Buzzing Towards Spring

Bees active in mid February
We’re happy to see our bees out and about on a warm winter day here at EEC Forest Stewardship. It’s out first time overwintering bees, and so far, things are looking good for the colony. Bees are a challenge to keep successfully, and the apiary arts are vanishing like the bees themselves. There are some people working hard to evolve bee keeping in support of the bees- here’s one man who seems to have a winning new concept of apiary evolution. I’ve had a personal dream of returning to skep hives for a few years now, and might end up going in that direction if I can get the hang of making the hives and keep enough bees alive to fill them. Yes, the mortality rate of hives is high these days, and it’s not unusual to have a 30-40% failure through the winter. There’s a lot going against the bees- from pesticides to pests like mites and mice. We’re also a problem, being massive developers of concrete jungles with no pollination stations, creating massive food deserts for bees and people.

It’s fun to think people who keep bees have a few hives here and there, with nice honey harvests at the end of summer. But the reality of commercial bee keeping today would be a shock to most, as financially viable operations have thousands of hives which ride around on semi trucks from commercial orchard to commercial orchard up and down the continent. The constant transport of these bees puts high stress on the animals and still perpetuates commercial orchards, which are often heavily invested in chemical pesticides, which kill bees. How do the commercial bees come through without having a mass die off in the polluted orchards? They spray before the bees arrive and hope for the best. Bees are still exposed, but they get the pollination job done before the hives collapse, so the fruit we all like to eat still happens, for now. Still, the massive die off of pollinators is a canary in our coal mine. When will we understand that any chemical killing living things is also killing us?

These pictures and video were all taken on February 11th, 2022. That’s right! Here in Western Washington the temperatures can fluctuate greatly as our temperate climate moves towards spring. The bees will take advantage of any days over 50F. When the warm sun hits the hive, bees take time to remove their dead from the hive and young bees make orientation flights to accustom themselves to their surroundings. In the picture above, you can also see one bee entering the hive with pollen. Yes, though it’s still winter, our hazel trees are putting out great catkins full of food for the bees, and they found it. This is also a signal that the hive is producing brood. You bees are hatching and need food. How amazing that these insects are out and pollinating when most other insects and plants lay dormant.

Because there is not enough food for most bees in developed areas, we supplement our bees through the year with liquid sugar water in the warm months and a rich icing of sugar patties in winter. In our fist year of bee keeping, we used 100lbs of white commercial sugar. Why? Read all about sugars and bees here. In a nut shell, organic raw sugar is harder for the bees to digest, and organic cane sugar is too expensive. Also, if the bees eat nothing but sugar, the comb and honey reflects this- being white and sterile instead of yellow and nutritional. Bees still need pollen to live, and yes, there are pollen patties you can buy to supplement your bees, but economically, not a viable long term solution. At EEC Forest Stewardship, one of our restoration agricultural practices is planting perennial pollinator species to diversify our landscape. We also try to make sure the verities are blooming at different times of year with regularity, so the bees have something to eat all the time.

We’ll continue to work with bees at EEC, but also recognize we’re not expecting our production of honey to be a viable income in any way. Unless you’re driving a semi of bees up and down the orchards of North America, you will struggle to make money and most likely loose some. We have bees as indicators of the health of our land and plants. To see them thriving in February is a great sign, and we’re not seeing a mite infestation yet, though inevitably, they will come. This is when bee keeping becomes very toxic. You have to dose the hive with harsh chemicals to remove the mites. If you do not treat with chemicals, eventually, the mites can destroy the colony. Our hive has not been infested yet, and we did do a treatment in the fall, but this spring, unless we see mites in thee hive or on the bees, we’ll hold off on the chemicals. It’s a rough truth facing our human egos- better living through chemistry had turned out to be better poisoning through chemistry.

By observing the bees and understanding their rhythms, we can tune in to what’s going on in our environment. In return, the bees make honey, wax, royal jelly, and pollen, all important natural medicines. When we tend bees, even if we’re not actively supporting a box hive, we’re cultivating rich diversity of pollinator species, clean water, and a thriving environment for all species of life. Bees can thrive almost anywhere there is a pollination source, so even in cities, bees can survive, as long as there’s a flower some where nearby. Rooftop hives are a thing in many cities, but the supplemental food remains the main source of food for the colony. Again, you also have to take in pollutants like vehicle exhaust, acid rain, and other chemical concentrations more predominate in city environments. Still, bees remain an important ally for humanity, and will keep building comb and storing honey a long as they’re alive.

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