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Friday, April 24, 2009

Episode 008 - Why Are Winter Beekeeping Losses Acceptable?

In this episode, I share my thoughts about an e-mail exchange with Dr. Tom Webster. Dr. Webster is a specialist in Apiculture at Kentucky State University. He responded to my e-mail question, Why Are Winter Beekeeping Losses Acceptable?

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Here is a copy of my e-mail to him and below, his response (posted with permission).

Dr. Webster,

I'm a second-year beekeeper here in BooneCounty, Northern Kentucky. You may not remember me, but you helped me deal with a Varroa problem this past summer. Thank you.

I'm not what I would call a 'typical' beekeeper and find myself reading numerous resources, including web forums, blogs, books, magazines, and papers on beekeeping. One question, or thought, that continues to perplex me is the idea of winter losses of hives.

Let me explain...

As a beekeeper, I can certainly appreciate that honeybees are susceptible to various diseases and pests, similar to every other domesticated species. I can also appreciate that honeybee biology is very complex and their systems have the potential to be exponentially effected by diseases, pests, pesticides, and other factors due to the way in which they live (i.e. crowded conditions, reproductive cycles, division of labor). However, if I was a rancher and experienced significant losses in my numbers or cattle, or, in this case, the number of hives surviving the winter, how is it that, or why is it, that beekeepers seem to accept significant losses in their numbers and yet, seemingly continue to keep bees in the same manner in which they were lost? One example I recently heard was that a local beekeeper who looses his bees in the winter reasons that "the strong will survive and those that don't, oh well". I find this reasoning to be disturbing. In thinking about this issue, I thought about who I could contact for an academic and educated opinion about the matter. I can only imagine the following...

One, that there are a lot of bad beekeepers. Perhaps they don't manage, or mismanage, their colonies well by providing health treatments, poor location of their hives, not enough supplemental feeding, not monitoring the strength of hive numbers (perhaps having been depleted by swarming), neglect, or some other factor.


Two, that those things that are effecting the bees are so powerful that accepting winter losses is the new paradigm. I know that several older books that I've seen mention dwindling, but certainly not to the degree that it is talked about and mentioned today. How did beekeeping survive to this day?


Three, that the 'way' in which we keep bees has drifted so far from good management practiced by the early pioneers of beekeeping, even going so far back as the earliest records (medieval or earlier). Did early beekeepers have 'acceptable losses' as well? Perhaps using smaller hives, more natural treatments, natural attrition, allowing swarming, etc.


Four, some combination of the above. i certainly hope that I've explained my questions well enough. As a new beekeeper, I certainly want to establish good beekeeping habits by being informed, practicing solid management, and being proactive rather than reactive. That being said, I hope you can shed some light on my question/thoughts.

By the way, I checked my two hives of Italians the other day and they were alive and well.

Thank you.

And, here is his response...

Hello Darcy,

Your thoughts are very well reasoned and bear on much of what is happening in beekeeping. In general, the second point you list is probably the most important in winter losses.

Most of us are struggling with pathogens and parasites that are relatively new to the US. The center stage is occupied by the varroa mite. It is bad enough by itself, but it also seems to make pathogens like Nosema disease worse. The newly discovered Nosema ceranae has become quite widely distributed across the US. We have much to learn about it. I have heard some very alarming reports, mostly from large-scale commercial beekeepers, about enormous colony losses which are probably caused by Nosema ceranae and perhaps other factors. Most difficult are the viruses, which can be detected only by sophisticated techniques. They can be controlled mainly by keeping varroa mite levels low. There are 19 known honey bee viruses, and probably more that are to be discovered.

Your first and third points are significant. Some beekeepers are not managing their bees well. But there have always been bad beekeepers. In much of the country winter losses have become worse, and poor beekeeping cannot really explain this. The third point should be focused on commercial beekeeping activities and perhaps new pesticides that affect the behavior of the bees. The practice of hauling hives thousands of miles for crop pollination has almost certainly caused greater varroa and pathogen problems, both directly and indirectly.

However, many hobby beekeepers are like you: Taking good care of their bees and certainly not driving them across the country. My hunch is that many small scale beekeepers have some level of pathogen in their hives. All of us have varroa mites at some level. Possibly some hives are near pesticide-treated crops. If there is little large-scale farming within a 2 or 3 mile radius around your hives, you can probably rule this out. Tracheal mites and small hive beetles are a problem only for a minority of Kentucky beekeepers.

I have wanted for years to get a better understanding of winter losses. As you say, it's disturbing to see many beekeepers accept these losses. Often this happens with colonies that seemed to be healthy the previous fall.

A big part of the problem is in observing and understanding winter losses. We can't check our hives during winter. In our first spring inspection we might find a sad little cluster of dead bees or, more commonly, no bees at all. We can't do an autopsy without a corpse.

So my approach has been to find a way to monitor bee colony health during winter without disturbing the bees. Last Friday I met with a group of techno-whiz folks at UnivKy. They are designing a system which will allow me to monitor temperatures at many spots within the hive. When the bee cluster temperatures start to drop in a particular hive I will know they are in trouble. Then I can open the hive and collect the bees for examination before they disappear. Understanding the problem is the first step toward controlling it.

For beekeepers who have been over-wintering successfully I suggest: 1) Stay with your current management practices. 2) Keep varroa mites at low levels with screened bottom boards, varroa-resistant bees and "soft" chemicals like Apiguard, Apilife, Mite-away. 3) Avoid buying bees, as that could be a source of new pathogens. If you want to increase your number of hives, split what hives you have (typically in May or early June).

I hope this helps.

Tom Webster

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