A Healthy Hive
Honey Bees Are Truly Independent
Honeybees can fly for miles for food, they can defend themselves against attack, and they can even survive the harshest winters, despite being very vulnerable to cold. But despite being so tough, there are some basic things bees need to survive, and plenty of problems that can befall them. Let’s briefly go over what bees need.
What bees need is a nearby source of water for cooling the hive and dissolving crystallized honey. They need an ample source of nectar and pollen in the summer and they need warm weather in the summer in which they can collect it. They need peace from loud noises and disturbances. In the winter they have to keep their body temperatures above 57F, shelter is needed and enough stored honey that they can stay inside and keep warm for months.
Having a good genetic pool of strong healthy bees is needed, changing out the queen bee in a hive is essential to having really healthy hive.
Issues That Affect A Healthy Hive
Four big problems that honeybees face are disease, pests, pesticides, and Colony Collapse Disorder.
On top of diseases, honeybees have plenty of enemies in nature. They’re far from helpless, of course, and can fend for themselves very well, but it’s good to know what your bees are up against.
Mice are a problem in winter, when they’ll crawl inside a nice warm beehive to build their nests. A mouse will stay in the corner of the hive, well away from the bees, but it will chew through wax and frames to make room, and the smell of its urine will put your bees off the hive in the spring. Keep mice out by adding an entrance reducer in the autumn.
Wax moths lay their eggs in beehives and stored frames, where they lay their eggs. The resulting wax moth caterpillars can wreak havoc, tunneling through wax foundation in search of pollen and brood. A strong hive will simply throw the eggs out, but weak colonies and especially stored frames are at risk. Store your frames either in very cold temperatures or with granules of paradichlorobenzene (PBD).
Wasps, hornets, and yellowjackets will sometimes kill bees at the entrance to the hive or out in the wild. The best way to deal with them is to find and chemically destroy their nest. Alternatively, you can move your hives away from the nest or use an entrance reducer to help the bees better guard against their attackers.
Flies such as the Southern Bee-killer and the Texas Bee-killer are known to eat bees. If they come after your hive, there’s nothing to do but move it to a new spot.
The Small Hive Beetle will infiltrate the hive where it feeds on pollen and lays eggs, sometimes overrunning a colony.
Termites will burrow through your hive and have been known to completely destroy bottom boards. Protect your hive by never letting it sit directly on the ground.
Spiders catch insects and your bees, so it stands to reason that you want to keep them well away from your bees. Knock down any webs you find near your hive, especially directly in front of it.
Mites are a serious problem. We’ve already talked about varroa mites, one of the best ways is the sticky board. This is a sticky sheet underneath a mesh cover that can be used as a bottom board. Mites often fall off of bees and have to crawl back up into the hive, but with the sticky board they get stuck to the bottom. The mesh gives the much bigger bees something to stand on without getting stuck themselves.
Treatment for varroa mites ranges drastically. Thankfully there are treatments now, such as Apistan, Coumaphos strips, Apilife VAR, and Apiguard. All of these treatments have specific instructions that have to be followed regarding honey (to keep it from getting contaminated) so whichever you choose, be sure to follow the instructions on the label to the letter.
One of the most deadly hazards to bees actually comes from humans, in the form of pesticides. Bees are insects, after all, and chemicals designed to kill insects don’t make exceptions for the ones we like. Unfortunately, since honeybees will forage for miles, avoiding spraying on your own property often isn’t enough.
It’s going to be very hard to convince your neighbors not to spray with pesticides. You are welcome to try, and you may succeed, but if you don’t, the next most important thing is to compromise and keep the lines of communication open. Ask them to let you know when they will be spraying. If it’s going to involve a lot of chemicals, you can move your bees at least three miles away from the area for the day. If that’s not feasible, You can drape wet burlap over the hives during the time of spraying to discourage your bees from going out.
If you have to spray on your property, be sure to opt for pesticides that are less long lasting. Many brands have less than eight hours of residual toxicity. If you spray in the evening, it should do its work of killing harmful pests overnight and be gone by morning when the bees begin foraging again.
Colony Collapse Disorder
Colony Collapse Disorder, often called CCD, is something of a mystery. When it happens, an otherwise healthy seeming colony suddenly falls apart. All or almost all the worker bees disappear, leaving behind the queen, brood, and maybe a few nurse bees. The thousands of missing workers don’t die (at least not in the hive). They simply disappear. To make things stranger, all the food stores they behind remain untouched. Usually an unprotected hive is a prime target for robbing by other colonies, but outside bees avoid colonies affected by CCD, at least for the first few days.
Disease is a very big concern in beekeeping, here are some of the main diseases, how to recognize them, and what to do about them.
American Foulbrood is extremely contagious and a huge threat to honeybee populations. It only affects worker, queen, and drone larvae that is less than 2 ½ days old, the larva eats the spore-forming bacteria, and it multiplies inside it until it dies. The larva turn from their healthy, succulent white to a flattened brown. Eventually the dead larva hardens to a small, black scale inside its cell. This scale is teeming with new foulbrood spores. You can usually spot American Foulbrood from a spotty mix of capped and uncapped brood, with the capped cells having punctured or sunken tops. American Foulbrood spores can stay active in beekeeping equipment for as long as 40 years and are extremely resistant to treatment. If you have an American Foulbrood infection, the only course of action is to destroy the colony and burn the equipment. Terramycin is a drug that can be applied monthly to prevent the appearance of the disease. Check with your state to see if it’s use is legal there.
European Foulbrood is another bacterium that gets into food and populates inside the brood. It usually appears in spring and early summer and can be picked out by a spotty pattern of capped and uncapped brood. European Foulbrood is not a death sentence for the colony. It will sometimes disappear with a strong nectar flow. If it’s not going away, the best course of action is to requeen the colony.
Chalkbrood is a fungus that enters the brood through food. It waits until the brood is sealed in its cell, then it grows and takes over the larva. Larva killed by chalkbrood take on an opaque, white appearance, hence the name. Chalkbrood is usually found in late spring on the fringes of the frames. You’ll know you have it if you see these little chalk nub bodies outside the hive entrance, where worker bees have discarded them. There’s no real treatment, though requeening has been known to help. If the workers manage to remove all the infected brood, the colony should survive.
Sacbrood is a virus that is not usually a problem as it affects only a small number of brood. The brood dies after its cell is capped, and its body takes on a liquid consistency inside a tough outer skin. There’s no treatment, though requeening can help.
Nosema forms spores inside the digestive tract of adult bees. It is, basically, bee diarrhea. It causes bees to defecate inside or down the front of the hive, which spreads the disease more. It shortens worker bees’ lifespans and ability to make royal jelly, and if it infects the queen it can seriously interfere with laying. Healthy, well fed hives with young queens are less likely to get nosema. Fumagillin is a drug that can be used on young or overwintering hives.
Paralysis comes in two forms: chronic bee paralysis and acute bee paralysis. It can come from eating pollen of certain plants and fermented stored pollen. It’s easy to detect, and the bees lose their hair, take on a greasy look, and tremble. A colony can recover from paralysis naturally, but if it doesn’t, you should requeen with different strain, as weakness to it is often genetic.