I think all of the colonies will survive.
I start with that sentence because it wasn’t what I always thought. There was a 24 hour period where my husband and I were sure we were overseeing the death of the apiary because we’d done something really stupid. Or, more likely, not done something really obvious to more experienced beekeepers.
One morning, about a month ago, I was looking at the apiary – something I do pretty much every day, often multiple times in a day. One of the hives had a huge pile of dead bees in front of it. I came in and told my husband and he confirmed he’d seen the same thing the afternoon before. I breathed a sigh of relief thinking they’d been building up since autumn is here and maybe there were a lot of drones and… Then my husband said he’d cleaned away all the dead bees when he spotted them which means the many handfuls of bee carcasses I’d seen had appeared in a 12 hour period.
There was a lot of soul searching, running too and from the apiary, external hive inspections (we were afraid to open a sick hive when it was cold outside)… There were maybe 6 of the 23 hives affected – 2 really badly. We started to wonder what kind of illness was sweeping through the hives, could we save any of them, what we should do?
Then we did what all newish beekeepers should do, if they can, when they have a problem they’ve never come across before, we talked to a couple of experienced apiarists and they were both convinced that the hives had been poisoned. The main reason for their conviction was that all diseases that affect honey bees affect the brood, not the adult bees. Hence, our worker bees were going somewhere and eating something that was killing them.
The second thing I did was the other thing newish beekeepers should do when confronted by a new concern, I searched the internet. I found that one symptom of bees dying of poisoning is that they die with their proboscis extended. I went back and checked and, sadly, most of the poor little bees died just that way. I don’t want to know why they do that, it’s just too sad.
We took several steps at this point:
1) We asked one of the local farmers if he knew of any spraying in the area. He didn’t and said it’s a funny time of year to spray.
2) We phoned the Department of Primary Industries, they’re the government body that covers honey bees, who passed us to their vet who asked us to collect samples of the bees and post them in a normal envelope to their lab. They would check for diseases. We’ve received the report and our bees are disease free (phew).
3) We called the EPA, they are the government organisation who worries about environmental poisons. They asked us to freeze some honey comb and dead bees for them to collect for testing. A few days later, Dave, came by and did just that. He got all the pertinent details and told us he’d let us know in a month if they’d found out what had killed our bees. The reality is that there probably isn’t anything he can do even if he determines what has happened except maybe the data can be used to tighten labelling laws, recommended usage and even possibly add to the weight of knowledge about the negative side effects of chemicals. We’re still waiting for this report.
4) A very experienced apiarist came out and checked every one of our hives and found them all healthy and he’s confident they are strong enough to survive the winter even with the field bees killed off.
All of this was happening when we were preparing to requeen the hives. They’ve since been requeened, all queens are laying and the hives are looking good. There are still way more bee deaths than we’d like (new hives seem to be suffering now) but those little ladies are soldiering on and, fingers crossed, will get through the winter with no major side effects of the poisoning.
One interesting observation is the way the bees take care of their dead. In the morning the board in front of the hive is basically empty. Then, by about 10, when the bees are very active, a pile of dead bees appears. The house bees must sweep the bottom of the hive in the mornings. Then, by about 3:00 pm, the board is almost clean again. In front of the board, in the grass, is a new pile of dead bees. It looks like they clean the inside of the hive with the highest priority and then work on the surrounding area. Some of the hives aren’t as finicky about cleaning the surrounding area, but most like to keep an area about one foot in front of the hive free of dead bees. Sounds totally sensible to me.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. I’m thinking it takes a community to raise a colony of bees. Without the blogosphere, apiarists who are generous with their time and the government organisations who actually roll up their sleeves to investigate the problem, we’d be pulling our hair out. I’m not sure how much the government agencies would be doing if it weren’t for the fact that the bees we care for are owned by The Wheen Bee Foundation, an organisation established to promote honey bee health and success in Australia, but they have been incredibly helpful, sympathetic and I’m reassured by their comments that it is NOT okay for farmers to spray pesticides in a manner that will kill bee colonies. Now, we just need to find a way to close the gap between that assertion and the reality that is killing so many bees around the globe.
Here’s a photo of the apiary taken this morning. It’s late May (think about it, that’s like saying late November for you in the Northern Hemisphere) and the hives are really active. I just wish there was more for the girls to collect on their foraging flights.