It is what we all dream of. Fat, healthy bees literally spilling out of the hive as we pry up the inner cover. Loads of bees. Gobs and gobs of bees!
But we have all opened up the cover to something different. Crushingly different. The empty combs, a few lonely bees wandering about. A tiny, rag-tag court huddled around a bewildered queen, loyal to the (soon to arrive) end.
Your heart sinks, and you ask yourself “what have I done?“
I had my share of disappointments this season. Varroasis, caught too late. Queenlessness or swarming, caught too late. The chagrin of realizing I had left a stick of queen lure in a hive that was meant to be raising a queen cell. EFB. Drought and attendant low or vanished nectar flow. Competition from banks of pollination hives. Bad advice, noob thinking. In my first two seasons of beekeeping, we had perfect bee seasons. Nectar and pollen levels were high, the weather perfect. It didn’t matter how inexperienced or unlearned I was, the bees throve. Not this year. It seemed everything that could go wrong, did go wrong!
I was, variously, angry, disappointed, frustrated. I had a lot of thinking to do. Clearly, I had to learn more about what I had done…and what I hadn’t done.
Fortunately, I had decided to tackle the Washington state Journeyman Beekeeper Program. My study group and group mentors were enormously helpful and a rich source of local beekeeping knowledge. I had also come across an interesting local Facebook page, for Miller Compound Bees (run by beekeeper Lauri Miller). I was taken by Lauri’s photographs of bursting hive populations and truly enormous queens.
My hives did not look like that. My queens did not look like that.
One thing immediately became obvious: Lauri runs largely for nuc/queen production = reproduction. And she feeds her hives heavily as a consequence. In study group, we happened to be discussing Spring Management. I had been struggling with the how and why of spring feeding, wary of building the hives up and actually pushing them to swarm….my neighbour is not too happy about swarms. My mentor suggested a few resources to review, and then went on to say:
Janet, I would rather deal with the single problem a big, booming hive presents (swarming), than the host of problems weak and small hives are heir to (disease, pests, robbing, poor reproduction, poor queen raising, poor honey production, poor viability particularly over winter).
That became my lightbulb moment.
A large, well fed, robust colony presents you with options. Good options. Fun options. Options that move you toward your beekeeping goals.
Weak hives don’t. And while you pour time and resources into a struggling hive, you are taking a huge risk with the rest of your beeyard. Is this hive on its knees because of bad genetics? Is the queen just substandard, and her offspring as well? Unable to forage effectively, unable to build up good numbers, subject to stress and disease? If you prop such a colony up, are you fielding lacklustre drones that may mate with your new queens? Are you creating a reservoir of disease and pests that will infect your other colonies? These are serious questions about serious risks.
We also discussed the effect the very dry year was having on our colonies. Our main honey flow, from blackberry, came early and ended quickly with little nectar in the flowers. Once that was done, the colonies began to stall. Nowhere was this as evident as in the new colonies I had made that spring. Nucs that should have been building rapidly under a newly mated queen…weren’t. And the strong, overwintered colonies were flying well, but they were not increasing. The queens were responding to the prolonged dearth by reducing their rate of lay. The hives were light.
My second lightbulb moment came when, in mid August, I realized I had to feed to get the hives up to winter weight. Our typical late summer/fall flow was not going to be enough. And in study group, we were now talking about Fall Management and about putting protein patties on the hives, in spite of the fact the bees were hauling in huge loads of pollen. The general consensus was: if they eat the protein patties, then give them all they want. The bees know what they need, and it was time to make sure the winter bees were being raised up under optimal conditions. Maybe all that pollen coming in was not enough, or not the right type, or was being stored. So supplement and see what happens.
A lot happened. The protein patties disappeared in a twinkling. As did the syrup. Brood suddenly appeared in the hive, the populations started to rebuild. Nucs began expanding again. Comb was being drawn (although we ended the year with a lot of partially drawn/badly drawn frames). It was striking how fast this happened, how much better the bees looked.
The question of how and when to feed is a ticklish one. The proponents of locally adapted bees rightly feel that you should match your bee genetics to your local conditions, running bees that bloom where they are planted, and don’t need extra meds, extra feed, extra time and expense.
But against that you have to stack the issues of Varroa infestation, the overwhelmingly degraded forage opportunities that now prevail, agrisprays (in particular pesticides in the standing waters your bees drink), overpopulation and resultant disease transfer, the effect of truly feral and/or treatment free apiaries on nearby colonies. And my climate has little in common with that of the ancestral homeland of Apis mellifera.
So again, it was time to think and gather information. Another Journeyman study session rolled around. We talked.
We explored the “bloom where you are planted” theme. My Washington state fellow students have access to many lines of American bred bees, many of which are attempting to field bees with meaningful Varroa resistance. Here in Canada, we do not have a very robust bee breeding industry, we have few or no feral populations (to infuse our drone congregation areas with survivor/Varroa resistant bee genes), and we can only import package bees and queens from New Zealand (and those bees, while great foragers, have demonstrated only weak abilities to deal with Varroa). My urban area beeyards are awash in that tide of annually imported New Zealand genes. Unless you take your bees to remote locations, or only hand inseminate your queens, your bees have zero chance of being locally adapted or Varroa resistant.
Let me repeat: in an area where genetic isolation is impossible, and which experiences an annual wash of imported genes, you cannot breed wild mated, locally adapted queens.
And in any case, bees with a reasonably attentive beekeeper do not need to be adapted to the local weather. Honey bees thrive under a wide range, a surprisingly wide range, of biozones. What they cannot weather is Varroa infestation, and starvation. I can’t run survivor bees, because even if I had survivor queens, I have no way to ensure they mate with survivor drones. And I can try to sow extra bee forage about, and encourage my neighbours, municipal government and farmers to sow pollinator patches, but I can’t really do much about the forage available to my honey bees. And every year, banks of pollination hives full of bees I do not tend or monitor for health or pest levels appear in local, nearby berry fields. Which themselves are sprayed often.
But what can I do for my bees? What is possible?
Randy Oliver’s series “Fat Bees” got me thinking.
From David Eyre of The Bee Works, who has a wonderful set of DVD’s and online information pages, I have learned I can minimize swarming while building the hive if I give my bees lots of room to expand their brood nest, keeping it open, and keeping it growing with easily drawn foundation. So next year I will dip all my existing plastic foundation in my own clean beeswax to help out the bees, and start using wax foundation in the wood frames. David’s information on the Nicot method of queen rearing looks like a good fit for my beeyards in 2015.
From Lauri Miller, I have learned that it is good to feed up the bees to ensure you can raise effective, healthy foraging forces who themselves can raise optimal queens. So next year I will feed more freely, and more effectively/strategically. Particularly if, like this year, the weather is dry and the competition from pollination hives intense.
From Grant FC Gillard, who has self published a number of simple, focused beekeeping guides, I have learned that I need to give the bees drawn comb well before the nectar flow, and super wisely to support/maximize available honey production. And that I need to pay much more attention to the nutrition available to developing queens.
From my Journeyman mentors, I have learned I need to hone my spring management skills to prevent swarming while still building those elusive monster hives, how to evaluate my wild mated queens, restocking my hives with the newest, best queens in late summer, and to practice careful Varroa control. Particularly when early season drift off nearby pollination and treatment free hives means I will be getting extra doses of Varroa.
In 2015 I will focus on healthier, fatter, and sassier bees. I will work smarter, and harder! I will reduce the number of hives I am caring for so as to have more time and attention for each. I will control Varroa, choosing the least toxic methods available to me.
All in pursuit of Plenty and Grace.