History of Bees at Sandhill
Update by Stan from 3/20/12
As indicated then, we have not used any treatments on any of our beehives since April 2010.
Our strategy is to have genetically strong queens & bees so that mite treatments are not necessary.
4/19: we purchase 5 MN Hygienic queens and put them into nucs that we make up from our hives.
5/12 We start a second top bar hive – from package bees that a friend gave us.
This spring/early summer, the bees are struggling: we have hives with no laying queens – are they entirely queenless or did they supersede and the new queen is not laying yet? We also have a lot of swarming . What a paradox: we have queenless hives and others that keep swarming.
We are having a very cool and wet weather – which the bees do not like.
Finally, in August the bees seem to be doing well (it finally got warm and dry!).
September – we harvest honey: about 1.5 gal (18 lb) honey per hive (average). Now the bees appear strong. We order several Russian queens and make nucs to introduce them. BUT then the queens never arrive. Lesson: don’t make up nucs until you have a queen in hand.
The bees appear very strong. We go into the winter feeling confident.
By the middle of April, 9 out of 17 Langstroth hives are dead. HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? We thought they were strong; the hives that died had lots of honey left in the hives.
OK, it was a hard winter; BUT the general beekeeping wisdom is that weather by itself does not kill bees – so that means that something else was in play. The most obvious factor is that the bee clusters (population) were too small – but why?
SIDEBAR - I am on a new theory: well, it’s new to me. I got the info from articles in American Bee Journal (very straight/conventional), the movie “The Vanishing Bees”, and my own observations. It’s about colony collapse and here is what I submitted to my local newspaper in March 2012:
*”With colony collapse, many beekeepers are suspecting that new systemic insecticide seed treatments are a major factor. When I first heard this theory, I dismissed it – after all, how could a treatment on the seed (in our area, mostly corn) have any effect on our bees? I could not imagine our bees digging in the soil and then get killed or somehow affected by the chemicals on the seed? BUT then I remembered that, on the whole, beekeepers are careful observers – so how did they come to this idea?
Here is the theory: these seed treatments are generally known as “neonicotinoids” - but you never see that word on any of the seed tags – there are many other names under that label. The only way I can find that info is to go online and google it (this is similar to the GMO issue – if you read labels on food products to try to find out if they contain GMO ingredients – it is not there; Monsanto and other companies have been lobbying Congress to keep us from knowing which foods contain GMO ingredients – because then many consumers would not buy them).
Back to the story: how do these seed treatments affect bees? It goes back to the word: “systemic”; the chemical applied to the seed goes into the “system” of the plant and is expressed in every part of the plant – including the pollen. Bees collect the pollen, take it back to the hive, & store it for future use. BUT the pollen has the pesticide in it – because of the “systemic” seed treatment. Most of the pollen is fed to their brood (babies) – it is their primary protein food. The nature of neonicotinoids is that they disrupt the nervous systems of insects, making them confused - eg, bees can’t find their hives – which is the classic characteristic of “colony collapse”. In high enough concentrations, it kills them. This also fits my observations of how our bees have been acting.
Can I prove this? NO. There are no conclusive studies. This theory is based on research & observations of scientists and beekeepers in this country and Europe (beekeepers in France, Germany, & Italy actually got neonicotinoid seed treatments banned – but then under pressure from the chemical companies, these restrictions have been mostly lifted). However, this theory is popular among commercial beekeepers – who are keen observers of their bees.
So what can a conscientious beekeeper do? I have been scratching my head on this one (some of you know that I’m bald!!). First, I asked my neighbors what corn seed they actually plant. Sure enough, the corn seed they planted in 2011 contained one of the neonicotinoids – this confirmed my suspicions. So this year (2012), I went to the corn seed dealer in our area to ask if they carry any corn seeds that are not treated with neonicotinoids. NONE! I AM SHOCKED! Of course, they can get untreated seeds but I don’t think that my neighbors will go for that – although all organic farmers do (since I am an organic inspector, most of the farmers I meet are organic, plant untreated seeds, and their operations are just as profitable as the conventional ones).
What else can I do? Why not just keep our bees at home? Ah yes, how to do that? With dogs, you can put them on a leash, but bees? Maybe use fishing line to tether the bees? OK, enough jokes already. We try to keep our bees close to home: we plant different crops so that we have flowering plants all summer long; however, bees will fly and visit flowering plants as they choose. And they don’t seem to know where our farm borders are – we see them flying all over the place (within about 2 miles).
So why am I writing this article? When I talk about this with others, I find that most folks are fascinated – these kinds of connections are not obvious. Agriculture and life is constantly evolving and changing. I find it interesting that every day choices that my neighbors make (eg, what corn seed to plant) affect me/our bees – even though they have no idea about that. And I can’t help but wonder about an agricultural system in which the primary crop planted (corn) is lethal to any/all insects that taste it. What it is doing to the animals we are feeding this corn? And then you & me - who are eating this meat?”
*end of article.
So now back to our bees in 2011.
Many of our hives struggled for the first half of the summer; by struggle, I mean they would build up population – but only slowly. They did not “explode” as a healthy hive will do in the spring. Several hives lost their queens (lost??? – where did they go? What happened?). We gave them eggs from a neighboring strong hive so that they would raise their own queen – sometimes, they did & flourished, others kept struggling. Sometimes they would make a new queen and then swarm. WHAT? How can they swarm – when they are weak? It just does not make sense.
Except – what if the theory about the neonicotinoids is accurate? One of the characteristics is that the bees are often confused/disoriented. That certainly fits.
End of 2011: another disappointing honey harvest – about 1.5 gallons per hive. Enough for our own needs and a little to sell. But at this rate, we are spending money & time on bees – with very little return. Of course, bees are also our friends – a labor of love. I cannot imagine not having them.
Going into winter the bees appear incredibly healthy and vigorous (similar to last year). Once again, I am hopeful – but cautiously.
One discordant note: one of our top bar hives dies in the fall. Actually they diminish quickly and virtually no dead bees left behind – reminiscent of colony collapse symptom. But it’s only one hive – hard to make a generalization/lesson from it.
It’s a mild winter. I see bees flying a few times in Jan. It appears that all hives are active/alive. WOW!
March: one top bar hive and one langstroth hive dead. Interesting statistics:
Since fall of 2011: 2 out of 3 top bar hives are dead (BUT these are supposed to be more natural & healthy!! Only 1 out of 20 “regular” (Langstroth) hives died. Our sample size is small – but we keep wondering…..
The rest of the hives are doing well: well, some are quite small – but they are alive; that’s the bottom line. They all have laying queens and are raising brood. Due to the warm weather, they are building up population quite ahead of (usual) schedule.
Re ahead of schedule: we have a dear friend who has a 500 apple tree orchard. Every year we send 2-3 hives to his orchard to pollinate his trees. His schedule is that he likes to pick up our bees about mid-April because his trees start flowering about April 20. This year he picked them up on March 20 – the trees are a month ahead.