I am a beekeeper, and my well meaning friends keep sending me articles about the impending total loss of honey bees. A friend referred me to an article (sorry link no longer open) telling the reader he or she could help save bees by building an exotic bee hive in which the bees build honey comb in glass jars and fill the combs with honey. I found the design interesting, but doubt it will save many bees. To build the hive will require more than the steps shown. To maintain such a hive, one needs to have beekeeping skills to keep the colony alive and equipment to tend the hive without being stung. Bees glue everything in the hive together with propolis. Thus the average person is likely to have difficulty removing the jars from the hive, and will probably have difficulty harvesting the jars of honey. Without protective equipment, they will get badly stung in the process.
We are losing bees. I myself lost half my hives two winters ago, and there are reports that my county’s largest beekeeper lost 100 hives last year. I have yet to confirm that Ken lost 100 hives, but he probably lost a large number. Part of the reason I am a beekeeper is that my back lot neighbor lost all of his bees six winters ago, I noticed decline in pollination of my garden. At the same time he and his wife were preparing to move to Albuquerque so he was willing to sell all of his equipment to me. In the process of loading hive boxes into my truck, he discovered a single box with a lid, and bees flying in and out of the entrance. After taking a peek under the lid, he said, “You have a live one here. Come back at sundown and haul them to your yard.”
As the sun set, I used duct tape to close the entrance and hauled the box around the block to my back yard. This was indeed a colony of survivors. The next day when I opened the hive I found it infested with wax worms. The larvae of this blue moth love to munch on bees wax. This box had contained ten frames on which the bees drew comb. In these combs the bees raise larvae and pupae and store honey and pollen. The wax worms had destroyed seven frames and filled 70% of the box with debris. Considering that most colonies live in a hive made of two boxes, this colony was reduced to living in 15% of the space they expect to have to live in. I placed the three good frames and bees in a clean box and gave them seven new frames. My first colony of bees has served me well. I still have the descendants of that colony.
wax worms are only one predator that can wipe out a colony of bees. Bears, skunks, mice, yellow jacket hornets, and several species of mites pray on honey bees. Any of them can weaken if not destroy a colony of bees. In addition, there are a number of diseases that can kill bees. In addition to predators, diseases, and pesticides, poor management can cause the demise of a colony. Bees store honey as their winter food. Beekeepers are careful not to harvest too much food. In addition, most beekeepers provide supplementary food in the form of syrup to help the bees survive the winter. I suspect this contributed to my neighbor’s loss of bees. We had an unusually cold winter, and he had not been feeding them. He sold me no feeders. It is likely that at least some of his colonies ran out of food in the cold weather.
For centuries beekeepers have know about the hazards mentioned above, but we have many colonies that get wiped out without explanation. Many bee hives have been left empty by a syndrome known as sudden colony collapse disorder (SCC). Researchers are working hard to learn why some hives are suddenly empty without explanation. Perhaps the bees went elsewhere to die because no dead bees are left in the hive. Some researchers suspect that SCC is the result of a virus. SCC has raised the alarm because the results are so catastrophic.
Yes, there are enormous numbers of colonies of bees being lost every year, but as a beekeeper, let me assure you that the honey bee is not about to become extinct in the immediate future. At the same time that bee colonies are being lost, new colonies are being formed. Overcrowded colonies will swarm. When they swarm they leave the old hive with a new queen and half the bees. The swarm flies off with the old queen and the other half of the bees. Given the opportunity, the swarm will establish a new colony. Now we have two colonies where we once had one. Beekeepers often prevent a hive from swarming by moving half the bees to a new hive. The half without the queen will rear a new queen. This creates a new colony, and there are breeders who grow and sell queens to beekeepers like me who may want to start more colonies of bees.
There is no crisis of the proportion being predicted by the media, but bees need our protection. Their pollination services are vital to the production of many of our crops. While I think the “save the bees” lobby is trying to start panic, they do have a point. We do need to protect the bees and minimize the losses of colonies. Obviously the proper use of pesticides and even the banning of some pesticides will greatly help. Good bee husbandry practices are also called for. You can also participate in saving the bees.
You are probably not a beekeeper dressed in a bee suit with veil and gloves, but your participation is as important as mine when you do the following:
- Use pesticides with care. Some pesticides are deadly to bees. Do not use them on or around blooming plants. Choose your pesticides carefully and then follow the directions. Many pesticides do not injure bees when used properly.
- Do not reflexively spray bees with your favorite pesticide. The only bees actively trying to sting you are those guarding the entrance of a hive. Simply ignore bees randomly flying around your yard. If there are a large number of bees pestering you, look for the source. You may have a colony of bees living in a hollow tree or in the wall of your house, or a swarm may have come into your yard. Seek the help of a beekeeper.
- If you think you need to call an exterminator, ask him to refer you to beekeeper for bee removal. My friend, Jim, is a professional exterminator, but he only kills those bees that can not safely be removed. Primarily these are colonies high up in trees or in walls that can not be opened. For anything else, Jim refers them to me or to another beekeeper.
- Occasionally, you will find a swarm in your yard. A large number of bees may fly in with a loud buzz. They will land on a solid object like a tree branch and form a ball. Sometimes, you may not hear them come, but suddenly see a large cluster of bees hanging on something. What you see hanging there is a swarm of bees. Do not panic. Leave them alone. Do not spray them with anything. Call a beekeeper. Our local association of Beekeepers maintains a hotline and a list of people prepared to capture swarms. In addition each spring, I give memos to the 911 dispatch center and all police and fire stations in our county. I get a large number of swarm calls either from 911 dispatchers or from people who are told by a dispatcher to call me. The beekeeper will capture the swarm and install it in a hive in his bee yard. I catch swarms for free, but some beekeepers charge a nominal fee.
- If you discover bees living in the wall of your house or an outbuilding, call a beekeeper. They can remove the colony of bees and move it to a hive in a bee yard. This procedure is called a cut out because it is usually necessary to open up the wall. A cut out is a labor intensive procedure and is expensive. An exterminator may tell you it is cheaper to kill the bees, but if you want to save the bees, call a beekeeper.
- The last thing you want is a swarm moving into the wall of your house. I hang swarm traps around my yard. To a bee, a swarm trap looks like a furnished condo. Frequently a swarm will move into a trap if it is available. Unfortunately you need a beekeeper to relocate the bees from the trap into a hive. I lease swarm traps, and I am sure some other beekeepers do the same. My lease arrangements include my services to empty the trap each time they catch a swarm. If you are concerned about bees in your wall, look into leasing a swarm trap.
The bees can be saved by a concerted effort of beekeepers, researchers, environmentalists, exterminators, and people like you.
If you are interested in keeping bees and harvesting honey, my recommendation is to take a beekeeping course so you know what you are doing. Buy protective equipment to minimize the stings. Buy tools and hive components so you can keep your bees healthy. A “standard” bee hive will be easier to manage than the fancy hive talked about in the first paragraph. You may not be able to see the bees storing honey, but you will be able to harvest the honey more easily. Beekeeping is fun and will enable you to save bees. Of course, the honey you harvest is good tasting.
For information or advice about keeping bees, you may contact me through my web page, www.ReynoldConger.com.
I have added a Bee Page to my website. It is under construction, but stop by for a look at short articles about bees and pictures of bees.