Keys to successful bee stewardship

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This is the third segment of my coverage of the 2014 Maine State Beekeepers’ Association’s annual conference, and the second post regarding Dewey Caron’s lectures about good bee stewardship . This year Dr. Dewey Caron gave two presentations–you can read about the first entitled “Looking in the Beehive” by clicking here, and be sure to read about Matt Scott’s delivery of “Climate Change and Maine Bees“.

For the second time that day, Dr. Dewey Caron went before the audience of Maine beekeepers, this time to talk about some of the things that beekeepers who are practicing bee-stewardship are doing. Dr. Caron said that “bees can do well on their own, but don’t always know better,” and to emphasize the point he used a picture of a swarm that had built up a series of combs off the underside of a bar-b-que table, exposed and open to the elements and other dangers.

keys to succesful bee stewardshipAccording to Caron, swarms have a 1 in 5 chance of successfully surviving the winter on their own, and as beekeepers we haven’t been able to improve much on that statistic.

Caron recommends that beekeepers participate in the annual survey undertaken by the Bee Informed Partnership in order that we all might learn which management practices prove most effective for survival of honeybee colonies. Beekeepers interested in joining this citizen science project can find more details at www.beeinformed.org.

Understand the floral season

“You ought to know what the plants are that drive the hive,” Caron continued. Beekeepers should have a good grasp on what the typical forage and feeding season looks like in their area; what pollen and nectar sources are available? Those resources are what stimulate the colony to begin building up brood and the colony population, so you should know when to expect that to happen. That basic understanding of the floral season will help you, as a beekeeper, to know when to expect swarming, to know when you’ll need to be adding honey-supers for the honey-flow. It will be an asset to know when to anticipate a dearth in the nectar flow, and when it will begin to diminish altogether for the season so that you can know when to start consolidating the colony and gearing up for the winter.

Successful colonies

So what do successful fall and overwintered colonies look like? According to Dr. Caron they are hives with strong populations—but not so strong that they will burn through all of their honey reserves during the winter dormancy period. These successful colonies have young and vigorous Queens that can provide plenty of healthy, disease-free brood, and they have enough honey and bee-bread stores to last them til spring.

Challenges to successful beekeeping

There are, of course, a number of challenges beekeepers are facing that can sometimes prevent the success of overwintering colonies.

Non-native species – There’s the fact that Apis mellifera is not even native to North America and so is not necessarily adapted to the conditions here.

Varying regional conditions – Environmental conditions vary greatly from one region of the continent to the next—for example, Dr. Caron admits that in Oregon where he and his bees reside, they have just one main nectar flow and do not see the boon of the fall flow that we have here in Maine.

Changes in environment from one year to the next – Every environment has its ups and downs as well—this year was cool and Indian summer has prolonged the foraging season, while last year’s mild winter was followed by a very warm summer. These variations in the seasons are bound to have an affect on the success of our honeybee colonies.

MITES – Let’s not forget the mites. The relationship the varroa mites have with honeybees is not a good one, Caron stated. The health of honeybee colonies has declined since the late 1940s, with an accelerated decline in the ’90s as the populations of varroa increased.

Disappearing bees

For more than a century beekeepers have faced the puzzling phenomena of disappearing bees.

  • In 1891 and 1896 large colonies disappeared or dwindled to tiny clusters with Queens in May, and was referred to as “May disease”. It was suspected that the affliction was the result of a fungus known as Aspergillus flavus which can cause a form of “Stonebrood”.
  • On the Island of Wight in the United Kingdom, between 1905 and 1919—90% of the colonies died, and there was some contention about the root cause of the problem; some believed the die-offs were the result of the acarine disease, others thought it was due to the tracheal mite. Still more beekeepers believed the hive losses were related to colony starvation or Nosema.
  • The incidents of colony deaths go on over the course of the century until you come to the 2001 epidemic of the Parasitic Mite Syndrome and then the 2007 spread of Colony Collapse Disorder.

And we’re still losing hives. According to Dr. Caron and surveys by the Bee Informed Partnership in 2014 beekeepers across the U.S. lost approximately 45.2% of their colonies, and in Maine the number here was 41.2%. Furthermore—I think it’s important to note that according to these surveys—backyard beekeepers lose more hives than commercial beekeepers do.

So what can we do to improve upon those statistics?

Utilize Integrated Pest Management techniques

dr. dewey caron and bee stewardshipDr. Caron suggests beekeepers employ what’s known as “Integrated Pest Management”, or IPM. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization defines IPM as “the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize the risks to human health and the environment.”

Basically you’re assessing the problem to determine if the threat level has surpassed a threshold that you regard as the point where action must be taken, and then you would decide what kind of treatment the pest-level warrants.

With an IPM program, beekeepers have a range of tactics available to them in what Caron refers to as their “IPM toolbox” to aid them in the ongoing fight against varroa; from the more preventative cultural and mechanical management techniques, to the interventive softer organic treatments and then the hard chemicals.

Cultural methods include careful selection of the apiary location, induction of locally reared bees and hygienic Queens, along with your choice in cell size. Screened bottom boards, drone brood removal and late-season re-Queening are all physical approaches. Strategies that involve essential oils, powdered sugar, or other repellents fall into the soft or organic category of chemical treatment. Finally the conventional miticides are a beekeeper’s most aggressive course of action, which under the practice of integrated pest management would be reserved for the most serious of mite infestations.

Tough stuff for tough mites

ipm for good bee stewardshipThe Bee Informed Partnership took their survey a step further by asking respondents about the treatments used in their colonies—the results indicate that reporting beekeepers who used Apiguard to treat their colonies for mite infestations only lost approximately 27% of their hives compared to beekeepers who used nothing who lost 37% of hives, and beekeepers who used some other kind of product and lost about 35% of their beehives.

Dr. Caron says “Mites are tough guys and we gotta use tough stuff” to have an affect on them and reduce the numbers of hives lost annually.

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