Today, I went to check on the hive and add fresh sugar syrup. Yes, even with all the flowers out at the peak of spring, honey bees don’t get enough food on their own, and must be supplemented with hundreds of pounds of sugar each year. Even with the extra food, hive raiding happens- this is when one hive of bees comes to another hive and steals food. My bees were known for being very gentle, so much so that I could handle frames bare handed. I really love these gals, and it’s painful to share that the hive has gone silent. There is a very large pile of dead bees in the front of the hive, and a few still struggle to fight off what’s left of an invading colony from some where nearby. I’m crying as I write this, because bees, like people, when there are not enough resources, go to predate upon others to survive. It was a two day all out war, and I had to stand back and watch as my friends fought to the death to defend their home. I know, these are small insects, and I’ve taken a powerful hose to many yellow jacket and wasp colonies in the past- though only those directly in the path of established human habitation here at EEC, but this animal behavior has been hard to comprehend.
Bee colonies do come into conflict, like any living system overlapping another, there is often conflict and struggle for survival. There can be ultimate collaboration, and many living things cohabit together quite successfully, as long as resources remain abundant. In this instance, my hive was left open- quite literally, when the hive cover hatch was not put on tight. Our spring has been wet, and I often crack the lid of the hive to help ventilation. In this case, the hive was left vulnerable, and a neighboring hive, stressed by the cold, damp spring, found an easy food source in the open hive top. It was a hard lesson to learn, and the home colony has sustained heavy losses for my error. That’s one of the hardest lessons in agriculture- that sometimes, humans fail and it costs in lives. Yes, little lives, hundreds- if not thousands of them.
Look closely at the two different strains of bees- my bees are lighter- being of Italian or Russian stock. The invaders are darker, and probably Caucasian or Carolina stock. That’s a very broad guess based purely on color. My hive was a wild caught swarm from Spring 2021. It’s been such a gentle little hive of bees, and quite resilient, having avoided mite infestation thus far. These ladies made it through the winter, and in other blogs, I’ve talked about their early March pollen harvesting, which is a good sign of stability in the hive. I’m still feeding these bees, and will continue to do so through the warmer months. It’s controversial to me in many ways, because it means these animals are not self sufficient at all, and need a high level of care to survive in this cool, damp climate. In the moment I thought the bees had all died, I really decided not to try bees again. It’s hard to support a system that is dependent on major outside inputs that, no matter how many pollination plants are established, will still rely on sugar to survive.
We had a great fruit blossom season, so the bees got a great boost in fresh food earlier in the Spring, now, as our weather remains unusually cool and damp- hey, I’m not complaining- but for bees, this setback in the weather is truly damaging. Where the flowers were out and thriving in April/May, June has seen a drop in overall floral activity due to cold weather delay, spanning about two weeks now. My roses went from beautiful red blossoms, to shrived brown bud bust. My Iris has laid her heads down in the mud, and even the weed flowers are holding back for the sun. This is where the sugar syrup saves the colony from starvation, and it’s part of why the robbers showed up. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Nature can be a rough struggle to survive.
With all the dead bees out front, and no sound of buzzing inside, I was sure the colony was dead. In tears, I called my bee mentor, who, in her wisdom, asked me if I’d actually opened the hive to look inside. I was struck by this simple prompt, yet hesitant to go look, fearing a seen of more carnage within. But my mentor was insistent, pointing out the hive was still my responsibility. Reluctantly, I walked to the hive without a suit on, and began taking off the covers and feeder to peek inside. Sure enough, as I pulled off the inner lid, an agitated bee flew up in my face with a warning. She was still protecting the colony, ready to face down this large threat alone. It was a thrill to see the spirit of this little insect taking off, and I gently side stepped the buzzing bravery to look in. Sure enough, a crowd of shaken bees huddled in the brood super below, buzzing softly at the disruption. I quickly took this video and gave thanks for the bees that lived.
It was such a joy to see the bees still active in the hive. What a roller-coaster of emotion. Still, the hive is not out of the woods, and really never will be. At this stage in honey bee existence, this species is facing slow, but continual collapse. Bee keeping is expensive, heart breaking, and void of much honey- that’s right. Unless you have a lot of hives, you’ll not harvest enough honey to make ends meet. EEC Forest Stewardship is not keeping bees for honey. We might take a single frame this year for personal enjoyment and special gifts, but we’re clear that the bees need all the wild food they can collect. Us taking any of that wild honey puts additional stress on our small colony, so we hold back for the sake of the bees. Instead, we’re focused on planting more perennial pollination species to strengthen the food options for our bees, and all the other important pollinators of our region- from bumble bees to mason bees, there are many native species of pollinators already on the landscape and trying to survive. All the flowers help.
Bee keeping is not for the faint of heart, and even EEC may loose its hive yet in all the struggles. But today, June 15th, our hive is alive, and trying to thrive. We’ll keep tending the colony as best we can, and wait to split this system into more hives for another year. These hard working gals have taught me so much about resiliency, determination, and adaptation, I am so grateful for the relationship with these powerful insects of sweet honey and plant productivity. They remain a special indicator on this landscape, letting me know I need more pollinator plants, prompting more diverse plantings and better seasonal transitions from one type of pollination crop to another throughout the warmer seasons. We’ll also buy another 100lbs of sugar for extra support in feeding our small, but potent wonders.