Why I don’t like beekeeping all that much

It’s an odd thing, but I never encourage people to become beekeepers. Once someone decides to keep bees, I try to help them along and I enjoy that aspect. But I never try to convince anyone that beekeeping is a good idea. This arises, I think, from fundamental beliefs I have about bees in general.

For example, I believe that:

    1. Many people are more in love with the idea of beekeeping than with actually doing it. I put myself in this category.
    2. There are better ways to “save the bees” than keeping honey bees. I truly believe that caring for our environment, refraining from using pesticides, setting aside habitat, planting flowers, and teaching others about the role of bees in our lives will do more for them than owning a few colonies.
    3. That the bees that are really in trouble, the wild native bees, are further displaced when the density of honey bee colonies gets too high.
    4. That no matter how you parse it, beekeeping is not for everyone.

The parts I don’t like

When I look at the parts of beekeeping I dread, they add up fast. For example, I don’t like:

  • Lifting boxes
  • Making syrup
  • Making candy
  • Mixing pollen patties
  • Feeding bees
  • Dealing with mites, wax moths, beetles, wasps, and brood diseases
  • Counting varroa and sugar roll testing
  • Hive treatments of any type
  • Dealing with mice and shrews and ants
  • Worrying about neighbor complaints
  • Working bees in the heat
  • Working bees in the cold
  • Wearing protective gear
  • Not wearing protective gear
  • Working bees in the rain
  • Running out of sugar
  • Buying sugar and hauling it around
  • Scraping propolis
  • Rendering beeswax
  • Extracting honey
  • Feeling sticky
  • Wiring frames
  • Repairing equipment
  • Seeing robbing bees, dead bees, or sick bees
  • The smell of a dead colony
  • Preparing bees for winter
  • Losing swarms
  • Replacing queens
  • Breathing smoke and using smokers
  • Finding larvae in my comb honey

The parts I like

That said, some parts of beekeeping are to die for. I love:

  • Watching bees at the landing board
  • Watching bees on flowers
  • Observing bees inside the hive
  • Seeing a beautiful piece of comb
  • Seeing a new bee emerge from a cell
  • Watching the queen lay eggs
  • Eating honeycomb
  • Watching a swarm leave
  • Watching a swarm arrive
  • Hearing them buzz as individuals
  • Hearing them buzz as a colony
  • The smell of a healthy hive
  • Collecting pollen
  • Building new bee boxes
  • Making new frames
  • Taking photos of bees

Oddly enough, stings are on neither list because, although I don’t enjoy getting stung, I find the process fascinating more than terrifying. I have to admire the ones that take me on.

Why new beekeepers quit

I’ve heard many estimates for the number of beekeepers who drop out in the first couple of years, usually around 80%. But that number does not surprise me. Beekeeping encompasses a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of heartbreak. Those who embrace it, stay forever and keep bees for decades. Those who don’t, move on, and for them it is the right choice.

Moving on is okay because sometimes you need to find out for yourself. I’m often surprised by who stays and who quits, and I’m not at all good at predicting the outcome. Trying it for a while may be the only answer.

Mulling over the last straw

I sometimes wonder what will be the last straw for me. For now, I think it will most likely come in the form of some law or regulation to which I’m unwilling to kowtow. Hiring a veterinarian to diagnose and treat foulbrood? Needing a building permit for a hive? County licensing fees? Fines for allowing bees to swarm? A lawsuit for a bee sting? I don’t know what it might be, but it will come, courtesy of some politician trying to leave his mark. Whatever it is, I’ll know it when I see it.

So that’s my two cents for the day. It came to me while I was avoiding the stack of unscraped frames in my shed. They’re piled alongside several fifty-pound bags of sugar, a mountain of swarm traps housing spiders, sections of drawn comb with mason bee nests in the corners, screened bottom boards with holes, and a large bucket of unprocessed beeswax. Keeping bugs sure is a lot of work.

Honey Bee Suite

A pile of old frames needing work. © Rusty Burlew.

My hives have no brood! What should I do?

It is October or perhaps November. You open your hives for a quick inspection only to find there is no brood. None!  Not a single cell, capped or otherwise. You panic, wondering whether you should replace your queens (tricky this time of year), combine your colonies, or just give up. You blame mites, mite treatments, predators, diseases, bad weather, weak queens, and yourself.

So what is wrong with these colonies? My first guess is “absolutely nothing.” Your colonies have little or no brood because it’s that time of year. Here in the northern hemisphere, brood rearing slows dramatically or stops altogether as the weather begins to cool.

The winter brood nest

Beekeeping in Western Canada, a thorough all-purpose beekeeping book published by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, explains it like this (p.6):

As fall progresses, egg-laying by the queen generally ceases, and there is a period of from one to three months during winter when there is little or no brood rearing.

The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (p. 43) tells us that brood rearing begins anew after the winter solstice:

Brood rearing begins in mid-winter (end of December to January in temperate climates), accelerates in late winter and early spring, reaches a peak soon after the first forage becomes available, reduces later in the summer, and ceases entirely in autumn. (emphasis added)

Consider these two statements together and you can see that one to three months before the winter solstice puts you back in October. So basically, you may have no brood in the months of October, November, and December.

Variations due to temperature

The actual beginning of broodlessness will vary with local conditions, as will the length of time. Colonies further south where winter temperatures remain mild, may never be completely broodless. Still, even in the south, the amount of brood is lower in the winter.

My own observation is that the length of time (the one to three months) is not the same every year, but is dependent on local weather conditions. So maybe last year, for example, broodlessness started later. Maybe you didn’t notice it because your hives were already buttoned up for the winter. If broodlessness comes earlier in the year, you are more apt to notice it.

Advantages of a small or missing brood nest

All species evolve in ways that help them survive. A period of broodlessness may have a number of advantages:

  • Some researchers have suggested that a broodless stretch allows the queen a period of rejuvenation. She gets to rest and build her strength before the next onslaught of egg-laying.
  • The broodless period reduces the population of the hive by attrition. As bees die, fewer are left to feed. There is an optimum population level for any colony, one that is large enough to keep the colony warm but small enough that the food supply will last till spring. Colony size in winter varies, but it is highly dependent on sub-species. Carniolans, for example, overwinter with smaller colonies than Italians.
  • A broodless period also conserves energy in another way. When no brood is present, the cluster is maintained at a temperature of around 20°C (68°F) in the center. Conversely, a cluster with brood is maintained at about 34°C (93°F). To sustain this higher temperature, the bees must eat a much greater amount of food. So as you can see, a long broodless period is a significant energy-saving strategy.

The Hive and the Honey Bee (2014, p. 89) sums it all up:

There is little or no brood rearing during the coldest part of the winter and colonies reach their lowest population size as winter progresses. However, in late winter the queen begins to lay and brood rearing commences. This requires that workers elevate the temperature to 34-35 degrees C inside the cluster around the brood.

Colony size is not static

Colony size and the amount of brood rearing is in a constant state of flux—nothing about a honey bee colony is static. I’ve written this many times before, but there is a simple rule of thumb to help you remember what is happening inside your hive. Just divide the year into two parts, the growing part and the shrinking part.

Basically a honey bee colony increases in population from the winter solstice to the summer solstice and decreases from the summer solstice to the winter solstice. Adult populations are highest just before the downturn (late June) and lowest just before the upturn (late December).

This schedule is not intuitive, especially to a new beekeeper, so it takes some thinking. The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture states it like this:

The striking thing about this pattern is that it is so different from the pattern of when forage is available.

But when you think about it, a colony must build up before the major honey flow if the bees are to take advantage of it and store it for winter. Likewise, the colony needs to shrink before extreme cold sets in so food supplies are not rapidly consumed.

Think like a bee

When it comes to understanding your colony population dynamics, it helps to think like a bee. And a bee, it seems, is a good planner with the goal of protecting the future of the colony. My advice is to read a good book on bee biology and plot brood expansion and contraction on a calendar. You will then know what to expect before you open your hive.

Honey Bee Suite

A nice long break sounds like a plan. Pixabay photo.

Why so many dead bumble bees?

Several of you have reported seeing many dead bumble bees on flowers, patios, or lying on the ground. This type of observation pleases me no end. It gives me hope to see so many people noticing wild bees and wondering about them.

As it happens, it is completely normal to see lots of dead bumble bees at this time of year. Unlike honey bees, most bumble bee colonies die at the onset of winter. Some colonies in warm climates may survive the winter, but as a general rule, a bumble bee colony lasts for only one season.

A colony starts with one bee

A bumble bee colony starts in the spring with a single mated queen. This queen hibernated all winter in a cozy protected spot, most often a narrow hole in the ground not much bigger than the bee herself. She survived on fat stored in her body, much like a bear or a hedgehog. You can often see these bumbles in the spring, remarkable for their ungainly size.

When the weather warms in spring, the queen feeds on the nectar of early flowers and cruises the countryside looking for a place to build her nest. The queens of most species choose an underground cavity—perhaps an abandoned rodent hole—as a shelter. In that hole, she begins the process of storing a little nectar, and building a small wax nest for her first batch of young workers.

Once the initial nest is fashioned from secreted wax, and tiny nectar pots are built and filled, the queen sits on her eggs very much like a hen. She keeps the brood warm with her body and drinks from her nectar pots until the young worker bees emerge from their cells.

The chores are turned over to workers

The queen works hard in the early spring, doing all the chores by herself. However, once the first workers emerge, she forages less and less. The labor-intensive jobs of brood rearing, foraging, and colony defense are turned over to her offspring, and she gets down to the business of egg laying. For most of the spring and summer this queen will lay eggs that produce nothing but more female workers.

Because of this system, nearly all the bumble bees you see in the spring and summer are workers. Like honey bees, they ply the flowers for both nectar and pollen, transporting the pollen back to their nests in baskets built into their rear legs.

In general, bumble bees have more size variability than honey bees. While all the honey bee workers in a colony are pretty much the same size, worker bumble bees come in a range of sizes. However, the smallest bumbles spend their entire lives in the nest, acting as nurses. It is only the larger workers that go out and do the foraging. Most of us never see the tiniest house-bound bumble bees.

Queens and males come later

Late in the summer the queen adds to the colony by producing both male bees and virgin queens. If you are observant, you can easily see the changes in your garden. The first thing you might notice is some huge bumble bees and an assortment of very small bumble bees, sometimes on the same flower. As you might guess, the large ones are queens. The small ones are males.

But wait. You never see honey bee queens and drones perusing the blooms, do you? So what are these bumbles doing out on the flowers?

Male bumbles have no home

The males spend their time trying to mate. Many males compete for this honor, but only a few get lucky. The rest of the time, they can be seen in the flowers, drinking nectar for quick energy. As it happens, they also sleep in the flowers because once they leave the nest they are not allowed back in.

Some people mention that these autumn bumble bees often look wet, lethargic, or dead. All of these may be true. The males don’t live very long, and after mating—or attempting to mate—they spend most of their time eating and sleeping. During the cool nights they get wet with dew and stiff with cold. Sometimes they warm up the next morning and live another day, or sometimes they get eaten, or simply die.

Queens fatten up for winter

The queens though, lead a different kind of life. During the fall months the newly-mated queens gorge on nectar and pollen, fattening up for winter. The more fat they can store, the better chance they have of making it through the cold months ahead. Once she is ready, a queen will go and find a nice protected hole where she can hibernate until spring.

Sometimes in the fall you will see a fat queen next to tiny male. Although they forage side-by-side, the difference in size is striking. By evening, however, you might notice dead males adhering to flowers, or dropping into the grass where they are quickly eaten by something else. In contrast, the queens are nowhere in sight, having flown back to the nest for protection.

The colony dies as winter sets in

Back in the colony, life is winding down. One by one, the newly-mated queens leave the nest to begin hibernation. The old queen slows her egg production and eventually dies. The workers die as well. The first hard freeze finishes off all the remaining bees except for the hibernating queens. As we go into winter, the once busy colony is but a memory.

Honey Bee Suite

Here two bumble bees, most likely Bombus vosnesenskii, share a flower. The large one on the left is probably a queen. © Rusty Burlew.
Seven honey bees and a bumble bee share a dahlia. © Rusty Burlew.

Bald-faced hornet nests in New York

Beekeepers here in North America are all too familiar with the bald-faced hornet Dolichovespula maculata. Depending on where you live, this wasp may also be referred to as a white-faced hornet, blackjacket, or bull hornet.

The bald-faced hornet is actually a close relative of the aerial yellowjacket Dolichovespula arenaria, which also can give beekeepers a hard time. Both live in large nests made of chewed fibers, and both have a taste for insects, including honey bees. In addition, they are often seen sipping on overripe fruit in orchards and berry patches.

Like most other wasp species, these hornets begin a colony in the spring with a solitary queen. The queen mated the prior autumn and spent the winter in a protected place. When spring arrives, she emerges from her nest and searches for a good location to build a home. Then, all by herself, she builds a small nest and raises the first batch of workers.

Nest expansion

Once the workers mature, they take over the job of foraging and nest expansion, and the queen can get on with the business of laying eggs. The colony expands rapidly and, by fall, many workers roam the area looking for protein (insects) to feed their burgeoning population.

By autumn the nests can be massive and the colony requires lots of food. Honey bee hives can provide an unparalleled dining experience for the hornets because a tempting selection of courses is readily available—live bees, dead bees, nectar, honey, and pollen. Hornets like it all.

Hornet nests in New York

Mike Riter, an amateur naturalist living in New York, writes a series for the Poughkeepsie Journal about the private lives of stinging insects. Last year he shared some great photos of an open-air honey bee colony that had been living on a golf course. This time around he sent the following photos of bald-faced hornet nests from his local area.

I absolutely love the one in the apple tree. I’ve never seen hornets build like that. I can only assume the nest was begun while the apples were still small and they expanded into the nest as the season progressed. However it happened, it’s an unusual sight.

The photos of fall foliage make me homesick for a northeast autumn. So beautiful! Here, it’s raining as usual. I hope you enjoy these photos as much as I did. Thanks to Mike for some excellent shots.

Honey Bee Suite

Hornet nest among apples.
This hornet nest is built among the apples, perfect for a quick snack. © Mike Riter.
Hornet nest on transformer.
This hornet nest is cemented to an electrical transformer. © Mike Riter.
Hornet nest in tree.
These hornets have a rustic view from their main entrance. © Mike Riter.
Hornet nest over stream.
These hornets choose a waterfront property for their nest. © Mike Riter.

Honey bees are not endangered

Since the United States Fish and Wildlife Service placed seven species of bees on the endangered species list, I have been inundated with mail from jubilant citizens. Many of the letters say something like, “It’s about time honey bees are protected.” Or “The government finally realized how important honey bees really are!” Oh dear.

If you are one of the jubilant ones, listen up. Honey bees are not endangered, and I seriously doubt they will ever be listed as such. The decision to protect seven species of native Hawaiian bees has absolutely nothing to do with honey bees.

“Bee” does not equal “honey bee”

We bee lovers battle confusion every day. To most people the word “bee” is synonymous with “honey bee.” So headlines like “Bees placed on the Endangered Species List” are completely misunderstood.

In truth, about 20,000 species of bees roam the Earth. Some estimates put the actual count much higher—maybe double—because new species are constantly being discovered. In many places, species are going extinct before we even know they exist, which is sad beyond words.

Roughly 4000 of the known species live in North America. Most of those 4000 are native to this continent, but we also have a fair number of imported bees. Examples include the European honey bee, the alfalfa leafcutting bee, the European wool carder bee, and the hornfaced mason bee among many others.

The bees that were recently listed are seven species of Hylaeus (high-LEE-us), all of which are native to Hawaii. The newly listed species are Hylaeus anthracinus, Hylaeus longiceps, Hylaeus assimulans, Hylaeus facilis, Hylaeus hilaris, Hylaeus kuakea, and Hylaeus mana. These bees occupy a number of different habitats, all of which are currently threatened by development and invasive species. Without intervention, they will most likely go extinct.

The purpose of the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

Like most government documents, the various provisions of the act can be difficult to read. But according to the Fish and Wildlife website, The Endangered Species Act of 1973 provides for the conservation of species that are endangered or threatened throughout all or a significant portion of their range, and the conservation of the ecosystems on which they depend.

Other parts of the act seem to imply that “range” means “natural range,” although I can’t find it clearly defined. Honey bees have no natural range in North America. Instead, it is native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Furthermore, it does not appear to be endangered or threatened throughout a significant portion of that range.

It is interesting to note that the Endangered Species Act does list foreign species if those species are endangered or threatened in their natural ranges. The U.S. cannot control how the plants or animals are treated in their native lands, of course, but the act assists the species by prohibiting their import and sale within our boundaries. So, for example, you cannot import a tiger into this country as a pet.

The ESA does not protect livestock

If honey bees were listed under the ESA you wouldn’t be able to capture them, sell them, harvest their honey, or use them in commercial agriculture.  Here are some of the current restrictions (emphasis added):

The ESA makes it unlawful to import or export; deliver, receive, carry, transport, or ship in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of a commercial activity; sell or offer for sale in interstate or foreign commerce; take (includes harm, harass, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect any wildlife within the United States); take on the high seas; possess, ship, deliver, carry, transport, sell, or receive unlawfully taken wildlife…These prohibitions apply to live or dead animals or plants, their progeny (seeds in the case of plants), and parts or products derived from them.

As you can see, protecting the honey bee under the Endangered Species Act would do little to protect our food supply because the honey bee could no longer be used for agriculture or honey production. Simply put, it’s not the right law to apply to honey bees.

Separating honey bees from all the rest

I often wonder how we can separate the concept of “bee” from “honey bee,” but I don’t have an answer. When I write, I try to use “honey bee” as much as possible, but invariably the “honey” part drops off. What can we do to let people know that the honey bee is just one of 20,000+ species, each one unique and precious?

Truth be told, I think beekeepers are the worst offenders. We love our honey bees and refer to them as ”bees” all the time, much to the confusion of the rest of the world. I don’t know how we can fix it. But for now we can explain that although honey bees are still hanging in there, some of their kin are in serious trouble.

The rusty-patched bumble bee could also land a spot on the endangered species list. Photo by MJ Hatfield.

Honey Bee Suite