Bees and cows
October 16, 2013
After several warm days when the bees were flying in the afternoons and bringing in the "mystery" pollen, the first of spring, we're back in the deep freeze. We had a couple of inches of snow over the weekend and it got down to 7 last night. Nobody seems to know just where that light colored pollen is coming from, even Herman Wehling, who has half again as many years in bees as I do, but I think when the next warm spell comes one of us is going to figure it out. It is most certainly coming from trees.
This is a vulnerable time for the colonies that have made it through the winter and we may still see some substantial losses despite our best efforts. There is a "critical mass" for a colony of bees if it is to survive these cold nights, and if the cluster is too small they won't. On the other end of the bell curve are those colonies that made it through the winter with a good population and are starting to raise brood in response to the changing season and the incoming pollen. They have to be watched closely for stores as their consumption increases because of the brood rearing and then the rising population of new adults that results.
This is all part of the natural flow of things in the bee world. A colony builds to a peak population of 50-60 thousand in mid-summer (beekeepers try to manage their colonies so they hit this peak just before the major honey flow of the summer begins and we have the maximum number of fielders to bring in the crop). As fall approaches the colony population begins to decline and there is a change in the character of that population. Drones (males) are kicked out, and the short lived summer foragers reach the end of their natural lives (four to six weeks), to be replaced by "winter bees" produced in the last few brood cycles. It is these winter bees that will be the cluster that will live through the winter. They are physiologically different than the summer bees, with larger fat bodies, for example, that give them energy reserves they can tap into. Also, because they aren't foraging every day as they would be in summer they don't wear themselves out and they can live for months rather than weeks.
A colony will go into winter with 30-35 thousand bees (December) and by spring will have 10-15 thousand (late February-early March). This is a high enough population to keep a significant brood nest warm on the coldest nights and after a few brood cycles the new bees become the colony population, replacing the now-aging winter bees that are coming to the end of their natural lives. If all is going well this is a fairly seamless transition without any further drop in the population in February or early March, but during that time there will be an almost complete turnover of the colony population.
Things really get cooking in late March and early April as the population of a healthy colony grows. The next objective is to bring the colony through to the dandelions, which represent the first honey flow of the season and the end of winter. A good dandelion bloom is critical to kicking off the season, it is an abundant source of both pollen and nectar and we time our arrival back from California with packages to coincide with the peaking dandelion flow.
If all goes well we will be adding supers for room in late May to keep the population pressure down and if we have a good dandelion flow we may add supers for room and honey storage in April. If we don't give them room the bees will respond by swarming and our hard won population of foragers will be "in the trees." Some of the newer hobby beekeepers see these escaped swarms as their contribution to the environment, but for a honey producer like myself these are my foragers and their loss will most likely cut heavily into what the parent colony might have produced in surplus honey.
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What I have just described has been the normal ebb and flow of bees in temperate climates that has evolved over millions of years. Given the right conditions bees are durable and hearty and are well adapted to surviving and indeed thriving, but what we have been seeing for the past 15 years is hardly normal and both the bees and the beekeepers are up against the wall.
Over the past few days I have been talking with a commercial beekeeper friend whose beekeeping is a family business is in its fourth generation and he is very concerned that the business may not make it through this crisis. Before these problems began he ran about 4,000 colonies, for almond pollination in California in the winter and for honey production in the upper Midwest in the summer.
Let's put this scenario in a context that may make the dynamics a little clearer for some of my Fence Post Readers. Let's compare that 4,000 colony beekeeping outfit to a cow/calf outfit with 100 mother cows. I know about as much about cow/calf outfits as some of you do about beekeeping operations, but bear with me. I have 4,000 colonies of bees, you have 100 mother cows.
This Midwestern beekeeper is down to a little over 3,000 colonies and this is what he moved to California last November for almond pollination. You are down to 80 cows. Over the past two weeks the beekeeper has been sorting through his colonies that have been in holding yards in the foothills since November, divvying them up to fill his almond contracts. Not good. Of the 3,150 colonies he brought to California last fall, only 992 have survived. He will have to renig on a 1,200 colony almond contract because he just doesn't have the bees. The contract represents about $170,000 in lost income. On top of this, there will be perhaps $200,000 to $400,000 to replace the lost colonies. He may be able to split some of his survivors for replacements (hold back some of the calf crop), but if he does, with such a small base now, it will cut into his honey crop significantly. More lost income. You are now down to 25 cows.
There's no assurance that this beekeeper will even get home with the 992 colonies. From the almonds they will go to pollination contracts on cherries, apples and blueberries. There will be inevitable losses from spraying, but he has to go and can't afford to forgo the income, certainly not now. Let's be generous and say 900 of the 992 make it back to the Midwest.
Many of us have been warning of the approaching disaster and it looks like it may be here. This isn't an unusual example of the losses, it is characteristic of what is going on all across the country. This is a disaster with very human dimensions, and the effects ripple far beyond the beekeepers. The next to suffer are the almond growers, every colony of bees they don't get represents about $4,000 in almonds lost and just within the past few days they have bid up almond contracts from $150 to $220 trying to cover their need for bees.
Next week I will take a look at some of the things that have brought us here. You are now down to 23 mother cows. Where does your cow calf outfit go from here? ❖