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News from the President's Cell

By Susan Spruill, President, Toe Cane Beekeepers

Not Your Grandpa’s Bees

Neither of my grandpas were beekeepers. As far as I know, I am the first of my family to keep bees, but hopefully not the last.

The life of a beekeeper is a rollercoaster of emotions: excitement, relief, anticipation, disappointment. This winter was a constant flux between these emotions for the western NC beekeeper. It started with a late season dearth. Where was that golden rod and aster we rely on for winter storage? I found my bees moving the sourwood from supers to the brood frames.

Then came the long mild weather pattern that persisted right up to Christmas. No problem, I thought. I left all that sourwood in place, 2 supers per hive.

When winter did make his entry, it was hard and dark. Our farm hunkered down to 10-degree highs with minus 15-degree wind chills. I braced myself for the losses that would come. Late January waxed into the 50s and the bees came out for some sunshine and foraging. Elation! All hives were still alive and active. These are tough and seasoned colonies. We got this.

Second winter hit in early February. Not as cold or as long as that January blast, but harsh nonetheless. After it passed, I watched for the girls to emerge with some trepidation. Not so many bees were flying. Oh dear…Finally a sunny 60-degree day presented itself and I suited up.

I opened the first hive. Dead. A quick inspection told me the cluster had dwindled to a “baseball” size, too small to sustain their warmth during that last cold spell. Sigh. Next hive. No bees. Not dead bees, but NO bees. An absconding in January? Why? When? Where? Next hive. Dead. This sad state of affairs continued until I reached the last hive. At this point, my heart is pounding, and my ears are ringing. I’m sweating and fighting back tears. I hesitate to open this hive. I’m not sure I want to know if they are gone. This is my favorite hive. A survivor for the past 4 years. They are smaller than usual and black. They are gentle, but tough. Great brood and honey producers.

Then, I see her. A little black forager lands on my sleeve and then flies away. I turn to look at the entrance and see more foragers. My heart skips a beat and I lift the hive cover. Bees! Lots of them! They have moved into the supers and are feeding on their sourwood stores. JOY! All was not lost.

As I loaded equipment from the dead-outs into my truck, I mentally noted all the parameters that may have been factors in my losses. Mites? Check. All managed colonies have them, but was it the root cause? Weather? Check. If this schizophrenic winter can cause plants to respond to spring-like conditions only to be cut short, why not bees too? Food stores? All colonies had honey and pollen, but was it in the right places in the hive? Queen failure? Maybe. A few hives had no sign of brood. Disease? No obvious signs, but also, a possibility. This would have to go unconfirmed.

So many factors! And then I remember a conversation with a fellow beekeeper. The gist of the conversation was “beekeeping ain’t what it used to be back when Grandpa kept bees behind the barn”. It’s true. The world is different. The bees are different. We know more, but we have even more questions. However, one thing remains the same: beekeepers are dedicated to honey bee survival. We are a stubborn and resilient bunch of folks. Yes, some will hang up their hive tools, but most of us will try to learn from these losses and from each other. We will rebuild. We will be persistent, be successful, but most of all we will be glad in the journey.

Happy Spring!


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