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Vicissitudes of Beekeeping in the 21st Century

Contributed by Sharon Dombeck, Master Gardener Intern


On October 5, 2015, Kim Skyrm, Chief Apiary Inspector in Massachusetts and her assistant, Ken Warchol, who has more than 17 years inspecting bees in MA, came to inspect our two new hives, populated with packages of Italian bees bought from a New York vendor in May, 2015.


We invited Kim and Ken to inspect these new hives because we had lost two hives the previous exceptionally cold winter of 2014-15, a hard winter for many beekeepers, with sustained sub-zero temperatures. Now we wanted to make sure we were going into this winter with healthy hives.


The hives we lost in 2014-15 were Carniolan bees, said to be a little hardier breed with special adaptability to nectar fluctuation.  (Nectar flow is when one or more major nectar sources are blooming and the weather is cooperating, allowing bees to collect the nectar.  In Massachusetts there is dearth of nectar flow in July and August until the Goldenrod and Asters start to bloom.  But of course, depending on conditions, nectar fluctuation can happen any time.)  However, a difficulty with Carniolan bees is their propensity to swarm, which reduces the adult bee population and requires the production of a new queen (she’s gone off with the swarm).  Sure enough, we witnessed a swarming in one of the hives that summer.


And because of the swarming, we speculate that perhaps the population of bees in our hives that winter could have been too diminished for the cluster to generate a high-enough temperature to keep the honey stores at the viscous consistency necessary for consumption.  Head down in the honey store, bees feed by licking the soft, viscous honey with their amazing tongue.  If the honey is frozen hard, the bees cannot access it and they starve.  Sugar patties, made from table sugar and water, is the usual winter supplement given on warmer winter days so as not to stress the bees – for they will fly out at the intruder and immediately succumb to the cold air.  But we think we did not place the sugar patties close enough to that too-small winter cluster for them to access the supplemental food either.  In this case, there were dead bees, thus not colony collapse which is defined as no adult bees/dead bee bodies.


For 3 years from about 2006-2009 in Arlington MA, we had successfully managed a hive of Italian bees in a small urban backyard until one day they were gone.  No sign of a single bee, the definition of colony collapse.  Hard to say what the contributing factors might have been then but there was plenty of pesticide being used on lawns and the local pond in this densely populated location.


Now we were hoping for success, again with Italian bees - but it was not to be.  When Kim and Ken came to inspect the hives on October 5, 2015, they reported that our hives were “strong”, their health deemed “excellent” and honey and pollen stores at the correct level.  A few Verroa mites were seen and Stephen treated with Apivar as recommended. But despite the great report and all our efforts to follow good beekeeping practices, on December 15, 2015, when delivering a winter feeding sugar cake, one of the hives was found empty.  This was another colony collapse despite no agricultural pesticides apparent in the immediate rural area of our property in Conway MA.


And in February of 2016, again giving more sugar cakes to the remaining hive, Stephen found only dead bees, devastating but not colony collapse. 


Dr. Kim Skyrm came back on March 1 to give us the post-mortem analysis.  She found a small cluster of dead bees and evidence of emergency queen cells started throughout the hive.  Obviously the hive had lost its queen and with her,   the ability to increase to a viable population. So though the winter was not as severe as 2014-15, the cluster was again too small to generate temperatures high enough to access food and the hive’s efforts to produce a new queen in time were unsuccessful.  Further, Kim reports that the samples of bees she took were too necrotic for virus analysis (to confirm that viruses carried by Verroa mites were not the culprit) but she examined for Nosema spp (intestinal parasites implicated in colony collapse) and tracheal mites and they were clean – none detected.


Another complicating factor was the failure of the original queens in both of the 2015 hives.  The truck bringing up the hives from GA for the vendor, from whom we were purchasing, overturned in an accident on the way to NY.  Many bees were lost; those that survived were re-packed and sold.  We received two of those.  When relating this story of 2 failed hives to the vendor, we were told that other hives had failures associated with problems with the queens.  (The quality of the queen, often associated with her reproductive ability, can have profound impact on a colony’s honey production, disease prevalence, and overwintering ability. Queen failure is consistently listed as a cause of colony mortality in recent winter loss surveys (vanEnglesdorp et al 2010).


So the NY vendor will compensate us by selling us 3 special nucs at a fair price.  (Packaged bees are usually not related to each other and definitely not related to the queen, and they have no brood for a boost in population.  A ‘nuc’ or nucleus has bees related to each other and to the queen – they are her offspring - and has brood to give them a good boost in population and usually has a frame of stores to boot. It’s like a miniature hive. Nucs work better more often than packages.)

Going forward, we have once again ordered 3 nucs (not packages) – this time Italian. One nuc will be an over-wintered hive from NY state and two will be FL bred but of mixed genetic stock from queens specially bred in Ohio.  We’ll try to stay on our toes with more skillful beekeeping practices, and with fingers crossed for luck.


(Dr. Kim Skyrm is looking for feedback on her Pollinator Protection Plan.  Here is the link: )


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