Breathe Deep

On a cold day in February a colony of honeybees is best left alone but not this day.  Rain and wind, clouds and colds couldn’t stop me today.  The feeder had to go on.  The bees had to eat, and they needed to eat now.  In the syrup I carried with me lay the key to their survival, the only way to catch their breath.

Many parasites infect the honeybee but few the same way as the tracheal mite, or t-mite.   Tracheal mites, as their name implies, infest the trachea of the Honeybee.  Imagine if an insect the size of a cockroach were to crawl into your lungs.  Imagine it never leaves.  Imagine it breeds more and they live in your lungs and esophagus as well.  Now you know what tracheal mites are like.

The mites live in the bee tracheas.  They are parasitic but the harm they do to the bee by feeding is low compared to the obstruction of the bee’s airway.  Nosema, this disease is called.  Tracheal mites are not as brutal as Varroa, their vampire mite cousins.  That doesn’t mean they don’t kill bees just as well.  Most colonies that die in late winter and early spring die from one of two causes.  Starvation is number one.  Nosema is a close second. 

The syrup I carried with me was hot, so hot it almost hurt to touch and with reason.  I had just mixed it up and medicated it to fight the tracheal mites.  The warm syrup would attract bees to feed even on a cold day.  They would come for the warmth.  They would stay for the syrup.  The medication would just be an added bonus.

All winter long I provided grease patties made of shortening, sugar and essential oils.  These oils help combat the mites and whenever the weather was warm there were bees nibbling at the edges.  Nosema is a silent killer.  There is no k-wing or parasitic mite syndrome to diagnose.  It most often takes hold at a time when bees aren’t flying about anyway.  It can reduce the colony strength by sixty percent.  Diagnosing it means beheading a bee.

There are no bee guillotines – the goal is to pull the head off of the bee in such a way that the trachea is exposed.  The beekeeper begins with a dose of alcohol or similar substance to dull feeling (the beekeeper’s).  Next the head is pulled off a bee, leaving the trachea exposed or trailing behind.  The trachea should be clear.  My bees had black trachea clogged with mites.

The day before I had performed a French revolution at the bee hive.  Marie Antoinette and King Louie and a dozen others had been beheaded to satisfy my desire to be certain these were tracheal mites.  They were.  Bee pathologists will study the trachea under a microscope.  The rest of us just look for dark tracheas. 

Within moments of filling the feeder the first bees crawled up to the steaming syrup.  These first responders would act as medics for the rest of the hive, delivering the syrup mouth to mouth, bee to bee until the entire colony has received it.  This process will repeat over and over until the nosema are wiped out.  They won’t be gone.  They just won’t be a factor in a hive with a thousand new births a day.  Bees communicate by scent, so the smell of wax and honey, of propolis and hive scent is an essay to a bee on the state of the colony.  To me it is the scent of _life_, and before I left I took another deep whiff of hit.  _Breathe deep, bees_, I thought.  I will.