Exam Notes 7: A Healthy Bee Colony

Clean, thick with bees!
Clean, thick with bees!

In your lives as beekeepers, you will often hear and be asked “why are the bees in trouble?”

There are so many answers to that simple question.

You will be pulled this way and that in your thinking. The treatment free advocates are convinced that if we just raise our bees organically, there will be no bar to colony health. The hive design advocates feel top bar hives and Warré, in which bees are free to draw their own comb as they see fit, will protect bees from diseases and pests via increased natural vigour. Many advocate teas, essential oils, drenches and commercial “natural” preps of all sorts.

As we have discussed often, the bees are in trouble because of the Three Horsemen. Of the Bee Apocalypse.

Varroa destructor mites.

Degraded/reduced forage.

Pesticides and field sprays.

But in our highly disrupted landscape, in the face of worldwide spread of Varroa, the constant disease and pest spread via mobile, treatment heavy pollination operations (super pests and diseases now arriving at your municipality!!!), unsustainable agricultural practices, global warming, pollution, and fear of stinging insects, we as beekeepers must muddle through. We can only do our best.

We cannot change the world, at least not quickly.

But we can be the best stewards possible to our bees…who in the Pacific Northwest are far, far from their ancestral homeland and need our help to thrive in this rainy, cold, urbanized place we call home.

I have often spoken critically of the commercial pollination operations that are treatment heavy and which medicate prophylactically. I have great sympathy for the economic challenges faced by pollination operations and farmers, but I am also aware of the challenges their practices can pose for bees…we can only face facts and beekeep with that in mind.

You will develop your own strategy/philosophy for healthy, ethical beekeeping. Here is the strategy that so far, is working for me:

  1. bees need good nutrition. Between October and March, there is no food and little opportunity to fly for it, thanks to the winter rains. Bees must be “put to bed” with lots of stores on board, both honey and pollen, to get them through. Because we can’t help the bees while they are tucked up for winter, leave a sugar brick on the top bars in case, for some reason, the cluster cannot move sideways to get at their honey stores. There is no virtue in letting your bees starve to death. In their home range they enjoy warm temperatures and year long forage. That is not the case here, and never will be. If you are breeding bees, by all means select for thrift in use of winter stores as one attribute of a desirable bee. But if you are not breeding bees, or running a big survivor project, feed the bees you have.
  2. bees need to be free from pests, in particular the Varroa destructor mite. All other pests and diseases pale beside the horrific impact of Varroa on honey bees. Unless you are running a survivor bee project, which must be set up well outside the flight range of other colonies (to prevent drift of pests and disease on bees fleeing crashing hives in your survivor beeyard), then I think you have an ethical duty both to the bees and to nearby colonies to control effectively for Varroa in particular, and tracheal mites in general…and small hive beetle in areas where they are an issue. IMHO and experience, effectively means using at least formic and oxalic acid treatments, probably three times a season. I see no point in letting mite populations build to a point where there is obvious stress and impact on the bees before treating. We can’t, alas, yet aspire to eradicating the mites. But we can give the bees the maximum freedom from predation possible.
  3. bees need clean homes, principally clean wax in the brood nest. We are discovering more and more sublethal effects of environmental toxins (pesticides, agrichemicals, urban pollution) on bees. The pollution and chemicals seep into the wax, and the eggs and larvae must develop in the toxic cradle of the contaminated comb. So harvest your comb often, and encourage the bees to draw fresh, clean wax every 2 or 3 years at the outside. It makes for less efficient honey harvests, but we owe it to the bees.
  4. bees need winter protection, which here on the coast means winter emergency feed (that sugar brick!), a quilt box to keep them dry, a rain hat to minimize heat loss, and optional wrapping. I fuss, so I wrap.
  5. bees need good forage. Bees are healthiest when they can choose from a wide range of floral nectars and pollens for a balanced diet. Even in urban settings we can replant roofs, byways, lots, medians, gardens and balconies with season long, healthy bee/pollinator forage plants. Farmers, if they won’t go organic, can at least practice bee friendly spray regimes (no drift, night spraying), and plant strips of bee pasture along the margins of fields to feed bees, pollinators and increase the pollination of the field crop. Municipalities can rework all plantings and unused lands to be bee and pollinator friendly. Every piece of fallow land should be planted over as a bee/pollinator pasture. And we need to go organic as consumers!
  6. bees need an attentive beekeeper to offer aid and assistance when disease and pests strike. There is no virtue in letting your bees die from neglect or a remediable condition. Beekeeper assistance includes making some effort to keep lines of bees that are resistant to local pressures ie. weather, pests and diseases. But in bee-dense (=high drift) areas and areas hosting prophylactically treated pollination hives, and areas awash in a yearly intake of non-local (in our case, New Zealand) genes, it is simply impossible and unrealistic (and, I think, cruel) to demand the bees develop to be “locally adapted”. In addition, we have an ethical duty to other beekeepers in our bees’ flight range to prevent disease and pests from our hives traveling to theirs. So bees need frequent inspection to minimize disease and pest issues…note that robbing screens may prevent drift into your hives of diseased or Varroa-laden bees looking for a new home.

Here endeth the lesson. May you find as much joy and peace in your bees as I have. They are indeed what Dr. Tom Seeley so touchingly calls them:              “sparks of wonderment”

May that wonder always be your companion in the beeyard.

Q-23_beekeeper_with_bees

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