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Keeping Her Happy
By: Ed Colby

Ski patrolling on Aspen Mountain remains a dream job, especially for someone half my age. I’m not the only veteran. We talk about retiring before we’re too busted up to take a fun run with our lifetime ski passes.  I could swing it, I guess, but I take patrolling day by day, season by season. We have a union, and the company treats us right.

Lyle tempts me. “You should come out to California for the almonds. You’ve never seen anything like it,” he drawls. Ah, a beekeeper’s dream – springtime in California, for the Big Show.

I’m not a bucket list guy, but there are loose ends to tie up. I don’t want to drop dead on the job.  There’d be all that messy CPR, and they’d have to take me down in a toboggan. The beeyard would be so much better. I’m fortunate to have reached the Autumn of my life. Now it’s time to take stock.

We’re enjoying a Colorado January thaw, and I used this opportunity to dribble oxalic acid onto 25 brood-less colonies, for Varroa mite control. Last November when I sugar-shake tested these hives, they all tested at five or fewer mites per 300-bee sample. These are not alarming mite counts. I could wait until they were brood-free to treat.

They looked OK and still reared brood when I fed them in balmy early December. Now they don’t look so great. On January 6, they ranged from two to 10 frames of bees per hive, the average being four or five. I wonder how many of these colonies will make it to April.

From October until now, the weather see-sawed from unseasonably warm to bitter cold. I had a pathetic 2014 honey yield, and most of these colonies never plugged their brood supers. Then after the honey flow they ate their winter stores like there was no tomorrow. I repeatedly fed them sugar syrup, and I open-fed dry pollen supplement for good measure. But I’m concerned that all this pampering threw off their timing. Maybe the little darlings never realized it was fall, time to hunker down and raise long-lived “fat bees” to carry the hive through until Spring. Or maybe they have Nosema.

It’s possible I did everything 180° wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

It’s weird, but hives that load up the brood supers with honey seem set for the Winter. If a colony is dead-heavy in September, it’s got enough. But a light hive in September eats through its puny stores, and when you feed 2:1 sugar syrup, it’s like the more you give them, the more they eat. I eventually got the upper hand, but maybe this is God’s way of telling us that bees should eat honey, not sugar water.

Then there are my sick hives. I put six in a mini “hospital” yard, not far from a healthy apiary. I knocked out their American Foul Brood (AFB) with Tylan in the Fall. If I can just get them through the Winter, I can re-queen them and put them on foundation come Spring. But they dwindled through Autumn, and I started combining colonies. When I opened the three remaining hives in January to dribble oxalic acid, they looked pathetic. One still reeked of AFB. If my healthy bees start robbing these weak AFB hives, maybe I’m in trouble.

I had 120 hives last Spring, including nucs I used for re-queening. Now I’m down to 83. This even before I count my Winter losses! Where did they all go? They never really got on a honey flow. They got sick. They dwindled. They got united with other hives. Queens failed. Death from a thousand cuts.

Despite the much ballyhooed pesticide disasters and “unsustainable” hype, in my limited experience, the best thing I can do for my bees – and for myself – is send them to California for the Winter. The 40 strong colonies I shipped for the 2014 almonds came back full of brood and honey, ready to be split. They had a few mites. So what? Bees that overwinter here in Colorado struggle. They should bounce back with the dandelions, or when I haul them to Grand Junction for the fruit bloom, but how are they going to build up in a snowstorm? It’s always something.

I sent 40 again this Fall. Paul ships in November before it gets too cold, and I put them on one of his loads. I could have sent more. Paul’s rule is ten frames of bees for California. I had the bees, but not the time to get the little darlings mite-treated, fed, and forklift-ready on four-way pallets. Between my Summer Aspen Mountain job, vacation, a bee talk in Ohio, vagaries of the weather, and return to work on the patrol, I got squeezed.

Vacation, you say, when there’s so much to do? Look, I need to keep my gal Marilyn happy. When we went to the Apimondia bee conference in Ukraine in 2013, we befriended two women who convinced her that she needs her own hive. Why? She can always come with me. She drives a bus, writes a newspaper column, plays the pesky reporter at Army chemical weapons disaster drills, ditch-rides on her mountain bike, gardens, cooks, remodels her century-old house in town. Isn’t that enough? Why pit beginner’s luck against a hive of honey bees?

She wants one of mine, and you know I’ll cave. I know a thing or two. I know I need to keep her happy.