Natural Limits

Change

The Land

Fifty years ago, when I first got the honeybee bug, Wyoming beekeeping was different than it is now. Farms were surrounded by shelter belts of trees. Fields were flood irrigated using leaky earthen ditches. Farms were small and produced a variety of crops that often required more attention than alfalfa. Roadsides weren’t routinely cut or sprayed. Sweet clover was viewed as a good cover crop. And few ag chemicals/pesticides were used.

As a result the agricultural areas were a great place to run bees. There were lots of escaped weeds. Biodiversity was greater. Alfalfa wasn’t routinely sprayed. It grew taller the fence and was left full of bloom for weeks before being cut. And those neglected roadsides and ditch banks were full of yellow and white sweet clover. Beekeepers kept bees in permanent locations. And  little to no supplemental feeding was needed.

Today, it’s different. Water is a premium commodity. And as a result most shelter belts are gone. Fields are irrigated from gated pipe or overhead sprinklers. And most ditches are concrete. Farms are larger. Fewer crops are grown. Corn and native grass are replacing alfalfa. Alfalfa is cut at less than 10% bloom. And roadside/ditch weeds are quickly cut or sprayed. Sweet clover is seen as a noxious weed.

As a result I’ve always moved my bees several times a year as few locations provide year around sustenance and maximum production.

The Man

A couple of other things have changed through time as well. A decade ago, I would grab a ten frame double and routinely toss it up on a one ton flat bed. I’d quickly load a truck this way.

But that’s not my case any more. Two years ago I was doing the old grab and toss routine and I felt something in my back give way. Now tossing beehives is a thing of the past for me.

And as a hobbyist, and not a commercial guy, I’ve got more honey than I need or can give away. I’m no longer interested in or need maximum honey production.

I though that if I could find a permanent location for my bees, I wouldn’t need to lift or move them anymore. Honey production might suffer. But so what if the bees could prosper and provide a little surplus for me.

Maybe then my back wouldn’t suffer. And since my natural beekeeping produced hives that looked much like they did before the mites and the pesticide treadmill took beekeeping down, I thought there was a chance returning to permanent locations might work.

The Test

My new permanent beeyard location.

So, I found a location in the river bottom next to town. It would provide year around water. Early spring bloom. Maximum biodiversity. Wild sweet clover during wet years. Some town bloom long after everything else had shutdown.  And protection from winter winds.

What it lacked was access to agricultural land with those mid to late summer alfalfa and rabbitbrush flows.

When I was younger, a location like this one, could sustain 30 hives. I’ve known of permanent yards that existed along the river since the early 1900’s. But they aren’t there any more.

Would there be enough bloom in town and the river bottom to keep the bees healthy? Only one way to find out. Last year, I put nine hives there as a test.

Conditions

It was a wet year and conditions were great. Sweet clover was abundant. The bees got a good start and generally followed the yellow sweet clover. As the clover waned midsummer, brood rearing continued but at a reduced rate.

By late summer I’d harvested about 1/4 of what I’d normally get. The clusters were smaller than I’d like. But I left plenty of stores. I buttoned them up for winter.

Without rabbitbrush, late fall activity was almost absent. A meager amount of town pollen kept the bees flying sporadically into November.

Results

Not so good. In fact terrible! Out of the nine hives, two came through in good shape. Two were dinks. Three had queen failures. And two died. I combined the dinks and queenless coming up with  a total of two good hives and a poor hive. That’s about a 70% loss for this yard.

Inspections revealed few mites and no brood disease. There were no signs of dysentery. And all hives had adequate food reserves. Most of it was left over from the yellow sweet clover flow.

It’s the worst my hives have done since I suffered the initial losses associated with small cell regression, a decade ago.

Lack of nutrition was obviously a factor. My bees were in decline since midsummer, which coincided with a loss of forage. I suspect that the lack of forage, and especially the loss of fall forage, was the final blow to colony health and good winter survival.

The second factor was queen problems. Since going natural I’ve always let the bees supersede the queens as they see fit. And I made up any winter losses with queenless splits. I should have expected more queen problems. But my queen situation looked good. The queens had good brood patterns and performed more than adequately.

Checking the records, two queens were one year old. One queen was three years old. Five were going on four years. One was almost 5 years old.  When working pesticide treated bees, queens that weren’t superseded during the first six months, would gradually fail before the end of the second.

In contrast these natural queens  lived a long and productive life when  compared to pesticide treated queens.

Natural Limits

Did I write: “… a beekeeper does what he does best. What the bees can’t do for themselves. That is, handle the externals.”

Yes, and I messed up. Testing this location, I confused “just let them be” with “just let them bee”.

But placing bees in any location outside their natural range requires more action from the beekeeper. That’s especially true of a place like Wyoming. And I suspect, as our environment declines, it’s becoming much the same in many other places as well.

This season, I’ll only leave a couple of hives at that location. Maybe there will be enough sustenance for fewer hives. I probably should have tested this location with a single hive instead of nine.

I’ll be accessing colony nutrition throughout the summer. How? That’s an interesting question that I don’t have a good answer for. But the bees never raise drone brood when nutrition falters. I’ll follow Steve Taber’s suggestions and keep track of it. And if it’s lacking, especially late summer, I’ll give them a pollen patty or two.

In nature nothing lives forever. And that’s true of honeybee colonies as well. It’s been found that, before varroa,  feral Arizona colonies  survived about 3 to 4 years. A few made it through five years. But they eventually all succumbed. Deceased colonies are scavenged.  And natural process renew the site for new habitation.

The fact that my natural queens thrive more than twice as long as pesticide treated queens, doesn’t change the ultimate fate of an aged colony. If a natural beekeeper has queens that are all about the same age and wants to keep his hives full of bees, he will have to be more proactive about replacing queens than I was. Or they will follow their natural cycle and the beekeeper will end up with a bunch of empty hives.

So, I’ll manage my hives differently from now on. I’m going to be more proactive and work in some late summer queen replacements. I’ll look at replacing queens at the end of the second season.

Follow Up

Today’s inspection shows the surviving hives are still having problems. Bee populations are good and there’s no sign of diseases or pests. But queen problems are still dogging me. One of the better hives has now gone queenless. And one poor hive, made up from the winter dinks, is in the process of superseding their queen.

Now this yard is a candidate for yard trashing. I’ll break down all the hives into nucs. Give them new queens and start this yard over.

Once before, I lost most of my hive while regression them to small cell. I went to Arizona and visited with the Lusby’s. They spoke of the great resilience of untreated bees. And they encouraged me to return home and continue with those bees. I did and I experienced that great resilience for myself.

Looks like I’ll have the chance to do it again. And maybe I’ll learn even more about than I did before.

On a brighter note, those nucs are sure going to be easier to move out of that yard than the nine three story deep hives, if  they had  all survived. 🙂

-bwguy

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