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  • Hive Loss is a Part of Life for Beekeepers

    Written by Keith Roberts/Head Beekeeper at The Valley Hive

    checking hives in the bee yard checking hives in the bee yard

    My First Hive Loss

    I vividly remember the first colony I lost.  It was the spring of 2008 on a cool day in April that I came across a hive that was originally from a colony I removed from a stucco wall of a home in Woodland Hills.  The colony had all the fundamentals;  good laying pattern from the queen, plenty of food stores, an attentive beekeeper who fed them every week with fresh syrup and pollen patties, and there was a low mite count.  I was diligent, yet when I cracked open the cover the only thing that greeted me was silence.

    It was the first time I experienced the sharp absence of life inside of a hive; capped brood abandoned and a few newborns frozen in a permanent begging pose with their long proboscis sticking out pleading for food from sisters that weren’t there. I felt that knife in my throat; that same cut that felt agonizingly familiar to that first breakup, the rejection from the first job I applied for, the brutal ending of a long friendship.

    What Happened To My Bees?

    My heart was broken.  Here I was, in my late twenties, fighting back tears as I loaded the lonely hive box onto the back of my pickup truck. I sped to my intrepid mentor’s house to discover what had killed the precious bees.

    As I drove and, admittedly, sped, across the 118 freeway, I tried to imagine the ways I must have screwed up.  A disease I missed; something obvious that I should have seen.  By the time I arrived at Walt’s house in North Hills, I felt like a 10 year old boy with his dead dog in his lap.

    Walt was pruning the tree in his front yard and he walked toward my truck as I parked along the curb. I felt ridiculous, ashamed, a failure.

    “My bees died, Walt,” I said, attempting to keep my voice even. “Can you tell me why?”

    “Let’s take a look,” he said in that matter of fact tone that was his trademark.

    Analyzing the Dead Hive

    He took out each frame and scrutinized the comb.  He held the comb against the sun, he brought it close to his nose and inhaled deeply, pausing to process the scent.  He flipped the frame and looked closely at the underside of the cells.  He took a small twig off the ground and did a field test in one of the capped brood cells, swirling it around and slowly extracting it as he searched for the tells of foulbrood.

    Let me be clear about something: Walt did not shy away from confrontation, especially when it involved incompetence from another party.  Since that “party” usually consisted of yours truly, I was used to the sudden beratement that sometimes came when I committed an error in some way.  I was anticipating the verbal assault, i.e. lesson, as I stood there on his front lawn.  It was my fault; somehow, some way.  I screwed up and killed an innocent colony of bees.

    He put the last frame down inside the hive box, looked at me, and simply said, “It looks like this colony died.  Keith, that’s all I can tell you.”

    It's Not Always Your Fault

    My sadness exploded into a strange anger. “40 years of experience and that’s all you can tell me? Really?” I shot back. Here I was expecting to be torn down and it was me that was suddenly terribly out of line. The irony was not lost on me. “Come on, you know I messed something up.”

    Walt drew a deep breath, looked down at the ground and then straight in my eyes.

    “Losing bees is part of being a beekeeper.  You cannot explain every loss. You just can’t.  You can do everything right and the bees can still pass away.  This is your first death of a colony.  I promise you; it will not be your last.  Not even if you are the best beekeeper on this planet.”

    “I feel horrible,” I said.

    He put a calloused hand on my shoulder. “Finally,” he said. “You’re a real beekeeper. Now come inside and have a beer.”

    I went inside his home and he handed me a Pabst Blue Ribbon.  After a couple hours of conversation revolving bees, the repairs that never ended on his house, and life in general, I thanked him and bid him goodnight.

    Why Bees Die

    Since then, I have lost, literally, hundreds of colonies.  Most have been from pesticide.  Some from Varroa Mites that got away from me, others from marauding ants, and some I have no idea.  I have also been handed hundreds of hives from hundreds of beekeepers, men and women, some with brave faces with that same wetness in their eyes that others may have missed but I sure caught.  It takes one to know one, after all.

    You can see the Varroa Mite defecation on the underside of the cell. Others, you recognize a starved hive from the bottoms of the bees sticking out from the comb, frozen in a desperate search for food.  I have yet (KNOCK ON WOOD) to smell the telltale stench from foulbrood from an urban beekeeper’s hive, but a very high percentage of dead outs I am asked to analyze make me remember that day when I watched Walt check out my frames.  Sometimes, the comb reads like novels.  Sometimes, they are blank pages.

    And I have to give that same lecture, sometimes to a devastatingly broken heart.  When professionals across this country who have forgotten more about beekeeping than I will ever know lose 40% of their hives as of 2016, there is no denying that what Walt told me that day was the truth.

    Losing A Hive is Part of Beekeeping

    Losing hives is a part of beekeeping.  Period.  Listen to the beekeepers around you, read all you can, inspect often, treat when necessary, and watch, watch, watch.

    But losses are a part of beekeeping.  Recognize when it is your fault and use it as a motivator to adopt better techniques. But also learn to accept that sometimes, despite your best intentions and actions, losses still happen.

    Feel that sharp pang of frustration with this?  Congratulations.  You’re now a real beekeeper.

    Hive Loss is part of Beekeeping. Hive Loss is part of Beekeeping.

    Editor's Note: Keith Roberts is co-owner of The Valley Hive a beekeeping supply company located in Chatsworth, CA. The Valley Hive sells Beekeeping Supplies and offers Beekeeping Services including House Calls to Backyard Beekeepers looking to start a backyard hive.  Interested in becoming a beekeeper? Check out The Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association for more information.

  • Finding Bees for Your Hive

    WHERE DO I GET MY BEES?

    After you set up your beehive, the next step is to fill it with bees!  Here we will discuss the different types of Honey Bees, and the various methods used to obtain bees.

    DO ALL BEES PRODUCE HONEY?   felicia bees on a frame

    There are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world. While the U.S. is home to approximately 4,000 types of native bees, Honey Bees (Apis Mellifera) are not native to the United States.  The European Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera Linnaeus) was brought to America in the 17th century by the early European settlers. Consequently, the Honey Bees that we use mostly descend from European races of Honey Bees. Honey Bees are the only insects that make food for human consumption. And like a lot of animals and insects that are found all over the world, Honey Bees also differ from one another based on a lot of factors.

    BEE STOCK

    There are many different types of Honey Bee species in the world. Since the 1800’s, beekeepers have been breeding bees with certain characteristics for a particular purpose, whether it be for pollination, honey, or bee production.

    “The term “stock” is defined as a loose combination of traits that characterize a particular group of bees. Such groups can be divided by species, race, region, population, or breeding line in a commercial operation. Many of the current “stocks” in the United States can be grouped at one or more of these levels…” – David Tarpy, 2005. The Different Types of Honey Bees. AG-645, NC State University, Cooperative Extension Servicer

    Bee stock can vary greatly. Any generalities about a particular stock should be treated with caution, since there are always exceptions to the rule. The most common types of Honey Bees available in the U.S. are: The Italian Bee, The Carniolan Bee, The German Bee, The Caucasian Bee, The Buckfast Bee, and The Russian Bee. To learn more about these bees and their attributes, check out the following link:

    http://beesource.com/resources/usda/the-different-types-of-honey-bees/

    WHERE DO I GET THE BEES FOR MY HIVE?

    If you want gentle bees, purchasing your bees through a reputable bee breeder is your best chance.  Although, there are other options for obtaining bees.

    swarm on iron gate 01

    SWARMS

    One way to start a hive is by collecting a swarm.  A swarm is merely a group of bees with a queen that has left their home in search of a new one. Since they don’t have any brood (developing baby bees) or honey to guard, they are generally very gentle.  Before the swarm finds a permanent home, the cluster of bees might take up temporary residence in a bush or low lying branch. Swarms are relatively easy to catch, but some beekeeping knowledge is helpful.

    As a new beekeeper in Southern California, starting out with a package of bees or a nucleus of bees may be a safer way to start a hive. While swarms are gentle, many of the bee colonies in Southern California contain some degree of Africanized genetics. Africanized Bees are more aggressive than their counterpart, the European Honey Bee, and keeping Africanized Honey Bees is not advisable. Oftentimes, when dealing with these bees, they become more aggressive as the colony grows.  So, while the temperament of the swarm may appear gentle, the behavior can change with time.

    CUT-OUTS

    Another way to start a hive, is by doing a cut out. This procedure involves removing and relocating a colony of bees from one location to another. Relocating a hive is an advanced beekeeping technique. Depending on the size of the hive, doing a cut-out can be complex, messy, and time consuming.  Proceed with caution and be sure to assess the temperament of the bees. We recommend that you hire a professional, if this is the route you choose to take.

    IMG_0016 reduced


    PACKAGED BEES

    A package of bees is approximately two or three pounds of bees. The bees arrive in a wooden or plastic box, with a mated queen hanging inside in her own cage. Installing a package is easy.  Watch our YouTube video to see how a package is installed. The Valley Hive sells Italian Bees, which are known for their favorable temperament. They are also excellent honey producers.

    5 frames of bees

    NUC OF BEES

    A Nuc, short for nucleus, is a small colony of bees. Consisting of 5 frames of bees, the queen has already been introduced to the bees and a combination of eggs, larvae, and honey are present. A Nuc contains bees and frames, but the remainder of equipment including the hive body, top cover, bottom board and 5 additional frames, is sold separately. A feeder is also recommended so that the colony can easily build out the first box with the necessary comb needed to store honey and eggs.  The Valley Hive sells nucs as well as the additional equipment you will need.

    NEED HELP?

    The Valley Hive is here to answer all your bee related questions. We invite you to stop by during our regular business hours which can be found on our website. Taking classes through The Los Angeles County Beekeeping Association (LACBA) is a great way to get started. For more information about the classes, check the LACBA website.

     

     

     

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