Honey bee hive demise has soared in recent years, now reaching annual losses of 50 percent. Of that, new beekeepers appear to be responsible for over 50 percent of the mortalities.
The figures are mind-boggling for Alex Zomchek, who grew up in northern Wisconsin in an era of 3 -5 percent losses. In those pre-1987 golden years of beekeeping, hard winters were the biggest hurdle to successfully keeping bees.
'There was very little else, and the few problems we did have were reasonably well understood,' the Ohio State Beekeepers Association's Master Beekeeper instructor and veteran beekeeper at Oxford told listeners during a presentation hosted by The Ohio State University.
The situation has changed dramatically since then. New age beekeeping is challenged by Varroa mites, old, new and yet-to-be identified bacterial and viral diseases, a variety of pests, colony collapse disorder and questionable Apis genetics.
Zomchek believes new beekeepers (newbees) can have a profound influence on the mortality numbers. 'I dare say that, by equipping newbees in particular with a couple of skills, we can dramatically reduce that 50 percent of the 50 percent that they are responsible for,' he said.
Looking ahead, Zomchek wondered whether the time-honored Langstroth hive, with its vertical stacking ability for large colonies, might not be the best thing in a 'Varroa mite centric' world. 'There is direct correspondence between the mite load and the bee population,' he noted.
As a self-described gageteer, Zomchek is also interested in the new materials coming into use, including plastics, styro, poly, as well as new configurations such as flow hives, eight frame boxes and overwintering bees in nucs.
Frame rotation is another intriguing option, in which frames are dated and rotated out so no wax in the brood chamber is over 5 years old to keep residual toxins from building up.
Zomchek counseled newbees to build mortality rates into their apiary plan. 'If you're going to have a 50 percent mortality, it would really serve you well to hedge your bet by putting in another hive. Have 2.5 hives going into winter, rather than suffering a complete loss,' he advised.
Requeening in the late summer or early fall is also gaining in popularity, as beekeepers work around the issue of failing, under-performing and non-hardy queens.
Over the last 20 years, much has been learned about bee gut flora and bee health. Various feeding options can, and should, play an important role in every beekeeper's program.
'This is not the days of yore, where you'd put your bees in a box, feed them a little sugar water and they do their thing,' Zomchek said.
Starvation, stimulation and nutritional feeding of honey bees is a relatively new concept and something every new beekeeper needs to know, he emphasized.
It starts with feeding the bees in the early spring to keep them from starving, moves into stimulation feeding with the appropriate portions of sugar and water, and then to nutritional feeding in the stressful mid- to late summer period when bees in many areas do not have access to nectar or pollen.
Dynamics of beekeeping
Refining the methods to improve mortality rates starts with location. Since every pound of honey requires 2 million flower visits, it is critical that hives be placed with access to hundreds of millions of flowers or the bees can quickly starve out.
Place hives on a solid foundation, rotate them away from prevailing winds and orient them so morning sun can revitalize the colonies. Cant hives forward slightly so gravity can wick the snowmelt and rain off and away.
A water source is also necessary, with wood chips or stones added so bees have landing sites and won't drowned.
Separating newbees from beekeepers
The difference between newbees and beekeepers is commitment and timing. 'You need to do the right things at the right time for your colony,' Zomchek said.
A beekeeper's year cues off seasonal bee, pest and disease cycles. 'There is a time of year and understanding these cycles can really help. You know where you are in the process and can act accordingly,' he said.
For instance, time treatments for mites toward July, August or September when colonies and, therefore, mites are at the rise. Wax moths are migratory and are not around in the spring and early summer. However, they can become a problem during and after the honey harvest, when wet, extracted supers lure them in.
Zomchek is a fervent champion of monitoring. 'This is not something we did in the old days, but today, given the pest and disease issues plaguing us, it really becomes a vital tool, a philosophy you have to go into beekeeping with,' he explained. 'Hands-off beekeeping is no longer an option.'
Monitoring removes the guessing.
Biggest impact items
Feral colonies of honey bees are also a thing of the past. 'The difference between bees in the trees and bees in the box is the bees in the trees are not treated and they are all but gone,' Zomchek pointed out. 'Treating makes a difference.'
Proximity also matters. Zomchek agrees with soft data that suggests colony health is related to the distance between the hive and the beekeeper.
'My bee yards that are closest to me are seen more often, manipulated the most and are the healthiest,' he admitted.
Zomchek is a big fan of frequent hive visits and 'fire drills', where the beekeeper gets into a hive, sees what he needs to see and gets out within five minutes. 'I think new beekeepers need to do a lot more of this,' he said.
He has also found that great beekeepers are great record keepers, detailing when they were in the hive, what they saw and what they need to do next for the response they desire.
There is no room for negligence. 'Our hives are fragile,' Zomchek pointed out. 'If you see the car leaving the road, you have the ability to nudge it back to the center again.'
Beekeeping doesn't take a lot of time. It takes timing, so get comfortable with the bees, conquer your fears, breathe deeply and enjoy the experience.