of the hive boxes all dusty white and shouting at me.

I read that certain essential oils - spearmint and lemongrass and thyme - act as biopesticides and have have been shown in lab tests to kill the mites. My kind of solution. Also there is a product called "Honey Bee Healthy" which uses both spearmint and lemongrass oil to both stimulate bees to eat (when it is in the sugar syrup) and to calm them instead of smoke when you spray it on them. The latter works - I saw it myself. I found a recipe on line to make it at home (cheaper than ordering it from a company and simple to do). It was so fragrant that the bees clustered at my kitchen window screens while it cooked.

So in the remaining warm days I am trying to dust my bees with powdered sugar a few more times before it gets too cold, spray them with spearmint and lemongrass oil, and feed them as much sugar syrup as they'll eat.

It was cold this week - mornings in the 40s. The bees are starting to cluster in the hive as they do in winter; and the few who were outside moved soooooo slowly.