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A Bonus Day In The Life Of A Wisconsin Sideline Beekeeper

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

by Adrian Quiney – Author of “The Cavity Compromise"

I was woken up by my phone ringing. Ann-Marie, the evening supervisor, was offering me the next day off. I took her up on it, and that allowed me to plan to spread my bee work out over a couple of laid-back days instead of cramming it into one frenetic day.

My Harbo 2020 VSH breeder queen is still leading a colony but can’t lay anymore. I’m too sentimental to squish her. I expected she might not last and had an alternative Instrumentally Inseminated alternative. My Lloyd Street Bees VSH breeder queen from 2021 was laying well and so I grafted 30 cells from her on May 30th, of which 27 have been finished.

On June 1st I made splits from eight of my strongest colonies that were going to be difficult to keep from swarming if I didn’t intervene. I took away all the brood from the original colonies except for an egged/larvad drone frame. Larvad is a new word for a frame with larva on it that I just come up with. The mites on the shakes of the bees I added back to the parent hives, those in the supers on them, and their foragers have no place to go except the drone frames as those drones will be attractive to them a few days before the worker larva that has been laid since the split will be mature enough to attract mites.

I’ll start placing queen cells in the splits tomorrow, but what Ann-Marie’s call allowed me to do today was to separate that task from the business of cutting down any emergency cells that the bees have made in the interim – and for bonus points some mite counts.

In the past I have tried to take powdered sugar mite counts in the splits when all the brood has emerged and before the new queens’ larva has been capped; That hasn’t worked well for me as by then the nurses are a bit older, won’t stay in the tub, fly off, and are sometimes very sticky. So today June 8th (Step 2 of the Drone trapping method) seemed like a good opportunity to combine two tasks - the emergency queen cell removal and some mite counts. I was able to get through all eight colonies, and the mite numbers per generous 300 bee powdered sugar samples were: 4, 4, 4, and 2 at an out yard, and at home were 1, 1, 3, and 10.

As a subsequent part of the process, after the new queens (hopefully) get mated, but before they are laying, I plan to add another egged/larvad drone frame into the splits to trap the mites before they can occupy worker brood. Now I know which one to target with the biggest frame of drone eggs and larva.

An alcohol wash, or a powdered sugar shook mite sample are one way to assess a mite load, but a few days ago (June 6th) I used another. The Harbo Assay consists of opening one to two hundred capped purple eyed larva and counting/further assessing any mites they contain. It is laborious, John Harbo says he can do it in 20 minutes, but it took me almost an hour to do 100 cells for each of the colonies I tested. I tested a Lloyd Street Bees VSH queen that I bought as a virgin – she was mated by local drones here, and a Randy Oliver mated queen from California. Both queens headed colonies that overwintered in a five-over-five frame, what else would you want to overwinter in ;-) and looked great in the spring. John Harbo says if you find no mites in 100 cells, then you should open another 100 cells to get his top VSH score of 4. 100 cells exhausted me, after almost two hours I was too tired and hungry for that. Scores of 3 were going to have to be good enough.

So how did the split colonies compare on powdered sugar shakes today? Remember these mites haven’t been presented with a trapping frame yet. The Lloyd Street bees colony had 1 mite, and the Randy Oliver colony had 3 mites. Today’s work has shown me a couple of potential breeder colonies. Thanks Anne-Marie.

Adrian Quiney, author of "The Cavity Compromise", is a sideline beekeeper and an RN who lives in Hudson, Wisconsin. He overwinters 60-80 colonies in the area around Hudson WI – a Wisconsin border town about 30 miles east of Minneapolis, MN. His area of interest is Biotechnical Beekeeping. This is a collective term for methods that exploit the weaknesses of the mite to control it without the use of chemical mite treatments. Save for an abandoned 3 week foray into sugar dusting about 10 years ago Adrian has never used chemical mite treatments. The conventional wisdom is that Biotechnical Beekeeping alone cannot keep one’s bees alive. Combining brood breaks, conventional drone brood removal, Dutch/German drone brood removal, varroa resistant stock, and the use of stacked five-over-five nuc boxes has enabled Adrian to defy conventional wisdom. He credits Mel Disselkoen of Michigan for teaching him the value of broodbreaks, and Mike Palmer of Vermont for introducing him to the value of nucs. Adrian has been giving talks about his methods and professing the value of nucs since 2012. That makes him a ten-yeared nuc professor…

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