Bee Seizures – toxins or illness?

Last August I noticed scores of bees crawling around my garden with intermittent little seizures every couple of seconds or so.    They did not fly, and were constantly thrown off course and even onto their backs by the seizures.  It was disturbing to see, and I began trying to find out what was going on.    There was surprisingly little information on the internet, and the bee disease specialists I contacted had no clues.  As far as I can tell, the possible causes of such symptoms are toxins and viruses, especially the Acute Paralysis Virus (APV) which is associated with Varroa infestation, which I also had last year.   This year, I’m seeing it again, but no mites yet at all.   On any given day there are a number of bees on the ground displaying these symptoms.  Here is a video of one of them:

These crawlers do not make it back to the hive and die on the ground, leaving a scattering of carcasses around the garden.   I’m interested in other people’s observations and/or ideas about this phenomenon, so please let me know if you observe anything similar.   This year I’m trying various herbal combinations to both enhance immune resistance to parasites and to help the bees detoxify any chemicals they may be exposed to.    I’ll post again if anything develops from these treatments.

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Comb builders extraordinaire!

This year there is more than expected bridge comb, and in some cases truly crazy comb in the top bar hives, and also the foundationless Langstroth frames.   This means the bees have used their own sensibilities to build the bones (comb) of their colony and not followed the nice straight wax strip indicators we provided them. Only three of the eight hives I manage this summer have followed directions in comb building.  So good for the bees!  They are building just the shape and size comb they need right now.  But rather difficult for us who would like to inspect the comb and look for a healthy brood pattern, pollen and honey stores, and the all important swarm cells (multiple queen cells produced in anticipation of swarming).    Once significant amounts of bridge comb are built, the options are few.   Earlier in the season, while the comb is developing you can go in and straighten and cut to promote straight comb, but even then they may still keep building across the bars.   By July, with cases of extreme bridge comb, the remaining options are:

1)  to go ahead and cut away the connecting comb between bars or frames with a long knife.   This certainly frees the comb for inspection but it also creates a mess of honey and ripped open brood in the middle of the box and is really not a very good idea.  The brood will likely die, the bees will have much extra work to clean up and repair everything, and the bridge comb may well be reestablished as they do so.

2)  to set up some saw horses and boards, set your boxes down then crawl under with a smoker and flashlight and do an inspection from below.    It is difficult to see the brood pattern from underneath, but swarm cells are usually apparent hanging off the bottom of the combs.   All you need to see is a couple of uncapped brood cells, either from above or below, to know your queen is alive and laying.

3) to weigh your boxes with a luggage scale to determine amount of stores.   This gives you a good idea of how well the bees are doing in terms of gathering stores.   My Warré boxes ranged from 10 lbs. to 30 lbs in late June, so, given the cool wet weather I chose to feed the lighter hives 1 quart of syrup.

4) to check your pull out bottom board regularly, keep it clean in order to monitor new deposits, and learn to read the signs it carries.   The amount and nature of the debris on the board tells one something about the activity inside the hive.   Keep a sharp lookout for mites, they are small brown specks, more round in shape than the other debris, and uniform in size and shape.   They also have a shine to them unlike the other material on the board.   If you suspect mites, take a magnifiying glass and confirm it.   A mite looks like this:

Varroa destructor - the varroa mite

5) to become a keen observer of entrance traffic and through this, learn to read the signs of activity.

These options are listed in order of the most invasive to the least.   In each situation it is a judgement call as to what approach to use.

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Feeding Bees

In an ideal world, honeybee colonies are immortal superorganisms that can adapt to whatever mother nature brings their way.   But in the real world of the early 21st century, honeybee colonies are weakened, often die within a year and are overwhelmed in their ability to adapt to chemical and EMR pollution, disease, seasonal fluctuations of weather and unreliable food resources.   So, while it would be nice to be able to say there is no need to ever feed your bees, the truth is, their survival sometimes depends on supplemental nourishment.

Still, some beekeepers never feed their bees— they allow their weaker colonies to die, and this certainly has it’s justification.   Each person must make up their own mind about supplemental feeding of honeybees according to their values and sensibilities.   If you choose to feed your bees however, here are some guidelines and recipes to minimize the negative effects.

When to Feed.

 The simple answer is to only feed bees when they absolutely need it.   The trick is to know when that is.   At the time of hiving a new package, nuc or swarm, supplemental nourishment will support them in the massive effort of getting established.   In an established colony, feeding may be helpful during extended bad weather or nectar dearths.  Tipping the hive on a regular basis to check for weight is a good way to stay in tune with the amount of stores inside the colony.   A very light hive might benefit from temporary feeding if there is no nectar flow.

 How much to Feed.

This question has an easy answer too, but is also difficult to put into practice.   The answer is to feed just enough to keep them from starving, but not enough for them to store the supplemental feed in large quantities.   The challenge is in figuring out how much is enough.  If you give a new package as much sugar syrup as they want, they might easily take a quart a day for 4-5 days before slowing. But, if you open the hive a couple of weeks later, you will find a considerable store of the syrup in capped cells put away for later use.    So they didn’t actually need all of that in the short term, and the extra syrup will contaminate the future honey harvest.

What to feed.

This is a more complicated answer.   Ideally, you can feed your new packages with your own honey.   Honey from any outside source may contain disease spores, and even conventional wisdom dictates it’s just not worth the risk.    The other factor is cost, feeding bees honey is expensive, unless you have your own surplus.

The next best thing is a PH adjusted, organic, herbal sugar syrup with essential oils.   The herbs make it easier for the bees to assimilate the sugar, the essential oils are medicinal and palatable, and reducing the PH to that of honey makes it much easier for bees to tolerate without getting sick.   Making such a concoction requires a time commitment, but in the long run, a healthy colony is worth it.  Below is a recipe for an organic herbal syrup.

You can also just feed them simple sugar water, in a 1:1 ratio, but this is hard on their system.  Finally, some people, and most commercial operations, actually feed their bees high fructose corn syrup.   This is a worst-case scenario and is not within the scope of natural beekeeping practices.

 Recipe for Herbal Sugar Syrup


Spring Water or filtered water if possible (not distilled however)

*  Organic Sugar – use only the lightest sugar, even white sugar is OK.   Dark sugars contain too many minerals and can make the bees sick.

Organic Chamomile – loose or in tea bags.   Brew as in a light tea, steep one bag per quart for just a minute or so.  Chamomile is a unique herb that is particularly suited for bee syrup.    According to Rudolf Steiner, chamomile moves the sugar toward honey a bit, making it easier on the bees’ digestive system.

*  Your own honey – a small amount of honey is helpful to provide enzymes to the syrup.   Syrup must be cooled before adding honey, otherwise the heat will denature the enzymes.  If you don’t have your own honey (from your bees) or honey from a trusted friend, skip it.   The introduction of disease spores into the syrup is not worth it.

Sea Salt – a pinch of salt is important to facilitate the distribution of the nutrition throughout the bee’s small body.

PH adjuster – use either vitamin C (powdered), lemon juice or cream of tartar, enough to bring PH down to 4.5 or so.   PH test strips or a meter are helpful here to get the PH correct.   This is a very important step, since honey is considerably more acidic than sugar, the bees have to work hard to digest the higher PH of sugar, bringing the PH down beforehand is greatly beneficial to the bees.  I have found that 2-3 tsps. of lemon juice per quart is about right.

 Optional Ingredients

Other organic herbs –  Kitchen or medicinal herbs like thyme, rosemary, cilantro, nettles, comfrey, lavender, lemon balm.   Keep the herbal tea light, and use you own sensibilities about herbs.

Essential Oils— these can be added for either flavor or medicinal actions.   The essential oil of thyme, eucalyptus, oregano, lemon balm, tea tree are all good, but especially thyme and eucalyptus for medicating for mites or dysentery.   To promote the dispersion of the oil, you can first mix the drops of oil (2 drops or so per batch of syrup) with  1 tblsp. lecithin or vegetable glycerin before adding it to the syrup.


The proportions of sugar : water depend on the purpose of feeding.

Fall Feeding or during nectar dearth – 2:1 –(2 parts sugar to 1 part water)

Spring feeding or to administer medication – 1:1  – (1 part sugar to 1 part water)

Syrup Recipe  (Using spring feeding proportions, adjust accordingly otherwise)

1 part sugar
  (use an amount appropriate to you needs)

1 part water

– organic chamomile flowers or  chamomile tea bags – enough for a light tea.  (+ other herbs if you are using them)

– spoonful of your own or a trusted friend’s honey

– pinch of sea salt

– essential oils if you are using them

– PH adjuster:  an acidifying agent from the list above to bring the PH to 4.5.


Bring water to a rolling boil then remove from the heat. Add chamomile + any other herbs you are using, let steep for 2 minutes.   Remove tea (strain if needed) and add sugar, stirring until fully dissolved.  Add salt.  Mix thoroughly.  Let cool to just luke warm, add honey.   (see note below on heating honey)  Add essential oils, then adjust for PH at the end.

Heating Honey – Heating honey leads to drastic changes in its chemical composition. Heating up to 99°F causes loss of nearly 200 components, parts of which are antibacterial. Heating up to 104°F destroys invertase, an important enzyme. Heating up to 122°F turns the honey into caramel (the most valuable honey sugars become analogous to sugar).  Essentially, heating honey destroys its value both as bee nutrition and medicament.

Storage and Temperature of Syrup

Syrup can be stored for a few days in the refrigerator, but bring it to room temperature before giving to the bees.   Syrup will ferment if left out too long, especially in warmer temperatures.  Fermented syrup can kill a bee colony so error on the side of caution and check the syrup often if you are leaving it with the bees and they are not taking it.

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A Tough Spring for the Bees.

The spring weather in the Northwest this year is no easy ride for the bees.    The few fickle days of warming in March, then dramatic cooling again, persistent rain, wind and general cool temperatures, still dipping into the 30’s at night all combine to create multiple problems for the bees.    Bees need about 45 F to fly at all, and do better when it is over 50 F.   Rain is a major problem too, and when combined with chilly 40ish- 50ish temperatures they can get caught away from the hive and never make it back.   Add to this the fact that the plant world carries on with its splendid bloom cycle, showing beautiful spring color all over the city, yet so far the blossoms offer mostly pollen.   Pollen is a protein source for bees, and an important part of their nutrition, but nectar provides the carbohydrates they need to burn for energy.   Nectar flow requires warmth. How much warmth varies somewhat from plant to plant and sunshine can greatly compensate for lower air temperatures.   So far this year, despite the fragrant air and lovely colors, there is little nectar for the bees.      On the other hand, many of the weak colonies from last year are already dead, and the strong ones can hunker down and live off their stores.  It’s taxing for them though, because once the queen starts laying, those brood must be kept at a constant 95 F for 21 days.   The energy demands on the workers in generating such warmth are considerable, and they need the carbohydrates from honey to do this.   So lets hope for warm temperatures, and if you have a colony, tip the hive to test for weight and feed them if they feel light.

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Getting Bees: Swarms, Nucs & Packages

According to principles of natural beekeeping, the best way to get bees is to collect  a swarm.   A swarm occurs when a colony is in good health and decides to split off a portion of itself, including the old queen.    The swarm leaves behind a well stocked hive with plenty of honey stores, pollen, a strong brood nest, one or more new queen cells and about 60% of the workers.   A swarm is the way the colony reproduces itself and is a natural part of honey bee life.   When you start a new colony with a swarm, you know you have a harmonious and bonded group of bees and a reasonably strong queen.   These days however, most beekeepers keep their swarms to replace the heavy losses experienced in the winter.   If you are lucky, you can find one willing to give or sell you a swarm.

A July swarm from summer 2010

The next best thing is to buy a nuc.   A nuc is a “nucleus hive”, which means a small version of a full size colony artificially created by a beekeeper.   Typically nucs are 5 frames of comb, several with honey and pollen and a couple with brood, along with a host of workers and a queen.   The nuc hive may be created in late spring by the beekeeper, once the spring nectar flow is underway and the colonies have built up their populations.   A nuc hive is not a natural swarm, so has not undergone the natural selection of individuals that occurs in a swarm, but it is generally composed of bees from the same colony, and hopefully also one of their own queens.   The frames from the nuc hive are simply placed in your own hive and allowed to grow into a new colony in the expanded room.  One caution about nuc hives:  most beekeepers today use either wax or plastic foundation in their frames, neither of which is compatible with natural beekeeping principles.   Also, virtually all nucs available today are in Langstroth frames, and thus cannot be transferred to top-bar hives.

The least desirable option, yet often the only one for beginning natural beekeepers is the package.  A package is assembled by a very large commercial operation.   In the northwest, the closest package sources are in northern California.   A  3 lb. package of bees consists of about 10-15,000 workers and an unrelated queen.   The queen is enclosed in a cage, and the bees are provided a can of corn syrup for nourishment on their journey.    Packages can be ordered by mail, but it is far preferable to order through a local beekeeping group whereby packages are picked up and driven directly to their destination in a minimum time and with care for their ventilation and warmth needs. Packages are ordered between January and March, and usually are ready for pick up sometime in April.   They cost between $80-100 or so.   A package of bees is a completely artificial group, they have been haphazardly culled from hundreds or thousands of colonies and thrown together randomly.   The queen is artificially reared and likely to be highly inbred.   The good news is that despite all of these stressors, many packages are able to bond together, accept their queen, and build themselves into a healthy colony over the summer.   Within two months most or all of the workers will be genetically related and thus harmoniously bonded in their work together for the colony.

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The Art of Natural Beekeeping – A class for beginners

The first and second natural beekeeping classes were so fruitful and fun that I’ve decided to do a third one for those who couldn’t attend.   This class will be on Saturday, March 26th, from 10am – 3 pm.  It is designed as an introduction to beekeeping from a natural perspective, and emphasizes knowledge about the life history of bees so that one can steward them without interfering with their natural inclinations.   It includes a practical how-to of installing a new hive, and presents the various benefits and drawbacks of different kinds of hives.   My goal is to provide you the basic knowledge and familiarity to become a new beekeeper this spring. Please bring a lunch.  Cost: $30.  Teens and children under 18 are free.  Call 206-790-0464 or email to register.  The class will be held in north east Seattle.


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