DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- We are itty-bitty beekeepers.
Our three hives are considered a hobby apiary by commercial standards. My husband and I have never pretended to be more than backyard bee boosters. We enjoy learning about bees and caring for them. The bees have been a learning tool to better understand how pollinators fit on the agricultural landscape.
For us, any honey we harvest is a sweet benefit of the tending. We treasure every golden drop as we watch our girls work hard for the honey. We are not in the bee business to make money -- some production years, as was the case in 2018, can be bittersweet. We left all the honey with the bees so they would make it through the winter.
And they didn't. Despite all our efforts, none of our bees survived. It is the first time in the seven years since we started this little enterprise that we are temporarily bee free.
It has taken me several weeks to write this blog to confess we are now part of the bee loss statistics. We've lost a colony here and there before, but never total loss.
One colony disappeared without a trace last fall. It is what I would call classic Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) -- the sudden and unexplained disappearance of all adult honeybees in the hive. Honey and pollen were present, but no bees.
Varroa mite could have been the culprit since it happened in the fall -- although we did treat and in a timely fashion.
This was a tough winter and we were still going strong in February. This girl was in her busy season -- flying here and there for work -- so my husband was on duty. Bless his sweet heart, when he discovered the piles of dead bees in March, he cleaned them up before I had a chance to do a post mortem.
Trying to perform an autopsy of a honeybee colony by quizzing your husband makes this an even bigger mystery. Beekeeping is all about observation and piecing together clues about what is happening. Let's just say my man of action doesn't take good notes.
But interviewing him I've come to two possible conclusions:
1. We were overprotective parents. We buttoned our girls up and insulated them as the winter drew on and got more fierce. It is possible to get condensation in the hive if you insulate too much.
2. More colonies die from starvation in the winter than any other cause. We know ours had honey and we were providing sugar boards for additional calories. However, bees can starve to death with boxes of honey in the colony. The bee cluster needs to stay in constant contact with honey during periods of cold. If the cold wave is prolonged, it sometimes keeps the bees from moving. They consume all the honey within reach and even though they die from cold, it is really lack of food that causes the deaths.
This weekend we will pick up new packages of bees. The three-pound boxes of bees will contain one mated queen. Each box of new bees costs about $150 (I've heard more in other areas).
It's been a cold spring and I'm as nervous as a new parent. I have been rereading beginner bee books.
I'm also hoping we are a bit more knowledgeable than the first time we installed bee packages seven years ago. During that event, the bees didn't spill out of the package as the directions indicated. So, my husband, Jay, thought perhaps a few taps with a pry bar might do the trick.
I won't go into the intimate details, but the short version is it resulted in several stings and a long session of digging through a fencerow to find his glasses and other items that were flung during the pandemonium.
What was I doing during all this, the reader might ask? Well ... reading the directions again ... of course.
I was asked this week to list the best and the worst of beekeeping. The worst is easy: Bees sting and they have many environmental challenges. Suddenly we have not one or two teenagers, but thousands of them zipping around the neighborhood getting into goodness knows what!
But the best of beekeeping list is long too. Bees are magical insects with a fascinating social order and work ethic. We like to watch them and think we are participating in a natural thing. There's the honey.
But, perhaps most of all, bees keep us humble.
For more information on diagnosing winter bee losses go to:
Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
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