I am beginning my eighth bees season, and although I'd like to launch this site and this blog with rosy reports of high success ( and could have done last year), this year will be a challenge. I'm at about 50% hive losses in mid-March. My surviving hives look fantastic, however, and I will use this year to start new hives and to rebuild. My neighbors and the Columbia Tennessee Farmers Fresh Market will be well supplied from my survivor hives in 2013.
So what went wrong? It all started last June. We experienced an extremely early spring and then a drought in the month of June--absolutely no rainfall here at Persimmon Ridge in Middle Tennessee. For the bees, the early bloom with no late freeze meant a gangbuster spring for honey production. For the first time ever, I harvested honey in April that measured just over 17% humidity (that's a good thing in beek lingo). I averaged 80 pounds of honey per hive, which also is very good these days with all the things that can and do go wrong with bees. Sunny, dry days were good for flower production and allowed the bees ample time to collect nectar, so 2012 was a very good honey year despite the drought. For the first time, I broke even financially and then went on to make a little money last year.
But a funny thing happened because of the drought. Flower production ceased and so did nectar gathering. The bees had made a good spring crop but the drought and the end of bloom signaled them to conserve resources in the hive. Normally, each fall, the worker bees, which are all female, kick the drones (males) out of the hive. Drones do not do any useful work for the hive other than mate with the queen. They must be tended and fed until they are needed for this very vital endeavor. Like Black Widow spider males, once mating is accomplished they die--mid-air, their genitalia ripped away by the mated queen. For the drones who fail to mate, come fall, the girls are ruthless in turning the freeloaders out! Well, the drought made the bees think fall was neigh and they kicked those bad boys out a little too early last year!
In summer and fall when the old queens in some of the hives were reaching the end of their days, the bees did what they always do and made new queens. But, alas, the boys had been banished and the new queens went unmated! Slow death to the hive. Hind sight is a great teacher. Had I known what was going on at the time, I could have ordered new mated queens from some other part of the country not effected by the drought. Of course that has its own complications that I will address in a later post.
The bottom line is that bee farming is like any other type of farming--it's always some damn thing!