Just wanted to share two articles, one I've read half a dozen times in preparation for this spring with my surviving hive. This is only my third season, so excuse my ignorance if this is common knowledge, but I do know there are a lot of new beekeepers out there.
Last spring I shared my story: "Demise of My Hive", about my first bee hive surviving the winter into March but failing before the nectar flow in May, despite the recommended feeding of sugar syrup.
My sense was that the feeding contributed in some way to a cycle of nosema, mixed with the cold, altruistic bees leaving the hive so as not to contaminate it; hence no warmth for the brood nest. My hive was pretty much beeless in the end, but filled with honey, pollen stores, and chilled brood. The colony was softball size in March…then rapidly down to three seemingly healthy bees, the queen and two workers, then none.
"An Adaptable Workforce" March 2010 issue of American Bee Journal, p. 255, by Randy Oliver of scientificbeekeeping.org – some heady reading, but summarized:
Oliver sites recent studies revealing perhaps what seasoned beekeepers already know without the science, but nonetheless, the science lends it a new perspective. Basically, here in the northeast especially, the house bees that over-winter with the queen have never seen the light of day, being born the end of fall or early winter.
Their sisters who foraged for the pollen and honey they subsist on have all died a brave altruistic death. Both bees, fall foragers and over-wintering housebees were/are what they ate/eat.
The honey and pollen winter stores literally, biologically, keep the over-wintering bees in housebee mode, plenty of Vg hormones that suppress the action that causes them to age into foragers. It also provides the housebee with a boosted immune system.
When cold prevents bees from reaching stored pollen and honey, or stores are depleted before the nectar flow, spring feeding of syrup introduced by the beekeeper without pollen supplementation, kicks the bee's biology into the aging process. Vg levels drop and they quickly evolve into foraging bees.
They also lose the immune boost of Vg and more readily succumb to nosema if weather does not permit them leaving the hive to void the waste they have held for sometimes months in an effort to keep the hive clean. Immune difficulties are even worse if mites are an issue.
Oliver states: "…starved, stressed, or infected bees can very quickly shift to forager status. By doing so, they rapidly begin to age, and are soon lost to the colony. Younger bees then take their places. If the infection is not brought under control, especially if nutrition is poor, this process can rapidly depopulate a colony-leaving only the queen and a handful of young (uninfected) workers. Sound familiar?"
Yeah, that about sums up my spring 2010. I did not feed pollen supplement, just syrup.
I spoke with Ben Chadwick, a state bee inspector. After ten minutes I knew I'd never live long enough to know all I need to know about keeping bees. He suggested this spring I try the Mann Lake brand pollen patties, as that is what his bees in Alton accept, if they need it, above other brands he's tested. He also said that the goldenrod/aster nectar flow we had last fall was not as nutritious as a spring flow, so to save a super of honey from spring to put on the hive in late fall.
So that is my plan. I'm also switching to the smallest size supers. Ben also stressed switching to mite and disease resistant strains of bees and whether you believe your bees have mites or not, treat for them. He mentioned an organic treatment called Thymol, but admits to only using powdered sugar for the sake of his queen-rearing apiary.
I would be interested to know if any beekeepers here have used thymol. This spring I'm getting two nucs from a Vermont apiary that has been breeding not only disease resistant bees, but cold weather bees as well. We'll see how that goes.
2nd Article is by a frustrated staff writer for Bee Culture, James E. Tew, who got up on the wrong side of winter in the January 2011 article p.36 – "Winter-Increasingly An Uncertain Season…" He stresses that modern standards of hive size coming out of winter do not lend to traditional management schemes. Combining weak hives, light syrup mixtures in spring, are no longer a good idea.
Tew's article, along with other winter reading I've done, advises not to perform any major manipulations of the colony in the spring when the temperature is under 70 degrees F and perform needed maintenance tasks with as little smoke and disruption to the bees as possible.
My conclusion is that even beekeepers doing this for decades, are having trouble keeping their hives alive. They are seeing a dramatic change in the honeybee's success as a managed species within their own apiaries, decade to decade.
These amazing creatures have been surviving as a fine-tuned successful civilization long before the Egyptians recorded the first bee journal on the walls of the pharaoh's tombs 10,000 years ago. We are still struggling to understand and manage them for our benefit, their secrets ever eluding us. Good luck with your bees this spring.