I’ve procrastinated updating this page for over a year. It’s time to face reality.
Since my last post the reality is that i’ve struggled with my bees for more then a year.
Winters ’12-13 and ’13-14 on the Canadian Prairies were long and cold. Furthermore, my bees were suffering from some sort of malady which I still don’t fully understand.
Wintering bees in Western Canada pushes the limit of what is possible for honeybees. Their normal lifespan is barely enough to keep a hive populous from fall to spring, and they don’t reproduce during periods of scarcity when natural food sources are unavailable.
So under normal conditions, it isn’t easy to maintain healthy hives from year to year. Additionally, bees have a lot of new stresses which likely shorten their maximum lifespan.
Exotic parasites such as the Varroa Destructor mite, and the Nosema Cerana microsporidian can depopulate hives without good management, and introduce other virus and disease problems to the hives.
Changes in agricultural practises also have been pressuring honeybees. Increased planting of non-nectar producing crops like potatoes, corn and soybeans reduce acres available for honey production. More importantly the trends result in reduced land devoted to mixed cover such as the grassland-aspen forest mix typical of the cow pasture in southern Manitoba, as more farmland is devoted to annual cropping. Ultimately, these changes result in reduced nutrition for honeybees. For most of July, the bees can’t possibly visit all the Canola flowers, for the other 20 weeks of the beekeeping season, it is becoming harder to find locations where they can properly feed themselves.
Finally, many beekeepers believe that agricultural innovations such as varieties of pesticides used as seed treatments, and GMO varieties of crops have resulted in serious problems for bees. I have reviewed the available evidence carefully, and i’m not convinced there is sufficient evidence to make any accusations, but I think we should carefully review the sustainability of all our food production methods.
As an aside: While politicians and scientists have dithered about what to say about the new chemicals, there are still lots of old chemicals that kill bees every day which are used by the tonne. I think it would be a good start to get rid of chemicals we know are bad, and worry about the new ones later.
So… These factors, and maybe others we don’t understand, are reducing the lifespan of the bees to the point where the populations of the hives are significantly reduced by the end of winter; should winter end late, some hives cannot keep themselves alive any longer. This is exactly what has happened this spring and last.
In the spring of 2013, I lost nearly 1/2 of my colonies. I had to take some pretty drastic steps to get back to 1000 colonies by the end of the summer. In particular, since the hives weren’t strong enough to split in the springtime, I committed to mid-summer splitting of the best colonies, sacrificing honey production for colony replacement.
Now, we’re in the spring of 2014. I’ve lost around 20%, about double my normal long term average loss rate, but WAY better then 2013. The colonies dwindled and suffered through April and early May as winter refused to surrender, but are now starting to rebuild and repopulate. I anticipate managing about 900 production colonies this year, and will make some mid-season splits again to return to my target hive count of 1200.
So, at the end of May 2014, I hope things are back on track and we look forward to a normal crop. Since many other beekeepers are also facing the same issues, honey production is down around the world, and so prices for bulk and retail honey are strong and stable, which is helpful in these trying times,