Nationwide, we’ve lost just over 42% of our honey bee colonies in the past year (http://beeinformed.org/results/colony-loss-2014-2015-preliminary-results/). Most of these were summertime rather than winter losses. Winter losses used to be the norm, either because of starvation or from varroa mite infestation. These summertime losses were a surprise to the researchers.
What’s Killing the Bees?
The studies so far point to a perfect storm of pesticide poisoning, loss of forage (poor nutrition), and varroa mites, all weakening the bees and making them susceptible to a variety of viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
Here on Persimmon Ridge, I was rolling along quite nicely until spring 2013. I had refused to treat for varroa mite, letting infested hives die and taking nucs from strong, resistant hives with survivor queens. After a few years, I had built up an varroa-resistant apiary and I was bucking the national average, with few to no colony losses each winter. Then within a year, 3 large farms near me were sold--two to absentee land owners. The new owners rented out land that had been in pasture to conventional row croppers. Corn prices were high, and everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, clearing fields and planting corn.
Once lush pasture land or abandoned fields filled with wildflowers were drenched in herbicide to kill every living stem of green before planting GMO crops on which pesticides were then used. This was done during the height of our spring bloom, while my bees were out foraging. I lost 66% of my hives that year. It was devastating.
Six Ways to Help the Bees Hang On
1. Ask farmers to spray only at night or when the weather is below 50 degrees so that bees will not be directly drenched in herbicide or pesticide. Some farmers will be sensitive to this, some won’t. I had apiaries on 2 of these farms and have since removed hives that weren’t already dead.
2. Take your losses in the fall. Combine weak hives and honey stores. One strong hive is exponentially better than 2 weak ones. A strong hive has a better chance of making it through the winter and will build up more quickly in the spring and produce more honey than 2 weak ones.
3. Leave enough honey on the hives for the bees. Good nutrition, which means their own honey and pollen, will strengthen their immune systems and help them fight the onslaught they must face. Bees, like us, are what they eat. Expecting them to live on sugar water is like expecting your children to thrive on Kool-aid.
4. Take nucleus hives from your strongest hives every year just as the spring bloom begins. This will replace your losses from the year and will also keep your bees from swarming since you have artificially “swarmed” them.
5. If you are able, move your hives as far from conventional row croppers as you can--at least 2 or so miles.
6. Educate and lobby for ALL pollinators. What we do to them, we are doing to ourselves. They are truly the canary in the coal mine.
Now, I'm going to go sling some honey! Wish me luck.