Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bad News For the Little Ladies

In the dark, damp winters of the pacific northwest, I think we are all trying to just make it through until spring. It's the same for the bees- they work hard all spring and summer making honey because they are going to hole up most of the fall and winter once the flower nectar is gone. They don't hibernate, but they generally don't leave the hive when it's below 54 degrees outside. Instead, they cluster together in a ball and fan their wings to generate heat, keeping the inside of the hive a toasty 93 degrees. So once the cooler weather came last October, I did what I could to prep the hive for winter, closed the lid, and hoped for the best.

Since you can't open the hive when it's cold, you just have to observe what you can from the outside. I started seeing a lot of dead bees in front of the hive, which is normal. Their population gets up to 50,000 or more at the height of summer, then will drop back down to around 20,000 in the low of winter, and these hygienic little creatures will not leave dead bodies inside the hive. I also noticed mold on the untreated wood of the inner cover. I put sticks in between the inner and outer cover to prop it up and create some ventilation. I drilled holes in the bottom screen board and slightly tilted the whole hive forward in case there was any condensation that needed to escape.
But by the sunny days in February and March, I wasn't seeing any activity at all- no solitary scout bees out flying, no new dead bees outside the entrance. When I finally peeked inside on one of our warmer late-winter days, I was devastated to find that the colony had not survived. It was terrible. There were petrified bees half-inside the comb cells, and a pile of dead bees on the screened bottom. There was larva half-developed that had turned to a stinky caramely goo. It was like a bee horror movie.

When I told friends over the last few weeks about the loss, they usually ask, "Why did they die?" Ha, that is the million-dollar question! It's hard to say exactly. I know my hive had a lot of moisture in it and subsequent mold, but I'm not sure how much that may have weakened them. I already have a plan for a few things I would do differently next fall in winterizing the hive. What I do know is that it was a really hard winter for bees in general. Many experienced beekeepers that I talked to lost a shocking number of hives this winter.

There's been a lot of coverage in the news over the past few years about Colony Collapse Disorder and the dwindling numbers and vitality of many kinds of bees. For decades it's been a mystery, with many factors being considered. In the Global Research article Genetically Modified Crops and the Decline of Bee Colonies in North America originally published in 2008, scientists looked at the possibility of Varroa mites, parasites, cell phones, and genetically engineered "terminator seeds" as culprits. They concluded at that time that genetically engineered crops were the biggest problem. Also, a nifty US crop pollination chart:
However, it wasn't until about a year ago that more conclusive evidence started coming out linking agricultural pesticides to the disappearing bees. At the end of March last year, the New York Times published an article about bees and neonicotinoids, which wikipedia describes as "a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically related to nicotine. The development of this class of insecticides began with work in the 1980's by Shell, and the 1990's by Bayer... Neonicotinoids are the first class of new insecticides introduced in the last 50 years, and the neonicotinoid imidacloprid is currently the most widely used insecticide in the world." 

In that article, Two Studies Point to Common Pesticide as a Culprit in Declining Bee Colonies, it says, "The authors of both studies contend that the results raise serious questions about the use of pesticides, known as neonicitinoids." It goes on to say, "But pesticides are only one of several likely factors that scientists have linked to declining bee populations. There are simply fewer flowers, for example, thanks to land development. Bees are increasingly succumbing to mites, viruses, fungi, and pathogens."

So we finally are starting to get a handle on the causes of the bee epidemic, namely genetically engineered crops and insecticides. But there needs to be a lot more research.  Research should probably not be conducted by one of the largest producers of pesticides and GE seeds, right?! But in April 2012, there were reports of just that when Monsanto Buys Bee Research Company.

Here is another good one from September of last year, Bee Deviled: Causes of Colony Collapse Disorder. Author Annie Spiegelman writes, "If you're not a huge fan of the bee, why should this matter to you? Well, if you like to eat food, you should be concerned. Besides gathering nectar to produce honey, bees pollinate agricultural crops, home gardens, orchards and wildlife habitat... It's estimated that about one-third of the human diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants, and three-quarters of all plants on the planet depend on insects or animals for pollination." She goes on to interview the co-director of the Pesticide Action Network about neonicotinoids.

Then February rolled around, when beekeepers from every U.S. state drive millions of hives to California to help with the largest pollination effort in the world. Any idea what crop that is for? You could probably guess from the chart above: Almonds. But this was an unprecedentedly terrible year for commercial beekeepers losing hives. Before Colony Collapse, it was normal to lose 5-10% of your hives. Then by 2005, one-third losses were becoming the norm. But this winter, it was up to 40-50%. This is a recent article from a few weeks ago specifically about this issue, Mystery Malady Kills More Bees.

And in early April this same issue of the massive pollination fail for almonds in California was addressed in Dan Rather's "Buzzkill". If you don't read any of the other articles in this blog post, I would HIGHLY recommend watching this informative segment. It's about 50 minutes long but good all the way through. And I couldn't help but think: buy almonds now. My prediction is that the price will skyrocket soon as this was the first year without enough bees to pollinate and the harvest will surely be much smaller than usual.

So, that's my attempt to answer the question as to why my bees died this year. Both backyard and commercial beekeepers are looking at a one-third loss as standard for any year. In fact, the beekeeper/supplier I bought my equipment from recommends starting with three hives since you will probably lose one. Last year it felt like a bit of a financial and time investment to have more than one hive as a new beekeeper, but this year I feel ready to add a second hive. So two new packages of bees will be arriving in two weeks!

My final thought is that we are finally seeing the bee decline as a real problem, and with some nameable causes can take steps to prevent further damage to the honeybee population. This article came out just a couple days ago about a supermarket in the UK banning any of their produce suppliers from using neonicitinoid pesticides. Sure, it may be only one grocery chain, and not even in the United States, but it definitely shows a growing awareness and a step in the right direction.


ElizaBeth said...

I'm so sorry about losing your ladies. Carson lost almost all of his hives this winter and I know first-hand how devastating that feeling is. But the bees need you now more than ever, so I would encourage you to try again! Think of everything you've learned and put it to good use this year. You've become a bee steward - the more people like you who spread your love and knowledge, the better chance bees have of making a comeback.

AmberAnda said...

Thanks so much Eli. Your thoughts are kind and your words eloquent, as usual. Yes, I'm excited to try again, this time with two hives! Fingers crossed.