The Importance of Closed Apiaries: Mitigating Disease Risks in Beekeeping

This is an important entry to read in an appropriate order!  Please understand why we are making such drastic decisions in the Whiting beeyard.  Our previous entry will walk you, reader, through noticing symptoms in our hives that were concerning during an inspection.  We went through extensive diagnostic work, research on bee disease, and lots of important conversations on what to do next.

We have noticed symptoms consistent with European Foulbrood, and subsequently got a positive EFB diagnosis in a nuc purchased from a supplier in one of the hives at Whiting. 

Yes, we are learning the hard way the importance of managing a closed apiary.  The risk of bringing in outside bees, as they did come from California by way of Georgia, comes along with risks of diseases.  Michigan State University extension is highly recommending hobbyist beekeepers work towards being more self-sufficient, relying on friends and peers and other hobbyists to make their operation more locally sustainable.  This seems like a really great opportunity to insert a shameless plug that we, Debbie and Elly, are more than happy to visit strong overwintered hives in the spring time and mentor in swarm management.  Splitting bees at this time, coinciding with their natural biology to swarm, is an excellent management tool to prevent losing strong bees to swarm, and helping fellow beekeepers to grow their apiaries. 

It’s also a lesson in why we should run a quarantine yard – this would be a place to house new hives for a year to make sure they don’t have any disease that could spread to our other established colonies. We are seeing now amongst us, have 4 locations where this bacterium has been introduced to bee yards.  Darn it!  Rookie mistake.

Today we are taking the final step in managing the EFB that we have at the Gardens.  The past 2.5 weeks we have nourished the bees with sugar syrup, treated them with antibiotics, and have been very careful to not share “germs” from this hive to anywhere else.

Setting up for the Shook Swarm.

For the final step in the process we will do a shook swarm onto new equipment.

We have an extra bottom board, deep hive body, and inner and outer cover that we will use in this process.  They are set up at the site of the current hive so returning field bees know where to go.

We are using 10 undrawn frames with plastic foundation.  We set them up insider the hive body and proceed to shake all adult bees into the hive.  We are mindful of the queen, inspecting as we make the transition, so that she transfers safely.  All frames are disposed of in a way to prevent bees from trying to rob the stored resources. – bagged and put in the closed dumpster…including brood and stored resources.

The reason we are transitioning to new frames now is that we don’t want the bees to store resources from their crops (a body part that may still contain European Foulbrood bacteria) in already drawn comb. This would serve as a storage space to possibly reinfect the hive when those resources were tapped into in the future.

After 3 treatments with antibiotics, the hive still looks weak.

Also, we are choosing this because the hive is weak.  They have not overcome the disease.  We installed a 5-frame nuc in April, and they have not grown beyond 5-frames.  As we are doing the shook swarm, we are unfortunately very disappointed in the number of even adult bees and wondering if these bees have a chance as late as it is in the year.  Feeding sugar water is a must in this scenario.  For many reasons-  because the colony is weak, because they are on new equipment that needs wax drawn, and because we are in an unseasonable dearth.

This shook swarm is an optional treatment for EFB.  In fact, we personally have made other choices in different locations for management.  But because Whiting is such a small beeyard, because it’s just 1-hive worth of equipment, because this hive is so small and weak….  We are starting fresh from essentially a package.

Yes, this is risky at any time to scrap all the work the bees have put into growth.  It is a little late in the year, and we do plan to feed them for the time they fill out the first story of new frames.

As for the contaminated equipment?  We are discarding all the frames, including larvae, pollen, and honey.  We are disinfecting the inner and outer cover, the hive body, and the bottom board.  The bottom board shall receive a fresh coat of paint before being used again.  Hey, seize the opportunity!  It definitely needs the fresh paint!

The Whiting hives have been in place since 2005; that is 18 years.  This is the first very drastic management decision we have had to make due to “sick” bees.  It is disheartening.  But chalk it all up to a learning experience, and an opportunity to improve our techniques! 

UPDATE:  After a few days the minimal number of worker bees in the hive had made very small strides in drawing comb.  We had a change of heart and decided to use the queen in a queenless split we had made.  The remaining straggler bees may find their way into the split or they may not. 

Now the Whiting beeyard has grown to include:  the package we installed in spring (which has needed management for their growth).  A split made from former students Kathy & Eric which is in the process of queening.  A swarm collected from a soffit at a friend’s house (stay tuned for that captivating story). And a split with the newly introduced queen from the struggling hive.