The Bees: Where Did They Go?

To see the first part in this series click here to read ‘Lost: Bees’

Two weeks ago Mike and I were down at my parents to check on our bees and feed them if they needed it.  We had them in Albuquerque because the winters are much milder than in Santa Fe.  After the winter of 2010 with its record breaking temperatures of -25 degrees we wanted to do everything we could to help them thrive.

Checking a comb

Checking a comb.

Surprise! When we opened the hives this year four of them were empty, not a trace of bees.  Apparently the bees had just flown away.  What had been the strongest hives still had several combs full of honey.  The fifth hive had a bee colony but they were all dead.

So what happened?

We sent a few pictures off to our bee mentor Les Crowder.  In the past Les and his wife have been very gracious about answering our emails on specific questions we have about our hives.  They have a great site called For of the Love of Bees that you should go check out.

Here were a few theories from them:

1.  The colony population was not large enough to keep warm through the winter.

Mike:  We were concerned about this with the three new colonies we had started in the spring of 2011. We had very little moisture and very few flowers last spring and summer.  By the fall the populations in the three new hives were still very small.  This may have accounted for the dead bees.  They got cold and died.

Note:  Bees keep their hive at an average temperature of 96 degrees all year.  In the winter they kick out most of the boy bees so they don’t need to feed them.  The rest bunk down in a clump on a comb(s) near the front of the hive.  Occasionally they will go out for a ‘cleansing’ flight…(pee break).

2.  Pesticides

Molly:  I don’t think this played a role in our case but it’s a  possibility.  I know several of you have seen or read about the movie ‘Vanishing of the Bees’ where they go into the role that insecticides seem to have on destroying the bee population.  Sandy from First Gen American sent me a great article about it.  Check it out here.

Summer 2011- a new colony covering a comb

Summer 2011- a new colony covering a comb

Summer 2011-the comb wiped of bees to check it' progress

Summer 2011-The comb wiped clean of bees to check its progress.

A new study finds that- “Although the authors do not conclude that the pesticides, called neonicotinoids, are the sole cause of the American and international decline in bees or the more immediate and worrisome phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, they say that the omnipresent chemicals have a clearly harmful effect on beehives.” ‘Pesticides Tied to Bees’ Decline’, Northwest Herald, April 1, 2012.

3. Varroa mites-  This is an external mite that attaches itself to the honey bees.  It feeds on the bees and deforms their wings.  The Varroa mite has been responsible for the loss of countless bee colonies.   Smaller bees are thought to be less hospitable to this mite which is one reason we go with smaller bees.  We checked but didn’t find any evidence of mites.

Not having a strong honey bee population is a problem for everyone.  Honey bees pollinate up to 30% of  the world’s crops.  According to the Daily Green News, in February of 2011 almond growers expected a crop of 740,000 acres of almond-bearing groves.   The almond growers need 1.3 million to 1.5 million strong hives to pollinate all those acres.  Commercial beekeepers come from all over the country bringing their hives to pollinate the annual almond crop.  No bees no almonds.  It’s that simple.

The same thing goes for our home gardens.  A decline in the honey bee population affects the pollination of everything from fruit to vegetables to flowers.

Beekeeping used to be an integral part of farming but it has slipped away as agriculture has become more and more specialized with a focus on monoculture.  The good news is that there is huge potential for a honey bee comeback in backyard beekeeping.

Summer 2011- Mike and his sister, Heidi, working the hive

Summer 2011- Mike and his sister, Heidi, working the hive.

So what are we going to do?

We know we are not the only ones to open an empty beehive this year.  Unfortunately it’s becoming the norm.  When we started beekeeping we knew it might be an uphill battle.  Santa Fe doesn’t have the most bee friendly climate with our fickle weather.  The first year we lucked out in many ways.  We were able to harvest 8 pints of  honey and some beeswax from our two topbar hives.

Molly:  What keeps bubbling up for me is to transform our beekeeping into a community effort.

Mike:  We’ve had a shift in our outlook on beekeeping.  It started out as a cool hobby where we were expecting to break even or make a small profit raising bees.  Now it’s more about raising bees and not worrying about profit.  Honey bees need our help and we want to put our energy into taking care of this very necessary piece of our eco-system.

Molly:  Right now Mike and I have the parts for about eight beehives, beekeeping equipment and a centrifuge to process the honey.  What we don’t have are any bees.  

Mike:  We can’t really afford it but I’m ordering two new bee colonies tomorrow.

Molly:  Great! Did I tell you I want to start up a new bee project?  The idea is to raise funds to help people like us who have lost their bees but not their beekeeping  enthusiasm.  We want to start by enabling people keep their beekeeping going by helping them with funds to replace their colonies of bees.   Later we’ll start bringing newbies into the fold.

Mike:  We want to facilitate backyard beekeeping and keep the honey bee population going by focusing on sustaining strong colonies. 

Molly:  Yeah! 100,000 beehives!  One backyard at a time!!

 Coming up in the very near future will be more info on our bee project and how you can help!


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