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.
Ron,yes I would agree with your assessment. The bees likely died first and then the syrup dripped and froze. The fact that the syrup is dripping down indicates it did so AFTER the bees had died. A live colony would never let the syrup stay there and freeze like that.
I might emphasize that he really needs to check the mites before and after treatment, regardless of what he uses. If he has 5% infestation beforehand with brood, then you can do the math. Call it 50,000 bees so 5% is 2500 mites. I think up to 70% can be within the brood, so let’s call it 50-50. That means of the 2500, only 1250 are active on the bees with the other 1250 in the brood. Even with a 95% kill rate (which is high) you kill about 1190 mites, so there are 60 left with the 2500 still in the combs. So you are still left with over 2.5% infestation before winter, and in a warmer client the bees keep making brood and that grows even higher before cold weather arrives. If the bees find a colony that they steal honey from, the mites will grow even more due to bringing them home with the honey.
I am in Virginia, north of him, and would recommend he not use the wraps. With the screened bottom boards he has, there shouldn’t be any moisture problems in the hive, and he can get a sense of the mite load by checking the bottom board once a week or so. The mice damage he showed might well have happened after the colony was already dead. His weather, like ours, stays warm into October – November, so he needs to keep checking the mite load in these Fall months as well. You can get a huge build-up in these months as the bees ramp down and the mite population explodes.
Finally, waiting until August to treat might also be problematic. If the load is high in June, then the viruses build up and you have a problem hive before you even reach August.
Thanks for the post!
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Good advice! Thanks for commenting!
Hello Ron, He certainly learned a lot this season! Besides the obvious that he pointed out, he needs more ventilation in the hive in addition to some type of insulation on the top; remove the screened inner cover for the winter and use a moisture quilt or put foam inside the outer cover. I glue popsicle sticks inside my outer cover so it doesnt set tight and make a sugar shim with an upper entrance. The sugar helps with absorbing excess moisture plus you have the extra feed on and can put a pollen or winter pattie right in without disturbing the bees too much. A mouse or shrew are capable of fitting through that size entrance. His bees could also have nosema cerana. The capped brood in one of the hives had holes in the cappings so I’m not sure if they stopped capping them or they were uncapping.
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Moisture is a killer and he’ll definitely use better ventilation next year. Nosema may have been there, too, but we don’t see stains on his boxes so it probably wasn’t the main problem. I can’t be 100% certain, but his losses were probably mite-related.
I’m not sure I agree with the moisture issue. He lives in North Carolina where it is a lot warmer and drier in the winter. He might do a foam cover, but otherwise this shouldn’t be a problem that far south. I would also leave the screen bottom board on for the winter. Again, much warmer climate and even at the base of the hive should be enough to deal with any minor moisture issues.
oops, I forgot to thank you for your blog!
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Arghhh!! Poor Taras!! the mite thing—I agree your analysis is what explains his losses. But, as a TF beek who never counts mites (I see the occasional phoretic mite) my advice would be to leave all that counting, treating, etc behind and get local stock from swarms. Also, Solomon Parker has a link on his website for TF nuc sellers all over the United States. Here—http://parkerbees.com/map.html Too many newbees use bees not adapted to local conditions and dependent on chemical regimens—the bees die even when they are treated correctly because the mites are getting resistant to the treatments. He is a very fun character, by the way! Well spoken, too.
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Thanks, I think that Taras began with packages. That’s how most new beekeepers start, but maybe next year we’ll see videos on his site where he’s collecting a swarm from a tall, tall tree!
Quick question, as I never wrapped my hives (I live in a quite warm place)… wouldn’t that kind of wrapping reduce air circulation, increasing moisture inside the hive? If moisture is a problem I would just allow for better ventilation, but from my little experience I agree that moisture isn’t the main issue this time.
Regarding stored honey being present only in the top box, I would think that the bees clustered in the bottom one, where maybe the brood was, and after they consumed the honey they had there, they weren’t able to move up due to cold? Yet I didn’t see any bees dead with their heads inside the cells, looking for food, so maybe this isn’t right…
Hi Daniele, I think that you are right – there was no sign of starvation. Taras is in a moderately warm area so the bees would have moved up to the honey if they needed it.
He likely over-wrapped his bees for winter but with the big empty space on top, and with his local climate, moisture was likely not the problem.
Almost undoubtedly it was mites. His big strong hives in September died with only small numbers of bees on the bottom boards in January. Their populations crashed. Mites can do that.
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