Winter inspections — good news, bad news
October 16, 2013
As I've said before, it's interesting to go back and read last week's column before I start on another. It is often like "dear diary," and I'm reminded of what has changed in just a week.
When I sat down to write a week ago it was a 10 below morning, not so cold by mountain standards, but the coldest night so far this winter down here on the plains. We don't usually get the deep cold that the high mountain valleys do, but it gets cold enough that we don't have to apologize for not having a winter, and I've seen one cold night here in Niwot in the past 40 years when it went to 32 below.
Since that 10 below morning it has warmed up a bit, and I got two warm afternoons when I could check the last of the bees. The most critical of the two yards that needed a visit was the one north of Terry Lake. It is about a half mile off the nearest paved road so I need to time my visits to coincide not only with the warmth, but with the dryness too. Over the past several years the new owners have graveled most of the farm roads so that widens the window of opportunity a bit, but I still have to have fairly dry conditions to be on the safe side. An afternoon getting unstuck is not my idea of productive use of my time.
I was both surprised and not surprised by these last two inspections. In the beeyard south of town I am down to two colonies, in what just a few years ago was a thriving 24 and one of my largest producers. I should say I was down to two, because as I suspected, one of the two hadn't made it. It was a booming two queen colony last summer and produced 135 pounds of honey, not great, but for these times pretty good. Before all these troubles started I would expect my two queen colonies to average about 240 pounds each. No more though from the looks of it, so 135 pounds is not bad.
They went into the winter heavy and mite free with a strong population, but as we progressed into winter I could see that the population was dropping faster than I thought it should and made a mental note to watch them a little more closely. Two weeks ago I checked them. It was too cold to open them unless I had a good reason, but it was warm enough that there were bees flying at the entrances, I hefted them from the rear and they were heavy, so there was no compelling need to look any further. At the end of last week it was warm enough to take another look, and this time I could see that the activity at the entrances didn't look like the comings and goings of an active colony, but rather robbers. Robbers are bees from other colonies robbing out the honey from a colony that has died, and sure enough when I opened them that was exactly what was going on. The robbing hadn't been going on too long though because most days it had been too cold for the robbers to fly, and there was still nearly a full hive body of honey left.
I shifted my attention to the second colony, which had a lot of activity at the entrance, and it appeared to be the orderly coming and going of a good colony, not robbers. Actually, these were probably some of the bees robbing out the other colony, I popped their cover, took a look and confirmed that they were still a live and functioning colony, then went back to the first colony, consolidated the remaining honey in one hive body and plunked it on the last survivor. They were fairly heavy anyway, but now they should have more than enough and that honey won't be lost to robbers.
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That's the bad news. The good news is that all of the colonies up at Terry Lake are still alive and appear to have reasonably good populations. They are getting low on stores though and will need help all the way to the dandelions, but at least they are alive. If they are alive I have something to work with and can do my best to bring them through, but if they are dead all I have is equipment. The one exception to this good news is the dink I took home last fall to see if I could nurse it through the winter. I kept it alive until just before Christmas, but these below zero cold spells were just too much for it. It didn't have a large enough cluster to generate enough heat on those cold nights. There hasn't been any flight at the entrance for the last two weeks. I opened it the other day, and how sad it is to see that small bunch of bees, less than a cupful, huddled together, clutching each other in a last embrace, beyond my ability to save them. My girls. So sad.
Nationally the picture isn't good. We'll have the first real test of the nation's pollination resources in about a month, when bees are being moved into the almonds out in California. It will take about 1.6 million colonies to cover the almonds, at two colonies per acre, and it looks like we are going to come up short, to what degree yet to be determined. It's hard to know just how accurate the information is because most of it is anecdotal, but I talk to enough people and have known them long enough to be able to judge the value of what they are telling me, and the net of it all is that it doesn't look good. Almond growers are grumbling because pollination fees have grown to about $150 per colony, but they are going to really grumble if there are no bees available at any price because without bees they have no crop.
We are facing a national disaster here and we are getting little help. For its part the EPA is poised to release yet another systemic pesticide to the market under a conditional registration despite serious unanswered questions. When I was at IBM this was called "doing product test in the field." The environment has become the experiment and all of us, not just beekeepers, are the experimental subjects.
After I had swapped the honey I paused for a few seconds the other day in my beeyard south of town, the one that has gone from 24 colonies to one. I looked over all of the equipment that had once held thriving, productive colonies of bees, and I felt like the Plains Indians must have felt 150 years ago when they came upon a landscape strewn with bones, the remains of a stand by the hide hunters, seeing their life destroyed before their eyes, bleaching in the sun, no matter what they might do.
I don't plan to give up just yet, but frankly we may be looking at the end if we don't see some significant changes soon. It will matter little how well we do our jobs as beekeepers if we send our livestock out into a world that is increasingly hostile to life. ❖