More and more beekeepers worry that beekeeping is no longer sustainable, a concern reinforced by a multitude of media reports and survey results showing high colony mortality, reduced bee viability, and some tantalizing data that indicates that beekeeping globally is undergoing tremendous change. Beekeepers report that fewer of their colonies are able to survive the many insults they face from modern agriculture in terms of monoculture and new pesticide utilization, as well as from climate changes and increasingly unpredictability of the ability of colonies to produce surplus honey and survive to the next reproductive cycle. Will their colonies be alive next spring? Too often this is the primary question beekeepers ask, regardless of their years of experience or size of operation. To sustain both the bees and the beekeeper, bees must survive in larger numbers.
Sustainable apiculture, that which is able to maintain itself at its certain rate or level, clearly depends on our ability to manage population levels. In the revised edition of Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping, Caron and Connor describe the Essence of Beekeeping as “the relationship between time of the season and the number of bees” (Chapter 1, Figure 1-2). They go on to state that the goal of all beekeepers is to reach the peak population of bees with the peak availability of nectar and pollen needed to make a honey crop and sustain bee populations for the rest of the season.
While this seems to be a simple concept, it is harder and harder for beekeepers to achieve. Beekeepers report that their colonies fail to build up in time to be productive. Colony populations do not reach their peak until AFTER the primary nectar flow is over for their area, if they grow at all. This may be a combination of a variety of factors—a shift in the genetic composition of the bees due to heavy varroa mite predation—earlier blooming times for plants as impacted by global climate change/global warming—and sharply reduced new colony viability. Especially with package bees, in 2013 some beekeepers report failure rates approaching 100% due to queen problems and a general failure to grow, combining to result in some pretty pathetic colonies. Or dead hives.
Beekeepers who have success with new colonies tend to be those who are using locally produced queen bees installed into colonies that were produced from local bees, those that survived winter or periods of extreme stress. Any step toward localization of genetic stock and bees tends to move the beekeeper to a higher level of success. Various state programs have clearly shown the value of local bees, local queens, and local training as a method of ensuring better results in the colony.
This leads me to consider the sustainability concept and show how many beekeepers are surviving while others are failing. For the point of generating a label on these practices, I will refer to them as the New Sustainability Practices.
New Sustainability Practices
The sustainable beekeeper is one who keeps extra bee colonies in production at all times, usually as growing nuclei colonies established during the peak of bee population, from swarm prevention practices (making nuclei) or by catching swarms and removing bees from buildings. Some sustainable beekeepers consider only the third concept as the limit of their operation, and I disagree. Making and using nuclei (call them what you want, a nucleus is a miniaturized version of a full-sized hive) has become a dominant change in many beekeeping operations over the past decade or two, with beekeepers attempting to overwinter one or more nuclei hives for every full-sized colony in the operation. This maintains colony numbers when some of these colonies die, or are killed by a multitude of factors but concentrated on queen failure and pesticide-disease interactions. Progressive northern beekeepers are keeping nuclei alive during the winter, and using them as brood and bee banks to strengthen full sized colonies during colony buildup and just before honey production, and to make further increase to replace colony losses or make new colonies for sale to area beekeepers in line with the local bees’ attributes.