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Ross’s Bee Journal, #8: Spring Feeding, More Expansion

March 26, 2007

I closed the last Bee Journal with the hope that our 4 colonies would make it through the winter so we wouldn’t have to buy packaged bees this year. And it was a mild winter, one of the warmest on record despite the bitter cold couple of weeks at the beginning of February. We had a few good snowfalls with snow that stuck around a while, although the 12 inches of early December snow had disappeared completely before 2006 ended.

But then the media started to buzz about disappearing honey bees, so-called colony collapse disorder, and horror stories of large-scale pollinating operations arriving in California with a semi-truckload of hives only to find half of their bees dead. Friends and relatives emailed me stories from their local paper, national news outlets covered it. There was plenty of speculation; surveys were launched; yet no definitive answers have been formulated.

One of the odd things many stories described was the unexplained disappearance — not simply the death — of bees. Colonies would be discovered with almost no bees left inside. Brood would be diseased or dead from neglect. It seemed that the field bees were not returning, so the nurse bees would be pressed into service to forage. And they did not return either. Before long there would be no bees left in the colony to feed the queen and the brood. It was reported that bees from other colonies, always eager to rob a weaker colony of its food, would not go into the affected colonies for a couple of weeks.

The most convincing explanation I heard for most of this was from a Florida researcher interviewed for the NPR program “Living on Earth” (I posted a blurb and a link here). Seems very likely to be caused by a pesticide that has the specific effect on colony insects of making them forget how to find their way home. Widely used in the US, but banned in some European countries, it also can get into the nectar and weaken the bee immune system, making them susceptible to pathogens they normally live with.

So, with all the talk of CCD and new threats, and the bitter cold days of early February, we hedged and put in an order for two packages. Every time we checked the hives (by sticking our heads under the 18-inch tall hive stands to get an ear right under the screened bottom) we could hear them buzzing, but you just don’t know what will happen late in the winter. They could run out of food. It could get too damp in the hive. Winter could drag on. Our first colony of a couple years ago made it into January, after all, before succumbing to something.

If all of our hives made it through the winter, we figured, we’d just start two more with the new packages. And that is exactly what we will be doing. All 4 of our colonies are alive, I’m happy to report. Even the wobbly #4 that we started by stealing brood from the other 3. I’m sure all the feeding we did in the fall helped. The hives are still fairly heavy.

We pulled the top feeders off two weeks ago on a warm day, dumping leftover fall syrup (now fermented) out of some. I managed to get stung on the knee by a bee that crawled up under my pantleg. I should have put the ankle straps on, I guess. Didn’t expect them to be as active as they were.

We gave each hive a pollen patty and refilled the feeders with a lighter sugar syrup (1:1) that is better for spring buildup. Bees need pollen and nectar to raise brood. Nothing is flowering here yet, so this gives them a boost. With the weather warming up (and it will be in the 70s all this week) the bees will be more active. They have started foraging already, but food is still scarce. If they can start raising brood now they’ll have a strong workforce by the time the dandelions bloom in April. Dandelions are a very good source of spring pollen and nectar.

As we contemplate our colony count increasing by 50 percent we have been listening to Jeff and Phil go on excitedly about “double-queening.” They heard a researcher speak at a winter bee convention about this new (old) method of boosting honey production and they can’t say enough about it (well, they can and they did, actually). If we felt adventurous, we could choose to use one of our new packages for a double queen colony, instead of starting another separate colony.

Apparently it can sometimes happen naturally that sister queens hatch, fly out to mate, and return to the hive without ever running into each other. Once they are fat with eggs they are unable to fight as newly-hatched queens will. So they begrudgingly coexist. With two queens each laying a couple thousand eggs a day, the colony will quickly have a huge workforce — and many mouths to feed. The odd hive that will fill 5 or 6 honey supers while the rest are only filling 3 is very likely to have two queens. We’ve even heard stories of a queen being found on each side of a single frame.

Two queens produce twice as much of the pheromones that keep the workers happy and knowing that their colony is queenright, so two-queen colonies are less likely to swarm — another benefit.

Always seeking new ways to manipulate the natural behavior of honey bees to their own end, beekeepers with knowledge of naturally double queened hives have figured out how to gradually introduce two queenright colonies to each other, with the final result a large, two-queen hive. The big benefit will be more honey than the two hives would produce on their own.

Of course there’s a down side, why wouldn’t there be? The problem comes in the fall as the colony prepares for winter. Two queens are not going to huddle together in the middle of a cluster. One will have to go. The bees will take care of it, we’re told. But it seems like a waste of the less fortunate queen. Then, if you want to double-queen again the following season you’ll be buying another package, or perhaps combining two over-wintered colonies.

We probably won’t try double-queening this year (if ever). It will be all we can do to increase our marketing for the expected doubling of output our expansion should bring about. We got nearly 350 pounds from 3 hives last season, and all 3 were started from packages that year. Now we’ll have 6 hives that should all produce excess honey. It will be a busy, buzzy summer.

Ross Thompson

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