The hardest lessons I get from my bees are ones that teach me humility. Anyone who knows me knows that I can get pretty snarky when it comes to beekeepers who do not use best practices either in exhibiting proper care in working with bees around non-beekeepers or when monitoring the health of their bees. Beekeepers who don’t believe in monitoring for varroa mites or treating for pests often get a rise out of me. But honey bees are really good about reminding me that I’m not perfect either and the following tale is a good example of how I did something that I have been unkind in speaking about with others.
It starts with my strongest hive coming out of winter. These bees have the Purdue ankle biter traits that are being bred at Purdue University. They are more aggressive with the varroa — the have more active grooming behavior and once they get the varroa off, they tend to chew some legs off so the varroa will bleed to death or at least not be able to get back into the hive.
I did a sugar shake on the hive on March 24th. There were 4/300 varroa. Nicely below treat threshold of 9/300.
At the beginning of April I started to see swarm cells forming in this hive, so I split it and moved the queen to a new hive. Most of the bees were left in the original hive and once the queen cells were more fully formed, I planned to do another split. But we had had freezing weather for the 2 weeks prior to when I did the sugar shake and the neighbors bees didn’t survive it. The Purdue’s like to rob and within a few weeks, I started to notice that they were putting on weight when there was really nothing blooming. I also started to see varroa on the bees and in my experience, when you can see any, they are probably above threshold.
With developing queen cells, I decided to wait to treat because I didn’t want to take a chance on compromising the queen development with the treatment. It was cool enough that I would have used formic acid instead of apiguard and there is good evidence that it can affect larva and pupae. I thought I’d have enough time to deal with the varroa after the new queen emerged – maybe 2 weeks max. That was not the case.
The hive swarmed on April 20th. It was a really big swarm. I estimated 5 pounds of bees. Read about it here at this post.
The new queen hadn’t started to lay yet and in retrospect, I think she maybe didn’t leave with the swarm. I captured the bees and took them to a friend’s house, not realizing that they swarmed because the infestation had gotten so high that they were in fact absconding. The bees only lasted for a few days at the new location. They absconded and when I checked, the remaining bees were covered with varroa. When I went back to check the remaining bees in my hive, they were sick as well. There was a laying queen, so I moved them to a nuc box and treated with oxalic acid to see if I could save them. I couldn’t.
So in a 4 week period, I went from low varroa count to off the charts and a crashed hive. The hive was probably at 50k-60k bees on April 1. That’s a lot of bees to lose and a hard lesson to learn. This is what varroa bombing is all about. Bees rob from a very sick hive and bring back a ton of varroa that then kill the healthy hive. Here’s a link to an article at Bee Culture about it. Varroa Bombs Are Real.
Here’s where the humility part comes in. I not only underestimated how fast something like this could happen (which is unfortunately how we sometimes learn), but I also unleashed sick bees into a different neighborhood. So my bees gave me a good lesson on how fast things can happen and that maybe giving other folks a little slack would be the kind thing to do. Humility.