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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Bees as Pets vs. Survivor Bees

I've now heard two talks at bee meetings in which the speakers say something to the effect of this:  "The bees are our pets.  Would you let your dog or cat starve to death?  Of course not, so why would you let your bees starve?"  Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture, said this last year at the GBA annual meeting.  Then last month Jennifer Berry said pretty much the same thing at the Metro Atlanta short course.

It's an effort to encourage new beekeepers to establish the practice of feeding their bees.

I don't know how to think about this.  My inclination is to go with leaving honey on your hives so that the bees go into winter with enough to make it through until the nectar flow starts.  Of course if we keep have earlier springs and nectar flows that happen out of sync with the bees buildup, then the bees won't have enough to go through the winter, regardless of whether you leave honey on the hive - there won't be honey to leave.

That's the way it was this fall.  The nectar flow last spring (2012) was early and concentrated so that the bees only had about three weeks to collect their entire supply.

In the Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, Dean and Laurie say (p.85) about feeding sugar syrup, "these are not acceptable substitutes for honey as bee food.  Their nutritional values are not equivalent.  They also do not have the same pH as honey and so alter the microbial culture of the hive.  Many bee pathogens grow more readily at the pH of sugar syrup than at the pH of honey."

The previous winter I fed all of my hives bee tea going into winter.  I still lost about half of my hives.

In 2012 I only harvested from two hives.  I left all the honey on the other hives.  I still lost hives.  I lost the second biggest hive in my backyard to fierce robbing (see video on this blog).  And we lost a hive at Stonehurst and at Sebastian's house each to robbing.  I think the terrible robbing this year was due to the climate change-induced early spring and crazy short nectar flow, so many bees were short on stores.

I lost a couple of hives who absconded because they knew they didn't have enough honey to go into winter.  I fed honey to the hives who remained.

I fed honey to the hive at Chastain, but even though I could see bee activity and the hive felt light, they didn't take the honey.  I fed honey to Sebastian's remaining hive but they also didn't take the honey.  When I say that, I mean that the rapid feeder still was full of honey the next time I looked under the telescoping cover.  I haven't checked on Sebastian's bees to see if they are still alive.

In my own backyard, I lost a hive that I didn't feed with honey still in the hive but not by the cluster.  The cluster was so small that I think it's more accurate to say I lost that hive to queenlessness going into winter than to say it starved, although that was the immediate cause of death.

At the Morningside community garden, one of my hives is alive and active (I didn't feed it) and the other is dead .  I haven't opened it to see what the cause of death was.  The Boardman on the front of this hive was for water in the heat of summer and I just never took it off.




In my own backyard I have two vigorous hives.  At Jeff and Valerie's house where I kept the bees on the deck, I have at least two live, strong hives and possibly one other.  I lifted the top cover of Five Alive and saw a live bee walking around although no bees were flying out of it.  The fourth hive appears dead.  Those bees (all four hives) were full of honey going into winter.

At Rabun County, the last time I looked up there, the one hive was still going strong.  I fed them but they didn't take the honey.  You'll remember the other hive was knocked over and destroyed.

I would rather take these hives that made it through the winter and split them to make two strong survivor hives.  These are hives that stored enough and fought off the varroa vectored diseases.  Jennifer Berry said to me at the short course that while that was fine, I wouldn't know WHY the hives survived.  She's right about that.  But I'd still prefer to try this and go for bees that don't need me to feed them.


11 comments:

  1. Max F1:53 PM

    The pet analogy is not only for feeding but also treating for disease much like we treat our animals for ticks, rabies, etc.

    Another analogy would be gardening without pesticides (even the green ones!). You can expect to loose about 1/3 to 1/2 of your crop.\

    However, much like using resistant tomatoes (for fungus and viral diseases) we need bees that have some resistance to Varroa and other ailments. Anyway, that's my newbee view on this.

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  2. As a "treatment free" beekeeper I believe in letting the bees be bees. As much as we would like to compare them to domesticated animals they are not. Bees have been around for millions of years adapting to everything mother nature has thrown at them. Varroa will not kill them in the long run and you just need to look to Asia honeybees to know that they will learn to survive together.

    I do however make an exception for feeding when they need it because of something I did (like splitting a hive to make nucs, raising queens, or suppressing swarming, etc.) You have to look at how you want to keep bees and go with that until someone shows you a better way or all your bees die. It's hard when you lose a high percentage of hives in a bad year, but remember that normal. Some years are good years and some not so good. If you can split hives and replace your winter losses you are doing pretty good.

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  3. I can hear the resignation in your voice, Linda. I am sorry so many of your hives failed to overwinter. I would be interested to hear your hive post mortems...did the failed hives tend to have lots of stores left?

    I made the surprisingly agonized decision NOT to treat my bees with anything but powdered sugar shakes, grease patties and essential oils in the fall feed last fall. All my friend used miticides before putting their bees to bed...I had given them a brood interruption to knock down mite count before fall. I did a lot of weatherproofing: a quilt box, ventilated gabled roof, insulated the hive with foam insulation wrapped in plastic. I was so relieved to open the hive briefly last week to find a healthy cluster, much larger than I expected. I gave them a paste of honey (theirs) and powdered sugar to make sure they had food as the early nectar flows approach. It would be a shame to lose them now.
    We need to leave the bees honey stores, and use non-toxic, IPM strategies. And we need to breed from survivor bees. Honey bees are still on life support in North America. We need to work hard and keep trying.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Jeff, I agree with you that treatment free beekeeping is the way to go, but with it comes loss of hives. Until I get an established strong apiary without purchasing new bees who all come with unknown histories, I will continue to have hive loss. This is the first year since I started beekeeping that I haven't ordered any bees. I did order one package to assure that the Chastain hive which is a teaching hive does have a populated hive for our MABA hive inspections, but I'm planning on doing splits and managing that way this year.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Linda it is hard to go the treatment free approach and none of the books tell you how hard it is to see a hive dying and to know that the powder sugar, natural cell and essential oils isn't helping them. However I have seen hives come back from the near dead and I can tell you that it's also not 100% genetics either and that the workers or nurse bees can develop and pass along immunity to the brood diseases. Something else to prep for winter 2014 is to make up mid summer nucs from your best hives to give you better numbers going into winter.

      Delete
  5. Western Wilson, I am not resigned although I may sound discouraged. I simply know that until I have resistance in my own bees, I will continue to lose hives because I am invested in treatment free beekeeping.

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  6. Max F9:21 AM

    I think you have the right attitude Linda in expecting loss and working with what you've got.

    What I take exception to (more from the comments above) is that the European honey bee is some natural bee we just collected from the wild. These bees are not native to our country. They were breed over and over to be honey producers and easy to work with, not survival in the wild. We box them up in an unnatural environment and stress them by taking their stores. They are basically livestock. However, just like chicken and cows you can raise them however you like and they can actually survive in the wild (sometimes). I've seen wild feral cows on Sapelo Island - pretty cool actually.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous7:13 AM

    Linda wrote: “I fed them but they didn't take the honey.”

    Linda, add water to dilute the honey prior feeding.

    Honey:Water = 4:1 or 2:1 or 1:1

    For example take 4 kg honey and 1 kg water to get a thick solution.

    Heat up the solution to kill the nosema spores.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Linda, I too have little option but to get package bees when I want more bees. We can't even import USA bees, we have to get them from New Zealand. And I hear NZ is having its own difficulties with CCD, so I am trying to get permission to use some local land for a cooperative, non profit breeding operation, where we stock the yard with promising lines, use IPM/organic only, split and go into the winter with 30 colonies, hopefully having shared good genes, and breed from survivors. It has been done successfully in other locations. But the commercial guys and us small backyard keepers can't risk it all like that.

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  9. Hi Linda, thanks for your frankness about your losses. I'm up in Northern New Hampshire and plotting for the cold, moisture and short season are my priorities and after some crazy raises in temperatures from -8F to 50F and back down again, my three hives are thankfully still alive. I also am determined to go treatment free and I don't like the powdered sugar treatments as they seemed to be a problem for two hives I lost last spring. For feeding I'm trying just plain sugar on the top of the inner cover. On one hive it was gone during the 50F warm up, on the others untouched. I'm in my 5th year and signed up for classes with Maine's Erin Forbes and Cindy Bee who breed their own survival stock. That's the way I hope to go as well.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Interesting and well debated topic ( on both sides)
    we manage about 15-20 hives. we do not treat , but we do feed when necessary!
    I agree with Jeff and couldnt have said it better.

    we did lose 9 hives last year *cringe****
    but looks like this year **fingers crossed** ALL of them are making it through!
    best of luck to all of you!

    ReplyDelete

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