Colony Collapse Disorder and Backyard Beekeeping

About a year ago, I went to the trouble of renaming my blog and website. The former Northern Virginia Gardener morphed into Bee Happy Garden: Gardening in Partnership With Nature. My intention was to broaden the scope of my blogging, as a reflection of my expanding interests and acknowledgement of the symbiotic relationships that permeate the living world. The more I learned to garden with native plants, the more I valued the native fauna they support. I realized my vegetable garden needs pollinators throughout the year in order to produce enough to eat. I was disturbed by the plight of the honeybee and thought I could make a difference for them, and they for me. At the very least, I LOVE honey and drink lots of tea! The learning curve was quite a bit greater than anticipated; I’m still learning, but I finally feel I can share my experiences as a first-year beekeeper.

Backyard Beekeeping for New Bees

Beekeepers of Northern Virginia offers classes for new “beeks,” and I enrolled in the 2014 winter session prior to getting my bees. The following spring, I acquired one “package” of bees, delivered from Georgia, and one “nuc,” or small colony, raised locally.While incredibly informative and fascinating, the academic class instruction did little to prepare me for the sight of 10,000 bees, all busily buzzing in one tiny space. It was all I could do to lift of the lid, replace the sugar water that would help the colonies expand, and quickly cover them up again. Sadly, but not surprising, my first set of bees didn’t survive winter. It was an expensive and exasperating loss. I spent the next 9 months reading, talking to other beekeepers, getting hands-on experience with a bee mentor, and attending 4-H Bee club meetings. That last bit was ostensibly for my daughter, but has proven to be my greatest resource.

First, I learned that package bees from southern parts of the country are more likely to be Africanized (read: aggressive stingers), and have only a 20% survival rate. Furthermore, locally raised queens have genetic traits that enable them to adapt to our climate and attendant pests. In spring 2015, I acquired two “nucs” – one with a locally reared Russian queen, and one with a Carniolan queen. Russian bees are said to have greater resistance to the Varroa mite, which is one of the major causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Carniolans are another strong breed, with abundant honey production and a gentle temperament. Using locally raised bees, from a beekeeper with a track record of over-wintering successful hives, offers some assurance that even a “new-bee” can keep a hive alive. (I’ve learned that beekeepers adopt a dialect utilizing the word “bee” as often as possible).

What is Colony Collapse Disorder and Why Does It Happen?

Until recently, researchers were uncertain why so many honeybee colonies were failing. We pretty much now know that the Varroa “destructor,” known colloquially as VD, and use of neonicotinoid pesticides, are the major causes of CCD. Additionally, the majority of honeybees are now raised in captivity. They are not a native species, but are most commonly used for commercial agricultural pollination and honey production. Only recently have researchers begun to focus on the bizarre monoculture we’ve created for pollination of major U.S. crops. In fact, there are other bees, such as Osmia bees, that may effectively pollinate local crops. Who knows? Maybe we’ll soon be raising native species, and the honeybee will succumb to suburban sprawl and Monsanto. NPR’s Science Friday recently featured a story on this phenomenon. Nevertheless, backyard beekeeping is an increasingly popular hobby or vocation, with much added environmental benefit. It brings us outdoors, draws attention to the fragility of a somewhat maligned and misunderstood species, and demonstrates the power of individuals to make a greater difference. Isn’t that enough to keep going?

New Beeginnings

Having fostered 2 hives through spring well enough to split them into 4 strong colonies, I finally feel confident enough to share my experiences. I’m still a neophyte, but this is what I know: raising honeybees is one of the most rewarding and challenging experiments in my little laboratory of a backyard, and I am thoroughly hooked. I’ve also learned that I have a moderate reaction to bee stings, which involves isolated, but hugely swollen, blistering redness at the site of the sting. I wear the full hazmat get-up, so you won’t be seeing any photos of me with a bee beard! Hard work made it all worthwhile when we harvested 2 gallons of honey in early July, which subsequently won a blue-ribbon at the 4-H fair. Now, on to fall management and hopefully, winter survival.

Backyard beekeepers are unlike commercial beekeepers in many ways. We attach sentimental value to our bees, name our queens, and sometimes love them to death by not treating them according to the latest research standards. Since we now know that Varroa is a major cause of CCD, we must decide how to address this. Varroa is ubiquitous in honeybee colonies, and beekeepers must routinely test for infestation levels. Many backyard beekeepers are reluctant to use chemical controls: it doesn’t feel organic, it feels bad for the environment, and it’s guaranteed to kill some bees. There are ways to address Varroa without chemical controls, but the latest research shows that non-chemical interventions alone have little effect on winter survival. I know of several experienced and admirable beekeepers who overwinter bees without chemical intervention; sadly, I believe they are highly skilled, few and far between.

Until now, I’ve used the Dowda method to control for Varroa, relying heavily on research by Randy Oliver. This entails sifting powdered sugar on the frames once or twice per week. It is labor intensive and may damage open brood (bees in development). Furthermore, the Honey Bee Health Coalition recently published results that show no effect on winter survival rates over four years when using this method. What does work? An Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy that includes a combination of chemical and non-chemical interventions. “Chemical” often sounds like a bad word to organic gardeners and beekeepers alike; however the latest research is pretty convincing in favor of keeping bees alive. In fact, Certified Naturally Grown apiary standards allow for use of some chemical controls, on a limited basis, in support of honeybee health.

Highly recommended is the practice of “reverse splitting” a strong colony in order to break the Varroa life-cycle. This means locating the queen and placing her in a new colony with open brood. The original colony will then begin to rear its own new queen, who will be hopefully have hygienic traits approaching Varroa resistance. This method was presented by Dr. Buddy Marterre at a BANV meeting and literally blew my mind. If only I could do this thing, I’d be one step closer to avoiding chemicals! Splitting and queen-rearing are intermediate, if not advanced, beekeeping practices. I was unsuccessful in my first attempt to locate the old queen and rear a new one in a new hive. I therefore employed Michael Bush’s straight split method. Splitting helps avoid swarming, which bees will naturally attempt when the colony grows too large for its container. Splitting is good, all around.

There are many hive management tasks needed for colony survival. What every beginning beekeeper needs to keep in mind is that they will need to monitor the level of Varroa mites in their colonies and take action to address a high level of infestation. There are several ways to determine Varroa level. First, I used the stickyboard method, which involves spraying a cardboard panel with cooking oil and placing it beneath a screened bottom board for 24 hrs to 36 hours.

An average daily count is then calculated. This method has recently been somewhat discounted, in that it doesn’t account for hygienic bee behavior in naturally grooming off mites. Mites may also be carried away by ants, and some mites will just craw back up into the hive. A more accurate method may be attained by scooping 1/2 cup of bees into a screened pint jar, sprinkling them with powdered sugar, and then attempting to shake the mites through a screen into a pan of water. My efforts in this area resulted dusty bees that obscured the mites and bees that were shaken to death. In my opinion, though it is a painful sight, the most accurate method of calculating mite infestation is the alcohol wash. This again involves scooping 300 bees (about 1/2 cup) into a screened pint jar, and then pouring alcohol over them. When the alcohol is strained out, the bees will be dead, but the mite count will be accurate. 300 bees out of 30,000 is a small sacrifice when you’re looking at total colony loss due to denial or failure to treat for mites in a timely fashion.

My total mite count was 2.7% in the Russian colony and 3.2% for the Carniolans. According to the Honey Bee Health Coalition’s newest publication, this is in the caution zone. I will treat the colonies with formic acid. Some will be lost, but more are likely to survive the winter. It’s a hard hobby, but one that has me totally hooked. Stay tuned!

Update: 9/10/2015
After all that, I decided not to treat the bees with formic acid, after all. I spoke to the class instructor, as well as the source of one of my queens. Both noted that they employ higher thresholds for mites and are loathe to introduce treatments unless absolutely necessary. They reminded me that beekeeping is sometimes more art than science, especially for hobbyists. Though I am normally a strict believer in scientific method, my counts are in the caution area, not the danger zone. Our spat of 90-plus degree weather was also a deterrent. Formic kills too many bees at that temperature. At the same time, if one waits too long to treat into later summer and fall, the hive doesn’t have time to recoup lost brood. So, I procrastinated, in the name of art and sentiment. My hives look strong and healthy. I’ll keep my fingers crossed and see what’s buzzing come spring.

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