Why did they die?

Why is this year so different? Every day I get messages that say basically the same thing: “I just checked my hive and all the bees are dead. They have plenty of honey and lots of pollen. What did I do wrong?” Some say their bees died in a small cluster; some say their bees were completely gone. Sure, some of this happens every year, but this year seems worse.

I’m just thinking at the keyboard here, so keep in mind this is merely my opinion. But basically, I think two things are converging to kill our bees: healthy mites and unhealthy queens.

Varroa mites first landed in North American in 1987, which is just 26 years ago. It took a number of years before they spread over the entire continent, but during that time they evolved to match North American bees in North American climates. During that period the viruses they carried also evolved to fit the conditions in North America. This is not a stretch; most viruses—as well as many invertebrates—adapt very quickly to changing conditions. Evolution can happen super fast in organisms that have multiple generations per year.

However, some organisms do not evolve quickly and honey bees happen to be one of those. Geneticists have discovered that honey bees have few of the genes that allow for quick adaptation to change. Scientists believe that honey bees use hygienic or defensive behavior—rather than genetic adaptation—to respond to most external threats. In short, you have stodgy adapters being assaulted by a cadre of quick adapters.

The lethal combination of mites and viruses quickly killed off most of the feral colonies in North America, removing a critical part of the honey bee gene pool. No longer able to find sufficient wild bees, beekeepers were forced to import bees from elsewhere. As a result, most of our managed colonies have been raised from production queens that, by definition, have a limited supply of genes. Although beekeepers don’t like to believe it, most of the so-called feral colonies that are discovered today have escaped from managed hives in the recent past. As such, they are only a generation away from their production-queen origins as well.

So while the depth of the gene pool has decreased rapidly due to parasites and pathogens, the need for queens has increased sharply. It makes sense: as more and more hives die, the need for replacement grows. The irony is that the “solution” makes the problem worse.

To meet the demand for replacement colonies, queens are produced in large quantities in the south and shipped all over the country. Through no fault of the producer, these bees have marginal genetics. Why? Because there just aren’t that many genes to pick from anymore. As a result, the exhausted gene pool was spread from sea to shining sea.

And it gets worse. You and fifty other beekeepers in your county have bees with nearly identical genetics simply because everyone in your local bee club bought bees from the same producer. They all arrived in one truck, so in addition to having the same genes, they have the same diseases. It means the drones hanging out in your local drone congregation area have the same genes as well. So if you are trying to raise your own queens to overcome a shallow gene pool, the odds are stacked against you from the start. It’s one heck of a mess.

Now, back to the original question: why is it worse this year? In short, I think it has taken a number of years for Varroa mites and their viruses to adapt and spread across the country. It has also taken a number of years for most of the feral bees to die off and for production queens to replace local queens. What we are seeing now is a crescendo of bad outcomes—a perfect storm. In other words, I think it will get worse before it gets better.

Beekeepers are a creative lot, and I truly believe that many of those colonies were lost in spite of the best beekeeping practices we know. If we are lucky, we will make a discovery that saves the honey bee. But for now, we are stuck with what we have and we don’t know from where the answer will come. Or when. Or if.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

David
Reply

Rusty,

I have a hive that has had a tumultuous year. Somehow I have managed to keep it going with my limited experience, but now it appears as though my queen has stopped laying. I live just south of Atlanta, so our weather is still rather warm. Temperatures are down in the 50s at night, warming up to the 70s and 80s during the day.

The bee population has declined and I had previously chalked that up to the annual preparations for winter. I have been trying to feed, but the bees are not taking the syrup, while my other hive is scarfing it down. When I opened it up there was hardly any brood at all and what there was, was relatively old and sporadically spaced.

I found the queen with her head in a cell which I don’t know if that is normal behavior. My question…is it normal for the queen to not be laying at all this time of year, or do I have other issues? I am getting a nuc today that a friend of mine doesn’t want. I don’t know if I should combine the two as I am slightly concerned that my resident hive may be sick. Any advice would be appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

David,

As part of New Year good behavior, I’m trying to clean up my website and delete junk. But look what I found! This is embarrassing. Since this e-mail is dated October 14, I’ll just tell you what I should have told you.

Queens greatly decrease their egg laying in the fall, and it drops to nearly zero in late November or December. But in this case, there are many signs of a failing queen. Scattered brood, disinterest by the workers, a queen with her head in a cell, all indicate queen problems.

My guess is that the colony was okay from a health standpoint, but with a failing queen in the fall, they more or less lose the will to live. The queen pheromones and the open brood pheromones keep them performing properly, but without those things the workers lose direction.

I hope it worked out for you with the nuc. Please tell me what happened.

David C.
Reply

Rusty,

It didn’t turn out too well. My strong hive (Italians) began to rob very heavily about the time I wrote the comment. What was left of the small hive was quickly decimated. The nuc too was robbed heavily, which I tried to discourage by means of a robbing screen. What the other hive didn’t take, the ants moved in and finished off in both the nuc and the small hive. The good news is my good hive was still strong as of a week ago. But they are aggressive and did not like me peeking in. Got a sting to the neck as a “Thanks for Caring.”

Don’t worry about the late reply. You answered my questions in a post shortly after. Thanks for all the advice!

David

Rusty
Reply

David,

Whenever I read a story like this I’m reminded that beekeeping is really difficult. You can do everything right and still have problems. You take care of mites and moths and diseases and feeding and robbers and neighbors and skunks and birds and vandals and wind and rain and freezing temperatures . . . you think you got it all covered and then the ants move in! Then, to top it all off, you get stung. There’s probably a better hobby out there.

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