Thursday, June 21, 2007

Chalkbrood update

It seems that our chalkbrood problem is mostly behind us. I've only seen two or three "mummies" over the last couple days, in contrast to the dozens and dozens of them I was seeing previously.

One thing chalkbrood does tell us is that the queen has obviously been laying eggs since we installed the colony: no eggs--no larva, no larva--no chalkbrood. So at least we know she's functioning. Unfortunately it doesn't tell us much about her health or the robustness of here lineage. Some beekeepers re-queen when they find chalkbrood, but I'm not convinced this is a good strategy from my reading.

The bees continue to consume sugar syrup at a steady pace, about a quart every 3 or 4 days.

Exciting News!

I've been talking to the kind folks over at the Chicago Honey Co-Op, and they have offered to let me volunteer when they work in the apiary. This will be a great opportunity to learn from the experts, and to see what healthy, productive, well-established hives are supposed to look like. Right now, our little hive is the only one I've seen up close, and when we open the hive and inspect the frames, I don't yet have a good sense of what to look for as indicators of health--or distress.

Storms are on tap for today. Take cover, little bees!

Sunday, June 10, 2007


When checking out the hive, I noticed some strange looking little things on the bottom board near the entrance. They are pictured on the right.

You can tell just by looking at these little pods that they are not a healthy part of a bee colony, but were they pests or intruders dispatched by the bees? Or were they dead bees from an early part of the life cycle?

Curse of the Mummy!

Well, it didn't take me long to discover that these are the mummified remains of bee larvae, showing the signs of a fungal infection called chalkbrood (owing to their chalky appearance).

The fungus is called Ascosphaera apis. Apparently it is ubiquitous, but normally only becomes a problem for bees when the colony is stressed, and when weather conditions are cool and damp. Both of these conditions existed for our colony: we'd just introduced the nuc to the hive a week ago, after transporting the nuc from the suburbs into town during a long, traffic-congested ride. Then the weather became unfavorable, and with the relatively small size of the colony, it seems likely the workers struggled to keep the brood warm enough.

Chalkbrood strikes only the larvae, gradually consuming them until they are totally encased in white filaments called hyphae which give them their chalky appearance. They are not yet contagious at this stage, but the black ones are actively releasing spores.

In the picture on the right, you can see a combination of healthy sealed cells where bee larvae are pupating (metamorphosing from larva to adult), open cells with eggs (the "black" looking cells with a tiny white dot or "segment" in the bottom), and larvae in open cells with chalky or black appearance.

Chalkbrood are found in open cells because the disease strikes during the larva stage, and cells aren't capped until the larva is ready to pupate. Workers eject the chalkbrood from the comb, dropping them on the bottom board, where they are gradually pushed toward the front and out of the hive.

These mummies began appearing on Friday, 6 days after we installed the bees in the hive. Bees are eggs for the first three days, and larva from days 4-9. So it's up in the air as to whether the infected larvae are ones that were already larva when the colony arrived, or larva from eggs that were laid and hatched after we installed the colony. If the problem persists beyond this weekend, I think it will be safe to say chalkbrood is infecting larvae that started as eggs laid after we installed the colony.

Inspecting the Hive

We opened the hive yesterday afternoon to inspect it, and after some effort we found Queen Hazel. She seemed active and healthy. Unfortunately we also found plenty of chalkbrood yet to be ejected. But there were also capped cells, honey, and some larvae cells without chalkbrood. We didn't spot any eggs, but frankly, we're not used to doing this work yet, and we may simply have missed them.

There is no known chemical treatment for chalkbrood, so treatment options are cultural: removing the stress, better weather, making sure the bees' nutritional needs are being met, and requeening if necessary.

I think we've mostly met these conditions (other than requeening, which isn't something we want to do right now). We're feeding both sugar syrup and a pollen substitute/supplement. The weather is vastly improved. These should reduce stress on the colony. We are guardedly optimistic that this chalkbrood problem will clear up on its own soon.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Weather Conditions:
  W @ 9 m.p.h.

The threatened frightening weather never materialized on Thursday (though it was hella-windy), and now we are having near perfect bee weather.

After a slow start on the boardman feeder, the bees finished about 1/2 a jar in one 24-hour period! So this morning I'm brewing up a fresh batch of syrup, and as soon as it cools, I'll put it on the hive.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Well, today we have warmth and sun at last, so the hive is VERY active. I couldn't believe the number of bees crawling and flying around it--much more active than on Sunday a.m.

I watched carefully for about 10 min, long enough to see that workers were returning loaded with pollen--not quite as many as I would have expected, but it's also almost 2pm, and they may have gotten the bulk of their pollen earlier in the day.

At any rate, I assume their foraging indicates they are NOT planning to swarm away any time soon--if so, they'd just eat up a bunch of honey instead, right?

It's interesting, on Sunday most of the pollen was bright yellow; today, about half is deep orange. Something new must have started blooming after the rains.

It's also fun to watch the bees herding the curious ants away. The big black ants seem drawn to the hive, but they can't seem to make it into the entrance before the bees shoo them away.

They're definitely consuming the sugar water now as well--it went down noticeably since yesterday, and I can see the bees clustered around the base of the feeder where it's leaking a little and dampening the bottom board.

That is all for now!