Back in the Saddle Again: And other appropriate idioms

We’ve taken two years off from this hobby of beekeeping. One year because we had just moved into our new house and were preoccupied with unpacking and getting our chickens back into a new coop, etc. Last year, February came and order forms and Facebook posts popped up about ordering nucs and packages and neither of us felt up to the challenge. Having had a year off, we felt out of the routine. Things were packed away, boxes were covered with snow. Neither my husband nor I felt interested in digging everything out and remembering where we had left off.

This year was different though. This year, the absence felt like an eternity. Both my husband and I felt anxious and excited about getting back into the routine. We dusted off bee suits and veils and cleaned up our smoker. I ordered a nuc from a friend who winters his bees in Pennsylvania and we were back in the game.

The nucs arrived on a typical spring day in Michigan: cold, windy, changing mix of rain, 56896984_10218869594472578_6625206372290002944_nsleet, and even snow. We excitedly picked up our nuc box then came home and set it on the front porch for the time being.

And then a week went by. We have lambs now and my husband has been furiously working to finish the fence in the pasture. We had intermittent days of rain, wind, and cold. And so the nuc sat, on the front porch.

But then, Easter weekend, we had the most glorious spring weather. Full sunshine, temps in the upper sixties, low seventies, and that nuc was buzzing with activity. We told the 20190415_113850kids the front corner of the house was off limits until we had a chance to install the nuc. We excitedly stood by and watched the bees circling and flying their figure-8s, acquainting themselves with their new home. All day Sunday, as my husband and I passed in the yard while doing other chores we’d say, “We gotta get those bees in tonight.”

Now, working with bees at dusk can be a little tricky. The key is to wait until the evening to move or install them because then everyone is home. (During the day, many bees are out working) However, too late and the bees are real cranky. Rather than fly around, they crawl around, and bees that crawl on you are bees that get tangled up in your clothing and, thus, sting you. Crawling bees are exceptionally good at working their way under cuffs or the waistband of jackets – if you aren’t properly protected. We learned this the hard way a few years ago when we picked up a hive 3 hours away. By the time we got there, it was dark and those bees were NOT happy. My husband received about 15 stings to prove it.

This year, my husband tackled the install on his own because I was on bedtime duty with the little ones. I hung around for the first 2-3 frames and then headed inside. About 10 minutes later, he barged in (looking a little wild-eyed) and said, “are there any bees still on me?!” I did a quick search of his shirt and pants, declared him clear and then said, “What the heck happened after I left?” It turns out that, due to propolis and comb shape, the frames didn’t fit tight into the box. As he chiseled and wiggled, it became increasingly darker and, well, the bees emerged!  He said, it was like a switch, all of a sudden, they were crawling all over him. He had a smoker with him, but he was already in too deep at that point!

In the end, he earned 7 stings – from his neck, to his belly, to his ankle. And just like that, we were back in the beekeeping game. As the summer goes on and we feel more confident in our abilities and hives, we tend to wear fewer and fewer items of protection. Two years ago, my husband was down to only wearing a veil. He was surprised to find that that confidence and ease with which he once knew, did not come right back to him. He did wear his beekeeping jacket and veil this evening, but not his suit or gloves, hence the many points and entry and, ultimately, all the stings!

I’m a high school English teacher and this week my senior class is studying cognitive biases. We watched a video from the Smarter Every Day channel about riding a bike. In the video, Destin (the host) demonstrates how he was able to reprogram his brain in such a way that he was unable to ride a bike again. It takes him 8 months to do this. When he attempts to relearn, he is able to do this in a mere 20 minutes. It was interesting timing: just after teaching this lesson my husband said, later that night, “Guess beekeeping is not like riding a bike. I feel like a rookie again.” I can only assume we will be back to our confident ways in no time. After all, reverting back to a path your brain has already created is much easier than learning something new… In the meantime, I think I’ll pick up some extra Benadryl from the drugstore!

Saskatraz Bees!

Last summer was my last post because my family was building a new house! While construction took place, we lived in an apartment (with my two wild boys and enormous dog).

We tried to keep a hive going at the site of our soon-to-be home, but it was difficult to manage due to the location and everything else going on. So I’m happy to report that we are now moved into our house, a bit unpacked, mostly organized and ready to get back into the swing of things.


Our new house! This was taken last spring. We have a driveway, a yard some landscaping now!

My husband has really been reading up on Slovenian bee houses, so we talked about taking a break this year to build one and then getting some bees again NEXT spring. Anyone have any experience with these?

But then AWS Bees called and asked if we wanted to order any packages. I told the man on the phone that we weren’t sure yet and he informed me that they are excited to be offering Saskatraz bees this year. So now I’m thinking, “What?! A new breed of bee to play with? I’m in!” I’ve done just a bit of research on these new-to-me bees and thought I’d share. If anyone has any experience, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Saskatraz bees are being sold exclusively by Olivarez Honey Bees (OHB). OHB has apiaries across Northern California and Hawaii and according to a recent Bee Culture article, owner Ray Olivarez, Jr., “breeds 180,000 European, Carniolan, and Saskatraz queens every year, and 100,000 more at their Hawaii operation.” The strand comes from Saskatchewan, Canada (hence their name) and Olivarez has been breeding Saskatraz for almost 10 years.

The breed is supposed to show varroa mite resistance and more hygienic qualities (similar to Ankle-biters). Additionally, they are selected for honey production, wintering ability, temperament, and improved disease resistance (including brood diseases) and have now made their way to bee distributors around the country.

Both the increased mite resistance and ability to overwinter caught my eye first thing. However, in regards to mites, OHB’s website cautions:

In the last 3 or 4 years we have crossed high VSH lines with our naturally selected colonies to try and increase stability of the varroa tolerant trait. This looks to be promising and new lines are currently being evaluated. However, we have also noted that treatment with some synthetic miticides, although initially effective in lowering phoretic varroa infestations, may negatively affect the colonies ability to cope with subsequent mite infestations. Some miticide treatments may also result in increased virus infections, particularly in varroa susceptible phenotypes. (Unpublished data)
link to article

This raises a new and interesting question. It does seem that mite treatments are working and beekeepers (in Michigan, at least) seem to be having better luck overwintering (perhaps because the bees are stronger, minus the mites); however, what is the long term effect of these treatments on our bees? Could they weaken the colony in the long run? At this point, we simply don’t know.

Naturally, I’d love to order a dozen packages and set up some experiments. I think my bank account may allow for me to order a package of Saskatraz and perhaps a local nuc of the Carniolan variety. I will still be able to contrast the two hives, but certainly with findings that small, it would be impossible to make any sweeping generalizations.

Nonetheless, my husband’s hope for a bee-free summer may have just been spoiled!

For more reading material on Saskatraz Bees, check the Saskatraz Breeding Project page for published research findings:

Here’s OHB’s homepage:

Lappes Bee Supply is also selling Saskatraz Queens:

Summer Stingers: How to tell the difference

summertime stingers

This time of year, most beekeepers I know are inundated with phone calls and text messages asking, “Are these bees?” or “If there are bees in my shed, will you come and get them?” I absolutely LOVE that homeowners are beginning to question before pulling out the Raid and everytime I get a call or message such as this I get excited, however, many of these are false alarms. So I offer this post, not to criticize anyone for questioning the swarming insects at their BBQ, but to offer some insight because mistaking a wasp for a honeybee, for example, could be dangerous.

The Honeybee


Outward Appearance: Yellow and brown, but at first glance, mostly brown. They also have a fuzzy appearance.

Sting Factor: Low, honeybees die when they sting, so they don’t want to sting unless they have to. They are defensive stingers, not offensive. You leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.

Pollinator Quotient: These creatures are pollinating super heroes. The pollinate flowers, fruits, and veggies. Apples, grapes, peppers, and cucumbers are just a few plants who require their services, but there are many more. Around your home you may find them in smaller blossoms such as fennel, bee balm, sweet alyssum, or lavender. They also love Milkweed!

What To Do: If honeybees have taken up residence in an inopportune place, look online for local beekeepers or a local beekeeping club. There are many people who will happily come and do a cutout. Some charge for this service, others do not.

The Bumblebee


Outward Appearance: These guys are big, fuzzy and bumbly (hence the name!). They look mostly black at first glance, but if you get a good view of their back, you can easily see the yellow stripe. You really can’t miss a bumblebee in your garden because they kind of loll around and move haphazardly from flower to flower.

Sting Factor: Low, like honeybees, bumblebees are not terribly aggressive stingers. Female bumblebees can sting multiple times, but typically won’t bother you, if you don’t bother them.

Pollinator Quotient: Like honeybees, bumblebees collect nectar and pollen. This means, they move from flower to flower and are important pollinators. Their numbers are also drastically declining, like the honeybee’s, and their contribution to our food source is just as significant.

Lifestyle: Bumblebees live a similar lifestyle to honeybees, but on a smaller scale. Their colonies number anywhere from 50-400 (honeybee hives can include upwards of 50,000 bees). While non-aggressive towards humans, they are pretty aggressive towards other bumblebees and tend to invade other colonies, killing the queen, and usurping her resources.

What To Do: Bumblebees usually nest in the ground and, if they are in an area that isn’t bothering you, they can be left alone. The hive dies out in the winter, with the exception of the fertilized queen, who goes dormant until spring. If they are in an area that is bothersome, unfortunately, there does not seem to be a way to move them without killing the colony. Because they are such important pollinators and their numbers are on the decline, I would try to live with them if at all possible. However, we all know that sometimes that is not possible and they need to be exterminated.

Wasps (Yellow Jackets & Hornets)

wasp hornet

Outward Appearance: Most of the time when I get calls about bees, they turn out to be these guys. As they are swooping at your face, they do resemble honeybees, however, both yellow jackets and hornets are sleek and shiny looking. Their backs are a bright black and yellow, with no brown fuzz (like the honeybee). Hornets are a bit slimmer, but it’s hard to tell the difference when they are swarming out of your shed!

Sting Factor: High. These suckers can be nasty. Wasps are predatory insects and can sting repeatedly. They are known to sting without provocation, unlike honeybees and bumblebees.

Pollinator Quotient: A wasp’s diet consists of insects, fruit, nectar, and tree sap. They are not significant pollinators because they are not covered in tiny hairs (like bees), which collect and distribute pollen. Wasps may visit a flower to catch another insect, but they do not collect pollen.

Lifestyle: Both yellow jackets and hornets are social, like bees, and live in colonies can can number 4000-5000. They build these easy-to-recognize paper nests:

yellow jacket nest

They can also build nests underground, which is dangerous as any unfortunate lawn-mower can attest. Like bumblebees, the colony dies off in the winter, leaving only a fertile queen dormant until spring.

What To Do: I’m generally very pro-nature and organic, but these things might be what RAID was made for. If these guys are building a nest on your party deck, they need to go. Ideally, you can catch the nest when they first start to build and scrape it off in the evening, when there are no yellow jackets around, but if you happen upon an infestation, arm yourself!

Trading Spaces: Beekeeping Edition

trading spaces logo.png

Remember the TLC show Trading Spaces? I think it was the home remodeling show that paved the way for the MANY shows that exist now! I remember when it was all the rage. For those of you who may have missed this trend, the premise was two neighbors would “trade spaces” for the weekend and remodel (a bedroom, a den, a living room) and then there was this great reveal at the end. Of course the show featured designers with pretty wild styles and those styles did not always mesh well with that of the homeowners, so the excitement in the big reveal at the end was to see if the homeowners loved the new digs or hated them (sometimes they really did hate them).

Last week my husband and I had the privilege of playing Trading Spaces with some unsuspecting bees. We can only hope they love their new home!

We are listed on the Northern Bee Network as available mentors and about two weeks ago I got a call from Ken. He kept bees 8-10 years ago, but wasn’t keeping bees anymore. In the meantime, he left several of his hive boxes out at the edge of his field and they had fallen into disrepair over the years. Recently he was mowing and realized that one of the hives had honeybees going in and out.  He wanted to know if we would be willing to come and check it out, and if it was a viable hive, move it into a new box with some new frames.

This is the hive the bees decided to call home:


As we approached the hive we noticed there really was a TON of activity going in and out and as we peaked under the lid, we could also tell it was going to be a messy, tedious job!

feral hive lid

The first step was to move the hive to a more ideal location. The current location was a bit of a hike for the homeowner, but it was also in a shaded, wooded area.  Certainly an available tractor made the job much easier!

Moving Feral Hive.jpg

Finally we were able to open it up! I’m aware that this is what I’ve become: absolutely giddy with the idea of opening an old, rotted beehive to inspect a feral colony.

First of all we had to PRY the top cover off because it was completely attached by comb. When we peaked inside we were shocked to find a box FULL of active bees (as it turned out, both boxes were full!).

Inside feral Hive1

In the photo above, the upper right, is what we found when we opened. You can see in the bottom right what happened when we tried to pull the frames up – the wooden top bar pulled right off. Thankfully, the frames contained plasticell so the comb stayed together even though all the wood was rotted and falling apart – especially as we pulled and pried.

We worked and worked to pry each individual frame out as everything was tightly packed with comb and propolis. Thankfully we worked in full sun, so it softened as we worked.

inside feral hive2

Other than the fact that the comb was old and dirty and the wood was rotted and useless, the colony was very strong. We sorted each frame: we set brood aside, drone comb in another box, and nectar in a third. When we rebuilt the hive, we then reorganized. We even found the queen and she laid the most beautiful brood pattern. It made me sad these weren’t our bees! It was great to work with them and inspect them, but it was bittersweet to leave them behind!

Another amazing thing about this colony was it was SO docile. I mean, completely deconstructing a hive is pretty invasive and the bees were so calm and quiet. My husband doesn’t wear a bee suit and had short sleeves on that day and he didn’t receive a single sting. We’ve been stung more for doing less! These bees were wonderful!

And their success was impressive because that hive was FULL of ants and the bottom box revealed evidence of mice too…

bottom of hive.jpg

After two and a half hours of work, the bees were finally relocated into digs a bit nicer. I’m going to assume they were thrilled!

Feral Hive New Digs


Spring Build-Up and Inspections

spring inspections

Wednesday night Anne Marie Fauvel, beekeeper and educator from Grand Valley State University, spoke to the Kalamazoo Bee Club about spring her spring to-do list. Below is an overview of the information covered. This was originally written for the Kalamazoo Bee Club’s blog.

This time of year new beekeepers are always anxious to get into their hives, but aren’t entirely sure what they should be doing or looking for. Anne’s presentation covered two important components for this time of year: why a spring build-up is important and what to look for during spring hive inspections.

Spring Build-Up

One important notion to keep in mind, is that peak nectar flow is in July and if you want a maximum amount of healthy foragers in your hive, you need to start thinking about build-up now. Consider that the queen is busy laying eggs now and these eggs will take about 21 days to hatch, but then up to another 20-25 days until they begin foraging. This means that the eggs your queen lays today, May 23th, will hatch around June 13th and may not begin foraging until as late as July 5.  This means that today’s eggs are this summer’s foragers. This means that today’s eggs need to be healthy and strong so that tomorrow’s foragers are healthy and strong.

This brings us to hive inspections. When you inspect your hives now, what are you looking for? Well, happy, healthy queen is a crucial start. Anne identified five areas to inspect and evaluate in order to ensure you have a healthy hive.

  1. Pollen is coming in

An easy place to start, when you do a hive inspection, is on the outside of the hive. When you approach your hive, take a minute to observe the incoming bees. Are they carrying pollen? Pollen provides crucial protein for the brood, so you should see a lot of pollen coming in. Lack of pollen can be a sign of a dearth or may suggest that your hive is located in a less-than-ideal location.


  1. Brood Pattern

Once you’re inside the hive, analyzing the brood pattern (or the queen’s laying pattern) can also tell you many things about the health of the hive. A solid brood pattern can reassure you that you have a good, strong queen:

brood good

A brood pattern with a lot of holes can indicate disease or a weak queen.

brood bad

However, a brood pattern can also tell you other things. For example: an otherwise solid brood pattern, with only a few empty spot, might suggest hygienic behavior (which is good!).

brood spotty
Additiospiralnally, when analyzing a brood pattern, remember that the queen begins laying in the middle and then moves outward in a spiral

This means that the brood in the center will be older, so empty spots in the middle may simply indicate hatching.

  1. Bees at All Stages of Development

As you analyze the brood frames in your hive, you want to be sure you see bees at all stages: eggs, larva, capped brood, and even the occasional new-bee just emerging into the world! Just like a brood pattern, the presence of various stages of bees also tells you what the queen has been up to. The very presence of eggs, validates that you’ve had a laying queen within the past 3 days (a good tip since new beekeepers often can’t find the queen). However, a lack of capped brood, for example, may mean something caused a disruption in laying cycle.

  1. Find the Queen or At Least Eggs

This is a bit redundant, but worth repeating. In order to ensure plenty of July foragers, you need a queen who is laying! It takes practice to be able to identify a queen as you stare at the mass of wriggling insects and it’s always a fun challenge to do so. However, there will be some days where you just won’t find her, or, you simply won’t have the time to play Where’s Waldo! In this case, as long as you can verify you have eggs in your hive, you can be assured that you have a queen (well, technically, you had a queen within the last 3 days).

Finding eggs can also be a bit tricky, tho not as tricky as finding a queen who doesn’t want to be found! Eggs will be in cells that look like they only contain water, at first sight. However, when you tilt the frame just right, especially in bright sun, you should be able to see tiny white eggs – almost like tiny grains of rice.


  1. Look for Larva in Royal Jelly

You have eggs, you can find capped brood, but how do we know the larva is healthy in between these two stages? The best way to assess this is to look for larva (this is the stage when it looks like small, white worms curled up inside the comb). Ideally we want to find lava nestled in a cup of royal jelly. This means they should be coated in shiny, milky fluid. This is indicative of healthy larva. If you do not see this, it can mean your bees aren’t bringing in enough pollen. This could be indicative of a drought, for example. It may mean you need to move your hive, or even offer some pollen patties.

larva in RJ

Remember, this list is not exhaustive. A large component of beekeeping is mite management, and of course, spring is the time to watch for swarming behavior and the necessity of splitting. What this list will do, though, is help you raise a stong hive, so that they have plenty of foragers to send out, come July!

A quick review:

  • Know what is going on in the world around you (weather, calendar, plants, etc).- think of your bees as livestock being kept in captivity. Yes, it is important to let them do as nature requires, but you, as a responsible keeper, need to understand when to step in and supplement if necessary.
  • Know what’s going on inside the hive (as covered in this post)
  • Always be analyzing for effective troubleshooting
  • Monitor! Monitor! Monitor!
  • Have a mentor and don’t be afraid to call him/her when needed! I think this is an absolute necessity. There are many helpful books and websites about beekeeping, but you need someone you can call or text a picture to when you just need an answer to “What is this?” or “What do I do?”  You can find a mentor through the Kalamazoo Bee Club or the Northern Bee Network. The bee club has a Facebook page and there is also a Facebook group for SW Michigan Beekeepers.  Make connections and don’t be afraid to use them!

Of Mice and Bees

I apologize for my absence, but we’ve been in the process of moving. We made the decision on a bit of a whim, but my husband is a builder and has always dreamed of building his own home. We threw our house on the market and were shocked when it sold in about 12 hours… and its been a whirlwind since then! We’ll be spending the next 8-10 months in an apartment while we build the new house, but bought 3.5 acres, so we’ll have plenty of room for bees!

This year we came out of the winter more successful than the last couple. We have one good, strong hive still alive! *Insert pause for celebratory dancing!*  Up until a couple of weeks ago, we had two seemingly good, strong hives alive, but one of them died off in the last few cold days of spring. We were confused as, sure we’d had a cold snap, but nothing unmanageable, even for a small end-of-season cluster. Maybe a handful of bees were left, so when it warmed up just enough, we dumped those bees into the surviving hive.

Once it really warmed up and we were able to get into the hive and really analyze the remains. The only thing out of the ordinary was a mouse nest in the bottom of the hive. Certainly we knew we didn’t want mice in the hive, but could this be the reason for our hive’s collapse?

Yes, but probably not.

The problem with mice in the hive is that (1) they are destructive and (2) they are stinky.  As you probably know, mice will chew on just about anything (including hot electrical wires) and the inside of the hive is no exception. As they pass the long winter months in a hive heated by your hardworking bees, they will say thank you by chewing up frames and comb. Depending on the number of mice, how long they are in the hive, and their general voracity, they can do some pretty extensive damage. Mice have even been known to climb up through the comb, disrupting the cluster and causing damage to honey frames. In fact, our bees seemed to be in the top frames earlier than usual this year and it makes me wonder if they were moving away from the mice.

mouse nest in hive

Mouse nest – Photo Source

(2) They are stinky. Like most living things, mice urinate and while humans might not smell it upon opening the hive (a small blessing), bees are certainly affected by it. Smell is a crucial component of how honeybees communicate and orient inside the hive and the introduction of a new and strong smell, can affect their communication and general comfort. The strong smell will usually deter the bees from that part of the hive and could, if left unchecked, result in absconsion.

Another Explanation

While I’d love to use the mice as a scapegoat, another very real explanation is a virus of some sort. When bees are sick they will often leave the hive to die as a natural quarantine. It is possible that, on the first warm afternoon, bees left for a cleansing flight and couldn’t return because they died or were weak, or left purposefully due to some pathogen.

When bees die of starvation, you’ll find tons of dead bees in the hive, many on the bottom board and others stuck head first in the comb. When bees die of the cold, you’ll often find them still in cluster, clinging to the comb. However, we found very few bees. I suggested to my husband, hopefully, that maybe they had drifted into our second hive, but we both knew it was too early in the season for that and the second hive did not look unusually large in terms of bee numbers.


Given the prevalence of mites in our area, I’m going to guess that our bees were weakened due to mite populations last year and also the usual end-of-winter scarcity. They left on a cleansing flight and many were not able to return. It is definitely a bummer, but further reason to keep on top of those mite checks and treatments. Here’s a post I wrote recently for the Kalamazoo Bee Club regarding mite treatment.

There’s also the positive that one hive did make it and we have a local nuc coming in May. Onward, beekeepers! Happy Spring!



For more information on how to analyze a dead-out, check out Dr. Meghan Milbrath’s new post.

A Beekeeper’s Spring To-Do List

beekeepers spring to do list

When should I uncover my hives?

More and more beekeepers in the north are experimenting with different overwintering protections: insulation, foam, wind blocks, heating elements, etc. As the weather begins to warm up, beekeepers begin to wonder when they should take this winter protection down.

winterized hives

There is no exact science here. We err on the side of leaving it on a little long as bees seem to do better in heat than cold. Once it’s warm enough to open the hive and do a hive check, is typically a natural time to take off any extra winter insulation. We wait until the long-term forecast shows no sign of any “colder than normal temperatures.” The bees can handle a frost overnight, but the last few years have brought a day or two of frigid temps in late March.


As 12366439_10208256397989299_5970933198379431825_n-2soon as it’s warm enough to see bees flying and to peek inside, you’ll need to evaluate the food stores. You’re not going to want to do a very intrusive hive check, but this is the time of year when bees start to run low on food stores. Additionally, warmer days mean the bees are flying (and using more energy) and the queen is starting to lay. As a rule of thumb, we begin feeding around this time and continue to feed until the dandelions are up in full force. It is not uncommon for hives to starve out in March and, for the beekeeper, this is devastating.  In the spring, we feed a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water, and/or we use up our fondant cakes if we have any left from the winter.

Pollen Patties

Another supplement you can offer your hives is pollen patties. You can find recipes online or order from retailers. They don’t actually contain any real pollen, but are designed to act as a replacement. Some of the newer product have additional vitamins and minerals too. These are pretty simple to use: you just plunk one in the top of the hive.

The presence of pollen will stimulate the queen to go into full-on laying mode. This can be a great way to get things going in the spring, when your hive is small, but feeding pollen too early can be detrimental if not managed correctly. If you feed pollen too early, your bees will prioritize attending to the brood, instead of clustering. This means, if you have a sudden cold snap, your bees will protect the babies, instead of themselves and can result in a dead-out.  Additionally, too much brood production too early can cause the colony population to peak before nectar is available, which is a problem. This said, you absolutely never want to feel pollen patties before the winter solstice. After that, the answer to “when” is highly debatable.

If you start patties early, make sure you keep an eye on feed as they’ll eat it up much faster. This is the first year we’ve used pollen patties and it’s because we’re hoping to make some of our own spring splits. Most importantly, do your hives NEED pollen? Most likely, no. Is it a tool that you can use to manage your colonies? Yes. In our experience, feeding sugar syrup or cakes in the spring is more important than offering pollen patties.

Other Things to Keep You Busy

March is a great time to take stock of equipment. If you are new to beekeeping, get in touch with a mentor and make sure you have everything you need to install your nucs or packag11700693_10207350769509153_1637007726141183772_oes. This is the time of year to order or build extra boxes and frames. If you are going to paint any hives, do it now.

If this is your first year of beekeeping, you may want to spend the next few weeks identifying a good placement for your hives. Ideally, you’d place them somewhere with good sunlight and southern or eastern exposure. If you can find a location with some wind protection, even better!


Mite Treatment

March is the time to do your first mite treatment. See my previous post for more details.

Analyzing Dead-Outs

Unfortunately, many beekeepers are all too familiar with losing hives. If you’ve lost any hives, it is important to take them apart and do some investigating. Determining what killed a hive can help you for the next season. Sometimes, there’s nothing you couldn’t done, but most times analyzing dead-outs yields a great amount of information.

The pdf below, from Meghan Milbrath of Michigan State University, is a great overview of how to analyze a dead-out and determine the cause.


I love spring so much because of the anticipation it brings. It’s a time to reflect on last year’s work and create a plan for this year’s. Whether it be in the garden, the apiary, or the homestead, spring is always a time of planning and excitement at our house!



Varroa Mites: Your 2016 Action Plan

managing varroa mites

Photo Credit

February in the midwest is rough. I’m a school teacher, so I’m now quite removed from Christmas break, but still far from spring break. The weather is dark, cold and (usually) snowy. By March it feels like spring is on the horizon, but February feels like a cavernous hole of cold that will never let up.  It’s especially hard on beekeepers for a few reasons: (1) by now you might be mourning the loss of a hive or two, (2) if you’re not, you’re hoping they’re still alive, (3) if they ARE still alive, there’s nothing you can really do, but just think about them.

This is why I was so excited to attend (and present at) the Kalamazoo Bee School last Saturday. It was a great chance to learn, think, and talk about bees with other local keepers. I especially love to connect with new beekeepers because their excitement and anxiety is kind of exhilarating!

I went to two sessions about varroa mites (one by Ali Leist and one by Meghan Milbrath) and decided to outline some of the new recommendations regarding varroa management. This will give you something to think and read about until you can actually get outside and check on those bees!

Basically, if you live in any of the countries in red, you have varroa mites in your hive. They might not exist in debilitating numbers, but they’re there.


As a quick review, the varroa gets inside the cell with the larvae just before the adult bees cap it. Then, once capped, the mite is free to feed on the larvae and reproduce at its leisure. This is important to know because (1) it means our bees are beginning their lives already weakened in one manner or another and (2) eradicating mites is much trickier than fighting a problem that affects only adult bees.

So what can we do about it? Well I’m going to outline a 3-prong approach that both Ali and Meghan recommended based on the newest research:

1. Monitor and Record

It’s hard to really evaluate the health of a hive if you don’t know what’s going on inside of it, therefore, add monitoring for mites to your monthly to-do list. You can do the sugar shake method (quick, easy, and cheap) or the alcohol wash (also quick, easy, and cheap and more accurate, but it does kill some bees). Most people use the sugar shake and you can buy a kit from Cathy King or Meghan Milbrath, or you can make your own pretty easily.

Here’s an overview of the sugar shake method from the Michigan Beekeepers Association. Each month, record the mite numbers in your hives (or a sampling of hives if you have more than 10), so you can treat if needed. You can even submit your results and be your very own citizen scientist!

How many mites are too many mites? According to the MBA, “If you know how many bees were in your sample, you can estimate the number of mites per 100 bees. If there is brood in the colony when you sample, you should double this number to factor in the amount of mites in worker brood. For example, if there are 5 mites / 100 bees, the total infestation is probably 10 mites/100 bees. If your colony has over 10-12 mites/100 bees, you should consider treatment.” 

2. Treat When Necessary

When Meghan spoke, she urged beekeepers to treat in the spring and fall. If you do nothing else, you can at least do this. Remember, beekeeping is not a hobby that exists in a vacuum. You are managing a wild creature that goes out into the world and interacts with other bees. It’s all well and good if you don’t care about mites, but your bees are then spreading mites to other colonies. The only way we, as a whole, are going to get a handle on varroa is if we, as beekeepers, all work together.

Something else to consider is that today’s treatments are MUCH better and much safer than treatments of old. Many of the options are acid-based, which means residue won’t accumulate in the comb. I’m a parent, so I think of treating the same way I think about medicating my children. I don’t like to use medicine unnecessarily, but I also won’t allow my children to suffer. As a parent you must always weigh these things and as a responsible beekeeper (or cattle farmer, or horse, dog, or cat owner) you must do the same. Yes, you are adding a substance to your hive, but people add sugar water and Honey B Healthy all day long and there’s no controversy there! Anything you do is going to have SOME impact, so do your research and make the best choice.

There are four treatments that were recommended on Saturday. Keep in mind varroa excels at building immunity, so you want to vary your treatment. Use one in the spring and a different one in the fall, for example. Below is an overview of the four organic mite treatments from


active ingredients: thymol, eucalyptol, menthol, camphor

ApiLifeVar is a contact/vapor action pesticide formulated on a vermiculite tablet. It is considered to be an organic pesticide and is dependent on optimum temperatures. It requires three successive applications when bees are not making honey and supers are not on hives. This pesticide can cause adverse effects to hives in a weakened state.


active ingredient: thymol

Apiguard is a contact/vapor action pesticide formulated as a gel. It is also considered to be an organic Varroa control and is effective in controlling Varroa under optimal conditions, like ApiLifeVar. The product is only effective within a limited temperature range when bees are not making honey and without supers in place. Apiguard can cause bee mortality if used in high temperatures and may incite robbing behavior to hives undergoing treatment.

Mite-Away Quick StripsMite-Away Quick Strips

active ingredient: formic acid

Mite-Away Quick Strips is an organic vapor-action pesticide formulated in a pre-soaked pad. This product is effective within a certain temperature range and can be hazardous to the applicator. The MAQS can be used while bees are making honey with supers on colonies. This pesticide is associated with queen loss, adult bee and brood mortality, and absconding when used during hot temperatures. The product’s efficacy is inconsistent and influenced by the amount of brood present and size of the hive being treated.


active ingredient: beta acids

Hopguard is authorized under EPA-FIFRA Section 18 Emergency Exemption. It is an organic pesticide formulated on a cardboard strip. The product may be used while bees are making honey and supers are in place. It performs well in hives with minimal-to-no brood and provides control for approximately three days (while strips are wet). The current formulation necessitates multiple applications when hives are actively rearing brood. The manufacturer is currently developing an improved delivery that will provide control for 10 – 14 days. In 2012, Hopguard applications in Maine during cold temperatures resulted in some adult bee mortality due to continual contact with clustered bees. This situation also occurred with CheckMite applications during cold temperatures while bees were clustered.

3. Breeding

In terms of breeding, there are amazing things being done by people much smarter than I to breed for bees with more hygienic and/or aggressive mite-fighting traits. You can research ankle-biter bees or Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) behavior and spend hours reading and watching videos about these amazing bees. Hopefully, this is our future, but we need to help the bees fight the mites in the meantime! Last year Meghan had queens with ankle-biting traits for sale through the Michigan Pollinator Initiative. Keep an eye on that page this spring for more information.

So, your homework? Create a mite plan now and enjoy healthier bees later!






Winter Neglect

I admit, I’ve definitely been absent around here as of late. Lots of things going on, but not a ton of it is bee-related!

Yesterday I presented at the Kalamazoo Bee Club’s annual Bee School. My topics was, “Whoops, your queen is dead!” The aim was to reassure new backyard keepers that, if they did lose a queen, all was not a lost. I covered some easy ways to requeen, how to know if your queen is actually dead, and a timeline to keep in mind if you’re going to let the bees requeen on their own. The session went well and there were a lot of great questions / comments!

Heard a great presentation about the newest research regarding the treatment of varroa mites. Putting my thoughts together and then will post on that in the next couple of days.

A Hive Update

We still have two strong hives. Yesterday my husband lifted the lid to throw a pollen patty in and got stung on the knuckle! He said it’s probably the first time he was happy to get a sting! We haven’t had winter success in a  long time, so the fact that it’s mid-February and we still have two strong hives is wonderful… fingers crossed!

We’ve never fed pollen patties before and are starting them a teensy bit early in hopes that we can get a jump-start on brood-building, so that we can make some early splits. Once the bees dig into the pollen, they eat like crazy, so if you’re planning on feeding pollen patties, make sure to also feed and/or keep an eye on that honey supply!

Buying Bees: Nucs vs. Packages

buying bees nucs vs packages

If you are just getting into beekeeping, or looking to increase your apiary, now is the time to start debating nucs vs. packages. There are only so many ways to acquire bees: nucs, packages, catching a swarm, or making a split from someone else’s hive. There are pros and cons to each and questions around nucs vs. packages seem to be some of the most common among new keepers, so here are MY thoughts, on the matter.


When I use the phrase “package of bees,” I quite literally, mean a box full of bees.  Most packages are a side effect of the commercial beekeeping industry. Commercial keepers pollinate almond trees late February to early March. They leave these fields with huge hives, full of bees just around the same time Northern beekeepers are interested in starting their hives. So you can order a package of bees for around $100 from various southern states.

The bees are shipped in little screen houses that look like this:

D with package bees

Inside each package is a can of sugar water, a queen, in a queen cage, and 10’s of thousands of bees in a cluster. They can be shipped through the mail, but usually you order from a local supplier and they have a pick-up day, and everyone picks up their packages at once.


Conveince is the major pro of ordering a package. You can order as many as you want by phone or online. You can prepay and pick up in the spring. Packages are cheaper than nucs and they are pretty easy to install.  Additionally, package availability typically does not fluctuate based on the type of winter we had (since they come from down south) and you can sometimes order them as late as early March and still find some availibility.


There are some logistical cons to buying and starting with packages and some philosophical ones. Logistically, you need to be able to get your packages. One year we ordered from a supplier in Flint and had to drive there to pick up and another year we picked up in Holland. This meant being kind of “on call” until we heard pick-up dates. Once they were available, we had to be ready to pick-up and install, and sometimes this means you’re installing in crummy weather (you know how spring can be). Additionally, packages usually come in pretty early and we are not always out of the spring cold snaps, so that can be a concern.


Last year we ordered three packages with the intent to re-queen (more on that later). We installed all three and found, a day later, that one queen had died (in the queen cage) within the first 24 hours. Then one of the packages drifted into the hive of the third. Obviously transporting bees across the country is going to yield some die-off, but it’s kind of a big deal when it’s the queen. I did not look into getting a refund or new queen, so I’m not sure if you have any recourse when this happens.

Now, philosophically, you’ll also have to decide how you feel about packages. Buying the by-product of commercial pollination has its own drawbacks: poor nutrition (they don’t eat a varied diet when they live on almond fields), liklihood of disease and mites, and stress from travel. I think it’s fair to say you are not buying the strongest, healthiest bees. Additionally, you are perpetuating the commercial industry and how you feel about that, is personal. Here’s how I feel about it (incase you wondered).

Another drawback to relying on packages is they are doing nothing to improve the genetics of local bees. Michigan beekeepers need a unique type of bee these days. We’ve seen a pattern of later, colder winters and bees from a southern climate are not conditioned for our cold temperatures. Can packages survive the winter? Yes. Do they? Not very often, but that’s based on anecdotal experience.

So why does anyone buy packages, then? Well, as mentioned earlier, there is a lot more availability. Years ago we had a winter that decimated everyone’s hives and everyone was buying packages out of necessity. Additionally, they are cheaper by about $25-$50 and if you’re interested in buying several at once, that can add up quickly.

Here is a list of reputable sources for packages.


Ok, so what’s a better alternative? Nuc is short for nucleaus hive and if you buy a nuc you are basically buying a mini-hive. A nuc will include 5-8 frames of drawn comb, a laying queen, a little honey, and tens of thousands of bees. To install a nuc you just lift each frame out and place it into a hive box.



Nucs are a better investment because the beginnings of the hive are already established. The bees have accepted the queen, she’s alive and laying, and they already have some drawn comb to work with. Ideally, you’d find a local nuc and if you can get a queen from survivor stock (has survived a Michigan winter) even better. You also get the benefit of installing an established colony, so in that regard, you begin bee season a bit ahead of the game.

When nuc-shopping, you can now find beekeepers who are raising different varieties an crosses locally and you have a chance to meet the beekeeper you’re buying from and ask questions. You can find out if the beekeeper treated with chemicals, how he/she managed mites, did he/she feed, etc. The very first bees I ever purchased were from a beekeeper in the Lowell area. We went to his house to pick them up, sat at his dining room table and chatted awhile. He gave us some advice and tips and I still keep in contact with him. This opportunity to connect with a local, experienced beekeeper would have been lost if I ordered packages.


Well, nucs are expensive and as demand goes up, supply stays flat, and beekeepers are breeding better quality bees, prices will go up. Most local nucs were between $125-$150 last year.  Will they survive the winter? Who knows. It’s always a gamble, but your chances are better with bees that have acclimated to the local climate. 

Availability can also be a frustration. Local beekeepers sell a limited number of nucs each year (based on their own population), so some years they are hard to get. Usually you need to order nucs earlier than packages. I’ve heard some people have already sold out of nucs for the spring and it’s only January 4!

If you are interested in ordering nucs here are a couple of great resources:

For SW Michigan beekeepers (Kalamazoo Bee Club)

Beekeepers around the state (Northern Bee Network)

Other Options?

Two or three years ago I saw Meghan Milbrath speak at the Kalamazoo Bee Club’s bee school and she showed data to suggest that nucleus hives survived winters the best, packages the worst, and package bees re-queen with local queens did only slightly worse than nucs. This provides you with another option: buy packages and re-queen with a local queen.  In the end, this might cost as much as a nuc: $100 for the package and $20-$25 for a queen, but you can do it hive by hive. Some beekeepers will sell queen cells for much cheaper, so you can go that route and let the bees raise the queen.

Catch a swarm

If you put your name out there and keep an eye on beekeeping Facebook pages, you might be able to catch a swarm. Anyone who has ever met and spoke with me for more than 5 minutes knows I’m a beekeeper and last year my Facebook inbox was flooded with friends asking me if the flying pests on their back porch were bees or wasps. Most the time they were wasps, but twice they were honeybees and one of the times we were able to capture the swarm!

Nuc vs. Package: A Side-by-Side Comparison




Availability may be limited

Order early

Survivor stock / local stock

Ability to find concious breeders (mite-resitance, variety, hardiness, etc)

Supports a local beekeeper

Form a connection with an experienced keeper


Easy to find and easy to order

Easy to order large quantities

Pick-up may require travel

Southern bees

Commercial bees (may carry stress, disease or mites)

Supports commercial pollination