I have been keeping bees for four years in the Northeastern United States. With a background and career in science, I am always examining things, sometimes through a different set of glasses than others. Up until recently, there has been little research dedicated to bees. It seems as though now as people realize that we could potentially lose the honeybees, science is finally coming to the table to try and “save the bees”. Hopefully it is not too late.
These thoughts are my own and I certainly have not done any large randomized controlled studies, but I thought that they would be worth sharing. Perhaps some beekeepers might find them helpful and cost effective, and maybe help their bees to survive in their own backyards.
There are many beekeepers in my local club of over 200 people that have been keeping bees for practically a lifetime. There are many that don’t even blink an eye when sharing that they have been keeping bees for over 50 years. When chatting with them over the years, they all say the same thing. Beekeeping is not as easy as it was all those years ago.
The world has certainly changed in many ways for the bees. This includes environmental changes, pests, pesticides, and more. I believe these all put stressors on the colonies, making them less likely to thrive and survive during the harshest of seasons, winter. However, all is not lost. We just need to change the way we obtain, raise, and keep bees. We also need to question some of our practices. I think some of these thoughts below might be part of the solution.
Thoughts for Hardier Bees
Purchase local nucs or packages. Bees raised in your locale are accustomed to living in your climate. Therefore, I would argue that these bees are less stressed when transitioning to a new hive. They are also accustomed to the weather and the climate, which probably makes life easier for them. These queens also seem to take triggers from the environment, earlier than bees from warmer locales, that winter is coming and the hive needs to change gears in order to survive.
Purchase bees overwintered in your location. If you live in a cold climate this is especially important. Some apiaries in the Northeast ship their nucs down south to overwinter. Of course, nucs overwintered in warmer climates will have a better survival rate than those overwintered in the Northeast. I think this seems to be in the apiary’s best interest, not yours. It makes sense that bees that can survive the winters are the ones that we want contributing to the local gene pool.
Diversify the gene pool. Seek out a variety of bee breeds. Remember your drones will be mating with other local queens. Your bees have a direct impact on the quality of the bees in your area. In addition to Italian bees, there are Russian, Carniolan and even “mutts” available across the US. Beekeepers are also breeding hygienic bees. These bees recognize sick bees in the hive and remove them. I have hygienic bees and yes, I do think they do better.
Don’t take too much honey. The best food for bees is their own. There are some years when I forgo harvesting honey and leave it for the bees. Sugar water is not the same as honey. This also brings up concerns for me regarding the Flow Hive– but that is another blog post.
Optimize Nutrition. The best food for bees is their own honey and pollen. Good nutrition, whether in humans or bees, helps us all deal with physical and environmental stressors.
Know Your Bees. Regular inspections are important, but don’t explore too far. Once you see evidence of the queen- eggs, larvae, and a good capped brood pattern- return things back to normal. When assessing winter honey stores, a heft of each deep should give you an idea if they are prepared for winter.
Three Deeps. This past year instead of allowing the bees to fill and store two deeps with honey for winter, I encouraged them to fill three for themselves. Yes, I did forgo a late summer honey harvest. Three deeps got the bees through the winter without a need for me to feed them anything but their own honey.
Make Splits. Colonies that survive the winter are the ones that you want to add to the local gene pool. Those are the ones hardiest for your area and they should be split into new hives. This helps put their genes into the local bees and also helps to ensure you are keeping hardier bees for your area.
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