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Urban Beekeeping

  • 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.

  • Beekeeping Basics

    your first backyard hive

    BEEKEEPING BASICS

    Interested in bees and starting a backyard hive, but you don't know where to begin? Then Join us on Saturday, January 28th and you will find out everything you need to know to set up your first hive! Snacks and FREE admission. Everyone is welcome!

    Check out our Facebook Page for more information!

     

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