Taking Advice...Playing the Odds

By | October 14, 2011

I’ve given much thought to losing both hives last year, and to the reasons.  I think the main reason was not treating, as late in the season I clearly remember seeing deformed wing.  By the time you see that, you’ve got a mighty mite load.  But I also reflected on the advice I received last year, mostly online since that’s how most of us connect these days, but the advice probably would have been the same if received locally and face-to-face.

The advice was given by those with many hives, and by many I don’t mean 50 or 100, but 10-20.  When asked if this action or that action should be taken, the result was by and large the same, “It doesn’t make a difference.”  Insulating, closing off bottom boards, etc.

The point of this is that those with 7 hives, 10 hives, 20 hives, giving advice to new beekeepers with 1-2 hives is a tricky business.  First, because the new beekeepers is just that, new, which means the hives, too, are new.  Second because decisions about performing labor for the bees are made based on return, and it’s a matter of odds. 

Let’s say the chance of a first year untreated hive dying over the winter is 40%.  This sounds high, but first year + untreated means a tough first winter.  The experienced 10 hive beekeeper probably doesn’t have many first year hives, so his odds of loss are automatically lower.  But even if they were the same, he’s making his labor decisions based on what he thinks will happen and what he can do next spring.  With 10 hives, he’ll have more than a few surviving hives, probably make splits to cover the losses, and maybe even get some honey if the flows are good.  I know I’m simplifying the math and the world doesn’t necessarily work this way, but if we look at each hive as its own independent trial, we can work this like a binomial distribution.  With 10 hives, his odds of being completely wiped out are 1/100th of 1%…that’s losing all 10 hives when each hive has a 40% chance of dying.  To lose even 7 or more hives, his chances are only about 5 1/2%.  This means he has over a 94% chance of coming through winter with at least 3 hives.  A terrible loss to be sure, but he still has bees.  Remember, his labor decisions are made with this in mind.  Spending hard earned cash along with the time required on medication, treatment, insulation, etc, is weighed against these odds.  And as we’ll see these probably are not the new beekeepers odds.

New beekeepers generally start with one hive, maybe two.  Now lets look at that first year beekeeper with two hives and the same chance of failure at 40%.  His chance of losing both his hives and being completely wiped out is 16%  16% chance of having no bees vs 0.0001% chance for the 10-hive beekeeper.  This new beekeeper’s chance of losing at least one hive is a whopping 64%

As you can see, it’s a numbers game, and with respect to the grain of salt needed when small, first year beekeepers take advice from experienced beekeepers with many more hives…well, that grain of salt should probably be a lot bigger.  My advice to a new beekeeper with one or two hives?  If you’re thinking about doing something to help your bees through the winter and you ask experienced beekeepers with many hives and they reply, “You can, but I don’t.”, then do it.

1 Comment

Virgil on October 22, 2011 at 7:43 am.

Great advice for so many things.


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