My son is a fan of a YouTube sensation who calls himself the “Crazy Russian Hacker.” Taras Kulakov came to America from the Ukraine as a child refugee. He’s 30 now. A few years ago, he began making fun videos about things that interest him. Stuff like the taste of military rations, how chainsaw guards work, dry-ice lollipops, exploding giant gummi bears (filmed in slo-mo) – all the while narrating in a thick Russian accent. (His favourite expression, “BOOM!”). Sounds delightful. The young man has a staggering 10 million followers and his videos have amassed over two billion views. That’s right: TWO BILLION VIEWS!!
Last year, Taras got interested in bees. He makes a heck of a lot of mistakes (“BOOM!”), but his love for his bees and his incredible enthusiasm are endearing. Well, this winter, the Crazy Russian Hacker discovered that six of his seven hives – which were strong and healthy in September – are now dead. (“BOOM!”). Taras, a North Carolina beekeeper, suspects moisture killed his bees. But I don’t think so. Please watch his short video before continuing to read my blog post.
I decided to write to the crazy Russian. Here’s the letter I’ve sent. Feel free to add your own comments below. Taras and I will appreciate your thoughts.
My 15-year-old son, Daniel, is a huge fan of your work. He asked me to write to you about your beekeeping disaster. I have been a beekeeper for 50 years – as a commercial operator and also as a teacher, leader or workshops, author of beekeeping books and journal articles. I am also associated with the local university’s ecology department.
First, allow me to express my admiration for your enthusiasm and your attitude towards the world around you and also my condolences for the loss of your bees. Here’s what I think happened.
I think that your bees have died from varroa mites and the viruses which mites carry. You had strong populations which dropped suddenly. They used to call this colony collapse disorder. Not exactly what occurred in your hives, but similar. This is a varroa-associated syndrome.
I noticed (in an earlier video) that you used Api Life Var, which is an organic treatment for “the suppression of mites”. I appreciate your intent to use an organic method, but the ingredients – thymol, eucalyptus oil, menthol and camphor – are only partly able to reduce mites. This is especially true if the bees have sealed brood (your hives had a lot of sealed brood) because the chemicals don’t reach the mites inside the sealed brood where mites hide and reproduce. Under ideal conditions, Api Life Var may sometimes kill 95% of the mites, but you must have no brood in the hives. It’s less effective in a long-season climate like yours and especially ineffective when there is lots of brood in the hives. You might need four or five consecutive treatments which include some broodless periods. I think you may have had only about 50% mite kill. Two months after you treated with Api Life Var, the varroa population exploded and (BOOM!) you now have dead hives.
You are correct that moisture is a leading cause of winter loss, but with moisture, the bees would have been moldy inside their cells and stuck between the frames, not lying on the bottom boards. They would be mushy-wet and covered with mold. The frames would not be as clean as yours are in your video and there would have been five times as many dead bees as you saw.
I don’t like doing an autopsy without first-hand observations, but your video shows good detail. I think mites weakened the hives (this can happen in a matter of days, once the tipping point is reached), most of the bees flew out and died, the remainder did not have a sufficient population to survive, they succumbed to the cold and the blood-sucking mites – and (BOOM!) they dropped to the bottom of the hive.
After falling dead, their bodies were later soaked by the dripping jars. A strong colony keeps their box and syrup warm. But inside a dead hive, the fluctuations in warm and cold weather causes the syrup to leak. With a strong colony, any minor leaking syrup is immediately consumed.
Most beekeepers would not feed their bees constantly through the winter for two reasons. As you correctly point out, it adds moisture to the hive and damp hives are hard on the bees. Secondly, syrup stimulates the queen’s egg-laying. It is better that the colony have a non-egg period when the weather is the coldest, then you should start feeding them right away in early spring (probably February in your area).
Again, thank you for your work and for raising awareness about beekeeping. Your videos are fun to watch and instructive.