Winter is a time for reflection, and how is time better spent than reflecting on how we might be better beekeepers come spring? In this two-part series, we explore the multiple ways we beekeepers put stress on our colonies as well as ways we can stay modern while reducing those stressors.
Compiling this list, I realized that everything we do as beekeepers adds stress to the colonies we manage. By virtue of tending to bees in artificial hives, we stress them. The truly stress-free way to be a beekeeper is to, well, not be a beekeeper. To truly be stress-free to our bees, we might only watch and admire the feral colonies and probably make do without honeybee products.
But that is not the way of our world, nor is it the road we need to take now. As bee populations dwindle worldwide, we must take action. So how can we balance the two? How can we be honorable stewards of the planet and respectful beekeepers? How can we manage hives so that they thrive while also reducing our negative effects on their health?
Here are several key ways in which the average beekeeper might stress their hives:
It’s virtually impossible to navigate in our current world without coming into contact with chemicals. But most scientists tell us that there’s a threshold. Tiny amounts of a given toxin might not harm us, but quantity does count. When it comes to bees, pound for pound, the chemicals that are present in our world affect them greater than they do us. What’s more, many of these chemicals (pesticides, herbicides and fungicides) are sprayed in the exact places where bees forage: farmland and flowers.
2. Lack of Resources
Honeybees are “preppers.” They squirrel away resources while they are abundant for the times those resources are scarce. When honeybees are not able to put away enough honey or pollen for winter, they suffer and often die. Colonies that do survive on limited resources might begin the year rather weak, and they are susceptible to pests and diseases.
3. A Dirty Hive
Honeybees are very clean and tidy. They don’t like debris or dirt in their hives, and they certainly don’t want foreign objects or creatures in their home either. Pests such as the small hive beetle, wax moths and even rodents put a huge stress on honeybees.
4. Transporting Bees
Many commercial beekeepers make their living by moving their hives hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles for pollination months. But this stresses the bees and exposes them to only monocrops of food in short bursts.
5. Unnatural Foods
In addition to the monocrop forage mentioned above, honeybees that are weak from lack of natural forage are often fed sugar water and sugar syrup as a substitute. While a high carbohydrate source, sugar syrup does not contain the nutrients that bees’ preferred nectar sources contain.
6. Artificial Breeding Techniques & Manipulation
From raising queens for breeding or royal jelly to harvesting pollen and experimenting with new hive models and accessories, or colonies can become overwhelmed and go into survival mode.
7. Excessive Harvesting
One of the most obvious ways we stress our bees is by harvesting too much honey. As mentioned above, when honeybees go into winter, they require significant amounts of stored, capped honey to survive the cold months without fresh forage. For most bees, this is 40 to 60 pounds of honey per hive.
8. Making a Split
Come spring, many beekeepers are ready to expand, and making a split is a natural way to take advantage of strong colonies with increasing populations. Making a split requires an extensive inspection, as well as removal of thousands of bees from the mother colony.
9. Frequent Inspections
As beekeepers, we have an obligation to maintain and monitor the bees in our charge. We put them in the box, so we are responsible for them. However, there’s a balance to strike with inspections. When they’re conducted too frequently, bees scramble to repair wax, mop up spilled honey, replace propolis and clean up their dead.
In the second part of this series, we’ll explore ways to reduce our impact on our bees, year round.