The Washington Post

As bee colonies die, beekeepers face challenge finding replacements

Gardening columnist

I’ve been a two-hive beekeeper hobbyist for several years, not so much to be awash in honey and mead but for the simple pleasure of seeing honeybees on garden flowers.

A hive forces close observation of an insect world that is mysterious, miraculous and largely unseen except by the veiled beekeeper. It helps to regard a colony as a single organism, so magical is the sum of its parts. But the hive is a dynamic beast, one that is either expanding or shrinking, which is why beekeeping is so engaging and, often, frustrating.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

A swarm, deeply alarming to many people, occurs when a hive has too many bees. The old queen leaves, taking most of her loyal subjects with her. Clustered around her, they quietly wait for a few hours or a couple of days for scouts to return to direct them to some tree hollow or such. Balled in the open like this, they can be placed in a fresh hive without drama. It is the opposite phenomenon that worries beekeepers: the shrinking hive, destined to vanish by some pernicious ill. With the rise of parasitic mites and viruses, wild honeybees have died off, and domesticated ones seemed to need ever increasing help to make it. This was before the arrival of the enigmatic colony collapse disorder that has wiped out so many more.

My hives seemed strong enough in the fall. The bees had packed their winter larder with lots of honey and pollen. I gave them sugar syrup and could detect none of the varroa mites that cling to their bodies. But the winter was long and cold, and a hive needs enough huddled bees to stay warm. By February, it was evident that both colonies had perished.

The story was the same across the region: High winter losses, once rare, are now the norm. My beekeeping chum and guru Dane Hannum pegs the winter kill to the dry conditions of last summer. Drought halted the nectar flow, and the queens, accordingly, stopped laying eggs. The colonies had too few bees to keep warm. “We went into winter with old bees,” he said, “and come January, they had reached their life span, and that was it.”

In the author’s newly stocked hives, worker bees build comb and begin to store honey. (Adrian Higgins/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Dane can be counted on by hundreds of local beekeepers to ferry bee packages from Georgia each spring. A package contains as many as 10,000 worker bees, a few drones and one queen, and has been raised by a breeder in the South. When I called Dane in early April to see whether I could get a couple of packages to restock my hives, there was a bemused silence at the other end of the phone. I might as well have asked him to get me some gold from Fort Knox.

Demand for packages has been outstripping supply for years, but this year it’s as bad as anyone can remember. A cold, wet January and February in the Georgia apiaries delayed and curtailed bee propagation at a time when bee societies everywhere are seeing a resurgent interest in beekeeping. Old-time beekeepers got out of the hobby when the losses mounted and the burdens of care grew. The renaissance of the past three years has coincided with increasing media coverage of colony collapse disorder, which is most pronounced among commercial beekeepers whose hives are rented to pollinate apples, peaches, almonds and other crops. The plight of the bee has entered the popular psyche, and many of the new beekeepers are young and female, itself a shift in the hobby. When I got into it, I was worried I’d have to grow an Abe Lincoln beard and start wearing suspenders. Anyway, this spring bee packages have been rarer than hen’s teeth.

“I think this is the largest demand I have seen to date,” said Tim Arheit, whose inventory of bees has been sold out for weeks at his Honey Run Apiaries in Delphos, Ohio. On one level, he is encouraged by the ranks of new beekeepers. After beekeeping became more difficult 20 years ago, with the arrival of parasitic mites, the number of beekeepers in Ohio dropped from 10,000 to 3,000, he said. “It’s encouraging to see young beekeepers start. On the other hand, to see orders from existing beekeepers with high losses is a little discouraging.”

Many bee societies are looking to move away from relying on shipped packages as a way of stocking hives, deciding instead to replenish them locally with nucleus hives, or nucs. Typically, four double-sided frames are lifted from a healthy hive — they contain honeycomb and, mostly, baby bees in various stages of development. A young, healthy queen is added to the fresh hive. This is done later in the season than with packages, and though you may forgo a first-year honey harvest, vigorous nucs can expand beautifully the following spring.

Karla Eisen of the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association has been among the beekeepers advocating local nucs over packages. The initial motivation was to turn to bees that were healthier and more adapted to local conditions and to avoid the risk of getting Africanized bees from the Deep South, she said. But with demand for packages now sky-high, another factor favors the encouragement of nucs: their availability.

Meanwhile, I found a message from Dane, out of the blue, on the answering machine: “I have a couple of packages for you. Someone canceled, it was so late.”

Within 24 hours I was on his Arlington County doorstep. The bees spent a quiet night in my basement while I cleaned and prepared hive bodies and frames. They are now safely in their homes, and the queens are laying. Within the hive, some workers are building comb like mad, and the garden is alive with the sound of their foraging sisters. I can face another summer with equanimity.



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