Mol Smith's Bee Chronicles:  1 of a series of articles on keeping honey bees.

Killing the Killer of Bees...


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Slow-mol video by mol. Image at end is public domain.


Having recently set up a bee hive in the garden and for the first time having a go at supporting my partner in her new found hobby of Bee Keeping, I thought I would chronicle some of our adventures and hopefully share some knowledge or folly with others. Lesley (my partner) took a course, and I didn't. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to record our progress but with a slant towards microscopy.

As just about everyone knows, honey bees are under an enormous threat, with declining numbers and mysterious hive collapse events across the western hemisphere. Several explanations have been put forward as to why bees are diminishing: wide-spread use of nicotine based insecticides, parasites, fungi infections, bacterial diseases.

Certainly, one of these, the deadly bee parasite called Varroa, is highly responsible for many bee and hive deaths. In fact, the bees we just introduced into our new hive were from a swarm. The had left a previous hive, one which originally belonged to the swarm queen, and were now nesting in a tree. A local bee keeper was called out to collect the swarm, which he willingly did, and then kindly donated it to us. The bees were from a hive which had not been used to collect honey from by humans. And we are not quite sure how long the swarm were out of the hive and in the wild, so to speak.

In these cases, it's possible the bees may have come into contact with any number of parasites or infection carriers. The most obvious one to check for is Varroa. So, what exactly is this mite? They were first discovered in Java about 1904, but are now present on all continents except Australia and the Isle of Man. The parasite was named after a Roman Scholar, writer, and surprise... surprise, a honey-bee keeper: Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC).

They were discovered in the United States in 1987, in New Zealand in 2000, and in the United Kingdom in 1992 (Devon). So, let's see what one looks like. There it is on the right. We're looking down onto it. Mind you when it's attached to its host, like many mites - it just looks like a tiny bump. No legs visible! We took advice and it was "Why not just treat the hive, in case". A better method than trying to look for them, we thought.

One of our colleagues in the Witney Bees Association, Rufus, said he could come over and treat the hive just in case we did have Varroa on the new bees. We agreed. He had made a small heating element where a small deposit of powder can be placed and when heated - release a deadly poisonous smoke. Apparently, it irritates the bees a bit but doesn't kill them. What it does do is kill Varroa. And it does it very effectively indeed. The powder is oxalic acid crystals, the poisonous substance in rhubarb leaves and many other plants too.  A very acidic substance 10,000 times “stronger” than the acetic acid in vinegar (vinegar is about 5% acetic acid). You have to be careful to stand well back from the hive and not breathe in the smoke. It has powerful irritation effects if you breathe some in or get it in your eyes. The idea behind the electric heating element is you can stand back with wires going from the low voltage element to a safe distance and connect it to a large 12 volt battery.

Varroa Mite
[ Public domain image via Wikipedia, cited source USDA. ]

I decided not to film the actual 'gassing' because I wanted to ensure I paid attention and watch where the smoke escaping the hive might drift, and stay out of the way. Up to now (we had the bees for 1 day) and the bees seemed fairly calm, so I didn't bother with a bee suit. I didn't intend to be very close to the hive. (Always best to wear one though!). Here's a clip I took of our return to the hive after the gassing. You can see the equipment Rufus used. Sorry about the sound not being synchronised - a failure of the phone camera to record sound and video correctly on the multi-camera setting I used.

Next day, we went to check the hive. We pulled out the base bottom board (where debris from the hive ends up) and saw some more white dust there and some very tiny specks. I thought it was just random debris. Lesley thought it best to look under a microscope. So she gathered up two specks and brought them in. I decided to combine two things here: a test of a mobile phone to microscope adaptor (review here) and to prove or not, this speck was a Varroa. I took a video as I was really focused on testing the way the mobile phone (smart phone) camera responded to changing lighting conditions, digital magnification etc. But despite the low quality video (I hadn't quite worked out the best solution yet using the adaptor and phone-camera), you get to see what I saw, and I cut the sound as it's just me talking aloud about the phone rather than the subject matter:

Verdict? One dead Varroa! Some honey bees strains have become resistant to Varroa. These strains have developed Varroa-sensitive hygiene behaviour and can detect and remove Varroa in brood. Our bees are not one of the new breed of bees. Hopefully, we have got rid of them for this season (the Varroa). But it's one of those things you have to keep checking. They are particularly a hazard to larval or pupating bees, resulting in death or severe deformity of the pupae. The larvae may survive but are often deformed, unable to fly and of little use to the hive.

Our hive was introduced quite late in the summer. So far they are struggling to find enough food to both develop new generations and store honey for the winter. The only honey so far is a little surplus ready to feed themselves for their daily flights. The battle continues now to see if we can help them safely through this summer.

Follow the Bee Chronicles to see what happens.



Additional Observations

Bee Suits
These bee suits have several functions as far as I can see. The netted hood protects the face from being stung. Bees send out guard bees to take a look to see who you are. They see us as the enemy because simply put, you and I are not bees and we are disturbing their home. They don't realise we are looking after them and stealing their honey in return. Hives can be messy places with propolis (bee glue) possibly getting stuck to your clothes. The suit keeps them clean. Pockets for hive tools and other bits are important. So, do they protect you from being stung? The answer is no! They help if you have quite thick clothes on underneath but a bee sting can penetrate the suit material. The white suits do help you see them clinging to you though so when you finish a hive visit you can get a colleague or friend to spot them and 'ask' them to leave. Interestingly... if your friend doesn't have a bee suit on, the ones on you seem to land on them. For some reason, the friend seems to run off flapping his/her hands all over the place?

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