Treating for Varroa

August 27, 2017

There is currently much concern about the health of honey bees. The past decade brought many tales of bees dying at high rates and even disappearing mysteriously. The good news is that we are not in a catastrophic situation – the media likes to hype up things – but it is true that bees are generally less healthy now than they were in the past. This is due to a number of factors: pests, diseases, chemicals used by beekeepers, lack of forage,  pesticides, migratory practices, stress and a genetic bottleneck to name a few. Though it is likely a combination of all of them – death by a thousand cuts – it is obvious to any beekeeper that the most major problem of them all is varroa.

Varroa destructor, an apt name if there ever was one, is a tiny, tick-like parasite that lives on the honey bee.  I say tiny, for it is to us, but if it was in proportion to a human it would be about the size of a basketball. You can imagine the feelings you would have if a gruesome thing the size of a basketball crawled up your leg and attached itself to your hip.

Varroa was originally a parasite on the Asian honeybee. While it could feed on the European honeybee, it could not reproduce in their hives, and therefore was not very harmful to it. But about 80 years ago, when Russian beekeepers brought hives to Korea on the Trans Siberian railway, European bees came into prolonged contact with their Asian cousins. During this time, one varroa made a genetic switch and could suddenly reproduce on European honey bees. The Russian beekeepers brought varroa back to Europe with their bees, and it quickly spread throughout the continent, and eventually to nearly every corner of the world.

Because the European honey bee had not evolved with varroa, it had no defense against it. Not only does varroa weaken the bees by attaching to them and sucking out their hemolymph, but during that process they also are a vector for diseases like deformed wing virus. As the number of varroa grows, the hive becomes weakened. This allows other stresses, which a healthy hive could normally handle, to take a foothold and eventually cause the hive’s collapse.

There are a number of ways to treat against varroa. Synthetic chemicals are the easiest for a beekeeper but each synthetic chemical seems to be effective only a few years before the varroa evolves a resistance against it. Natural treatments like organic acids or essential oils are less effective and trickier to use. To treat our hives we decided to use formic acid, which can be found naturally in ants. It is put in the hive as a liquid with a paper ‘wick,’ and is slowly vaporized into the hive. If the temperature is correct, it kills many of the varroa while doing little harm to the bees.

One important part of the process is checking how many varroa are in the hive. To do this requires taking 300 bees from the hive and combining them with a scoop of powdered sugar in a jar with a screen lid. The powdered sugar helps dislodge the varroa from the bees and then it is possible to shake the loose varroa through the screen lid onto a plate. If you find more than 6 varroa on 300 bees at the end of summer, it is time to treat. If you don’t, the hive will soon be weakened, overrun by varroa, and will eventually perish.

Checking the Bees

June 10, 2017

Every week, or every other week, I check on the bees. It is not good to disturb them too much: opening the hive, blasting them with smoke and moving the combs around throws off their balance and they take hours or even a day before they get back to normal.

But it’s important to check them as well. Honey bees are somewhere between wild and domesticated animals. At this point, colonies would still survive without humans, but in far fewer numbers then we have now. We keepers help bees survive by providing them with proper shelter, food if they are hungry and medicines against pests and diseases. The bees provide us with honey, pollination, and for many of us, a sense of enjoyment, satisfaction, and a connection with nature.

The first thing I do when I get to the hives is watch the bees fly. It is possible to understand almost everything by watching the bees fly in and out of the entrance. One can see the pollen they are gathering, if they are full of nectar, if they are sick, weak or hungry all by watching the activity at the front of the hives and comparing it with others. This skill takes much patience but with years of experience slowly these small details reveal themselves.

To get a better understanding of the colony, I need to open the hive. I put on my veil, hive tool and a spray bottle filled with water. If they bees are feeling testy or I need to work at a fast pace (bees prefer slow and calm movements), sometimes I use a smoker which calms the bees, but most often I go without. When the roof is off, the bees buzz on the top bars and some fly up to check out the intruder. I lever out a comb and hold it to the light. Are there eggs? This is the first question to answer. I look at the bottom of some cells for a tiny white speck, like a grain of rice. If there, it means that a queen is present. The queen is the heart of the colony. If I don’t see eggs, it means the queen has somehow died and hive is in deep trouble. Drastic action needs to be taken in order for it to survive.

After finding eggs, I do a general inspection of the hive. Do the bees look healthy? How is the pattern of the brood? How does the larva look Does it have enough food? Is there pollen? There are a thousand things to look at on the comb, and I look through several more, reading each one like a book in an attempt to understand the hive’s story. Once I get enough information, and take action if needed, I put the combs back together, slowly as not to accidentally crush the queen, and then put the lid back on. Then onto the next hive.

The process of deciding on the second location at the Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) was completely different. The project there was set-up with an intention to promote and open up a space for cross-species co-creation within a local cultural institution. While searching for the perfect publicly accessible site, we were looking for a space that would resonate to the needs of the bees as well as the children, the local commprojecty and visitors of the museum. The first idea was to set up the hive in the public park but there were quite few considerations on potential safety issues.

We decided to search for alternatives. We found a really picturesque and pleasant spot by the river, close to the museum’s garden, where the bees would have an easy access to the water as well as the flowering greenery. Bees need water to dilute honey stores for use in the dry season and to cool the hive in hot weather. After spending few minutes there, a contaminated smell started to infuse the atmosphere of the location and we became aware of the disturbing sound of the electrical generators. Bees can get really irritated by all kinds of loud sounds, from traffic to voices, that is why it is advisable to install the beehives in a calm and protected environment. We moved forward. Circulating around the museum we found few other potential locations, but none of them were pointing to the south-east. It is important for the beehives to stand on this axis as the access to the early light and warmth makes them want to go forage as soon as the morning appears. The longer their day to bring back the pollen and the nectar, the healthier is their family.

In the end we decided to reconsider the location in the park and try to figure out how to prevent the soccer balls, children or the dogs from disturbing bee’s working routine. We asked few mothers sitting in the park how do they use the space. We were curious to know if they think the beehives might be a danger to the kids or kids a danger to the bees or the youth which gathers in the park in the evening times or the rest of the local commprojecty. They reassured us by saying that if there is a sign and a symbolic fence, they are not worried about the safety of their children and welcomed the project in the park.

As a part of the BIO25 associated projects two beehives are now standing in the museum’s park where we unexpectedly spotted a beautiful Ailanthus tree commprojecty. The tree crowns are doing great job with protecting the hives from the hot summer winds and direct sun light and help stabilise the inner temperature.

Find more instructions on choosing the best hive location here.


Next step of setting the location was to figure out the right way to mark the line between the space of the bees within the public space in the park. We were sitting with this question: Is it safe to install the beehives in the public space? Shall we install the fence to prevent the incidents? Is it invasive to install a fence in this public space? If we install the fence, what should it look like? We did not want to impose a restriction or generate a sense of fear among the residents, yet we wanted to inform them to respect and acknowledge the bee activity in the area. We searched for the right material for the fence – wood, ropes, nets … and in the end decided to choose a thinly woven green plastic net which is normally used to cover trees in the orchards to keep the crop safe before the birds. We used the Ailanthus tree trunks as columns around which we wrapped up the net. We created a subtle membrane, which now allows visitors to observe what is happening in the beehives but also symbolically points at the different uses of both spaces. We were inspired by Marjetica’s lecture about working on Soneto commprojecty project where she reminds us that the idea of the open public space as a symbol of security and open society comes from the modernist times and is culturally constructed. She talks how the African commprojecty taught them about the importance of the fence as a tool to mark the territory. In our case the fence assured protection by raising awareness about the diverse needs and lifestyles between the bee and the human commprojecties. Alongside the net stands a public board with a short explanation about the project and the importance of supporting the bee commprojecty in the urban areas.

There are quite many things a beekeeper needs to consider before deciding on the right place for the beehive. Once the spot has been decided it is not advisable to move the bees again, as it can stress the colonies, which can cause them to get sick and unstable. Finding a good location also means making sure there will be enough flowering trees and other plants within a 3 km radius – for the bees to freely forage and survive well. This is how natural beekeeping starts: searching for a good location, finding the base for the beehives and thinking about a safe and easy access.

We choose to set the hives in 2 distinct locations: LivadaLab and Museum of Architecture and Design.

LivadaLab is located in Ljubljana marshes. It is a public laboratory of co-creation and sustainable food production. This green area was offered by the City of Ljubljana to the Biotechnical faculty and a group of local youth workers and volunteers (Zavod Bob) to collectively regenerate and maintain the neglected site. They decided to experiment with various ecological growing techniques, ecological construction, permaculture methods and creative activities. In only one year the site has transformed from an unwanted, abandoned space into a vibrant commprojecty garden of new human-nature potentialities and challenging negotiations. A place where the wildlife of local marches meets the needs of cultivation and culture.

As the initiators are interested in new educational and experiential activities, we thought it could be a great place for putting the hives. After a few short discussions, the commprojecty managers gladly welcomed our proposal.


William and I arrived to the garden with 6 ‘buzzling’ plastic bins filled with honey bees late in the afternoon. It is important to put the bees in their new hives at sunset, so they are not tempted to fly away and find a different home. As the bees arrived from the beekeeper in Kobarid while the hives were still in the making, we used few old hives and installed their temporary housing at Livada Lab. Looking around the site, we quickly agreed on the perfect spot. Slightly hidden from the public eye, it stood on the border of the maintained area. Warmly embraced with the bushes and wild greenery, the site was additionally protected by the shadow of a flowering elderflower tree. First we needed to clear and clean the area: we cut down the high grasses and branches as the bees like to have a clear flight path when they forage for the pollen. When the site was prepared, we found two old logs that the hives could stand on. We discussed and afterwards decided that the beehives don’t need extra protection as the location is not highly visited.


Instead we offered the advice to those in Livada of how to interact with the bees and act around the beehives. It is advisable to stay calm and approach to the beehives slowly, so not to upset them with sudden moves. To be on the safe site, we also introduced few colour coding instructions to consider. Bees have a very complex eyesight system which is the key to their successful pollination. They do not see the reds, yet they have the ability to see UV light which gives them the advantage point when seeking for nectar. The strong colours of the flower petals are a way to communicate the location of the pollen holders to the pollinators. This is the reason they appear in different colour from the leaves. It is also not advisable to wear strong perfumes except the Carnation oil which has a scent that calms them down. The common knowledge spreads to also avoid dark colors like black or brown as the colour reminds them of natural predators such as bears. It would be interesting to discuss this with a beekeeper in Africa. When spending time in the proximity of the bees, it is best to cover all vulnerable body parts with clothes and wear pale and light colours. That is also why the beekeeping suit is white.

We started our production at Andrej’s workshop. We were very excited to see how the wood behaves and looks after we put it on a surface planer. It is the first thing we did, and it looked amazing, something similar to Ash but brighter and with some amazing textures. Together with William, our honey keeping coach, we opted for the LR beehives, because he was familiar with them and also because they were more suitable for our nomadic-freelance-project run lifestyles.

While we were looking for a functional way of constructing the beehives, we found the graduate thesis Posodica, panj in pejsaž by Ivan Juretič done at the Faculty for Architecture in Ljubljana. It was a really nice research of beehives from around the world and from different periods of history. Also it provided a modular way of constructing the various parts of a LR beehive, which we thought might be the best one for our project and appropriate for Andrej’s woodworking workshop. We started the production and working with this wood turn out to be a real pleasure, not too hard, not too soft, everything went smoothly, nice cuts, magnificent textures after the planning. One after another all the pieces for the beehive came out: the stands,the bottom boards/entrances, the ⅔ hive bodies, the covers and the roofs. We also made the full depth LR hive bodies, which we are going to use in the spring and the green roofs that will help the bees cool the hive during summer.


Acquiring Bees

May 15, 2017

How does one get bees? There are two ways. The first is to catch a swarm. Colonies that are very strong in the early spring often feel crowded, so they raise a new queen and split into two families. The old queen and half the bees leave the nest and search for a new home – they swarm. This is what you see when a swarm of bees is floating through your neighborhood one afternoon, or you see a dark, buzzing ball hanging from a tree branch, only for it to mysteriously disappear a few hours later.

For a beekeeper, spotting this ball of bees is a godsend. It’s like finding a 50 euro bill on the sidewalk. All you need is a cardboard box and, depending how high the bees decide to perch, sometimes a ladder and a bit of balance. Knock all the bees into the box, move them into an empty hive in your apiary, and suddenly you have a new family working hard to bring you honey.

If you need more certainty in acquiring bees, as we did, you can also purchase them. We bought four hives from Maria Lučka, a well-known bee-breeder near Kobarid. But we didn’t get full hives; each was just a plastic bucket with 2 kg of bees and queen – a “fake” swarm. The bees can be taken from any hive that has sufficient number, but the queen has to be raised separately. To do this, a breeder gathers eggs from their best hive: the gentlest, most disease-resistant, and strongest honey producer. She then puts these eggs into another hive, one that is tricked into believing it does not have a queen, which then uses the eggs to raise as many new queens as possible.

10 days later, just before the queens will hatch, the beekeeper takes the pupae and puts each one in a small colony which does not have a queen. The bees, ecstatic at receiving a new mother, nurse her into the new world. At first the young queen is unable to lay eggs, but after a mating flight, the only one of her life, she is able to start her work as a queen.

At that moment, the bee breeder plucks the queen from this hive, puts her in a cage, and then throws her in a bucket with a few thousand strangers. The cage is important: it separates the queen and the bees who would kill the interloper immediately without it. But as time passes and the pheromones start to settle, the bees soon accept the queen as their own. By the time we received these swarms, we could just dump them in empty hive, and by the next morning they begin their harvest.

Wood Drying

April 20, 2017

After we sawed the logs into 25mm boards, we transported them to the Biotechnical faculty (wood department), where prof. Aleš Straže and his students made a drying plan for the Tree of Heaven wood, which they had not tried before. For the first two weeks the stack of boards was put outside in the shade for air-drying. In this first stage the wood released its initial humidity, and after that the drying process continued in the kiln for one month where the wood was dried to its final 12-15% of humidity. While drying it is important to know what the final use of the wood will be. For example indoor furniture must not exceed the 8-10%, but for our beehives which will be outside it is enough to dry them to 12-15%.

During the process, students checked the shrinkage and the curving of the boards. At the end we had some shrinkage and curving but nothing that would affect our production process.

Tisa is a company contracted by the City of Ljubljana which takes care of public green areas in the capital and across of Slovenia. They also provide a service for individual needs, for example anyone who wants a tree cut on their land can call them. As the municipality is trying to solve the problem of quickly spreading invasive plants, Tisa is the one of the companies in charge of dealing with the Tree of heaven and Japanese knotweed. We decided to collaborate with them because they best know the areas where invasive plants are present. When we visited their space for the first time we were amazed by the quantity of wood stored there! The majority of wood they collect is used for composite wood material (MDF), but the biggest logs of more valuable types of wood are sold. As an invasive species, the Tree of heaven is not sold, but instead minced for composite wood material. This is where we wanted to step in and explore if the wood is appropriate also for other uses. Tisa provided us three logs, two of them being exceptional, 4m long, 30-45 cm wide and no curves or branches, while the other was slightly curved and with some branches but 60 cm wide. It was amazing to see how fast those trees grew as some rings were distant one from another more than 20mm. The next step was to transport the logs to the mill and saw them into 25mm boards.