Definitely Dead

Dead bees clustered around the Queen on top bar 10 of the Carniolan Hive

Dead bees clustered around the Queen on top bar 10 of the Carniolan Hive

The Carny hive, suspected of demise (and then a spark of hope), is now, finally, dead.

Here is what I found:

Of 23 top bars drawn out with comb, bars 13-19 were heavy with honey. Dead bees littered the floor below bars 3-12. The Queen Bee was found on bar 10, surrounded by her attendants, all eerily still. There was a tight cluster of capped brood next to the Queen, adjacent empty cells with anywhere from 2-6 eggs per cell. Worker bees were found clinging to comb and head-first in cells, most densely around the Queen comb. Many more dead were found layers deep on the hive floor. There was no honey in bars 1-13, only capped brood and some pollen cells.

Did this hive starve to death? Were the honey combs at bars 13-19 just too far from the brood chamber as winter drew to a close? I vaguely recall a recommendation to move honey comb to the front of the hive late in winter. This could be our novice fault. :( It seems reasonable that the cold snap in February could have weakened the hive, killing off the brood we saw on Feb 13, but the Queen kept laying, and while trying to build up their numbers, they starved to death… This was also the hive that suffered an intial setback resulting in loss of its first honey stores. Plus the open window found in December. These could all have played a role…

I have decided to utilize the diagnostic services provided by the APIS Molecular Systematics lab at Washington State University. If I send them up to 1 c. of bees in isopropoyl alcohol, they will check for incidence and prevalence of common diseases, including nosema, varroa mites, and tracheal mites. I will report back on the findings.

In the meantime, tulips are blooming, the Italians are going strong, and spring is (hopefully) here to stay. It is the best time of year, full of hope and promise for the new year.

Posted in bees, spring, top bar hive | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Hive Alive!

Italian honey bee with pollen packet on the pussy willow tree

Italian honey bee with pollen packet on the pussy willow tree

It’s still too chilly out to do a full hive inspection, but experienced beekeepers are easing our fears of calamitous collapse in our Carniolan hive. Last week when I wrote to Christine, our neighbourhood beek captain, she immediately assuaged my fears with the following:

The mold in itself is not unusual, since during winter the bees often are in a tight cluster staying warm and can not attend to housekeeping chores in other parts of the hive. As soon as things warm up and numbers increase they will start spring cleaning. The same is true for the dead bees.

The moisture in the bottom of the hive is also not unusual. It might be from a leaky roof, but it might also just be condensation from the bees keeping it warm inside.

The key is if you have a cluster of bees, and esp. if you have a queen. It sounds like you had a queen until recently, based on your observation of larva (dead). It is not unusual for a batch of larva to perish due to a cold snap.

Italian honey bee collecting nectar and pollen from the first crocus blooms

Italian honey bee collecting nectar and pollen from the first crocus blooms

The last few sunny days, as the Italian hive was buzzing both inside and out, we saw a very small but steady stream of Carni bees emerging from the Carni hive. Today, Christine came by for a quick peek. Towards the front of the hive we found ample honey stores and many more bees than we expected. We also saw Carnis returning to their hive with loads of bright yellow pollen. The next time it’s 60+ F and we can get in there, we will do a full hive inspection and see whether we still have a laying queen. Until then, we rest easier knowing there is nothing terribly unusual or disastrous transpiring. Whew!

Anybody else suffer a loss this winter?

Italian honey bees on the flowers of our pussy willow tree

Italian honey bees on the flowers of our pussy willow tree

Posted in bees, honeybees, top bar hive, winter | Tagged | Leave a comment

A cry for honeybee help

Moldy bees stuck to hive

Moldy bees stuck to hive

Moldy bee at top of comb (bar upside down for inspection)

Moldy bee at top of comb (bar upside down for inspection)

Water pool on hive bottom with dead bees

Water pool on hive bottom with dead bees

Dead bees amid some sort of dusty particles

Dead bees amid some sort of dusty particles

Live bees working at honey cells at the top of a comb near the hive entrance

Live bees working at honey cells at the top of a comb near the hive entrance

Brood comb with pasty (dead) bee larvae

Brood comb with pasty (dead) bee larvae


What do you do with dead bees? I don’t mean the steady trickle of bees who have lived out their useful lives. I mean couches of bees in fungal shrouds. The ‘uh-oh, my bees are dying’ kind of dead bees.

We had a brutal week of sub-zero weather followed by warmer weather with buckets and buckets of water falling from the sky. Today was mild and sunny and, though windy, the Italians were out sunning themselves. The Carniolans, on the other hive, were dreadfully silent.

Looking at the hive entrance: One or two bees flying out. Looking through the observation window: Handfuls of dead bees on the hive floor. So, without even gearing up, we went in. There were bees in there, but orders of magnitude fewer than we expect (i.e. 100s instead of 10s of 1000s). And the newest comb, furthest from the brood chamber, carried dead bees married to the comb by puffy fungal threads.

Ruh-roh. Newest comb empty since summer. A few bars in, recently capped honey in the middle of the comb, but with dead bees below and within cells. In the middle of the hive, dead bees in what appeared to be a pool of water towards the broken window. At the back of the brood chamber, we found white larvae curled inside honeycomb cells, but rather than glistening white, the larvae were pasty white – possibly dried out – probably dead. Other cells appeared to contain putrescence.

As the sun was moving on towards the Pacific we closed the hive back up to try to figure out what the heck to do next. Is the hive dead? Did the bees die because water got in past my crappy lids and broken window, challenging the already-damp conditions? Do we sacrifice the moldy combs, contract the hive, and see if it can recover? How do we dispose of the dead bees (in case they are diseased)? Can we eat the honey in the capped cells even if there is mold present on parts of the comb (where dead bees are)? We could seriously use some advice.

Posted in bees, Fungi, honeybees, rain, top bar hive, winter | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Neem oil to control chicken lice – a.k.a. I am such a geek

Soaking Blanca

Soaking Blanca in a soapy neem oil bath

Yesterday was sunny and ‘warm’ (45 F), so rather than watch the Superbowl, we treated our chickens for lice. After talking with fellow members of the Seattle Farm Co-op, I opted for the soapy bath with neem oil treatment in conjunction with a deep coop clean.

We filled a 6 gallon bucket with warm water, stirred in ~1/8 c. of dish soap, and ~2 tsp neem oil (neem concentration ~ 1:2000). Scott held each hen in the bath for 10 min, massaging the water into her feathers (while simultaneously holding wings to prevent freakout in the flightiest birds). Then he would lift the bird out, wipe down the excess water, and wrap her in a towel.

My job was to blow dry them. I kept my hair dryer on low and my hands bare so I could sense the heat. With a hen on her back nestled in my lap, I carefully moved the warm air over her breast and haunches, then flipped her over to get her neck, back, wings, and butt. But 10 min is not enough time to dry a sopping wet chicken. So after I moved on to the next bird, each damp hen joined her friends in the waning sun. Nobody died of exposure.

As I ‘blew out’ the hens, I saw a lot of dead lice and some, but not all, of the eggs masses had loosened. I saw no moving lice. If we killed all of the adults, then we have only the unhatched to deal with. A louse that hatched yesterday would start laying eggs in 14 days. So that is the absolute latest that we can do a follow-up treatment.

Turns out it wasn’t just Blanca who was infested. Four of the five birds had egg clusters on the feathers of their lower abdomen. When I picked up neem oil at the Seattle Farm Co-op today, Fynn told me that every fourth person was complaining of lice on their hens. It turns out that many flocks experience autumn or winter lice infestations, most of which are caught from wild birds (sparrows are particularly susceptible to M. stramineus).

Toweling off Blanca post-bath

Toweling off Blanca post-bath

Blow-drying (on low) a soggy Blanca

Blow-drying (on low) a soggy Blanca

After treating the hens, we emptied, and then vaccumed, the coop. Finally, I sprayed all of the crooks and crannies with a dilute neem solution (1 tsp in a 20 oz spray bottle).

And then I geeked out on chicken lice.

Menacanthus stramineus is a member of the ‘chewing’ (rather than ‘sucking’) family of lice, taxonomically belonging to the same Order as human head lice, but not the same species, genus, or family. As a result, they only live on some birds and die within a week of separation from their host.


Scientific classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda (includes animals as diverse as beetles, butterflies, scorpions, crayfish and crabs)
Class: Insecta (insects)
Order: Phthiraptera (chewing lice, including human head lice)
Suborder: Amblycera (most primitive group in Phthiraptera)
Family: Menoponidae (bird lice)
Genus: Menacanthus
Species: stramineus

I even delved into the scientific literature on chicken lice and treatment methods.

The only highly relevant study on neem oil and chicken lice was a 2009 paper by Pablo et al. published in International Journal of Poultry Science [8(9):816-819] in which various plant extracts, including neem oil, were applied to treat M. stramineus. They found that neem was highly successful as a ‘dip’ at a ratio of 1:2000 (oil:water). Not only did the neem eliminate lice over three treatments (84%, 94%, 100% removal), lice continued to be 100% susceptible to neem treatment after two sets of reinfestation. Wow.

Posted in chicken coop / run, chickens, education, geek, pest control, Scientific, Sustainability, update | Tagged , , | 3 Comments