What are the hard parts of beekeeping?

“October is not far away, “ I said at breakfast. Then I ran through a list of questions that typically come in October. Sadly, many are related to the sudden death of previously healthy colonies. I don’t look forward to it.

After listening thoughtfully, my non-beekeeping husband came up with a list of what he considers the “hard parts” of beekeeping. I thought his perspective was interesting because it is based simply on reading my posts and your comments, and watching me work with bees.

His concluded that the hardest parts are those that you need to anticipate and those that leave you with little control. In many cases, if you don’t anticipate a problem, it may be too late once the symptoms appear. In other cases, you basically don’t have much influence over the outcome. Neither type is much fun.

The hard parts

  • Summer dearth. Summer dearth is hard to understand when you are new to beekeeping. The weather is warm, thousands of bees are flying about, and flowers bloom in gardens and along roadways. What could possibly be wrong? In truth, nectar supplies are being consumed, many of the bees you see may be robbers, and the flowers may have little value to such a large number of hungry bees. If you don’t anticipate a colony’s need for feed or defense, it is easy to lose one.
  • Varroa mites. They sneak up on you. Perhaps you counted mites when you first got your colony and maybe again in late spring, but after finding few you became satisfied that your bees have it covered. But mites, like dearths, need to be anticipated. Late summer or early fall mite counts are a necessity simply because knowing  is much more powerful than assuming.
  • Pesticide kills. Someone in your neighborhood sprays a tree in full bloom. Another sprays his flowering hedge to keep his kids safe from bees. This is both hard to anticipate and hard to handle. It’s a difficult part of beekeeping because you have so little control. Your bees may come home and die, or not come home at all.
  • Queenlessness. The problem is not always obvious. Although many colonies are able to raise a queen on their own, many others fail. If you don’t anticipate queen failure as a possible problem, it can quickly become hard or impossible to fix. Queen failure is a difficult aspect of beekeeping because it can leave you with little or no control, especially when it happens in the dead of winter when no replacements are available.
  • Impending swarm. “Reading” a colony for swarming takes practice. Beginners often assume their new colony won’t swarm because it is new, or they assume everything the bees do is swarm preparation. The truth lies somewhere in between. Again, it is hard because unless you read it properly and make the right management decisions, the bees are in control, not you.

What do you think?

I would not have drawn up the same list, but I think his observations may be more accurate than my own. What do you think? What are the hard parts of beekeeping? I would love to hear your opinions.

Honey Bee Suite

Although poppies may bloom in a dearth and provide lots of pollen, they don’t supply nectar. © Rusty Burlew.

Book review | The Sting of the Wild

The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science by Justin O. Schmidt. Johns Hopkins University Press, Maryland. Copyright © 2016 by Johns Hopkins University Press. This review refers to the hardcover edition.

I got a nasty sting yesterday. In the first 15 seconds, I exhausted every cuss word I know. Then I began to worry about how I would type without using the letters C, D, or E. E is a killer.

Of course, I was being stupid. I should have remembered that a yellowjacket in a net is not a contented creature. I had been scooping up yellowjackets that were bugging my hives, and each time I caught one I held the net up to the light to make sure that my victim was not a bee. The last time, when I grabbed the fabric without looking, I became the victim.

I’m with Aristotle on this one. He believed that wasp stings are worse than honey bee stings. After yesterday, I’m convinced he was right. In comparison, I hardly notice a honey bee sting, especially on a finger. But the pain from this yellowjacket lingered all afternoon without leaving the slightest mark or red spot.

The world authority on insect stings

When it comes to stings and how they feel, the world authority is Justin O. Schmidt. As many of you know, Schmidt is the entomologist who allowed himself to be stung by a vast array of insects in order to categorize the relative effects of their stings on human beings. From these experiences he developed the “Pain Scale for Stinging Insects,” divided into three parts: ants, bees, and wasps.

When I consulted these charts after getting stung, I found that he rates the pain level of both the honey bee and the western yellowjacket at 2. That’s when I took sides with Aristotle.

Now the book

In spite of this slight disagreement, I love Schmidt’s new book, The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science. The book is fun to read and I’m learning more about stings than I ever thought possible.

Entomologists are some of the funniest people I know, and books by entomologists nearly always make me laugh. They know they are strange, but instead of fighting it, they embrace it. Schmidt is no exception as he shares vivid accounts of his encounters with armed insects from all over the world.

But as amusing as it is, the book is serious science. Part autobiography and part biology, the book covers the why, how, and when of insect stings as well as tidbits about behavior and lifestyle of all the insects he covers.

The last chapter, “Honey Bees and Humans,” explains our love/fear association with honey bees. In this chapter I learned that the main component of honey bee venom is called melittin, a substance composed of 26 amino acids that is found nowhere else in nature. Melittin destroys red blood cells, causes pain, and is toxic to the heart muscle. And that’s just one component; the list of ingredients and how they affect the human body is downright scary, but fascinating too.

A perfect late-summer read

So if you are looking for something to read while wasps and hornets are circling your picnic table, and ants are marching in unbroken lines up the legs of your hive stands, this is the perfect entertainment. And after you get through the science, you can enjoy Schmidt’s wonderful descriptions in the Pain Scale. “Apis mellifera: Burning, corrosive, but you can handle it. A flaming match head lands on your arm and is quenched first with lye and then sulfuric acid.” You get the idea.

The Sting of the Wild by Justin O. Schmidt is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats.

Honey Bee Suite

*This post contains an affiliate link.

Megachile perihirta, the furry leafcutting bee

The furry leafcutting bee, Megachile perihirta, is one of my favorite pollinators because it is large and showy. From a distance, this bee could easily be mistaken for a honey bee. But up close, it is hard to miss the large abdominal scopa where the leafcutting female carries her pollen load.

About the size of a honey bee, these bees are native to the western parts of North America. They are summer visitors, often seen in July and August. Although they forage on many different plant species, they have a preference for flowers in the Asteraceae family.

Like all leafcutting bees, the female of this species cuts round sections of leaves and petals to line her nest and build divisions between the egg chambers. Although many leafcutting bees nest in hollow reeds and beetle borrows, this species prefers underground tunnels.

I wasn’t able to photograph a male, but the males have distinctive white “mittens” on their forelegs and a white face. Soon after they mate, the males disappear for the year and the females begin to work at provisioning their nests.

The open-centered dahlias that I mentioned in a previous post turned into a playground for these bees. The leafcutters work fast, flit around in the flowers, and pose beautifully. Yesterday, my camera sounded like it belonged to a fashion photographer. As the bees strutted around on their flowery runway, and I just kept snapping away, trying to capture the perfect expression.

Honey Bee Suite

The furry leafcutting bees have taken a fancy to the open-centered dahlias. © Rusty Burlew.
Leafcutting bees have a characteristic posture, holding their abdomens high. © Rusty Burlew.
A view from the rear. Leafcutting bees often hold their wings out to the side when they forage, something honey bees seldom do. © Rusty Burlew.
Leafcutting bees have large mandibles, perfect for cutting leaves. In fact, the name Megachile means “large jaws.” © Rusty Burlew.
Here you can see her tongue. Although these bees are polylectic and will forage on many different plants, they seems to favor those in the Asteraceae family. © Rusty Burlew.
Honey bee and M perihirta
You can see that the honey bee (left) and furry leafcutting bee are about the same size. © Rusty Burlew.

Colony postmortem: a glistening pile of abdomens

A pile of abdomens. That’s about all I have left of this small honey bee colony. My first thought was to blame the shrews, but shrews don’t seem to fit the situation. On the other hand, maybe there is more to shrew-dom than I ever thought.

Colony background

This colony, on hive stand #1, was an April split from colony #3. Colony #3 had overwintered and was building up fast in early spring. Because I thought it might swarm, I decided to split proactively. At the time, I failed to find the queen anywhere, so I just made sure that both halves had lots of eggs and young larvae. I figured they could sort it out by themselves.

Note that the new split was housed in equipment that had been scraped, cleaned, and stored in the barn over winter. The frames were filled with drawn comb that was free of moths or any other visible wildlife.

A week following the split it was clear the queen had remained in the original hive. Hive #3 had even more eggs and #1 had none. I added another frame of brood to #1 and soon the new split was queenright with plenty of young larvae.

Early summer

Four to five weeks later, toward the end of May, I noticed reduced activity around the hive. On inspection I found brood, but not much. The queen, although present, was performing poorly. I re-queened the colony and tried again.

Within a week the queen was accepted and the colony seemed to rebound. The queen was laying and the foragers were hauling in pollen and nectar. In a few more weeks I was able to add a medium over the deep. I believed the problem was solved.

And then came August

Around the first of August, the colony once again seemed to fizzle. On inspection I found a cluster of adult bees spanning about five frames, no queen, no brood, no sign of laying workers, nor any obvious signs of disease.

At that point I decided to combine the colony with another. We were in a dearth, I was fresh out of available queens, and I figured this colony was not to be. I ended up putting the remaining bees back on hive #3.

The only evidence is a pile of abdomens

After combining the hive, I removed the equipment from the hive stand to store it for winter. It was then that I found the abdomens. The bottom board was amazingly clean. There was the usual hive debris under the cluster, but one back corner was empty except for a few dead bees and a pile of shiny abdomens. I was totally baffled.

The only thing I know of that leaves piles of abdomens is shrews. But from what I’ve read, shrews are a winter problem, not year-round residents. Since I put the hive together in April, I can’t figure out how shrews could show up. Or maybe shrews had nothing to do with it.

So there you have it: a postmortem with no answers. If anyone has seen this before or has any ideas, I’d love to hear from you.

Honey Bee Suite

Shiny abdomens in one corner of a bottom board. © Rusty Burlew.

Open-centered dahlias, a pollinator favorite

Trying to find plants that bloom in summer and fall can be a challenge. Not only do the honey bees have trouble finding forage, but even the native bees can come up short during the summer dearth. This is especially true in areas where native plants have largely been replaced with exotic species.

Last fall, Ellen Gehling, a beekeeper living here in Washington state, offered to send me a selection of open-centered dahlias which her bees love. I’ve never been a fan of big showy dahlias that look like garish dinner plates, but I had heard from other beekeepers that the simple, open-centered varieties were bee favorites. So “Yes!” I said. I was eager to try.

Tubers in the mail

Ellen sent a well-packed and labeled box of tubers along with detailed instructions about planting and growing. My husband built a raised bed just for the project, and I planted according to the instructions. Now, in the heat of August, I have a gorgeous display of flowers that the pollinators love. Not just bees, but also hover flies, skippers, and some solitary wasps have descended on the blooms. In fact, so many pollinators visit that the crab spiders have staked out their territory as well, taking advantage of anyone not paying attention.

For pollinators, the difference in dahlias has to do with the central disk. The central disk is where the pollen is produced and where the bees can access the nectar. Highly bred dahlias can have so many layers of florets that the pollinators cannot even find the central disk. Those varieties are of no interest to pollinators and are left alone in the garden.

I’m grateful to Ellen for showing me a new way to look at dahlias. Without her guidance and generosity, I would not have considered dahlias for my pollinator garden. Now they will be a regular feature.

Honey Bee Suite

Dahlia with central disk.
In this photo you can clearly see the central disk that is all-important to the pollinators. © Rusty Burlew.
Here a bumble bee, probably a male Bombus vosnesenskii, is sampling a flower.
Male bumble bee
This is also a male bumble bee. The bumbles were quite taken with these flowers, and some of the males are sleeping in them overnight. © Rusty Burlew.
Dahlia with skipper
This woodland skipper, a type of butterfly, is sampling the dahlias. © Rusty Burlew.
Dinner of various types
Lots of drama here. One bumble bee is eating dinner, while the other is dinner. Note the camouflage coloring of the crab spider. © Rusty Burlew.
Crab spider
It is easy to see why the crab spiders are so well fed. © Rusty Burlew.