Sunday, December 8, 2019

FERAL BEES by beekeeper Fred

Feral bees have somehow developed the ability to survive year to year without the aid of miticides or other beekeeper manipulations.  For the feral bee populations found in Ohio and Kentucky the main attribute that these feral bees exhibit is a highly elevated chewing defense mechanism; whereby the bees chew off the legs of the varroa mites which kills them.  Observations are that 60-80% of the varroa on the bottom board have been chewed.   One hive with feral bees has now lived for 5 years without any interventions.

Feral bees are not escaped swarms from your neighborhood beekeeper.  They are bees that have survived long term in the wind.

Does Wisconsin have similar populations of feral bees hidden in our woods and abandoned buildings?  For adventurous beekeepers a search for feral bees could be fun.

Here are the pointers I got from Dwight Wells in Ohio.  He is one of the leading figures in that area in the search for wild survivor bees.

1.       Minimum area of forest of interest—15 square miles

2.       Recommended distance from known beehives; both hobbyists and commercial—5 miles minimum, but 10 miles preferred

3.       Trees should be 75 to 100 years old to provide cavities of sufficient size to satisfy a feral swarm

4.       Old abandoned buildings are also possibilities.

5.       Presence of feral bees can proven by putting out feeding stations with pollen substitute, such as Mann Lake Ultra Bee powder.  On warm spring days above 50F, the feral bees will visit the feeding stations.  If you observe activity you then can put out swarm traps.   The feeding station is a 18 inch length of 4 inch diameter PVC.  Half inch hardware screen is placed over the ends to prevent other critters from each the bait.  The station is positioned about 5 feet above the ground. 

6.       Before trespassing make sure to check with the landowner or the DNR for state lands. 

For those of you on Facebook check out Chasing Feral Honey Bees FB.  

Thursday, December 5, 2019


Bees have several defense mechanisms which they use to cope with varroa.  It seems hives exhibit most of these defense mechanisms to some degree; usually at a very low level.

One mechanism is the chewing on the varroa. Chewed varroa essentially bleed to death.   The Purdue Mite Biter is an example of this bee type.

Next using chemical ques some bees decap, clean out and then recap cells containing varroa.  Finally some hives open the cells with bee larvae that are either being attacked or killed by varroa and remove the larvae and varroa inside.  These are known as VSH bees.

Various beekeeping authorities have tried to increase the efficiency of these defense mechanisms by breeding.  To date they have had limited success in making these mechanisms strong enough and also permanent.

It is also reported that feral bees have also, via natural selection, strengthened the chewing attribute as part of their coping mechanisms.  It is reported that feral bees in Kentucky and Ohio are damaging/killing 60% of the varroa that are on the bottom board.  Hives with these feral bees have been reported to have survived 5 years without chemical varroa treatments.  It has been reported that some crosses of the Kentucky/Ohio bees are chewing at an 80% rate.

Perhaps a cross which has all three types of coping mechanisms will solve the varroa problem.

Almost all bees purchased in packages do not have these enhanced attributes.

Chewing damage on the leg of a varroa mite

Sunday, December 1, 2019


We are now through one-third of the bee’s winter; October through March.  November started out with below normal temperatures, but towards the end of the month temperatures have moderated and we are now running about average.  There is still a long stretch of winter to go; in fact, we haven’t even reached the shortest day of the year on December 21st. 

Partly out of pure curiosity and partly out of worry I listen to my hives for activity about once every two weeks; typically, on about the 1st and 15th of each month.   I use a stethoscope to listen and place it over the upper entrance.  A low hum indicates the bees are alive.  A stoney silence is the indication of a dead hive.  I dread hearing that stoney (or dead)silence. This is a simple go/no go check.   Other beekeepers simply place their ear against the side of the hive.  Of course, trying to listen through insulation could prove challenging. 

This information is actually of little useful value, but hearing that “hum” is an indication that I performed my mite control successfully the previous year.   Slowly marching down the line of hives stopping to listen to each hive gives you good or bad feedback on your mite control efforts.

The other potential value is that this information gives you a heads up on the number of packages you may need to order in the spring and allows you to budget your beekeeping dollars accordingly.   Looking at my beekeeping records for the past six years I have learned three things.  1) Prior to understanding varroa population dynamics and developing a good control program I was steadily losing hives beginning in November.  2) The cold snaps in January and February were always associated with additional hive losses.  3) After implementation of the good mite control regime the hives glided through fall, winter, and even those -36F cold snaps.  

Something to keep in mind is that you should never expect 100% hive survival.  In the pre-varroa days winter losses usually ran in the 15 to 20% range.  Demise of the queen, extremely long cold snaps and just lack of a sufficient food were the most common reasons for hive loss.  If you are only running one or two hives a loss of even one hive ends up being a significant loss. 

At any rate after checking my hives over the last two days my hive and winter nuc survival is running at 99%.  So far, so good.   This information also gives me the luxury to consider using splits to replace my winter losses instead of buying packages.  A queenless walkaway split costs you nothing whereas a package will cost you at least $120.  Or you could plan ahead and have a queen delivered at the time of the split.   A walkway split keeps basically the same genetics in your apiary.  A purchased queen imports new genetics, which may or may not be beneficial. 

In November I also added winter feeders to my hives.  Actually, those feeders are simply a 3 inch high spacer to allow insertion of the emergency 2 ½ pound sugar disc I add to each hive.  While installing the spacer I noted the bee clusters were already in the upper brood chamber in about 75 percent of my hives.  Since I have been taught that “the cluster starts the winter in the lower brood chamber’ this situation concerned me.  Easing my concern are some notes I took back in the winter of 2018-2019 when a similar percentage of clusters were in the upper brood chamber in November along with the fact that last winter I had 88% survival even with the clusters starting winter in the upper brood box.  Maybe the textbooks aren’t always right.  I guess we will know next spring, when my final survival statistics are known.  

Here is a quick pictorial of my winter emergency feed process.

First, remove the outer and inner covers.  Then install a shim of appropriate height.  Mine is roughly 2 ½ inches. Tape the joint between the hive and the shim to seal the crack.

Second, place the emergency sugar disc directly on top of the frames. 

Third, I cover the sugar disc with a blanket.  It retards are circulation and also absorbs water vapor.  Then replace the inner and outer covers.

A beekeeping tidbit.  Wax moths do NOT eat wax.  Actually, their larvae eat the old dark cocoons in the brood comb, which are evidently high in protein.  Tunneling from cell to cell they can cause a lot of damage.   I have never had wax moth damage to my honey super combs in 12 years of beekeeping and do not use pesticides during their storage  The wax moth and its larvae are warm weather creatures.  Storing your honey supers in unheated outdoor storage area quickly leads to their demise if any were present.  One caveat is that I use queen excluders between the brood chamber and honey supers so I don’t have brood cocoons in any honey super cells.     A good reason to use queen excluders?  Most beekeepers rail against the use of pesticides.  Wouldn’t this include moth poisons?  What’s the saying?  Walk the talk.   We will probably have a long and spirited debate on this topic at the next ECWBA meeting on December 21st.  

Happy beekeeping!