The Loose Ladies of Hive #10

Worker & Drone Bees
Worker & Drone Bees

If you recall, Hive #10, which previously had the issue of being queenless, is now with-Queen. What happened, you ask?

I had ordered a new Russian queens from the same outfit in Kentucky we had previously ordered both queens and packages of bees from, but, unlike my region of Minnesota, which was experiencing nighttime temperatures in the middle 30s F (single digits C), Kentucky was experiencing daytime temperatures of 90+ degrees F (low to middle 30s C). The company would not ship the queens because of the heat. I was just forced to wait it out.

In the mean time, I transferred two full frames of capped brood from two Russian hives located at the other bee yard. The frames were nearly full out to the edges and even contained two or three capped queen cells (why the workers in those two hives felt it necessary to make new queens is not really known – since removing the frames from those hives, the workers have not repeated this action).

With a post-new-frames-inspection, it appeared that, in addition to the two or three queen cells that were present, the workers had started to transform at least two other cells into queen cells, but abandoned the construction mid-way to completion.

Queen cell in an Hygienic Italian Hive
Queen cell in an Hygienic Italian Hive
The steps involved in queen production (natural supersedure) are relatively straightforward…

  • An egg-laying queen is present and laying eggs in the hive (you may think this brings up a bee version of chicken & egg, but you need to factor in several million years of evolution).
  • For some reason (old age, sickness, or something else) random workers decide to transform one or more random eggs (that was was already laid by the queen) into new queen cells

  • They begin to build the egg’s existing cell into a drooping, elongated cell around, by this time, the larva has formed.
  • The larva is fed a strict diet of royal jelly. This will cause genetic traits that would normally not develop or be expressed – to be expressed.
  • Once the larva is fully developed, the workers cap the cell and the larva will spin a cocoon and transform into a pupa.
  • Once the pupa develops into an adult queen bee, the newly minted queen will emerge a day or two earlier than normal workers. She is cleaned and groomed by several worker bees.
  • Over the course of days one, two and three, the queen gets the lay of the hive – where to lay eggs.
  • After that, the queen takes flight and hopes to mate with as many drone bees as possible. This is the gruesome part for the male bees; they mate, and their sex organs are snapped off and stay in the queen. A single queen can mate with upwards of 20 separate drones. The drones fall to the ground to die and become ant and bird food.
  • If the queen is not eaten by birds or dragonflies, she returns to the hive…

Usually, a hive, in need of a queen, will produce multiple queens simultaneously – all will separately mate, and return to the hive. Once in the hive, it is a Thunderdome-style showdown between the queens. The queen who survives will be the hive’s egg-layer.

Organic Cigarettes?

Bee smoker and cigarettes
Bee Smoker and Natural American Spirit Cigarettes

I have never really seriously smoked cigarettes. There was a brief time in high school where I hung around with several foreign exchange students who all smoked. I would have a cigarette now and again and my cigarettes of choice were Marlboros, but the habit never stuck. I found the activity boring and awful tasting. There were times in college that would have a cigarette here or there – mostly while out having a drink with friends.

Cigarettes’ presentation, place in society as well as ingredients have varied widely over the years. Even between countries, packaging can vary. While at Iceland’s Reykjavik International Airport several years ago, I wandered into the duty-free shop. I was presented with a wall of northern European beers, and in the middle of the store, stacked neatly, were cartons of cigarettes. On the packaging were color photos of diseases and disorders linked to tobacco smoking. During the 1920s, in the United States, American Tobacco Company (now part of British American Tobacco) marketed their Lucky Strike brand as a way for women to stay healthy and thin (see The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America).

Recently, I was rereading Ross Conrad’s Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, and I came across something that I had completely forgotten – a USDA study suggesting that smoke from grapefruit leaves, creosote bush or tobacco may have a negative affect on varroa mites but have minimally adverse affects on the bees. Grapefruit trees certainly do not grow outdoors in northern Minnesota, and creosote bushes are found in the desert southwest – again, not northern Minnesota-material.

Tobacco, on the other hand, is relatively ubiquitous. Although, it is not grown in northern Minnesota, or Minnesota in general in any commercially-sized operations, it is available in cigarette, pipe, cigar and smokeless forms. Ross Conrad specifically mentioned Natural American Spirit Cigarettes.

American Spirits are somewhat unique in that they are made from organic and sustainably grown tobacco, and just tobacco (not counting paper or filter). Aside from containing tobacco that may have been sprayed with pesticides, most other brands of cigarettes contain fun things like cocoa and carob powder, ammonium hydroxide, bergamot oil (think Earl Grey tea), geranium rose oil, glycerol, licorice extract, rose oil, high fructose corn syrup, and a hodgepodge of various butyls and methals – things that end in hexane like trimethylcyclohexane and many weak organic acids (as opposed to strong, inorganic acids like hydrochloric or sulfuric).

The idea behind the use of tobacco and its smoke to mitigate varroa mites is pretty simple – knock the varroa off the honeybee’s body. The second part of the equation is to prevent the mites from being able to get back onto a new host.

The tobacco smoke is supposed to do the knocking off part by causing the mites to lose their grip on the host bee through disorientation or some such thing. The exact chemical that causes the irritation to the mites is not known (and trying to find a source of information for what compounds are naturally found in natural tobacco is just a honey pot for quick ways to kick the habit).

The second part, keeping the mites from getting back on the bees, is done through the use of a screened bottom board. Basically the bottom of the hive is screened off. It has been found that varroa have difficulties evening finding the bees if more than several inches away from them. Plus, if used with a sticky board under the screen, the mites will most certainly not be able to get back up into the hive.

All that said, it is a bit of anecdotal experiment. I smirk slightly each time I purchase cigarettes. I guess I amuse easily. It is easier to just fumble at the tobacco shop while trying to say, in an-all-uncool-way, which Natural American Spirits I would like to purchase. I am quite certain that the clerk would be confused if I told him that I crumble up four cigarettes, sans-filter, along with a mixture of cherry and applewood chips in a steel bee-smoker in an attempt to dislodge the bee-equivalent of human-ticks from my colonies of honeybees.

North to Ontario

Bee Map
Minnesota’s North Shore

I like to keep up with and be aware of what is occurring apiculturally in the area. Person X in this area is having queen issues, or Person Y had their top-bar hive tipped over by the wind. For the most part, these bits of information that filter in are interesting and you are able to offer the occasional tip. Other times, the information seriously piques my interest.

The Arrowhead Region of Minnesota is comprised of three counties; from west to Northeast, you have St. Louis (the county I am in), Lake, and forming the tip of the arrowhead, Cook County. Cook County’s northern boundary is also the border with Canada.

Through one beekeeping group, I heard that there was a loose association of people in Cook County going by the name "Cook County Hobby Beekeepers," (now known as North Shore Hobby Beekeepers) and they were very interested in one particular hybrid race of bees: the Thunder Bay Bee Breed. The T-triple-Bs are a cross of Buckfast bees and Carniolan bees (Buckfast have a heritage that includes bees originating from Northern Italy, France, England, Turkey, Greece, and several docile races from Africa).

Dean Harron's Bee Yard
Dean Harron’s Bee Yard, near Thunder Bay, Ontario

Through email, I corresponded with one of the originators of the T-triple-Bs, Jeanette Momot, a former apiculture inspector in the Thunder Bay region, Jeanette has worked with bees for thirty years in the Thunder Bay area, and prior to this, was a honeybee-research graduate student at Ohio State. Talking with Jeanette, via email, I found that the Thunder Bay region is quite unique with regard to apiculture and the pests that honeybees frequently have else where in the world. The uniqueness comes from part geographic isolation, part politics and part on the qui vive.

Thunder Bay and Canada, in general, are isolated from the United States simply by being separate countries. They have separate laws which govern what can be brought into one another. In 1987, Canada made a move against the Varroa destructor – the deer tick of the apiculture world. The move Canada made was an import ban on live honeybees from the United States. Since 1987, the importation ban was altered to allow certain importation from Hawaii.

Geographically, the Thunder Bay area and surrounding municipalities are in the middle of nowhere. I do say this with reverence for the area. Thunder Bay is Canada’s 43rd largest city, but it is 433 miles (698 km) from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and 439 miles (707 km) from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Thunder Bay, however, is only 190 miles (303 km) from Duluth, MN, where we happen to be located.

Jeanette Momot is the force behind the vigilance in keeping varroa out. Having been the apiculture inspector for the Thunder Bay district for fifteen years, she established herself as the go-to person for things honeybee-related. She has tried very hard to keep out foreign honeybee stocks. When a package of honeybees arrives at the Thunder Bay postoffice, she is often told of the arrival and can get to work on tracking down the origins of the package. If the package originated in a region known to have varroa mites, she will make every effort to convince the package’s owner to destroy the bees before possibly contaminating the local bee population. In return, she and other beekeepers will replace the destroyed package with bees from their own apiaries. She sees the move as a small price to pay to keep her bees and the rest of the bees in the region free from varroa.

Passport and Cash-money
Passport and Cash-money

Back in the States, the North Shore Hobby Beekeepers were busy planning a trip to import honeybees from Jeanette and another beekeeper, Dean Harron on June 4, 2011. I corresponded through email with several of NSHBs and managed to get my name on the list for a package of the mite-free bees. I also offered to help with the importation efforts. Have passport, will travel.

Most of the NSHBs live up the North Shore near the towns of Hovland, Grand Marais and Grand Portage. My father, a retired accountant with no penchant for bees, but a hankering for tagging along, came with for the trip. We left the Duluth-area around 7:00 am, and arrived in Grand Marais 2.1/2 hours later. We met up with others and started toward Grand Portage and the Pigeon River border crossing. The weather was perfect for our cross-border bee heist, as we called it.

Arriving at Jeanette’s, the other half of the convoy had already arrived and they were busy scoping out the apiary. Ten packages would be taken from Jeanette, and ten from Dean Harron – who lives 7 km from Jeanette. The sun was out, and occasionally, the wind would drop. This is northwestern Ontario, you would think there maybe a chill in the air, but no, it was hot by my standard – 80 degrees F (26.7 C). I decided to take a chance and took off my beesuit. The heat was getting to me. I stepped back a distance and mainly took photographs. At one point, I felt like I was getting a migraine, but looking back, I was dehydrated. Two bottles of water and a bottle of Gatorade, I felt much better.

Most of the folks from NSHBs kept talking about how unique it was to have mite-free bees. I found it more interesting to have found a unique, genetic pool of bees that have been successfully overwintering for years. I am less interested in maintaining a completely varroa-free environment (if that was the case, I would have failed; hive #10 – the spicy, overwintered italians, which are now transforming into spicier russian-italians, have a small varroa population). In some future post, I will go into more detail on what I would like to ultimately achieve, in short, I want to breed my own northern-hardy bees. The gentleness of the Thunder Bay Bees is a very positive trait given the spiciness of the Russian bees (they like to head-butt your bee veil).

Dean's Overwintering Setup
Dean’s Overwintering Setup

After Jeanette’s, we headed to Dean’s house and apiary. The heist there went much quicker than at Jeanette’s. It was also nice to seen Dean’s overwintering setup; it was composed of mostly 2″ thick rigid foam insulation constructed into a large box that surrounds the hives. Top and bottom entrances were then cut into the foam to allow access for the bees.

Overall, twenty 3 lb packages were brought back into the US. We dropped off packages on our way back to the Duluth area at several of the NSHBs. It was a great adventure, and I hope to go, again, next year.

For more photos, visit here.