Death. More death here at the Dead End Alley Farm. This time it was our bees. The bees that up until a few weeks ago I thought were going to come through the winter successfully.
But as life has shown us recently, nothing is for certain when walking down the path of homesteading.
Last fall I brought our bees back to our property in the city after they had unexpectedly swarmed in late August. I knew I would have to help them through the winter (supplemental feeding) because of their small population and lack of honey stores. In early March on a nice sunny day, I decided to open them up and see how they were doing. To my surprise, there was a small cluster of bees right in the center of the hive box. I couldn’t believe it!
They had gone through most of the sugar I had given them, so I gave them a bit more and called it good. I left them alone for for about 2 weeks, and checked back on them on another sunny day. Sadly, on this next visit I did not see the cluster, but only a few random bees that were moving along the top bars.
I closed them up right away knowing that in the next few days the weather would be warm enough to do a real inspection. That is when it was official, they were all dead, most likely from starvation. Even though I had given them more sugar (not really true bee food, but it can help sustain them), they could not find it. The little bit of honey they did have going into winter was not even touched and only one frame over from their cluster of death. I found many bees with their rear ends sticking out of the cells, a sure sign of starvation.
It saddens me that once again I have lost critters that are a part of my homestead and that play such an important role in adding beauty and sustenance to our lives. Most people are aware of the plight that the honey bees have been facing for the last half of a decade. Colony Collapse Disorder hit the headlines back in 2005 and has been a mounting crisis ever since. Here are a couple articles, (and this one) that summarize the history and some of the latest research concerning CCD and the effects it has had on bees and beekeepers alike.
Needless to say, it seems overwhelmingly obvious that Monsanto, Bayer Corp, and the other big PHARMA corporations play a huge role in the demise of the honey bee, and need to be held accountable for their actions. While I have never held a lot of hope in letter writing and legislation, it would be wonderful if we could get the EPA and the USDA to ban the use of Neonicotinoids until more independent research can be done without the influence of big PHARMA skewing the results. Places in Europe like France and Slovenia have seen their honey bee populations stabilize since these insecticides have been outlawed, and these countries should be heralded for their efforts in aiding the honey bees.
Coming full circle and returning to the dead hive in my backyard, along with the obvious evidence of starvation, I also checked for other possible causes that lead to the death of my bees. On the screened bottom board I found very little evidence of Varroa Destructor, the bane of beekeepers the world over since the mid ‘90’s. If you look very closely you can spot these parasites on bees as well as on a bottom board, and I only found about 10 of them amongst all the bee corpses. This tells me the colony was not weakened by varrao, great news even though the bees perished.
Second on the autopsy list was checking for signs of American Foulbrood, a bacterial infection that will wipe out a colony and readily spreads to other hives in an apiary. I have never seen foulbrood in person, but it is unmistakable if your hive(s) are infected, American Foulbrood liquefies developing brood into a brown goo and has a horrendous odor (often described as rotten meat) – hence the name! The spores of foulbrood will survive in beeswax, honey, and woodenware, so if you have a hive that has succumbed to AFB, burning the entire setup is the suggested means of disposal.
Thankfully there were no signs of foulbrood. Even though there were thousands of dead bees littering the hive box, there was still the pleasant, sweet scent of a healthy colony. The few brood cells I found with developing bees within were healthy and probably only a week or so away from emerging as a mature bee. This also means that the naturally mated queen had already started laying eggs in preparation for the spring.
The last thing I noticed, but was not intentionally looking for was evidence of Nosema. Nosema is basically bee diarrhea and is primarily caused by the consumption of refined sugar or syrup. While nosema is not typically fatal to a colony, this should be all the motivation a good beekeeper needs to not harvest honey greedily, and to only feed your bees as a last resort.
With the autopsy completed, where does that leave me as a beekeeper? While I am totally bummed out by the loss of these bees that I tried so hard to help through the winter, I am very optimistic in regards to my future as a beekeeper. I have learned a lot in the last year, and the mistakes I have made will never be repeated again!
As far as new bees are concerned, here is what I have lined up. Back in December or January I met the beekeeper who supplies my local food co-op with their bulk, raw honey. It turns out they are only about an hour south of me and also sell 5 – frame nucleus colonies for $100. This is a pretty good deal and I am slated to purchase two of them sometime in May!
Even cooler than that is finding as even closer source of bees! My friend Don who is the farm manager of our local nature center is going to let me set up a few swarm traps in his bee yard. What is a swarm trap you ask? All a swarm trap does is provide a friendly and comfortable environment that a swarm of bees can create a new home in. In this instance, I have built deep hive bodies that hold five frames, essentially a five frame nuc. In each trap I will put at least 1 frame of drawn comb and a small wad of paper towel scented with lemongrass oil. Both the drawn comb, and the scent of the lemongrass oil act as a kind of bait that will lure in the bees and say “Hey, this is a great place to make a new home!”
So best case scenario is that I could have up to five colonies by summer if all three swarm traps work, along with the two purchased nuc’s. The swarm traps are pretty much done except for the outer covers which I should hopefully finish this weekend. The traps were constructed out of all salvaged lumber, and painted with discounted outdoor paint (I love when people return paint to the hardware store that was mixed wrong – $3 for a gallon!!).
I still have a bit of work to do finishing up the other woodenware I will need. Inner covers, screened bottom boards, and boardman feeders all need to be built, but I already have all the deep boxes and the outer covers to accommodate up to five hives ready to go. If time allows I will do a post soon about the rest of the equipment I need to build.
A quick aside before saying goodbye, I have started a Facebook page for Autonomy Acres, so if you are into that kind of thing, click the like button and start following me on there and look for small updates as to what is happening. I have also started a new project called the Permaculture Free Press. Basically it is a news aggregation site dedicated to all things Permaculture, check it out, subscribe, and follow it on the Facebook. Until next time my friends … Peace & Cheers