Update on the Bees – Full Version from 2016 End of Year Letter

The 2015/2016 winter was a difficult one for beekeepers in America with the national average loss of 44%.  While Spikenard experienced a much milder loss than the professionals, we too learned a great deal that can help to prepare us for a future that is riddled with the challenges of a changing climate.

The temperatures stayed very mild through the end of 2015 as we rang in Christmas, singing to the bees under the Full Moon in our T-shirts.  After New Year’s, the temperatures swung between 60oF and -5oF twice over a four week period from early January to early February, which gave us much worry, because we suspected that most queens were still laying.  If the queen continues to lay eggs, it means that the workers must work tirelessly to keep the hive stable at ~90oF in order for the healthy development of eggs, larvae, and pupae.  When the drastic changes in temperatures brought lows down to -5oF, the worker bees served selflessly and rather than leaving the young ones in order to go get honey, they starved with their kin in a cluster as tight as could be.  On a warm sunny day in late February, we found 4 hives that weren’t flying.  It was a sad day for all of us, to say the least.

And so we came into April with 22 hives, ready to celebrate their health, vibrancy, and overflowing reproductive power.  It was a wonderful swarm season, with our Sun Hive and one of our beautiful top bar hives swarming 4 times each!  We had 24 swarms in all, the majority of them in May, and we sold many swarms and nucs to our students who have been patiently waiting to have their orders filled.  The first swarm of the year was on April 20th, and the last of the season came on August 22nd.

The land in spring was overflowing with an abundance of orchard blossoms, dandelion, white-dutch clover, crimson clover, and California poppies.  The bees had their fill, and more!  With so many new swarms needing to build comb, we gave quite a bit of the honey from the spring harvest back to the bees, which they very much appreciated.  We also had plenty of honey for sale in spring which was appreciated by many humans as well, and consumed very quickly!  By July, our honey stores tip-toed away from the shelves in the visitor center in order to fatten up the bees before winter.  We, and the bees, surely do appreciate your patience and understanding! 

Our research on the varroa mite and its impact on our colonies continues to be a source of new inspiration and learning.  This will be our third year of consistently ashing and spreading the ash from the varroa mites in order to help curb the often overwhelming reproductive power of the mites.  We have seen mite numbers reduced by more than half this year from last year, and will continue to watch this trend of correlation between the consequential and consistent spreading of mite ashes and their abundance in the hives.  What is difficult, of course, is that drones from colonies across our landscape can also bring mites into our hives, and we cannot really control this potential re-infestation.  Even so, our research has thus far shown than strong and vibrant colonies do not succumb to the presence of the mites and are able to remain healthy and strong.  The mites may even help a colony strengthen its forces to some degree!   More to come as we continue our work with the ashing preparations and our monitoring of the varroa mite!

We decided to wrap/insulate all of our 27 hives early this year to help the bees keep a more steady temperature through the continued instability of our changing climate.  With a couple exceptions (the ‘pet’ hives that we give special consideration to), all of the hives look strong and healthy going into this winter with plenty of honey.  With so many new swarms from spring about to brave their first winter, we do, of course, worry about them.  We appreciate your loving thoughts towards the Sanctuary and our bees.

We wish you, students, friends, and fellow beekeepers, a strong and healthy winter—both for you and your bees! 

Please share how your beekeeping season has been on our Facebook page, or by sending an email to alex.t@spikenardfarm.org.