BSI: Bee Scene Investigator

(Note and disclaimer:  The following post might actually contain factual information relevant to beekeepers.)

The bee scene to be investigated

The bee scene to be investigated

All the bees are dead and I want to know why.  I want to autopsy the bees.  Technically, since they are not human  beings, I want to dissect the bees.  But Mr. Beekeeper husband is feeling really sad about these bees.  He feels like he failed to take care of his girls.  We, therefore, are treating his loss with all due respect.  Autopsies are in order.

I  personally can’t wait to dissect…I mean, autopsy…the bees.  It takes me back to the dissection unit of my 10th grade biology class.  I had really squeamish lab partners, so I ended up pretty good at dissecting by the end of the unit.   By the time we got to the pithed frog I felt like I was doing surgery.  It was cool, even though the frog died.

John doesn’t quite share my enthusiasm.  While I set up my equipment, he gets out the build-your-own-volcano kit that Harper got for Christmas.  And he and Harper later go feed a pinkie mouse to the snake.  That apparently is more interestsing than cutting open honeybees.   Nevertheless, John brings a frame containing dead bees up from the basement.

Kathy Harp, BSI

Kathy Harp, BSI

Although the bright flourescent light in the basement is better for microscope work than the warm cozy sleep-inducing glow in the log-framed kitchen, it’s cold in the basement.  So, once again, the kitchen becomes the staging area.  I gather my supplies:

microscope (We need 20x-50x.   The one we have says 1x-2x but John swears it’s 100-200 because he researched the model number when he bought it–at work–from General Electric.)

cork (Plenty of those at our house!  We have a whole jar of wine bottle corks saved for what?  My sister-in-law uses hers to anchor pillar candles in sconces.  I am using mine to anchor honeybees with pins.)

pins (Jos A Bank still pins men’s dress shirts, so I have a bunch of pins.  It’s not like I ever use them for sewing.)

razor blade (No, I do not take apart a safety razor.  John actually has blades in his shop.)

The Beekeeper's Bible (Richard Jones)

The Beekeeper’s Bible (Richard Jones & Sharon Sweeny-Lynch)

Now it is time to actually dissect the bee.  Umm…what am I supposed to do exactly?  It was Richard Jones & Sharon Sweeney-Lynch’s The Beekeeper’s Bible (Stewart, Tabori & Chang,  2011) that put this idea in my head in the first place.  It tells me to pin the bee onto the cork at an angle for better viewing and then cut off the bee’s head and thoracic collar.  This requires a little more research because The Beekeeper’s Bible does not provide me with critical information, like how the heck one finds the thoracic collar of a bee.

Dave Cushman’s instructions provide some clarity.                                        (http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/acarine_diagnosis.html)

This technique can also be used for interrogating the bees.  The flashlight is particularly effective.

This technique can also be used for interrogating the bees. The flashlight is particularly effective.

Oh, the cork is cut at an angle.  The bee is pinned to the cork.  The cut is made between the first and second sets of legs.  The thoracic collar, which is to be pealed off with tweezers, is nicely highlighted in red.

This is where French teaching and beekeeping intersect--the guillotine.

This is where French teaching and beekeeping intersect–the guillotine.

Minor problem.  The thoracic collars of my bees are not highlighted in red.  And, second minor problem, the tweezers are not official dissecting forceps and are a little clumsy to work with.  So, even if I think I know where the thoracic collar is, trying to remove it to get a better look at trachea pretty much rips the bee apart.  Not that I have any lack of bees to experiment with.  I decide, for the sake of my own sanity, to forego the removal of the thoracic collar and just see what I can see.

And just what am I supposed to see?  I  have no idea.  Dave Cushman has some great pictures, but they are black and white illustrations.   I end up at youtube.  Jamie Ellis’ video is very helpful. http://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/afbee/resources/Trachaelmites.shtml

I really have no idea what I'm showing you here.

I really have no idea what I’m showing you here.

Here I actually see video images of what healthy bee insides look like.  Our bees don’t look anything Dr. Ellis’ bees.  I’m thinking maybe our bees have been dead just a little too long.  Either the autopsies are strongly conclusive of mite destruction or they are completely inconclusive of anything.  I lean toward the latter.

Do stale bee bodies mean the end of our investigation?  Not at all.  The presentation of bees in the hive tells us something.  The bees are not as clumped together as we would have expected.  That could be symptomatic of erratic behavior induced  by tracheal mites.  More importantly, we think back to the behaviors of the hives since last spring.

Hive D never did get off to a good start.  It never thrived and was the first hive to die in the fall.  John had thought that it was a problem with weak queens and so he requeened some of the hives.  He didn’t realize that the weakness of the hive in the spring could also have been due to tracheal mites.   Requeening was not a bad idea.  However, according to Dr. Ellis’ report, it would have been more successful with queens who were resistant to tracheal mites.  This supports our current thinking of buying Minnesota Hygienics in the spring.

Do these wings look weird to you?

Do these wings look weird to you?

There is one really obvious symptom of tracheal mites that we have observed but were clueless as to its significance:  bees walking around the beeyard.  More specifically, bees with odd wings walking around the beeyard.  Bees don’t walk places.  They fly.  Walking bees, particularly if they walk up a blade of grass and are unable to take off in flight, are not normal.  We found this phenomenon fascinating.  In hindsight, those are the bees I should have been dissecting.  Those were the bees afflicted with tracheal mites.  Instead, we watched doomed bees wander around on the ground while we sipped chardonnay and beer, oblivious to the knowledge that the doomed bees’ sisters were infected as well.

Oh, how callous we were!  Oh, how expensive a lesson we learned.   We’re like detectives who went out for a drink with the prime suspect and let him get away. And now there are bee bodies everywhere.  Really.  John dropped a few coming and going to the basement.  He thinks he picked them all up, but he didn’t.  The evidence speaks for itself.

Evidence

Evidence

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6 thoughts on “BSI: Bee Scene Investigator

  1. “Walking bees, particularly if they walk up a blade of grass and are unable to take off in flight, are not normal.”

    Have you considered Chronic bee paralysis virus? One form of this causes bees with dislocated wings (like in your photo) and also bees which are unable to fly. It’s associated with varroa and possibly also with tracheal mites. Sometimes tracheal mites have been found on bees crawling or trembling by the hive entrance. This crawling is caused by virus paralysis, but whether the mite acts as a vector for the virus or just happens to be present too is not known.

    For treatment next year, there is some evidence that thymol is effective against acarine, so using Apiguard or a similar thymol based anti-varroa treatment might help.

    Some beekeepers have found feeding ‘grease patties’ to be effective. To make these, cooking oil is combined with white granulated sugar so that the sugar becomes oily and can be formed into a patty shape. A large spoonful is placed on greaseproof paper and placed on top of the brood combs, with an eke to give space. The idea is that young bees eating the patty will have their odour masked. This helps prevent the female acarine mites from recognising them as suitable young workers.

    I love that you had a go at dissecting your bees! Now you will know what to do if you find some freshly dead/dying ones. I had a go once in a microscopy class and it isn’t easy, but I’m sure with practice it must get easier – I hope.

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    • Thanks, Emily.  I was hoping I’d hear an educated response from you!  Our current thinking is to 1. replace the bees with Minnesota Hygienics (resistant to both tracheal and varroa mites), 2. use grease patties.  Using thymol or menthol would be a last resort.  John has made grease patties in the past for winter food, but switched to fondant because of the easier digestability for the bees. He wasn’t thinking about troubles with mites at the time.   Does Apigard or thymol affect the honey–does it have to be applied at a certain time of year?

      As you can imagine, I got a kick out of the dissecting.  Next time I’ll borrow a microscope from school.  And use fresher bees!

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      • Sounds like a good strategy. Why would Apiguard be a last resort? It does affect the taste of the honey (it’s still safe to eat, just thymol flavoured!), so it is usually used in August-September in the UK, after honey has been harvested but whilst temperatures are still warm, as it is most effective in warm weather.

        Enjoy your dissecting!

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  2. I think it’s scary. Bees are going the way of butterflies and no one knows why—or at least they aren’t say why. And what happens if all the bees die globally? No pollination, and then everyone is going to want to know what happened to the bees when of course it will be far too late then…

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