Well here we are, it’s early February and the package bee orders are rolling in! Each year it seems like as soon as the days start getting noticeably longer, beekeepers start thinking about spring and a new start. To most it means replacing dead outs and many are adding a few new hives. In this era of varroa and all the related problems associated with mites, too many bees go just to replace hives that died out over the winter. I wish that this wasn’t the case, but no matter how hard we try, 20% and sometimes as many as 50% or more of the bees in the northern half of the country die each winter.
It is very easy to blame all these losses on varroa mites or other mysterious malady’s, but the truth is, that’s not all that goes wrong. Let’s take the last season for example. As I mentioned in an earlier post ( The year with no summer!) , last year was a disaster. Any nectar flow was spotty at best and the queens just stopped laying brood by mid July. This resulted in small populations of old bees going into the fall and many colonies died before winter set in! This, my friends, for the most part, could have been avoided. Yes, that is what I said, it could have been avoided! The problem was that many beekeepers realized too late in the game that their bees were in serious trouble. The old days of supering up in June and forgetting about the bees until fall are long gone. If you expect to keep bees in this day and age you have to be more watch full during the summer. This includes watching the bees but also minding the nectar flow, or lack thereof, as well.
By mid summer I was feeding sugar syrup to many of my bees. Mostly the ones that I had started in the spring as replacements and for increasing my number of hives. By September 15th, I was feeding all of my bees and I didn’t stop until November 1st when it got too cold. It cost thousands of dollars but the end result was that I got the queens laying in the fall and for the most part, they went into winter cluster with a good population of young fat bees. While it is early yet, I have snuck a peek at some of my bees and from what I can see, they seem to be doing well. Light on stores but healthy. I expect to start feeding in a couple weeks because we are still 9 to 10 weeks away from any nectar flow and they just don’t have the reserves to go that long.
This is not really a new problem or a new remedy! In 1908, “A year’s Work in an Out-Apiary by G M Doolittle” (re published by Wicwas press in 2005, available from www.wicwas.com), Doolittle confronted a similar year. It rained when it should have been sunny and was sunny when it should have rained. By judicially feeding combs of stored honey back to the bees, he was able to keep the queens laying and still managed to get a very respectable crop of honey. I collect back issues of Gleanings in Bee Culture (going back into the 1800s) and often spend nights reading them. A recurring problem is winter losses of 20 to 50%. This was long before varroa ever caused the loss of a single colony in this hemisphere . Time after time, the writers of these old articles stressed the importance of feeding not only to prevent starvation, but also to stimulate large clusters of young healthy bees for the winter. They also say time and again that no other livestock enterprise could tolerate such huge losses and still remain in business.
Don’t think for one minute that I am claiming to be immune to winter losses. I have killed bees in most imaginable manners and then some. But one thing is for sure, I vowed years ago not to let any more bees starve. While it costs money to feed bees, it costs a whole lot more to replace them in the spring, not to mention the lost honey crop or potential splits they might have produced. Each spring we all vow to do better than last year and some of us do just that, and some just keep making the same mistakes. I keep thinking of Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day” Every morning he wakes up and keeps living the same day over and over until at the end of the story he sees the light and gets every thing right. Then he gets the Girl and can go home! Perhaps this is what we beekeepers are destined to do.
In any event, we still have package bees available, although the March load is sold out. This year because we can only get so many packages from Wilbanks, we also will have 5 frame nucs available in mid to late April. We have a good supply available and hope to be able to meet the demand. These nucs will come with a queen who was mated in the nuc and there should be no issues with queen acceptance. In addition, because they are stocked with frames of brood, they will have new bees hatching out from day one and the populations will continue to expand immediately instead waiting four weeks for newly hatched bees like a package requires. This benefit out ways the additional cost of a nuc over a package.
So, like they say in the movie ” Wake up campers!, It’s Groundhog Day!!!!