Interstitial Space: Keeping Bees As Best We Can with What We Know

Lots of Questions with Few Real Answers

By Dr. James E. Tew, State Specialist, Beekeeping, The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Auburn University

Editor’s Note: Dr. Tew is the keynote speaker at the upcoming Field Days. His website is

Keeping Bees in the Gap

An interstitial space or interstice is an empty space or gap between spaces full of structure. For the past twenty-six years we have been keeping our bees in the interstice formed between mites not in our bees and mites in our bees. Presently, we know mites are in our colonies but we do not yet have conclusive control procedures to rid our bees of them. We know the question—“How do we effectively control mites?” —but we don’t yet have the final answer.

In what will soon be three decades, we have tried a plethora of remedies. None have positively risen to the top of the “control procedures” pile. Though it has been the goal of scientists worldwide, nothing has been found that will let us routinely keep bees as we did in the 70s. Frequently, today’s bees seem lethargic and weak. Replacement queens don’t seem great. Why? I don’t know. Welcome to bee life in the gap. It’s disconcerting.

A Frustrated Beekeeper

The beekeeper on the phone was upbeat, energetic, and clearly frustrated. He had several hundred hives going into winter of 2010-2011that were strong and heavy. By late January, half were already dead. The fate of the living was uncertain. Sure, he had had winter kills in the past, but not this many this early in the winter.

Through the years, I have heard many variations on this theme and this guy seemed to know what he was talking about. In just about a decade, he had gone from two colonies to more than 400. In many instances only a few dead bees were still present, not like the old-fashioned starved colony of miteless years past where entire dead clusters remained within the hive. Sometimes honey was there and sometimes the colony was already surprisingly light in stores.

What in the world was causing this high winter mortality and what could he do to stop the remainder of his colonies from dying? Was it Nosema ? CCD? Old combs? Nectar from GM plant sources? He suddenly said, “But if you knew the answers, you would be very popular and very wealthy!” Wow! Was he ever right on that score? I’m neither.

Another Frustrated Beekeeper - Me

During the second week in January, snow had fallen and was crunching beneath my feet as I returned from my storage barn. It was a bright day so it was easy to see the little black spot on the brilliantly white snow. It was a dead bee that I duly noted. “Humph.” A few more crunching steps and yet another black spot. “Whoa!” In fact, there were dead and dying bees everywhere. What in the world is going on? My three beehives were near the storage barn. They were from packages in the spring and had built up nicely. I had given them full frames of capped honey. I provided fully drawn combs on which they could initiate a brood nest. They accepted the new queens without signs of supercedure. They exhibited good flight all spring and summer. Now this. Where were all these dead bees coming from?

In fact, they were coming from the middle of my three hives. It was 28° F outside on a bright, still day. Yet the hive was alive with frantic bees at all entrances and a small pile of dead bees accumulating on the ground. They appeared agitated and frantic, as though they were all trying to leave at once. They seemed absolutely eager to die. As I stood there, watching in confused amazement, a few bees departed on suicide flights. What was going on? The same issue plaguing the beekeeper who had called? I don’t know.

Some Thoughts on Unexplained Die-Offs – Both Yours and Mine
Reusing Old Combs

The frustrated beekeeper mentioned his reuse of old combs to establish replacement colonies. That is a common procedure throughout beekeeping. Most beekeepers recycle old combs as they manipulate their colonies. The potential problem with this procedure is a low-key subject that is periodically brought up by various scientists and beekeepers: Beeswax is a chemical blotter.

It seems that any chemical that comes near it is partially absorbed by this wax. It has been suggested that, at some levels, harmful levels of residues are reached that negatively affect developing brood. Testing combs is impractical for nearly all of us. How long to use combs, when to replace, and how to replace are some of the common unanswered questions in this area. This is one of those partially answered questions in beekeeping. We know that chemicals accumulate, but when is too much too much?

As has been the case with most gap beekeepers, the concerned beekeeper on the phone kept records comparing packages initiated on combs compared to longevity of colonies begun on foundation. He could see no difference so he will continue to recycle combs. This event was not analytical science. It does not speak to all of us, but in his case, it speaks to him. For the present, he will not destroy old combs.

Package Bee Costs and Availability

My frustrated caller flatly stated that it was presently worth the money for him to replace dead-outs with early spring packages. Last season his package bees built up in time to produce tons of honey. He installed packages during cool weather in March, something he had never done before. He worried and tossed that night, but all went well.

He has made some interesting observations. Installing packages during cold weather restricts excessive bee flight. Honestly, I never knew what truly happens to all those randomly flying bees that fill the sky when multiple packages are installed at the same time and installed near to each other. I would like to think that they all find a hive somewhere but I know that some (even many) are lost forever.

Installing packages on warm days gives the bees a chance to take cleansing flights and to position themselves on combs, but they do drift toward the end colonies. No big deal—equalize the colonies later in the summer and all is back on course. But installing earlier (and colder) would eliminate a colony equalization procedure and would get the bees on the job earlier.

As we talked, and as I have talked to others, we lamented the fact that winter-kill percentages are significantly higher than 20-30 years ago. In “the good old days,” less than 10% would perish during the winter. Now, 40-50% is not unheard of and the survivors are weak. It seems inconceivable, but will the early spring day come when we find that all colonies have died?

“Well, we would just have to buy more packages.”

How will the package producers keep their bees alive if ours are all dying in significant numbers? Then what will happen to our bee enterprise? Like rotting fruit on a leafless limb, that question just hung out there somewhere in phone land. This discussion was nothing more than a friendly “pity party” and neither of us was predicting that such winter loss events will come to pass. But once we talked and laughed about it, our light-heartedness left a threatening taste. It was the same feeling I had as a kid when I tossed stones at wasp nests. Started out funny but didn’t always end that way.

Even So, Too Many Colonies Die During Winter Months

So, if we agree that we have plenty of questions and not enough answers, what are we to do here in the gap? Like New Year’s Resolutions, each winter/early spring I make a list of things I will do differently this upcoming season.

I am now leaving plenty of honey—plenty. That is a change from seasons past. In fact, I commonly have honey left on the colony for the splits/packages that I install the following spring. But for six years or so, some of the most unexpected colonies have died and on occasion, some of the weakest colonies survive. Go figure.

Am I just misremembering? Decades ago, did populous colonies sometimes die and I have just forgotten? Regardless, I want to address this abnormal winter flight that some of my colonies have exhibited for many years now. Even if the effects of Nosema are not the only problem, I suspect that it may be part of the problem, and I suspect that Nosema has been some part of my bees’ problems essentially every year for many years.

Fumagilin-B Tends To Be Hard To Feed

But here’s the truth: I have always found feeding Fumagilin-B to be a hit/miss procedure. Some colonies would take the medicated syrup while others either ignored it or could not figure out to make the feeder work. The powder would clump and the product was a bit pricey. Time and again, I threaten to put it on the following fall or spring. But officially, Nosema treatments are on my “to-do” list. This is not the first time that Nosema treatments have been on that prestigious list.

Somewhere in Maryland, many years ago, I visited a beekeeper who was feeding sugar syrup in plastic bags into which he had cut clean slits with a very sharp knife. I was certain that the syrup would all leak out. It didn’t. That idea is now being used by some to supply Fumagilin-B medicated syrup in spring or fall. Individuals using this procedure do not have to store feeders and problems with mold growth are eliminated.

While listening to the frustrated beekeeper explain the unfolding mystery, my memory drifted back to one of my earliest academic years in beekeeping: 1975. I was at the University of Maryland, working for Dr. Dewey Caron. I had wintering colonies fecal spotting the whole area so I was using a hemocytometer to count Nosema spores to determine if the University bees were suffering from Nosema. At the time, Dr. Basil Furgala, University of Minnesota, was actively promoting Nosema as the unseen illness of the bee world. Though I really can’t remember, I feel certain that some level of Nosema apis was present then and that it is still very much present today.

Now here I am, 37 years later wondering if I should be looking at Nosema once again for being the current bane of my bee colonies. This time, I will be expecting to see Nosema ceranae rather than Nosema apis but the treatment will still be the same: Fumagilin-B.

I realized that “gap beekeeping” is not restricted to mite problems. We have actually been keeping bees in the gap in regards to issues such as Nosema, American foulbrood, chalk brood and now small hive beetles (SHB). I snapped back to the conversation with the frustrated beekeeper with the refreshed realization that many of these issues are like old, familiar enemies. While we have not defeated a single bee enemy, we—and our bees—are still here. Our bee industry is much like the plight of Andrew Barton:

[quote style="1"]I am hurt, but I am not slain;
I will lay me down and bleed a while,
And then I will rise and fight again. [/quote]

Time and again, our industry has been hurt, but after a while would rise to fight again. So whatever is killing my frustrated beekeeper friend’s bees is certainly making him and many other beekeepers bleed, but we will continue to find ways to keep our bees. After we rest for a while.

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