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A discussion of what to expect this spring and a tool to help keep your bees healthy!

I’ve always found the coming of spring brings a sense of renewal that is much needed following the coldest months of the year. After what seemed to be an insufferably long winter, we can finally look forward to warmer weather. Most backyard gardeners have noticed that there is a definite buzz in the air, as pollinating insects emerge in search of flowering plants. But spring is also a good time for beekeepers to take a serious look at the health of their honey bee colonies.

Winter is a critical time for honey bees, especially if they were already in a compromised condition as a result of the many factors that can shorten the lifespan of individual bees or weaken the colony. Over the past 30 years, invasive pests, including varroa mite, tracheal mite and small hive beetle have devastated colonies, aided by an ever-increasing assortment of lethal bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens. Spring is the time when beekeepers can see the full impact of these stressors. Before the arrival of Varroa, typical winter losses were up to 10-15 percent, but since then, losses have increased significantly – and in some years, Varroa-related disorders have contributed to the loss of entire colonies. I’ve often said there are no healthy honey bee colonies in North America. So, keeping track of Varroa and the many other threats is essential.

Each spring, I get the same question: “How bad will the winter losses be this year?” And my answer is almost always the same: “It depends.” That’s not a cop-out. As one who considers himself a professional “hive-diver” with many years of experience inspecting thousands of colonies throughout North America, I feel confident forecasting the survival of colonies that are frequently inspected, but there is no way to know the condition of all colonies going into winter. Making general predictions of winter losses is tricky, as they can vary widely from year to year and from place to place due to different climates, weather events, and apicultural practices. One thing’s for sure: routine inspections provide valuable clues regarding the magnitude of losses individual beekeepers can expect.

Because most commercial beekeepers are now doing a better job of managing Varroa, average winter losses are declining. I’m betting this downward trend will continue, although there will be annual fluctuations, up and down (Figure 1). That’s a good thing and it shows our industry is headed in the right direction. Of course, this progress could be interrupted if Varroa becomes resistant to our limited number of effective treatments, or if other disorders are introduced or become more problematic.

Ironically, strong, healthy hives enhance varroa mite reproduction and population buildup, so beekeepers can’t afford to ease up or get complacent about their management practices. In the fall of 2017, I observed plenty of late-season mites in our national Varroa survey, but even so, the numbers were an improvement over the previous year (Figure 2). The average number of varroa mites per 100 bees dropped from 7.6 in 2016 to 5.4 in 2017 – a 29 percent improvement. Moreover, the number of “healthiest” colonies increased by 50 percent and the number of “unhealthiest” colonies decreased by 42 percent over the same time span. It just goes to show that while Varroa is here to stay, it doesn’t mean beekeepers can’t maintain productive hives.

But I’m not sure the right message is getting through to the increasing number of hobby beekeepers. It’s great that people have taken an interest in honey bees by establishing hives or by helping in other ways, such as planting flowering plants and trees, which benefits all pollinators. Managing honey bee colonies is a wonderful experience, but the emphasis should be placed on “managing.” And that means conducting regular hive inspections to spot the first signs of trouble so that corrective action can be taken.

Inspections may seem intimidating and time consuming, but they don’t have to be. We’ve developed aHealthy Colony Checklist (HCC) to make the task of hive monitoring simpler and faster. It can be used by anyone, from commercial operators to backyard hobbyists. The HCC is an easy-to-use document for making quick hive assessments, any time of the year. There are six conditions a colony must satisfy to be considered “healthy” and each inspection can be recorded on a simple datasheet. Also, I highly recommend assessing your colonies on a 7-10-day cycle to detect problems early. Armed with this information, proactive steps can then be taken to fix minor problems before they become major, irreversible ones. For those new to beekeeping, I recommend consulting with your local honey bee association or state apiarist to learn the basics and get advice on how to seasonally manage your colonies. Another great source of information is the Varroa Management Guide.

I’ve been keeping and studying honey bees for 45 years, spanning the pre- and post-Varroa eras. When Varroa first appeared on the scene, many commercial beekeepers feared the end was near, but they persevered and, after many rough years, the industry is now stabilizing and making steady progress. Although we’ve turned the corner with an improved understanding of bee health, we still have a long way to go. Part of that journey involves moving apiculture from an art to a science, which requires transitioning from traditional methods to integrated precision apiculture methods. More frequent inspections and record-keeping is part of that transition that will help inform decision-making. In the future, I hope that inspection methods and data collection will be standardized nationally to accurately forecast bee health and colony survival in real-time.

So, please have a look at our check list. Many beekeepers are already using it. And don’t be hesitant about assessing your colonies on a near-weekly basis. Remember, early detection saves hives!

2018 Bees and Varroa Graph2018 Bees and Varroa Graph