It’s no secret. A million, maybe more colonies that were alive last Thanksgiving aren’t alive today, the beginning of May. What happened? Lots of things, actually, but mostly, from those I talk to and what I know and what I’ve seen it was this.

  • Early brood rearing due to an easy winter and early spring last year almost everywhere.
  • Rapid Varroa, and accompanying virus buildup on all this early brood.
  • Reduced food sources from last season due to drought
  • Nosema, pesticides
  • Shortened life spans, damaged bees and rapidly declining populations in the fall and winter.
  • Empty colonies by Thanksgiving or Christmas, or
  • Reduced colony populations couldn’t cluster or feed themselves, and colony expires by spring due to starvation or freezing

Stressed, damaged winter bees that should normally live 120 – 140 days were dying at 100 days…not much of a drop, but after a few months the population curve goes into free fall and by New Years, there’s nobody left. Empty boxes. No bees and empty comb.

That’s the bad news. Now, this year, let’s look at doing things different. Starting with packages.

To replace those colonies, lots of folks get packages.

If that’s you, be aware of some significant changes in best management practices with package installation.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of youtube videos, DVDs, books and magazine articles that tell how to successfully transfer honey bees from a three pound package to a ready-made hive, provided by you. It may be a hive that had bees that died overwinter, or it may be brand new. It may be 10 frame, 8 frame, top bar, or even a skep. It’s starting over.

We’re not here going to go into all the details of introduction, but simply focus on two points.

First. Queen acceptance.

Second. Enough good food in the right place at the right time.

Both of these have changed in the past few years, due to Varroa, the weather in package production areas, and land use almost everywhere.

So, First. Queen Acceptance.

Because of Varroa there’s a high probability that nurse bees in both starter and finisher colonies, and even in mating nucs have been directly damaged by mites, had their immune systems challenged, or have contacted one of more of the many viruses that have appeared and been damaged. Certainly they have spread it to other members of the colony – to other workers when accepting food, to larvae when feeding, to drones when feeding them and to the queen. The queen, in turn, can pass virus on in eggs laid. As a result of living in a damaged colony what, do you suppose, is the likelihood of a damaged queen being produced? Will the sun come up tomorrow?

Damaged drones don’t fly as fast or as far, can pass virus to virgin queens, and there may simply be fewer of them in drone congregation areas for virgins to mate with.

Virgin queens from colonies challenged with Varroa, virus or other stressed-immune-system nurse bees are more likely to receive less food during rearing in the cell, and less care once emerged. As a result, the queens you receive may have significant problems and be rejected almost immediately…for not being mated, for being damaged and underperforming, or being sick and maybe all three.

More likely, a poorly or undermated queen may be accepted initially, but after a few days, or a few weeks be superseded when performance declines. Often, these queens have produced a few to many eggs and the colony will raise a new queen, but the delay caused to colony growth and the opportunity for good mating with reduced drone populations is slim.

Varroa, it seems is the villain in all these scenarios. But it’s your queens that suffer, and you that has to fix the problem. Careful observation will reduce the damage sudden queen loss causes but not eliminate it. Purchasing queens from quality producers doesn’t insure no problems, but can go a long way in reducing the occurrence of queen loss. And later queens are more likely to be better mated.

And lengthening the time the queen is protected in her cage during introduction can reduce rejection. Especially if, after six or seven days the bees still show aggressiveness toward the cage and the queen. A week’s delay due to ordering a new queen before losing one goes a long way in helping your colony as compared to more, often much more time lost when laying workers develop, when queens are continually rejected by colonies that won’t accept any new queen, or a long time while new queens are raised, mated and accepted, and resume laying. Be patient when introducing a queen to a package…the time spent early on will save you far more later.

Second, Enough good food.

A package colony is starting from scratch. Even if you have put them on already-drawn foundation, everything they are collecting they are turning into more bees. They may store pollen, and nectar, and even honey for a bit, but the first turn in the weather and starvation is only a cell full of honey away. And since it’s your fault they are where they are…after all, only a few short days ago life was good, they had a queen, the Georgia or California weather was sublime and life was good. Now, new home, new queen, new life, and not enough food, no matter what you think.

So get some food on. And keep it on. Until they don’t take what you give them three times. Sugar syrup will ferment when it gets warm. If you don’t know, taste it. If it tastes OK, keep it on, if it doesn’t change it. It is real, real inexpensive insurance they don’t starve when it decides to rain for a week. And it is even more important a month from now than tomorrow, because a month from now they will have lots and lots of larval mouths to feed. Sugar, and protein. Put a protein supplement on immediately. If they don’t eat it they didn’t need it. If they do, you did the right thing. They aren’t free, but starved bees are even more expensive. And it’ll help the kids down the road. Today, it’s just adults.

So, watch that queen, and make sure there’s food. There’s more of course. But these are number one and two in being important. And next, we’ll watch Varroa.


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