The Three Curses

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three witches from Macbeth
When Shall we Three meet Again?

There is always something new to learn about bees. The same probably applies to almost anything. Material for my blog posts should be endless and easy to come by. Ubiquitous, you might say. I have a vast library of books, interviews with beekeepers, my own experience, research papers, and so on. Now and then I slip in an article that has nothing much to do with bees whatsoever! Why, therefore, do I find myself staring at a blank screen wondering what on earth I’m going to write 1,000 words about? Proper authors have to write entire books. How do they do that?

Dear Diary

One option is to slip into “diary mode”. The problem with doing so is that most other beekeepers are doing the same things as me at the same times, and non-beekeepers aren’t even reading.

Dear Diary, today I tested the temperament of my bees by dangling my testicle over the frames. I only have one, because of the temperament test I did last week on my pet piranha!

If you must know, I’ve been taking honey off my hives and extracting it. I’ve also been treating all of my colonies with Apivar strips to kill varroa mites. I’m going back to thymol next year because it’s cheaper than Apivar and it’s a good idea to rotate treatments. I also feel a bit of a fraud because I just treated all colonies without doing mite counts. I know I should do mite counts so that I can spot “mite bombs” and also colonies that manage varroa well, but I never got around to it. Pathetic.

Soft Set Honey
Soft Set Honey

Varroa, Wasps and Wax Moth

Anyway, now that I have meandered my way through that rambling introduction, I must progress to the meat of this piece. In my opinion, there are three big fat horrible scourges of beekeeping in the UK. These three curses are varroa mites, wax moths and wasps. There are many other potential problems to be vexed about, but for me, the unholy trilogy is the mainstay. If foulbrood comes along, then all bets are off; I’m on the lookout for that but haven’t suffered from it to date.

I have written a lot about varroa mites so I won’t labour the point here. Suffice to say, they are evil life-sucking beasties that need to be dealt with or your bees will die. Not only that, as they die, they will spread their parasites to other colonies. Bees drift to other hives more than many people realise. Additionally, as a colony becomes weak, other bees rob out the honey, taking mites back home. Of the three curses, varroa is the mightiest.

Big and Strong is best

Many problems in beekeeping are solved by keeping colonies strong. That means lots of bees and brood; a balanced population of eggs, larvae, pupae, nurse bees, guard bees and foragers. Beekeepers provide space, in the form of additional boxes, as the population increases in spring. They also remove boxes (hopefully filled with honey) as the population decreases heading towards winter. The idea is to keep the bees feeling snug in their home. We don’t want them to be overcrowded, but we don’t want acres of unused space in the hive either.

In my area wasps are usually a real pest in late summer and autumn. Once they discover an apiary, they tell their mates about it and before long hoards of them are probing the defences of each hive, looking for the weak one. Often a weak hive will try to defend itself, but it will be overcome. They end up dead. I hate that. Nature is like that though; survival of the fittest.

Victory over Vespas

common wasp
Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris), queen

The answer to wasps is to put out high-efficiency wasp traps around the apiary. When a wasp gets into the trap, it’s doomed; it cannot return to its nest and spread the word about a beautiful beehive down the road. Next, we need to keep strong colonies, as previously stated. Nucleus hives tend to be smaller and weaker than production hives, so they need special attention. When I make up a nuc, I want a mated queen, or at least a virgin, in there rather than a queen cell. The quicker the queen is laying eggs, and the colony is building up its numbers, the better. I also find that using hive floors with underfloor entrances gives the bees a better chance to defend their turf, as does reducing entrance sizes on nucs. Finally, once a hive is being completely hammered by wasps and is unable to protect itself, it needs to be immediately moved elsewhere.

Wax Moths want your comb

My final curse, the wax moth, is always about. The larvae make a complete mess of wax comb stored in the shed. I have only found them to be a problem on brood combs, but others have experienced the ruination of stored honey frames that have never seen brood. I spoke to Peter Little about this. He stores frames over the winter in large plastic barrels. He burns sulphur in each barrel then seals them up; the sulphur wipes out any pests including wax moths, and the comb is ready to roll next year. My solution is to spray stored frames with a solution of Bacillus thuringiensis and store them in plastic crates so that mice can’t get at them (another curse).

Comb Ruined by Wax Moth Larvae
Comb Ruined by Wax Moth Larvae

Drawn comb is a valuable resource for beekeepers. When you go to a crate of stored comb in the spring and find a disgusting mess because wax moths got at it, it is both unpleasant and expensive. Drawing out wax foundation into usable comb takes a lot of effort by the bees. They will only draw foundation during a honey flow or while being fed sugar syrup. If you need to provide space for a hive quickly, you need drawn comb. It just needs a quick polish by workers to be ready for the queen to lay her eggs in it. It’s ready to be used for storing nectar. A box of foundation is not really “space” until the bees have drawn out the comb. I have read that bees need to consume 8lbs of honey to make 1lb of wax. Wax moths can undo all of that hard work very quickly, so they have to be stopped.

Oh my, I have gone over 1,000 words. Time to hang up the parchment and quill for another week. I hope all beekeepers get a good honey harvest and that they avoid the three curses!

One comment

  1. I agree on the mites but have never had an issue with wasps or wax moth – and at one point I had a wasp colony living next to my hives! I don’t tend to store brood combs outside hives though. I like the simplicity of spraying and putting in plastic boxes.

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