I’ve been noodling on how to write this post for a while, knowing there was an opinionated idea in my head I wanted to get out, but not knowing very well how to articulate it. Here is my attempt.
It occurs to me the reader may need a bit of background regarding the topic to come. In the Northeast US we perceive there to be a tight bee supply every spring. This has nothing to do directly with hives dying over the winter. This is the supply of bees available for purchase by new and seasoned beekeepers alike.
This supply comes in two forms. The first form is the “package” of bees. A package is nothing but a three pound box of bees, screened on two sides, which includes a caged queen. The purchaser must provide all hive equipment and simply transfers the bees and queen to that equipment. The screened box is just for transport. The second form is the nucleus hive, or nuc. A nuc is 4-5 frames of comb covered in bees including a queen. It is, for all intents and purposes, a working hive. The purchaser buys these frames and they are transferred, bees and all, into the purchasers equipment.
Buying a nuc is of course more expensive because the hive is already established whereas a package is simply bees, nothing more. In PA, the cost of a nuc is approaching double that of a package.
Most nucs and all packages that are available each spring come from out of state, way out of state. Most packages come from Georgia, some from California. Nucs that are available here rarely contain bees that were raised or spent a winter here. The nuc producer is trying to ensure the supply so most are either from bees wintered in the south (ie Florida) or are simply packages brought to PA and grown into a nuc. The person doing this takes on the task of hiving the package and building it into a nuc so a few weeks later can sell it at a premium. If the nuc was in fact wintered in PA, that nuc is worth a very large premium indeed because the perception is that those bees have shown they can survive a cold winter.
The limited supply of both of these forms of bees drives up prices much to the chagrin of seasoned beekeepers who see the prices climb year after year. I’ve heard more than once from more than one local beekeeper that if only we could locally raise and winter enough nucs we could supply everyone who wants bees in the spring. Then we wouldn’t have to import so many from outside the area and prices would fall. More often than not, this is coupled with the idea that locally bred northern bees that survive the winter are far superior to those purchased in packages or those nucs simply made from packages.
While I don’t refute this, it seems the underlying thought is that somehow local bees survive while imported bees do not. I’ll concede that local bees have a better chance at survival than do those from out of the area, but I have yet to see bees that we can simply give to a new beekeeper, they can hive those bees, do a few inspections throughout the year, and then just magically have bees next year. I do think that’s close to how it was once. In speaking to someone who’s been keeping bees for 30+ years, so prior to mites, he said (paraphrase), “We used to show up in April, put our supers on, come back in August and take off our honey, and that was beekeeping.” I don’t think we’ll be there again. If we do get there, I don’t think we’ll get there even within the next 20-30 years. So the idea of breeding a bee that’s so easy to manage that new beekeepers have an incredibly high winter success rate without much management isn’t really practical. Mites have changed the game, and local land use has changed the game.
My next thought is that beekeepers fall into one of three categories.
The first category are beekeepers who experience the 30-40% losses or higher every year, but these beekeepers have so many hives that their chance of being beeless is very low, they’re almost certain to still have bees around come spring. They then spend the spring and summer months splitting their hives to go into another winter with enough hives to sustain those losses yet again and still come out with “some” bees. These beekeepers contribute very little to the demand for bees. Their apiary is sustainable through quantity.
The second category of beekeepers who always seem to have bees come spring are those who have that coveted <10%-15% loss rate, so even if they have 2-4 hives, the chance of them being beeless (and therefore requiring packages/nucs) is very low. I have yet to meet someone locally in this category who does not manage their bees very carefully, and in fact they also manage mites very carefully, which includes treating when necessary. Managing queen-rightness through the summer, then managing fall weight, feeding when necessary, ensuring winter moisture is not a problem along with checking weight throughout the winter and into spring…these are all priorities for these beekeepers. In short, these beekeepers are successful not because they have some awesomely bred strain of local super bee, but because they manage their hives extremely well. I’d wager that these beekeepers could buy a package from just about anywhere and that hive would almost certainly be alive the following spring. This careful management often includes having at least a nuc or two around as a management technique, the nucs being a source of queens, bees, brood, etc to be given to any full size hive that may have issues.
The third category is really the focus. These are the beekeepers who would fall into category one except they keep a very small number of hives. They have the 30-40% loss rate and if we do the math on each of the hives as an independent trial, these small hive numbers mean that this category of beekeeper has a very real chance of being completely beeless come spring. I don’t want to completely pigeonhole this group, but they’re often the beekeepers who blame their losses on the farm next door for some mystery spray, or who have no idea why their bees absconded in the fall while they also have no idea what their mite load was because they never checked, or who in the spring find their bees “starved” with honey just an inch or so away (this is NOT true starvation). This category, along with new beekeepers, is the source of the bee demand each spring.
The first category above would struggle to provide bees for anyone else since in most years they’re simply splitting their own hives to recover to the number of hives needed to get them through another winter, sometimes supplementing this with packages.
As for the second category, those who are just very good at managing their bees, I often wonder what their thoughts are on selling their bees to new beekeepers or people in the first category. I wonder if they don’t just feel a slight twinge of guilt in selling a nuc to those who are probably not going to manage it well and are therefore sending their bees off to have a high chance of failure.
With regards to new beekeepers, I feel that within 2-3 years they will find themselves in one of the three categories. If they fall into category 3 and still stay with beekeeping (many just drop out here), they will need bees almost every spring. In my humble opinion, there is little to no significant difference between them buying a package or buying a local nuc. Yes, the local survivor bees for those in this category might give them a very slight advantage, but it’s not going to take that 30-40% loss rate and make it 10%. If they don’t change their management techniques, those hives still have a high chance of loss. So while breeding local bees is a great end-goal and something we should work toward because yes, their genetics are better adapted to our area, it’s not going to be the panacea of allowing those 30-40% loss beekeepers to magically keep bees alive without some serious changes in their beekeeping.
In short, I feel like those involved in helping beekeepers, myself included, need to focus more on making successful beekeepers vs making a successful bee. We can’t get a successful bee without successful beekeepers and the successful bee, in my estimation, is decades off.
I will label these hives, I will, I will, I will…someday.
All 8 hives survived the winter. One of these was a nuc. I sold that nuc to a friend. One hive then had swarm cells on multiple frames. I made two nucs from those, both mated successfully. After it mated I gave one of those to the observation hive I’m maintaining at the environment center at Governor Dick Park. So a net gain of one 0 after selling the nuc that overwintered. I gave the remaining nuc made from the swarm cells to my son, so a net loss of 1 with respect to the wintered bees, but all alive, just changing ownership.
I got one swarm call so far plus a package this year. The package was really intended to go to the Governor Dick Park, but the nuc went instead as it was more ready to go at the time they needed it.
Status right now is 3 yards. One here at the house, one at the alfalfa field, and a third at a 40 acre plot of CRP land owned by a member of the Lancaster County Beekeepers Society. I’ve also just recently secured a 4th location in which I plan to put splits in July. That location is north of me in a little town called Hopeland which no longer has a post office so is officially Lititz addresses. 3-4 hives will go there.
The home yard is now essentially for nucs. My son wants to be involved in bees so he’s going to try raising and wintering nucs here at the house. I still have the full size hive on the scale here at the house but I don’t think it’s doing well. I’m almost positive it’s queenless. I’ve been giving it frames of brood little by little but they have yet to raise a queen. I think it’s got some laying workers. I’m trying to rescue it but I may have to just use those bees w/splits later on. I may get a super of honey from it this year, I’d say 6 frames at least, but we’ll see.
At the alfalfa I’ve got my usual dud hive that just can’t seem to get off the ground. I took some pictures today, I’m going to post them online and ask for opinions. That location also has the new swarm as well as the package that were both mentioned above. It also has two surviving hives from last year for a total of 5 hives. I think I’ll get 2 1/2 supers from each of the two survivors for a total of 5 supers, maybe it’ll be closer to 6, we’ll just have to see what happens with the rest of June.
The third yard is at Larry’s. That’s his name so that’s the name of the yard. I’ve got three hives there. These three hives are wintered survivors that were at the home yard but that were moved to Larry’s in early May now that the home yard is mostly for my son’s nucs. One of those hives at Larry’s is just unbelievably awesome. On track to easily give 3 supers. A second hive is doing above average, it could attain 3 supers, will definitely give 2 1/2. The third hive is terrible. It’s queenless and barely has any bees. I found a pile of dead bees outside the hive during my visit at the end of May. I don’t know what happened, possibly a swarm that hung off the hive and was battered by rain, I just don’t know. The bees were dead when I saw them, so I wasn’t able to see how they died. The situation almost looks like a pesticide kill, but there are two other hives sitting right next to it that look so good. This hive needs torn down and just combined with the other two. They have what probably amounts to a super of honey, so I’ll put that on the other two hives in some way and shake out the bees in front of those two. I’ll then bring the comb home and try dry ice as a moth deterrent, then use the comb for July nucs.
All told I’m hoping for about 250lbs of honey this year. I plan to harvest the first week of July depending on what’s capped and what’s not.
After harvest I plan to keep the boxes off the hives, which compresses the bees terribly, so at that point I’m going to pull bees from the hives to make nucs. I also may raise some queens for those nucs, but if I’m going to do that I really should plan my grafting date carefully so I can make those nucs at almost the same time that I take the supers off, otherwise I really should plan to give a super back to each hive. I did that last year, and ended up with hives that wintered with 4 boxes. I’d rather not do that, because if I feed I then end up with sugar syrup in a box that could be put on the spring to contain honey. And the bees just don’t need 4 boxes, 3 is plenty since I insulate.
Next post will probably bee either about grafting to produce queens, harvesting, making nucs, or some combination of those topics.
I haven’t logged into the blog in a while and found this post with nothing but a title staring back at me. I guess I was thinking ahead at some point in the past…amazing.
As the real estate adage goes, location, location, location. Jumping a bit, when bees have trouble with disease or queen mating or some other aspect of their lives, we deal with it by changing our management of the hive. We treat, requeen with a mated queen, take some other action to ensure the bees thrive. But what if a location is just a bad location. Rarely do we think about picking up the bees and moving them. We try the other things. We requeen, we treat for things, we swap boxes, we split, etc. But I believe some locations just don’t work for bees. And I think this is fairly localized. Bad locations don’t span tens of miles, it may just be a few miles and a change in sun light, direction pointed, etc, that can take a hive from average to great, or struggling to good.
Today at the ABF Convention, I attended a presentation on the benefits of quality queens. Not that this isn’t obvious, but experimental data was reviewed proving quantitative ways of measuring queen quality. It wasn’t really very practical for in-the-field beekeepers, but it was interesting nonetheless.
Part of the presentation cited this study by van Engelsdorp, et al.
A Survey of Honey Bee Colony Losses in the U.S., Fall 2007 to Spring 2008.
This 2008 survey lists poor queens as the number one cause of winter colony loss followed by starvation followed by mites. I personally have to wonder how many of these losses were due to high mite loads or even moderate mite loads but with high viral loads due to the mites. I think a very high percentage.
I think many beekeepers have trouble coming to grips with the fact that a hive died because of mites. Many beekeepers chose not to treat and when a hive is lost, it’s a jagged little pill realizing that treating may have prevented the loss. I’m not saying a loss is always because of mites, clearly there’s never an “always”, but I think in many cases, even if it’s not an obvious thousands-of-mites-on-the-bottom-board-with-mite-feces-in-the-cells-and-deformed-wing-virus-everwhere mite crash, mites played a role. Sort of like going into the hospital because of heart disease and dying of pneumonia. The heart attack is recoverable, but weakens you to the point that the pneumonia can give you a coup de grâce.
Also in this convention session the presenter asked who had been keeping bees for more than 10 years. He then asked how many people thought queens were a lower quality and had to be replaced more often now than 10 years ago. Almost everyone raised his hand. I then wondered how much of this was simply pining for days gone by, simply thinking that the old days were the good old days, and better, even though 10 years ago we still had mites and probably more CCD than we see now.
I’m wondering how scientists can accurately set the direction for research if the compass used is the personal opinion of beekeepers who may not always be able to objectively diagnose results.
Quite a week planned. PA Farm Show this week and I’ll be helping with the Learning Center on Tuesday. The rest of the week I’ll be attending the North American Beekeeping Conference in Hershey. I normally wouldn’t pay to get to a conference and then pay for the conference, but in this case it’s so close that there’s no travel so I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I hope to get to the EAS Conference in August since it too is just down the road. Not quite as close as Hershey, but close.