(Note and disclaimer: The following post might actually contain factual information relevant to beekeepers.)
All the bees are dead and I want to know why. I want to autopsy the bees. Technically, since they are not human beings, I want to dissect the bees. But Mr. Beekeeper husband is feeling really sad about these bees. He feels like he failed to take care of his girls. We, therefore, are treating his loss with all due respect. Autopsies are in order.
I personally can’t wait to dissect…I mean, autopsy…the bees. It takes me back to the dissection unit of my 10th grade biology class. I had really squeamish lab partners, so I ended up pretty good at dissecting by the end of the unit. By the time we got to the pithed frog I felt like I was doing surgery. It was cool, even though the frog died.
John doesn’t quite share my enthusiasm. While I set up my equipment, he gets out the build-your-own-volcano kit that Harper got for Christmas. And he and Harper later go feed a pinkie mouse to the snake. That apparently is more interestsing than cutting open honeybees. Nevertheless, John brings a frame containing dead bees up from the basement.
Although the bright flourescent light in the basement is better for microscope work than the warm cozy sleep-inducing glow in the log-framed kitchen, it’s cold in the basement. So, once again, the kitchen becomes the staging area. I gather my supplies:
microscope (We need 20x-50x. The one we have says 1x-2x but John swears it’s 100-200 because he researched the model number when he bought it–at work–from General Electric.)
cork (Plenty of those at our house! We have a whole jar of wine bottle corks saved for what? My sister-in-law uses hers to anchor pillar candles in sconces. I am using mine to anchor honeybees with pins.)
pins (Jos A Bank still pins men’s dress shirts, so I have a bunch of pins. It’s not like I ever use them for sewing.)
razor blade (No, I do not take apart a safety razor. John actually has blades in his shop.)
Now it is time to actually dissect the bee. Umm…what am I supposed to do exactly? It was Richard Jones & Sharon Sweeney-Lynch’s The Beekeeper’s Bible (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011) that put this idea in my head in the first place. It tells me to pin the bee onto the cork at an angle for better viewing and then cut off the bee’s head and thoracic collar. This requires a little more research because The Beekeeper’s Bible does not provide me with critical information, like how the heck one finds the thoracic collar of a bee.
Dave Cushman’s instructions provide some clarity. (http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/acarine_diagnosis.html)
Oh, the cork is cut at an angle. The bee is pinned to the cork. The cut is made between the first and second sets of legs. The thoracic collar, which is to be pealed off with tweezers, is nicely highlighted in red.
Minor problem. The thoracic collars of my bees are not highlighted in red. And, second minor problem, the tweezers are not official dissecting forceps and are a little clumsy to work with. So, even if I think I know where the thoracic collar is, trying to remove it to get a better look at trachea pretty much rips the bee apart. Not that I have any lack of bees to experiment with. I decide, for the sake of my own sanity, to forego the removal of the thoracic collar and just see what I can see.
And just what am I supposed to see? I have no idea. Dave Cushman has some great pictures, but they are black and white illustrations. I end up at youtube. Jamie Ellis’ video is very helpful. http://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/afbee/resources/Trachaelmites.shtml
Here I actually see video images of what healthy bee insides look like. Our bees don’t look anything Dr. Ellis’ bees. I’m thinking maybe our bees have been dead just a little too long. Either the autopsies are strongly conclusive of mite destruction or they are completely inconclusive of anything. I lean toward the latter.
Do stale bee bodies mean the end of our investigation? Not at all. The presentation of bees in the hive tells us something. The bees are not as clumped together as we would have expected. That could be symptomatic of erratic behavior induced by tracheal mites. More importantly, we think back to the behaviors of the hives since last spring.
Hive D never did get off to a good start. It never thrived and was the first hive to die in the fall. John had thought that it was a problem with weak queens and so he requeened some of the hives. He didn’t realize that the weakness of the hive in the spring could also have been due to tracheal mites. Requeening was not a bad idea. However, according to Dr. Ellis’ report, it would have been more successful with queens who were resistant to tracheal mites. This supports our current thinking of buying Minnesota Hygienics in the spring.
There is one really obvious symptom of tracheal mites that we have observed but were clueless as to its significance: bees walking around the beeyard. More specifically, bees with odd wings walking around the beeyard. Bees don’t walk places. They fly. Walking bees, particularly if they walk up a blade of grass and are unable to take off in flight, are not normal. We found this phenomenon fascinating. In hindsight, those are the bees I should have been dissecting. Those were the bees afflicted with tracheal mites. Instead, we watched doomed bees wander around on the ground while we sipped chardonnay and beer, oblivious to the knowledge that the doomed bees’ sisters were infected as well.
Oh, how callous we were! Oh, how expensive a lesson we learned. We’re like detectives who went out for a drink with the prime suspect and let him get away. And now there are bee bodies everywhere. Really. John dropped a few coming and going to the basement. He thinks he picked them all up, but he didn’t. The evidence speaks for itself.