Bees and microscopes

Testing for Nosema disease

This week I've had to come to terms with killing some bees and the only way I can look at it is that it's all for the good of the colony. Thirty bees was all that was needed for me to take along to the Exeter Beekeepers Association's Annual Nosema Testing Day where I had previously volunteered to go along to help with getting the samples brought in ready for testing.

A few weeks ago, Bev bought one of her beehives up to The Donkey Sanctuary where I work and has kindly let me open up the hive so I can practice handling bees ready for when I get my own colony. This has already been extremely valuable to me and I now feel more confident opening up the hive and familiarising myself with the way beekeepers work around the hive and their bees. I must say, the warm way is my preferred position for opening up the hive - that's standing behind the hive itself with the entrance for the bees to come in and out at the front. For some reason, it just seems the most natural place to stand. It also seems to be away from their flight paths so less chance of the girls getting annoyed at me standing there!

It was from this hive that I gathered my sample of bees to take with me today. Last week at the apiary, we were shown how to collect the bees and had a go ourselves. Trying to collect them on your own is a different matter altogether! In the end, I used a large resealable bag that I shook some bees off one of the super frames. I wasn't expecting the queen to be there, but did check just in case. In the talk by Mick Street in the afternoon about Nosema and other mites, he demonstrated how he collects his own bees which made the job a lot easier. A note to myself... a bigger bag next time and try holding it in front of the entrance as the bees are flying back out.

Getting back to today's offer of help...

I arrived early at Magdalen Court School in Exeter and went in to find others had already arrived so asked what needed to be done and cracked on. We were all set up and ready by about 9.45am and were shown how to prepare each of the samples brought in ready for the other volunteers down the line to put onto slides and to finally be tested under the microscope. For the squeamish of you, don't read the rest of this paragraph for the preparation requires all the 30 bees in each sample being ground down in 22.5ml of water using a pestle and mortar. This ensures that all the content of the gut is exposed and using a set number of bees, the level of Nosema can be calculated from the droplet placed under the microscope.

It was a busy morning but midway we stopped for a break and listened to a talk by David Friend on the Bailey brood change method which is how to clean brood foundation without too much disturbance to the colony. As a newbee in the group, there is just so much information to pick up and learn from a wealth of knowledge all sitting in the same room.

Nosema Testing Day - 2016

Following on from lunch, which I must say was absolutely unexpected and delicious, we finished off the last samples before Mick Street gave a talk about Nosema and how it affects colonies.

Nosema disease or Nosemosis is caused by a microscopic organism, from a group known as microsporidia. There are two species of Nosema, Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae. Either of these or both together can be found during diagnosis. Nosema passes the reproductive phase of its life cycle within the cells which line the mid-gut of the adult bee. When the parasite enters one of these cells it grows and multiplies, feeding off and damaging the gut cells. After a few days the parasite produces a large number of spores and the gut cell ruptures, releasing the spores into the cavity of the mid-gut. The spores pass down the small intestine and are excreted from the rectum. If the spores are excreted onto comb in the hive then the spores can remain viable in the dried spots of excreta for many months. A worker bee may try to remove the excreta as part of its hive cleaning duties, and so swallow some of the spores. They will pass through the honey stomach into the mid-gut, where they will germinate. The parasite then penetrates the cells of the mid-gut to continue the life cycle.

For symptoms and more information, read Mick's paper on Nosema Disease (PDF).

Mick had also put together some slides of Varroa mites and Braula flies which we all crowded around the microscopes to take a look at. Incredibly fascinating not only to new beekeepers like myself, but also to other beekeepers at all different levels of experience.

If you are interested, out of the 84 samples brought in by local beekeepers, the results were:

  • 51 - Clear
  • 12 - Light level
  • 18 - Medium level
  • 3 - High level

Seems a good result, with just a small number of beekeepers needing to manage their colonies.

I would also like to thank Cliff for his help in showing me how to put together frames as I couldn't work out how to put some of the pins in without the sharp end of the pins coming through the tops of the frames. A great little demonstration to learn techniques and for others watching too to pick up and take away.