Of necessity, these columns were written many months in advance of when they appear in the journal—in some cases more than a year in advance. So, I can’t tell you here what’s actually going on in 2007; you’ll have to write or call me to find out about that. Everything described in this column came from the actual experience of running my apiary, but I tried to make it into some kind of an “ideal average” season, and also to mention some of the extremes that might be encountered. To describe any one season would have been immensely misleading, because they are all quite different from each other nowadays. For example, I’ll describe what happened during 2005 and 2006, which were about as different as two beekeeping seasons can be…
Bees were slow to get started in the cool spring of 2005. There was quite a heavy loss of colonies (40-50%) after a more or less average winter. As usual, the heaviest losses were in the honey producing colonies. Things seemed discouraging at first, but some bees were sold, and plans were made to optimize results from the remaining colonies. With a reduced number of colonies, each one can receive more time and attention. After reserving any suitable breeders, most of the remaining honey producing colonies were requeened with queens from the baby nucs. Before moving the standard nucs out of their winter yards they were equalized, and then used as a source of sealed brood as they became strong in one box. A small batch of early queen cells was raised, and three honey producing yards were filled with nucs made from these cells and sealed brood with adhering bees from the overwintered nucs. (Moving sealed brood into nucs started with queen cells is a way of removing mites from the donor colonies, and then depriving those mites of optimum breeding conditions in their new home.) These early nucs were set up in my split boxes—two nucs per box—so that each box would be almost certain to get a new queen from my cells in any but the very worst weather conditions. These new queens were later confined to one box with a queen excluder during the honey flow. After this work was done, the remaining overwintered nucs were moved to honey producing locations and set up in the usual configuration of double deeps, and then supers above a queen excluder. The slow spring turned into a very favorable summer, with good foraging weather right through the fall. A good honey crop was secured, (115 lb. average), and a large new crop of nucleus colonies was generated at the usual time. Many new frames of foundation were drawn out as well. No fall feeding was necessary—even the colonies with the 10-frame brood nests made enough honey for winter after all the supers were removed. Best of all, the honey producing colonies were in great shape going into the winter, with few signs of stress 3 ½ years after any treatments had been applied.
Now, on to 2006… Excellent conditions for bees continued right through the winter of 2005-2006—one of the mildest on record. Spring came early, with warm sunny weather and excellent pollen flows in April. With 90% of the bees wintering in good condition, four years after their last treatment, there was a lot of euphoria around here—for about two days. Soon it was clear that these bees were expanding much faster than I could keep up with them. Then, about May 8, in the midst of trying to deal with this huge premature growth of 800 brood nests, the weather pattern shifted, it began to rain, and we moved into one of the worst beekeeping seasons probably ever experienced in these parts. If there were any days when it didn’t rain between May 10 and July 4, I can’t remember them. Getting nucs ready for the customers was all done with rainsuits, veils, and soaking wet gloves. An amphibious vehicle would have been a big help. It soon became difficult or impossible to get into many of the yards and, even in the rain, swarms started to emerge everywhere. Swarms hanging in the rain for days, and then finally departing for… who knows where. I don’t see how any of them could have survived. At first I wondered if it was just my bees that had gone crazy; but everyone was having the same trouble, no matter what kind of bees they had. In colonies that didn’t swarm, the queens stopped laying eggs, and so by the end of June, when bees are usually reaching their peak populations around here, most colonies had little or no brood at all, and it was impossible to tell whether a mated queen was present or not. There was very little brood for making summer nucs at the usual time.
By mid-July the weather had improved somewhat, but the damage had been done and it took the rest of the season for the colonies to make even a partial recovery. A few hot days during the basswood bloom made the only summer honey flow of any note, and I’m told that when there’s not enough sunlight in May and June, the legumes’ capacity to produce sugars is greatly curtailed. So it seemed in 2006. Even with decent weather in August, and a fair bloom, very little honey was brought into the hives. By delaying queen rearing as long as possible, I was able to supply all the queens already promised to customers, and a reduced crop of nucs was eventually put together by scrounging every possible frame of extra brood. As I mentioned in an earlier column, none of these nucs were able to expand out of their 4-frame spaces. The weather was so bad that it was not possible to use the isolation apiary in 2006. The weather is always more marginal up there than down in the valley.
I’ll concede that there may have been even worse years for the bees than 2006, but it’s hard to imagine a summer season more frustrating for beekeepers. Despite extra help, constant work, and making good decisions, it was still just a big mess. But a resilient and stable apiary must be able to withstand shocks like this, continue to produce income, and preserve the potential for improvement during better times. Even after a year like 2006, the results secured from an untreated apiary integrating honey production, nuc production and queen rearing seem very encouraging. Here are some things from the plus side of the ledger in what seemed to be a disastrous year:
All customers received their nucleus colonies, and a greater value of these colonies was sold than ever before.
The honey crop from 2005 was paid out in 2006.
By delaying queen rearing by one week from the normal time, mated queens were obtained for all the customers, and for a new crop of nucs.
More than half of a normal crop of honey (59 lb. average) was secured by the bees (don’t ask me how) and extracted.
So, by holding over some of the gains made in 2005 (honey and nucs), the economic return for 2006 was actually quite good. The negative economic effects of 2006 will be most strongly felt in 2007. By then the weather hopefully will have improved, allowing for better crops of honey and bees. Despite a serious disruption in the breeding scheme, plenty of viable bees remain in each apiary section to keep them going and take advantage of better conditions when they arrive. The point of recounting the very different conditions experienced here in 2005 and 2006 is to show how the plan described in this column in just a starting point—an outline that needs to be adapted to your location, your personality, and the vagarities of weather. By all indications, the vagarities of weather will only increase in the coming years. Flexibility is key here, but the basic foundation still seems very sound to me—dividing the apiary’s energy between honey production, nuc production and queen rearing. This enables you to combine the effects of bee breeding with the stability and resilience necessary to overcome our current problems of honeybee health, weather, and economics. The other thing to keep constantly in mind is that there is no special bee that can be plugged into our current unhealthy system of beekeeping and solve all these problems. Only by working on breeding and management together in a constantly evolving system will these problems be overcome.
I have a positive message for the end of this column, but you won’t be able to tell at first—it may take me awhile to get there…
Beekeeping now has the dubious honor of becoming the first part of our system of industrial agriculture to actually fall apart. Let’s stop pretending that something else is going on. We no longer have enough bees to pollinate our crops. Each time the bees go through a downturn, we respond by making things more stressful for them, rather than less—we move them around more often, expose them to still more toxic substances, or fill the equipment up again with more untested and poorly adapted stock. We blame the weather, the mites, the markets, new diseases, consumers, the Chinese, the Germans, the (fill in your favorite scapegoat), other beekeepers, the packers, the scientific community, the price of gas, global warming—anything rather than face up to what’s really happening. We are losing the ability to take care of living things. Why?
I don’t use television or computers because I believe they are destroying the patience, the humility and the conception of time necessary to take care of living things—especially over the long run. But this is just another manifestation of the even deeper reasons why we aren’t able to make progress in our relationships with Nature. We live in a culture that makes its living, survives, and generates its notions of security and progress by using up resources and appropriating the labor of other people, if we can. This has gone on for long enough that we’ve lost the vision and experience of how to live by creating a better world rather than by using up the one we have. The current paradigm may have served our material needs well when there appeared to be unlimited resources available for our use. But now, when most everyone can see the finite nature of the Earth’s resources, the competition for those resources intensifies and we become our own predator as we struggle to get what we think we need and what we want. As the world of Nature becomes degraded, each generation of plants, animals, people and bees becomes weaker than the one before.
At the same time, somewhere in our hearts and minds, we have known for a very long time that this is destructive, and that there is another way…
In a story attributed to Leo Tolstoy, The Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg, a grain of wheat as large as an egg is found in the road by some peasants. As a miraculous curiosity it is eventually sent to the Czar (King), who commands that anyone in his realm knowing anything about this grain or how to grow it must come to see him. Only one peasant arrives. He’s very old and has to be carried in by his two sons, also quite old. The man is blind and almost deaf, but he feels the enormous grain of wheat in his hands and says: “No, I never saw or grew wheat like this, but I’ve heard my father talk about it, you should ask him.” So, eventually this man’s father is brought before the Czar. He comes in on crutches, but without any other help. After looking at the grain he says, “Well, wheat was bigger in my time, but I never grew anything like this. But my father talked about growing such grain, you had better ask him about it.” When this second man’s father came before the Czar he walked in easily, his sight and hearing were perfect, and his eyes sparkled from behind his huge white beard and head of hair. “Oh yes,” he said, “this is the kind of grain we grew when I was young. We lived according to Reverence then. There was no ownership of land, or coveting that of a neighbor. We all farmed God’s Earth for the joy of being a part of creation. We were happy with whatever we had, and we were always provided for…”
The regenerative power of Nature can only be tapped by working for the betterment of other living things, before yourself. If you can do this in a skillful way, a great deal of energy is generated. If you invest this primary energy back into the world of Nature, it will free up yet more energy, enabling you to live from the by-products of this process and facilitate the regeneration of the Natural world at the same time.
At this point we’ve reached now, really healthy apiaries cannot be bought or sold, borrowed, stolen, or connived by any means. They can’t even be owned by anyone—they have to be recreated constantly, one apiary at a time, by steady, careful, creative work. I know now that each generation of bees doesn’t have to be weaker than the one before. I’ve seen the process run in the other direction, and I understand how it works. Even after all the work I’ve done focused on stability and resilience, I’m perfectly aware that any number of things could destroy an apiary, a livelihood or a life. But, whatever happens, no one can tell me anymore about the inevitable demise of honeybees and beekeeping. With a change of attitude, the answers are close by and there’s plenty of inspiration and guidance. The work might be hard, but only because we’re not used to it. If we care about future generations, and the other beings who share the Earth with us, we have to stop expecting other people to solve our problems; to learn from others instead of taking from them, and do our share of the work. This work is more satisfying and meaningful than just about anything else you can do at this point. The old beekeeping is dying, and a new one is struggling to be born. Are you going to the funeral, or assisting with the birth? They are both occurring at the same time, so you have to choose.