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honeybee health


Lay the foundation for long-term beehive health
By Jodi Torpey

Bees caught a bad buzz last year, with a high number of colony deaths reported nationwide. According to the Bee Informed Partnership, U.S. beekeepers lost nearly 40% of their managed honeybee colonies in winter 2018—the highest rate recorded since the organization launched its surveys nearly 14 years ago.

For many legacy keepers, honeybees used to be easier to take care of than most domesticated animals. All beekeepers had to do was give their bees a nice nest box, check on them occasionally, and harvest the honey.

That changed with the arrival of the Varroa destructor mite in the 1980s. This harmful parasite was introduced to the U.S. from Asia and spread quickly through honeybee colonies. It remains a major issue for beekeepers today.

The mites act “like a dirty needle passing viruses that cause colonies to collapse,” says Dr. Robin Radcliffe, a wildlife veterinarian at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and director of Cornell’s Conservation Medicine Program. An avid beekeeper, Robin has four honeybee colonies at his home in upstate New York.

In addition to the Varroa mite, honeybees struggle with the loss of pollinator habitat, pesticide use, and other emerging diseases, he adds.

“What I tell people is that if you’re taking on the role of the beekeeper, it’s much more than taking care of a pet. You should learn all that you can about the biology of honeybees,” Robin says.

It’s important to understand the honeybee lifecycle and to know what healthy hives look like at different times of the year. Beekeepers need to be able to recognize normal bee development and identify the queen, the workers, the drones, and the stages of larval growth. These tips can help hive owners spot potential problems and take quick action.

Now’s the perfect time to develop a honeybee health plan. That plan should include a year’s worth of beekeeping tasks, such as adding bees, monitoring for mites, and splitting to establish a new colony.

A beekeeping calendar can help keep track of important beekeeping tasks by month. Experienced beekeepers can record their observations from previous years and new beekeepers can plan for activities through each season.

The timing of the plan’s elements will vary depending on the colony’s location. In some places, it may be too cold to open hives in late winter to examine the colony. In warmer regions, honeybees may already be at work in February, Robin says.

Because Varroa mites are so destructive, beekeepers should monitor their colonies for mites starting in the spring, or by July 1 at the latest, Robin advises.

One of the best ways to check for mites is sugar roll monitoring, which involves coating a small number of bees in powdered sugar to measure the mite infestation. Beekeepers isolate a group of bees in a jar, coat them in sugar, then allow the jar to sit for a few moments, while the mites fall off the bees. From there, beekeepers return the bees to their hive, and shake the mites into a tub with water to count them. The Michigan State University Pollinator Initiative is a great resource for step-by-step instructions for sugar roll mite monitoring. The Initiative notes that an infestation greater than 3% (3 mites per bee) signals a hive is in trouble.

Long-term studies of honeybee behavior and the health of wild bees have demonstrated that wild honeybees don’t have the same health problems as managed honeybees, Robin says. That research has changed his approach to preventing managed colonies from swarming.

“As [beekeepers], we’re taught to control swarming, that if you let your colony swarm, it’s a sign of bad beekeeping,” he says. But research shows the swarming that takes place in wild bee colonies is a natural way to control mites.

Robin recommends beekeepers do what’s called a “split” in spring or early summer. The split mimics swarming by taking part of a vigorous colony and moving it to a new box.

In spite of a beekeeper’s best efforts, problems may crop up in the apiary. Along with finding a local veterinarian who works with bees, beekeepers can turn to the Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium, a group of vets and veterinary students that can help diagnose, treat, and provide daily care for honeybees.

Visit your local Tractor Supply, where a friendly team member would be happy to help you choose all the equipment and supplies you’ll need to keep a healthy honeybee hive this winter and beyond.

Jodi Torpey is a master gardener who writes about the natural world from her home in Colorado.