FYI: for background of my/our experience with honey bees at Sandhill, see http://www.sandhillfarm.org/beekeeping1.php
In my experience as a farmer, it is with honey bees, that I am most humbled. A prime example is this post.
Here is what I wrote May 1:
My last post on bees – only 7 months ago – was very positive and optimistic. To recap, I was very encouraged/optimistic about our bees last fall. They appeared more vibrant and healthy than in many years. We fantasized about the year ahead: we would build up our colony numbers and have a normal honey harvest.
THEN – this winter, we lost more than half of our colonies (11 out of 20) and currently, several more are struggling for survival. How could this happen? I’ve been keeping bees for 30 years – how could I have totally misjudged this situation?
I don’t have an answer; naturally, I have theories/possible explanations:
1. It’s really the mite problem all over again: for about the last 20 years, the varroa mites have been the main challenge to honey bees in this country – they compromise the immune system of the bees, who are then susceptible to various opportunistic diseases.
2. It’s due to a new class of agricultural chemicals: systemic seed treatments; some beekeepers believe that a new class of systemic seed treatments (eg on corn and other crops) have a devastating effect on honey bees. How so? The theory is that the systemic nature of the seed treatments expresses itself in the entire plant including the pollen – which is collected by bees to feed their brood. The effect of this pollen compromises the development of the immune system and health of the bees. Further, the effect may not be noted for 6 months or more since the pollen is stored in the hive until it is needed – which may not be until the following spring.
The symptoms described by beekeepers due to #2 above match what we have been experiencing with our hives. I noted this a year ago – but then I could not imagine how seed treatments could influence the bees (see explanation in #2 above). According to the movie, The Vanishing of the Honey Bee, beekeepers in Europe first noted the connection between the new chemicals and effects on their bees and then put pressure on governments to the point where these systemic seed treatments have been banned in France, Germany, & Italy.
forward to May 22: I have a totally different assessment of our bees; for those of you who are beekeepers, this may not be surprising. The energy of a beehive can be totally different from week to week – depending on the queen, weather, nectar/pollen availability, etc. Now the hives are radically different – the bees are vibrant, alive, and bustling. The energy is palpably different – they are purposeful, busy, and hum with a contented sound.
What happened? It’s a wonderment. Some factors: some of the new queens were finally able to go on their mating flights (good weather) and the populations built up. It seems they need a critical mass to make it all work right. And there are a lot of flowers out now: cherry trees, black locust trees, clover, etc. They love being busy.
Part of it is the natural cycle of bees: at this time of year, there is lots of honey & pollen, queens lay thousands of eggs a day, thousands bees hatch every day: workers to gather nectar, pollen, feed brood, etc. more bees, etc etc. all to say, that this is the time of exploding bee populations when the mites simply can’t keep up (that happens later – in August, when the mite population catches up when the bees start sizing down, getting ready for winter.)
Today June 11: the bees continue to do well. We had the bees make some queens and we started new hives with those virgin queens. These queens have now mated and are heading up energetic new hives (all is right in the bee world – for now).
I am in love with the bees again.