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Disaster strikes in our apiary, and his name is Jeff

The lessons we learn as beekeepers are supposed to help us. I recently made a catastrophic mistake that also cost us a bundle and lost us some very good queens.

Like many beekeepers in British Columbia, we take our honey off around the middle of August. Anything the bees collect after that is meant for them. This is also the time of the year we apply treatments to knock down the varroa mites to help the bees go into fall and winter with as few of the pests as possible.

We don’t use harsh chemicals in our hives. We try to use mechanical and natural methods to keep varroa in check; brood breaks, drone comb, icing sugar dustings, and the use of hygienic bee stock. But in the fall we also apply a treatment of formic acid to help kill the mites in capped brood and to knock the phoretic mites off the bees.

In April we were in Hawaii where we interviewed Gus Rouse of Kona Queens, one of the largest producers of production queens for the Canada and U.S markets. He explained that formic acid, in Hawaii’s perpetually warm climate, can sometimes have the unintended consequence of killing some brood. Queen losses are sometimes higher, as well. The application of formic acid is best done in overcast, cooler conditions.

I thought I’d be smart and reduce the risk of losing any queens, since we’ve been experiencing gloriously warm weather. So I temporarily de-queened seven hives just before applying the formic acid. Unfortunately, I placed the queens in our too-warm garage, which was being used for honey extraction, and overnight we lost three.

It hurts when you lose three of your best producers. What happened next was worse.

I obtained eight new queens from Heather Higo, one of the best queen breeders in the Fraser Valley. She’s been working until recently with the University of British Columbia and the federal government on developing and testing hygienic queens. She had just finished her contract and was now free to sell queens that she’d raised in her own yards. We’ve put some of her other stock in our hives and they’re terrific. So buying another eight – some for requeening, others to replace the lost stock, was a good idea.

We brought the new queens home and smartly banked them into a queenless hive to await distribution. The seven treated hives still had to have their formic acid strips removed, so I wasn’t into a rush. But nature has a harsh way sometimes  of telling you you’re stupid. Four days later when I went to check on the banked queens, I found nine of 12 – including the survivors from the original dequeening – had died. Just three of Heather’s precious and important girls were alive.

It turns out my mistake was that the hive wasn’t strong enough to care for all the queens; it lacked open brood to entice nurse bees to also care for my new bloodstock. It seems my learning curve is limited only by the size of my wallet.

Back to the drawing board.

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