My beehive died again this year. The death of this hive marks the third year (and the fourth hive) that I’ve failed to shepherd one through the winter. I have attended multiple beekeeping classes and workshops, a mentoring session, and read several books on beekeeping. I am by no means a novice. For the last couple of months, I have reflected on my experiences as a beekeeper and persevering through hive losses.
My first hive died because it starved. I think, knowing what I know now, that I could have saved that hive this year. My second hive died a horrific death as a result of varroa and secondary pests. Knowing what I know now, I could have saved that hive this year. My third hive died within a month, maybe two, of installation. They were weak to begin with, and the weather was not conducive to a strong start for the colony. In fact, they never managed to even draw out a full frame of comb. This hive was likely destined for failure regardless of any interventions I could have taken. Perhaps a seasoned beekeeper with multiple hives could have moved a frame of brood into the colony, but I am only a backyard beekeeper with one hive.
Reflecting on difficult losses
I have keenly felt the loss of these bees each time. Although honeybees are not domesticated animals, they are still livestock that I am supposed to tend and to help ensure their survival. No one enjoys shelling out money for a package of bees, eagerly anticipating the future reward of honey, only to lose that hive year after year without any of the sweet success of even a solitary pint of honey. I have not enjoyed persevering through hive losses. Because I wanted to have bees last year, I purchased a swarm with excellent potential after the death of my the third hive. They, too, collapsed. I honestly have no idea why they died. One month, their inspection was excellent. The next, they started dying off. Suddenly, they were just gone. They left behind a full store of honey and a sad, small cluster of dead bees huddled amid the frames. Yes, I treated for varroa at two different times with two different medications: Apivar in summer and oxalic acid in autumn.
Of course, a package of bees is a wholly unnatural organism. The queen does not belong to the bees, and the bees do not even belong to each other. Instead, a machine scrapes them up into three pounds and shipped from the almond trees and other agricultural industries in California to my home in Kansas. The bees are weak and disoriented. They need a lot of care to become a successful colony. Then, of course, comes the luck of the draw with the queen’s genetics and the quality of drones in the vicinity, if the queen is a virgin.
Swarms, on the other hand, are biologically natural. I expected that their survival rates would be better. Instead, I was shocked at one beekeeping event to learn that even swarms fail to survive at seemingly absurd percentages. (This source states that only 16% of swarms survive past their initial year). In the same vein, then, it’s natural for my biologically unnatural package of bees to fail. As the (usual) keeper of a solitary hive, I can’t make splits. I can’t rally back from the hive losses endemic to the beekeeping industry using my other resources. I have to buy another package of bees and start over again, hoping for the best. Of course, I could also try a nuc. Either way, I’m spending more money every year to hopefully have that magical moment where I have kept a hive alive through winter and can harvest its honey.
Keeping hope alive
You may wonder at which point I throw in the proverbial towel and give up on keeping bees. I’ve already lost four hives. Moreover, my fail rate is an epic 100%. I have asked myself this question repeatedly over the winter whenever I see my beekeeping equipment. As I swipe my credit card on yet another package of bees, I can now confidently state my answer.
I will give up on keeping bees when I no longer have joy from watching them fly into their hives, sporting bright shades of yellow, orange, and red pollen in their corbicula. When seeing my honeybees in my garden no longer brings me joy, I will give up on keeping bees. Whenever beekeeping brings more sorrow or discomfort than it brings me joy, I will admit defeat. Until then, I’ll start over again this year with a new hive, a new hope for a year of honey, and a new summer of joy watching the bees buzzing around the yard.
For more on the struggle of bees, visit The Death of Bees Explained: Parasites Poisons and Humans.