This writer predicts that the winter of 2013/2014 will go down as one of the largest, if not the largest, die offs of managed honey bee colonies in North American history.
It is too soon to tell whether or not this prediction will come true, as the data has not yet been compiled; it probably won’t be for another 6 to 9 months. But the stars are aligned, we think, for bad news.
Here in the north (we are in Michigan), the current problem seems to have started in the spring of 2012 when we had unheard of 80 degree temperatures in the first week of March. (As we write this in 2014, the first week of March is only two weeks away and there are plenty of single digit lows predicted until then. What a difference a couple of years can make.)
Those record breaking balmy days set the whole floral community ahead by about 4 weeks. And it stayed that way right up until winter set in. The fall flowers (golden rod and asters) which normally support the last rounds of brood rearing of winter bees did not come at the right time (way too early). Consequently, the colonies went into the winter of 2012/2013 in bad shape. And, of course, the colonies came out of the winter of 2012/2013 in pretty bad shape too.
The summer flow of 2013 for many colonies was not too bad. But the colonies were struggling. A huge swath of territory across the northern tier of states had a pretty severe draught at the end of the summer and into the fall of last year. And this scenario doesn’t even count the historic draught in California and the southwest.
The colonies went into the fall of 2013 (last fall) very light and short of stores. At our local bee club meetings, the word was out last fall to start feeding your bees. Despite heavy feeding, we lost three hives (of 12) by late fall.
With the colonies already stressed and lacking stores, the winter of 2013/2014 has also not been kind to our bees. Record low temperatures, record high snow fall amounts, no suitable days for cleansing flights and a winter that just keeps hanging on is taking its toll.
By mid February, we have lost 7 more colonies and are down to just two. We have no hope for one hive; the other looks a bit better but the spring resources are still many weeks away.
This tale of woe is shared by virtually every beekeeper we speak to. And the reports from other areas and other states sound all too familiar.
None of this even begins to consider the impact of varroa mites, for which it is becoming all too obvious that the mite is winning the race to develop sustainable strategies that will bring this critter under control.
The Silver Lining
Beekeepers sit at the intersection of farmers and crazy people. We share the traits of both. Like farmers, we are eternal optimists. Like crazy people, we are… well crazy.
We are passionate about our bees and tend not to give up so easily. Our club’s group purchase of packaged bees for spring 2014 increased by 250% from last year despite the cost approaching $100 per. Replacement nucs are well north of that figure, if you can find them. Even at these sky high prices, demand will far exceed supply. As we said… crazy.
Despite this gloom and doom, some of our bees (perhaps many) will survive this winter season. The bees that make it will have done so for a reason. Perhaps it is blind luck, but perhaps more likely these survivors have something going for them that gave them an edge.
And therein lies the silver lining that we see in this otherwise dark cloud. We should be paying attention to the bees that make it to spring’s first bloom.
As beekeepers we face a decision as to how we are going to manage this year’s colonies. We will have to either manage for honey or manage for splits and increases. You really cannot have it both ways. Large honey crops need a large population of bees in the hive.
When we split colonies we, by definition, knock back the hive population. If the bee gods are smiling, these splits should do just fine; though they probably won’t make large surpluses of honey for the beekeeper to rob. Particularly if we make multiple splits from the daughter colonies.
But we may have an opportunity here to give our honey bee stock a huge shot in the arm by purposely making multiple splits from those colonies that survive the winter of 2013/2014. Simply put, we need the genes that gave our survivors their edge.
A Strategy to Consider
There are a lot of beekeepers out there that have thought long and hard about breeding a better honey bee. Two names come quickly to mind: Randy Oliverez and Larry Conner. Both have written extensively on the subject. Larry Conner’s book “Increase Essentials” is… well, essential reading for all beekeepers. The basic premise is that beekeepers should run at least 2-1/2 hives. The1/2 part being a nuc. Then with 50% losses over the winter, a mark which we will easily hit this year, the beekeeper will still have two viable hives come the spring. It is good advice.
Personally, we have come down on the side of managing our colonies for splits, knowing full well that our summer 2014 honey crop will probably suffer. But at close to $100 per pop for replacement colonies, breeding our own is making a lot of economic sense. How many hives did you have last year that yielded more than $100 in honey?
So we are proposing beekeepers consider the following strategies to build their colonies back to the number they want.
1. Use their survivor colonies for splits and queen rearing. We need those genes. If you have a complete loss then partner with other beekeepers in your area for splits and queen grafting from their survivors. It will be in everyone’s interest to help their neighboring beekeepers. Again, we need those survivor genes.
2. Improve your skills in managing hives for splits. A good place to start is reading (or rereading) Larry Conner’s book “Increase Essentials”. He also has several other books in this series that would be well worth reading too (“Queen Rearing Essentials”, “Bee Essentials” and “Bee Sex Essentials” are three more that come to mind).
3. Improve your skills in grafting queens. Many local clubs will hold classes on this subject later this spring. Go to them and learn how to graft. It is not hard and can be a lot of fun and very satisfying. Use larvae from survivor hives, either your own or your local beekeepers. We need those survivor genes in the pool.
4. Consider managing a split from a survivor colony for drone production. Drones are half of the equation and are important. Managing a colony for drone production is not that hard. You can simply put in drone foundation and the bees will take care of the job themselves. This needs to be done early in the spring as that is the time when drones are most needed. Encourage other beekeepers in your area to do the same. The idea is to saturate the area with survivor drones since drones from your apiary probably will not mate with your virgin queens.
5. Many beekeepers will be starting with packages this spring. The packages will be coming either from the south (such as Georgia) or the west (California). These bees have never seen a snowflake in their life and there is growing concern that they are ill suited for survival in our northern winters. Using packages to restart a colony is OK, but maybe we should consider requeening these packages with queens reared from survivor colonies. Graft queens from survivors and then put these queens in your package colonies.
6. If grafting or raising your own queens is too intimidating, then consider purchasing commercially raised queens. Try to support those entrepreneurs who are trying to raise “northern” queens. Don’t be shy in asking questions. Queen breeders work hard to provide a quality product and should not be offended when given a chance to explain their production methods.
7. Fall requeening is OK. In fact, the whole practice of requeening colonies during the spring is a rather recent development in the beekeeping world. Times were that queens were always replaced in the late summer or early fall. Of course, seek northern raised queens.
8. If some of your survivor colonies swarm, that is OK. There is nothing wrong with having feral colonies from your survivor stock. These feral colonies will help spread the survivor gene pool (from their drones).
Fellow beekeepers, hang in there. You need to be stubborn (that’s the farmer part of beekeeping) and keep trying (that’s the crazy part). Keeping bees is just as rewarding as ever; we just have to have a strategy to keep it that way.
(Editor’s note: the opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.)