Silent Hive

It has been a difficult summer for the bees in the south of the UK, and for the first time I fear the summer losses more than the winter.

Three of my five  hives have suffered queen failure; the queen has stopped laying abruptly or a new queen has failed to mate. This includes my strong sun hive from last year featured here and my precious log hive featured here. My friends have suffered similar losses.

This is in stark contrast to the 70's when I started beekeeping and echoed by other beekeepers who kept bees before 2000.

"I could expect a success rate of getting queens mated from a sealed cell well in excess of 90%, but since returning to active beekeeping that success rate has dropped alarmingly, in my own experience to 50% or less." Roger Patterson, Beekeeper since 1963 writing in 2006.

"The most common reason for winter loss reported by Scottish beekeepers in 2011-12 was problems with the queen (39%)." The 2012 Scottish Honey Bee Health Surveillance Report.

I could reference many more.

Possible causes I have seen include:
  • Miticides used by many beekeepers in the hive making male bees (drones) infertile
  • Culling of drones pupae by beekeepers to suppress mites 
  • Navigation of queens during mating disrupted (pesticides or phone masts near mating zones)
  • Beekeepers weakening bees by preventing natural selection (queen wing clipping, insemination)
  • Long term diet of pesticides and fungicides affecting the queen and drone fertility
  • Poorer diet as food sources becomes less diverse
  • Imported races of bees not suitable for our climate
The cause is probably all of the above and some more,  but the poor summer of 2015 has exposed that many parts of the UK are increasingly becoming unsuitable for bees. What a contrast to old world of Mr Pettigrew:

"The best swarms last year (1874, which was not a very good one) rose to 100 lbs each ... One belonging to Mr Gordon rose to 164lb. Swarms belonging to other bee-keepers rose to 128lb,126lb,120lb.109,104lb. Mr George Campbell got 4 swarms from one hive; their united weight (including the mother hive, which was 93lb) was 373lb" - 'The Handy Book of Bees' by A Pettigrew 1875 pages 54/55:
Queens who live for over 3 years now have a diet contaminated pesticides and fungicides on a scale not seen before. Neonicotinoids are just one of an arsenal of chemicals used to manufacture food. This was brought home to me by my friend Brock who after 5 years of converting a conventional farm to a biodynamic farm  is only now seeing fungi grow and the structure of his soil improve. Bees need pollen to ferment to make protein rich bee bread - it cannot do this if it contains fungicide.

Modern agriculture is constantly fighting nature to produce more food in a one way relationship, but long term only mutually supporting relationships are sustainable.

A wise man once said, “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” I feel the quietness of my log hive, it is so loud.


Lindy said...

My thoughts and my prayers are with you Jonathan. For some it is so clear and others remain closed to all the signs of a failure to thrive Earth that is glaring at them.... When you do really try to do what is right and caring for your bees or other animals and things still go wrong it feels so devastating. We can't give up though can we?

Jonathan said...

Thanks Lindy - You are right, we can't give up. Bees have amazing faith in the future. When they swarm in one thrilling moment they leave everything behind with no thought that they will not find a new home.

In the short time the log hive was with me, many flowers and crops were pollinated, and they pioneered a new home for a swarm next year. It is lined and sealed with propolis and smells just right, they will come again if we have faith.

I will look for a more suitable location for my bees. I could travel just 10 miles south and find an area less affected by modern pressures. My concern, which I think you share, is that this sort of thought is departure from the past.

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