Thyme Hive is Sick

We did go into the hives last week – May 24 – but I didn’t post about it because the hubs took notes for me and helped me clean up a bunch of cross-comb mess instead of taking pictures. It was definitely a four-handed operation, so it didn’t get any media attention.

The cross-comb in both colonies was probably caused because we waited too long to add the next boxes. Both hives were chock full of bees and brood and the queens had run out of good places to lay eggs, so the workers were drawing out comb everywhere. I’m lucky this was the first year with new packages, if these were second-year colonies they would probably have swarmed when they got that crowded. So now Thyme has three medium boxes, and Rosemary has two.

But the very next day we started noticing problems on the landing board of Thyme. Worker bees were getting in fights, and there were a lot of dead bees on the ground in front of the hive. At first we thought the other hive – or some other colony from somewhere – was robbing. That is the usual reason for fights on the landing board. But then we noticed that the “robbers” often looked very different. They had shiny, hairless, black thoraxes and were a little smaller than “our” bees.

Bee with virus
These two were both dead on a rock in front of the hive. The one at the bottom right of the photo looks like our “normal” bees. The one at the upper left looks very different – hairless thorax and abdomen, skinnier wings, she’s oddly shiny…

I had heard of sick bees described as “greasy” before, but that didn’t occur to me right off. I was stuck on the adjective “shiny.” So I thought maybe it was some odd species of native bee or even a small kind of a wasp. In my own defense, look at her – without all the hair, that’s a tiny little waist. That’s usually a wasp indicator – hence the expression wasp-waisted.

I posted pictures and questions to my local beekeeping association Facebook page, and one of the wonderfully helpful members forwarded my message on to the head apiarist at N.C. State University. He was the one who recognized the symptoms of a virus. No way to tell which virus from these symptoms, there are a lot of bee viruses that look alike. In fact, this article published by the National Institute of health states that 18 distinctive bee viruses have been identified so far.

On the shortlist of possible culprits that Dr. Tarpy suggested:

We looked closer, and realized that all of the “odd looking” bees were acting strangely – trembling and staggering around, apparently unable to fly and looking a little confused.  The fighting behavior was increasing as well. This is apparently an effort by the healthy bees to kick the sick ones out of the hive to protect the rest of the colony

A few days later we started finding bees who still had fuzzy hairy thoraxes acting the same way: trembling and staggering.

I’ll very likely never know exactly which virus has come to attack my bees, but the short answer is – it kind of doesn’t matter. There is no way to treat any of them. The recommendation of all prevailing authoritative wisdom is “if you have a bee virus, it is probably vectored by varroa mites. Treat the hive for varroa mites, and the virus problem should clear up.”

This is excellent advice. However … I don’t have varroa mites.


I know, every beekeeper in the Whole Wide World that is reading this is now thinking “you dummyhead, of course you have varroa. Every beekeeper has varroa. The question is how bad you have varroa, not whether have varroa.”

No, seriously. I don’t. Yet.

I am not naive nor am I a fool (at least, I’m pretty sure. Shakespeare¹ suggests I may not realize it if I am.) I understand that at some point in the future, probably soon, I will have varroa. Everyone does. I get that. But it is highly unusual for package bees, installed two months ago (wow, has it been two months already? tempus fugit, eh?) to have a serious varroa mite infestation this early. Unusual is not impossible, so I have been aggressively looking for evidence of varroa mites just to be sure.

I have a screened bottom board with a mite-counting IPM sticky board that goes under it. These are used to count how many mites naturally fall off of – or are groomed off of – adult bees. The procedure recommended by this paper from N.C. State University is to leave the board in place for 24 hours and to take action if your mite count in that time is over 60-90.

After 48 hours my sticky board mite count was ZERO.

So I got more aggressive. While I was in the hive today, I found a frame that had a lot of drone brood on the bottom, and I cut off two good-sized chunks of it and brought them in. Varroa prefer to reproduce in drone brood, so if you don’t have any mites on the adult bees in your hive, drone brood is the place to look for them. They sneak into the cell right before the drone larva gets capped. Varroa mites reproduce so fast, and drone larvae are capped for so long, that the mites can reproduce up to two generations while the drone is pupating.

So I sacrificed about 70 cells of capped drone larvae, and dissected them.

These are the sections I cut out.
These are the sections I cut out.
These guys will never turn into adult drones - but they also do NOT have any varroa mites on them.
These guys will never turn into adult drones – but they also do NOT have any varroa mites on them.
Fifty drone pupae in various stages of development, and not a single mite to be seen on any of them.
Fifty drone pupae in various stages of development, and not a single mite to be seen on any of them.

I am going to call the state bee inspector on Monday morning and ask him to come out and inspect this hive. I have no idea what to do now. If there are no serious varroa problems, I need an expert to help me sort out what else is causing, spreading, or making Thyme vulnerable to this mess.

In happier news, everything except the virus-infected bees looked absolutely great. Capped brood, uncapped larva of various ages, stored pollen and nectar, capped honey, cleaned-out cells where new bees have hatched out …  the queen is laying well and the hive is growing. I’m just not sure yet if it will grow fast enough to make up for the attrition from the bees that are dying from this illness.

This is the frame that I cut the drone brood out of.
This is the frame that I cut the drone brood from. 
Lots of bees. Drawing out LOTS of comb. They have about 18 frames fully drawn out already and a few new ones started.
Lots of bees. Drawing out LOTS of comb. They have about 18 frames fully drawn out already and a few new ones started.

¹ “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Spoken by Touchstone in Act 5, Scene 1 of “As You Like It.”


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