beekeepers

A beekeeper asks, “When do I quit?”

I have attempted to keep bees for five years now and am just about to call it quits because I can’t seem to keep them alive over winter. I keep finding reasons/excuses for them dying, but in the end, I know it must be my mismanagement. 

I live in Blaine, WA. I know you live in Washington, too, and a friend told me how successful you are and thought I might get some encouragement from you. I am an avid environmentalist and initially, bees were my answer to help save the world.

So, after five years (actually six, but one year a black bear got to them and I couldn’t take the blame for that) should I give up or keep on?

During the dozen years I’ve been writing this website, I’ve tried to give gentle guidance to those who have questions. Nevertheless, I do not encourage people to keep honey bees. That’s not my job. I won’t cajole you or anyone else to continue unless you want to. I don’t think beekeeping is for everyone, and I often wonder if it’s for me.

I think many of us have a romantic ideal of beekeeping that doesn’t equate with the day-to-day realities. Lots of us remember the pre-varroa days, when you put bees in a box in spring, harvested honey in fall, and let them do their own thing over winter. It was simple, enjoyable, and carefree entertainment.

But worldwide commerce and travel has opened nations to a panoply of perils, as the coronavirus has demonstrated. The honey bees are part of that because they themselves were imported into North America. At first it was just them, but a host of ailments from all over the world soon followed. Tracheal mites, various brood diseases, varroa mites, viral disease, small hive beetles, nosema strains, and murder hornets just to name a few. It can be tiring and frustrating, and people have differing levels of patience for the problems.

Management is tricky

You say, “I know it must be my mismanagement.” Yes and no. Certainly, another beekeeper with more experience might have better results, but no one knows all the variables your individual apiary is facing. Perhaps other beekeepers in your area are letting their mites go untreated, perhaps you have neighbors who have weakened your colonies with pesticides, perhaps the forage in your area is low quality. Such issues may be less than obvious even to experienced beekeepers, let alone someone just trying to make it through her first winter.

I used to treat for varroa once a year. This year I treated four times and my winter colonies aren’t as strong as I would like. I sometimes wonder whether the mites and the viruses are weakening my bees, or if all the mite control concoctions are affecting their health. No one knows the answers to all the questions, and no one knows all the consequences of multiple problems.

Beekeeping, as it stands now, is great for people who like to experiment, try new things, build a better “mousetrap,” or experiment with treatments, hive configurations, supplements, and management strategies. But for someone trying to learn the basics, it can be tough—or overwhelming. Don’t beat yourself up for losing your bees. The fact that you’ve been trying for five or six years shows plenty of stick-to-itiveness, and that is commendable.

Honey bee are not endangered

You said that, initially, keeping honey bees was your answer to saving the world. That’s a common thought, and I’m sure you realize by now that it’s not true. Many of us know that, if anything, honey bees can displace the native bees in some areas, competing for resources.

Too many honey bees can have a negative effect in many environments because honey bees don’t pollinate all the plants that need pollination. Yet, the honey bees may hoard enough of the nectar resources that native bees can’t survive to pollinate those other plants.

Pollen resources vs nectar resources, native bees vs honey bees, agricultural crops vs wild plants are complex subjects that aren’t fully understood. But the one thing we do know is that honey bees are in no way endangered. Honey bees are livestock like chickens and goats, and just as you wouldn’t keep chickens to protect songbirds, keeping honey bees does nothing to protect our wild pollinators.

The native bee alternative

With that thought in mind, and because you are interested in the environment, perhaps you could turn your attention to native bees instead. Learning to identify them, providing nesting habitats in the ground or in boxes, and planting the types of flowers they need can give you the opportunity to care for bees without the complications of taking care of a highly needy species.

Whatever you decide, you should follow your heart. If you want to try again, go ahead, but if you want to quit, don’t feel bad. Instead, move on. Our remaining environments and our remaining wildlife need much support. Surely your efforts could be both helpful and satisfying without driving you crazy.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Old blue beehive in an orchard. Only you can decide when it's time to quit.
Only you can decide when it’s time to quit. Pixabay image.

58 Comments

  • Also in Washington State. Also, find myself this winter pondering the same questions. Losing hives after an exciting spring and summer watching them flourish, being able to successfully split one without needing to purchase a new queen for the split, and treating them “by the books” is as disheartening as losing our companion livestock over the years. They are all livestock, and it hurts…it’s supposed to hurt I think.

    • I have lost my the best colony this winter, and I feel like one of my family member passed away 🙁 It was my fault and I learned a lot from that.

  • I’m entering my second year and I’m still not really sure if this is for me or not.

    Last year was full of learning, stress, and enjoyment.

    I find I enjoy watching the bees go in and out of the hive as much, if not more, than I do opening up the hive and poking around inside.

    I’ve also found that I enjoy making at least some of the woodenware that is useful to have around. Shims, inner covers used for feeding, etc. I’m not a woodworker at all but I find this enjoyable.

    Sadly, my bees did not make it through the winter. It’s a warm-ish day here (around 45 degrees) with the sun shining brightly and no activity around the hive at all. They haven’t brought out any dead bees in more than a week and I fear they are gone.

    I’m planning on 2 hives this year and we’ll see how it goes. I’d love to get some honey for my own personal use (that is one of my goals) but I mostly want to go into next winter with large, vibrant colonies who can survive a midwestern winter.

    I guess I’ll go from there and see how I feel about it after another year of effort and enjoyment.

  • I also treated four times this year—twice Apiguard, twice Formic Pro—and three of my four colonies were already dead in December. EastHive is Not Dead Yet. I just hope she lives long enough to split in the spring.
    I always appreciate how very much you DON’T beat anybody up for their bad management. I’m perfectly capable of beating up my own self, thank you very much.

    I know it’s not best practice, but I’ve already ordered two packages for the spring, in case EastHive doesn’t make it. I’m discouraged, but not discouraged enough to be sensible and find a cheaper hobby.

    Off topic, you know how we all know the difference between ‘hive’ and ‘colony’, but we get sloppy. I was perfectly happy to write that three of my four hives were dead until I went on to hope that ‘she lives.’ Then I had to go back to correct ‘hive’ to ‘colony’. I guess I could cope with manmade structures dying, but not with them living.

  • Rusty, this is the most balanced response that I have read anywhere. I am also a former newbee who quit after five years. American foulbrood, the heartache of drowning my bees and burning my equipment, and the helplessness of not knowing how my bees were infected, was what did me in, but I was already demoralized by how much energy had to go into treating varroa mites. I don’t regret the awesome experience of working intimately with my hives, and it sensitized me to the urgency of supplying the organic forage that all bees need. Now I am a “bee rancher,” focused on working with others in my community to get to know our native bees and supplying what they need.

  • I am pondering the same question. If any of my bees make it through the winter, this spring will be my 4th year. My father kept bees back before varroa and it is so different now. I hate giving up. I hate the idea of not being a beekeeper. I also hate throwing good money after bad. It isn’t as fun as I thought it would be either, all the chemicals and treatments have taken the joy out of it for me. I have not ordered any new packages or nucs. If any of my colonies make it I will soldier on. If all fail I will put my heart elsewhere, someplace safer perhaps, where it won’t get broken so often. At least with my dogs/cats, I can reasonably expect 15 years…

  • It is so comforting to read that others have the same feelings I have. It validates my experiences.
    Thank you, Rusty, for your reply. Even if I give my bees up, I will continue to read your articles just because I like you.

  • Last winter 19/20 was the first time in 6 years of beekeeping that one of my colonies died. It upset me. Not just because it feels like I failed, but also because the living organism inside the hive perished. Seeing the dead queen on a frame surrounded by 20 or so dead workers was heartbreaking. But I love beekeeping. Through the spring of 2020 I caught TWO hives in separate hive traps. That feeling was wonderful. Like a holy grail. I even accepted a free colony from a friend in the city. I have goals every year I want to experience while beekeeping. I have yet to witness a feral hive in the woods. That’s next on my bucket list. It keeps this hobby interesting for me. Bee lining in 2021.

  • I agree with every single word you wrote. Let’s all ‘save the planet’ and get bees. I am so sick of hearing this. How many bees die yearly because people want to ‘save the planet,’ get bees with absolutely no knowledge and kill them every single year, if not sooner. They are like “Disney Dogs”. Beekeeping is NOT easy. It’s mentally depleting trying to keep the little brats alive winter after winter with all the perils, both environmental and human. Anymore, it’s like a full-time job. Unfortunately, viruses are here to stay and the bees will continue to have to fight them. Adapt or perish. Such is the way of this world. To keep bees, one has to be super tuff to take all the heartbreak that goes with beekeeping. I know because I have gone thru years of heartbreak watching them die off after trying so desperately to keep them alive. One must really ‘harden their heart’ to do any kind of bee or animal work with all the stressors out there. Regards.

  • Rusty, so glad for your posting, many need to hear what you’re saying. There’s more than honey and honey bees. Trying to be a good steward to the land and each other and there are some beautiful native bees out there. Thank you.

  • Rusty, thanks as well. I’ve been doing this for 5-6 years now as well, have had zero luck with honey production, zero luck with overwintering, etc. While I’m not glad to hear of others who are feeling the same way that I am, it’s at least comforting that I’m not alone.

  • I would say go to your local beekeeping association and learn from those experienced raising bees in your area. I agree with Rusty in the statement that if you want to stop keeping bees it is not something to feel ashamed of, it is disappointing to suffer winter losses but keep going if you love it and can afford it.

    If you wish to continue I can tell you there is a way in your area to get bees through the winter. You just need to get help from neighbor beekeepers in techniques to do this. Varroa control is definitely one of the keys to doing this. I am from North Carolina so we do not have to do any hive wraps or extra thermal control measures. We have to reduce entrances and provide some method to make sure moisture is under control, plus varroa control.

    We do have colony collapse disorder (CCD) and winter losses due to many reasons, but I believe our average loss is 30% or 40% currently. I just finished my 2nd year unless you say the beekeeping calendar starts in August like I’ve heard experienced beekeepers say. My first year I got all 5 colonies through winters and this past season I have grown to 11 colonies. It is Feb and I currently see activity in all but one colony and that colony absconded in December. Strange since it was very cold, I assume the queen died and the bees may have slowly drifted to other colonies. Not sure since I would call this CCD since I saw no dead bees in the hive at all. They had honey in frames still. Unlike your area, our bees always get warm spells where they can move honey. I’m still not through winter one of our issues is our bees are so active they actually can use all their stores. I tried to supplement this with the mountain camp sugar technique. I do see a few colonies that look weak to me. I’m hoping to make it to the end of Feb with only the one loss.

    I watch a lot of Youtube channels and attend my local beekeeper association meetings. I try to make sure on Youtube that I relate the lessons to the area in which the beekeeper’s climate. You can still apply lessons from northern beekeepers to keeping bees in the south, but you need to realize that you need to keep bees based on your climate.

    Hopefully pesticides and other beekeepers not treating is not causing your issue.

    I say keep going until you feel it’s time to give up, but don’t feel it is all your fault. There could be external circumstances causing your losses. I would ask a local beekeeper from your association to act as a mentor and help you figure it out. One of our members doesn’t even keep bees at home anymore, but he does manage a club colony at our community garden.

  • Rusty,

    Thanks as always for your insightful posts. My wife is a biologist who couldn’t agree more with your last two sections. As a result, she looks at my new hobby with a bit of a jaundiced eye and questions whether the bees, meaning native bees, wouldn’t be better off if I put my time and resources to their conservation rather than honey bees.

    The OP did not mention how many colonies they had, but as someone who likely will never have more than three at anytime, I know that I am always going to be living on the edge in terms of colony survival. I don’t have the law of large numbers on my side and the few colonies I have won’t allow me much forgiveness if my management is not up to snuff nor enough resources if I need to trade between colonies.

    I do tend to pester more experienced beekeepers with a running list of questions, but it’s because my margin of error is so small. I think that is what drives most hobbyist’s neurosis’.

    Still I do enjoy the challenge and most especially enjoy watching the bees depart with vigor from the hive during a summer day. Until that magic disappears, I suspect I’ll continue to muscle through the inevitable die offs and mite issues.

    Thanks,
    Kevin

  • I’ve been keeping bees for 5 years now and I have been discussing with my wife the notion of hanging up my veil. I find great joy when things are going good, a queen gets mated, or when the honey foraging is going gang-busters, but most of the time I find myself worrying about them. This time of year it’s “did I feed them enough?” or “did I chill the brood when opening them in the cold?” and “did I bundle them up enough for winter?”

    I am extremely passionate about honeybees and all living creatures really, but when I second guess every move I make while beekeeping I wonder if it’s really adding anything to my life, or are the stresses involved outweighing the gratifications.

    I’m not sure what path I will take in the future, but I am grateful to have worked with nature and witnessed its beauty, hands-on.

  • This is addressed to the original poster in Blaine, WA. I live near St. Maries, ID. I am also a fairly new and so far unsuccessful beekeeper. I’ve lost 3 hives in succession. The first hive loss (I suppose I should be saying, “colony”) I attributed to my mentor flaking out on me. The next two losses had me baffled for a while until I finally made a connection that was confirmed by my new mentor: The losses were due to my husband’s persistent herbicide use. We’d had the conversation multiple times over the years. He assured me that he was careful in his application. He would say that he checked and there were no bees in the area at the time of application (that’s a silly one!). He would say that he sprayed far from the hive. I tried to make him understand that bees can have a range of up to two miles. And so on. This summer my bees went from a busy hive entrance one day to a pile of dead bees the next. Massive die off. When my new mentor inspected my dead bees and backed me up, my husband finally capitulated. And yes, he is still alive! I’ve found a recipe for a homemade herbicide that a professional beekeeper has told me won’t harm the bees unless I spray it directly on them and they drown. I’ve demonstrated to hubby that this spray works quite well on both hawkweed and cockle burrs, so he has promised no more commercial herbicide use. And yes, I plan to get another package of bees this spring and try it once again. Beekeeping is definitely a challenge right now. Even my new mentor, who has had bees for over 30 years, says he’s never experienced die-off like he has the last couple of years. I’m going to try one more time, and if the colony fails again, I’ll hang up my beekeeping hat, at least as far as honey bees go.

    Rusty’s response to you was excellent, and I agreed with nearly everything she said. I do believe that while overall honey bees may not be endangered, in some specific areas they are. Until I started beekeeping, I was seeing bumble bees each summer, but I hadn’t seen a regular bee for years. We are in a logging area and for years the timber companies engaged in aerial spraying for harmful insects and for brush. So our native bees are badly depleted. I was somewhat heartened, and at the same time saddened, when what was left of my hive this fall was discovered by robber bees. I have no idea if they were native bees or bees from someone’s domestic hive that had found their way here. They were darker than my Italian bees and had pointier abdomens. I’m hopeful (thus somewhat heartened) that they were native bees. My mentor and I are going to try Italian/Carniolan-cross bees this time, as they are supposed to survive winters better than the Italians. I dearly love the calmness and productivity of the Italians, but they just don’t seem to be able to handle our winters here. The Carniolans are more aggressive and less productive but are sturdier. The cross bees hopefully have the best of both strains. If this year’s colony fails, then I will do as Rusty suggested and turn my attention to providing an environment helpful to whatever native bees I may have living here. I have no idea what the nesting needs would be for native bees, but I’m sure that can be researched.

    To new beekeepers that are looking forward to their first honey harvest, I recommend that you don’t harvest the first year. Let the bees have it to strengthen the colony over winter. My flaky first mentor encouraged me to harvest honey the first fall and was thrilled that I got 2 1/2 gallons. (Those Italians!) In retrospect, I believe that my beloved first hive starved to death.

    Yes, beekeeping is difficult, frustrating, and heartbreaking, but only you can decide when and if to call it quits. Even though I’ve so far lost every colony, each summer brought me joy as I sat at the hive entrance and watched my ladies busily bringing pollen and nectar to the colony. As my little stained glass sign near my hive says, “Bee Happy!”

  • I’ve been struggling with beekeeping as of late. I find that I am stressing myself out second-guessing my actions and tactics when it comes to bees. It seems like the more I have vested in it, the more it consumes my life. I told my wife that at this point I may just hang up my veil.

    When things are good, like when queens get successfully mated or when the nectar is flowing and the bees are going gangbusters, I find beekeeping very gratifying, but when things go south, or when uncertainty sets in with a strange situation, I get frustrated and can easily lose sleep over it.

    Just this week, I opened a couple of colonies here in NH to feed sugar cakes and thought to myself afterward that “What if I chilled some brood?” and “what if I disturbed the cluster?” I have a hard time executing actions and not thinking I should have done it differently.

    In my first few years of beekeeping, I only had a couple of colonies and failure didn’t set me back much financially or psychologically. This past year with a break from work with Covid leave, I stepped up my game, made some splits, and spent a lot of time making boxes, frames, and various beekeeping gadgets. Having successfully become a “sustainable” apiary made me very proud.

    Now I feel that I moved too fast. I am a mechanical designer, and I work lots of hours. We also started planting heirloom apple trees 7 years ago and currently have over 100 trees to take care of. I’m not sure that I can manage these things with bees in the mix and adding another degree of commitment, and at times stress.

    I do really appreciate your blog, Rusty. I’ve followed it for years, it is great material and your lighthearted spin on things is always refreshing and thought-provoking. Keep doing what you do, I’m just not sure if I will.

    • Tyler,

      If it’s any consolation, I always go through the same thing, second-guessing myself. But it’s really the mites that get to me. I didn’t go into beekeeping to become a part-time exterminator, but that’s what it feels like sometimes. And I find no enjoyment in sending toxins into my beehives. It’s just not something I find rewarding.

    • Hi Tyler,
      Just wondering what part of NH you’re in? I’m just north of Concord, NH and thinking of getting into beekeeping. But I wonder if it’s a good area. Anyway, I wish you luck!

  • I’ve been raising bees since 1954 and I have never encouraged someone to quit raising bees. Blaine Washington was asking for help, not trying to get someone to agree with her to quit. She was showing that she had a real passion for bees and was asking for help. All of us in the industry have had failures, but to be successful you don’t quit. You find out what you are doing wrong and fix it. She needs to be mentored, not told to quit. She needs education not walking off with her head down excepting failure. Give her my email and I will walk her through a year of beekeeping, not behaving.

  • I quit two years ago. I was heartbroken that I had found so many ways to kill my colonies. I took too much honey in the early days and starved my girls. I did not treat for mites and killed my girls. I did everything you can do that was wrong. Over and over. BUT two years ago, we had a generous honey flow and set aside three frames scraped with a lot of honey residue and one frame of honey which has been in the freezer for two years now. Last spring (very early for swarms) a swarm moved into one of our dead hives. They were wonderful. Active, numerous, everything one would want in a colony!

    Guess what? It hit 52 today (Western Oregon) and the girls are flying like crazy. So, tomorrow, February 6, I am adding a super with 6 empty frames, one full frame of honey, and 3 scraped frames with a lot of residue. I am back! So are our babies. I thank you for your rational, cogent posts. You are the best.

  • I love your balanced response. I empathize with the heartache of keeping honey bees as I have years of animal rescue experience (Also a vortex of expenses and heartache). I see this from the other side of the fence as I started a native bee sanctuary many years before famous people mistakenly encouraged thousands to keep domestic bees to “save the planet”. The many years of frustration and effort, planting and maintaining diverse flowers for native bees only to have neighbours with no bee forage setting up hives. At first, I did not have the heart to kill the honey bees stealing my resources. I followed them back to their hives and tried to talk to the beekeepers about planting organic flowers. After a few years of being treated like an annoying nutbar, I had no choice. Spending my days killing honey bees to protect my native bee forage was not what I had in mind for a hobby. After 18 years, I finally gave up the native bee sanctuary and sold it to become a parking lot. Looks ugly as hell but a lot less heartache.

  • Rusty,

    Your article was so very well put and, as always, I enjoy the comments almost as much (especially Granny Roberts). This hobby is so much more difficult and time/thought/resource-consuming than I imagined, and becomes more so every year. As I near retirement I can say that as a hobby, it’s better suited to someone with lots of free time. And despite all the promotion of urban beekeeping, living away from other people should reduce some of the problems that afflict colonies kept in town.

  • After many years of beekeeping, I almost quit the year before last. I had lost ALL of my hives that winter. I was so discouraged. Spring came and I decided to find people whose bees were surviving the winter and copy them. The biggest thing I learned was it was not enough to treat (I had faithfully done that). You have to know how many mites your bees still have. I do that by counting after I treat until less than 5 mites fall. Last year 7/7 hives survived and thrived. This year I have 14 and so far they are alive but I treated up to 12 times with OAV. Mites were really bad last year. I totally get the feelings you have after they die. If you would love to keep them if you knew they’d live, find someone who can help you keep them alive. They are out there.

  • I’d encourage you to continue, but with some support. There’s likely some element that isn’t being addressed, and a local mentor could be of help. I’m down in Portland OR, so, a bit more hospitable habitat, but still 6 months of constant rain in the winter. I’ve run between 2 and 8 hives each winter and have been fortunate to lose only one, to a shrew. I’ve made a multitude of mistakes, but managed to bail the girls out with a mixture of luck and the help of those more experienced. You’ll not save the bees or save the world, but if you find success you’ll find reward in your efforts. I think that many of us, if you were to provide more detail regarding your management and of the problems encountered, could give you some insight as to where your problems are arising. Don’t hesitate to continue asking for help. PM me if I can help. Pchristu@gmail.com

  • Rusty, I’m so glad you continued beekeeping because I learn so much from your blog posts. I have been keeping bees, in one form or another, for 7 years. Like many of the other comments, I have had success and failures — but, through the years, it has taught me patience, problem-solving, and absolute awe for these magnificent creatures.

    The first year, I killed my own strong colony, because I didn’t realize you had to remove the queen excluder in winter. I nearly quit that year out of shame and sadness. However, I decided to start again with 2 hives, which eventually grew to 7 hives — yes, I caught a few swarms. Now, I’m down to 1 hive again. This time, it is a top bar hive with incorrectly spaced top bars. Needless to say, I cannot remove any frames because of how expertly the bees fill all spaces with wax. They seem to be thriving on their own, but that had not always been the case with my other hives. So, every year is different. and that is why beekeepers get together (virtually or socially distanced, of course!) and tirelessly talk about bees and beekeeping for hours on end. Years ago, I had lunch with a beekeeper friend, and we talked about beekeeping for about 4 hours before we politely, but quickly, inquired about each other’s family — then we resumed our bee talk. Again, thank you Rusty, and best wishes to our beekeeper friend in Blaine, WA.

    P.S. I used to live in Port Townsend, WA…lovely country.

    • Linda,

      Just a comment: The queen excluder should have made no difference. The bottom of my candyboards are made with a queen excluder, because I want the queen to stay down in the brood area. The retriever bees go through the excluder, get the food, and take it down to the brood area. I’ve had many winters where I’ve overwintered all my colonies with this method, and many other people use it too. So stop blaming yourself. As long as the workers had access to food through the excluder, you did not kill them. It was something else.

  • Hi Rusty. First I’d like to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your beautiful writing. Your articles in 2 Million Blossoms about dahlias and sawflies and this post of yours up above are some fine stuff.

    This will be long, so sorry about that ahead of time. We had some warmer days last week, so I sat by my two top bar hives to observe. These were packages last spring. The colony I had to requeen during last summer was flying well. The other, much stronger colony throughout last year, is dead. The cluster was stuck on combs and piled up on the bottom board. The volume could be estimated to be about 2 quarts worth of bodies. Horribly sad for me.

    I came in the house, sat down, opened your blog, and this post appeared. Perfect timing for me.

    As I cleaned up the frames, I realized I was seeing many many dead varroa mites in the bottom debris. Mites in the litter, mites on dead bees.

    Of course, I’m wondering, “What’s the point to keeping bees if they won’t overwinter?” There are plenty of stores, 6 full frames of honey, many more frames with honey around the edges, pollen, approximately 40 capped and emerging bees.

    I smoked twice last summer with oxalic acid, May and June. I treated with Apiguard, two doses in September. I broke open hundreds of capped drone cells late in summer and looked for mites in several of them without seeing a mite.

    Final observations were the workers were discharging living and dying drones in October. This seemed rather late. The colony was quite strong all year, drawing 17 frames of comb from the bare top bars. In August I took two frames of worker brood from this hive and installed them in the hive that I requeened to give them help building up.

    Any suggestions for tweaking or radically changing my management? Friends and neighbors have lost their bees to mites these last years. The colony that died for me was intent on trying to rob my other colony. I suppose they visited some mite bombs elsewhere in their flying range.

    Thanks once again for the comforting post above. More than anything, I love to sit in front of the hives, watching the comings and goings. I enjoy “working” the hives, too, but I’d rather not disturb them except when I sense it’s necessary.

    It surely was easier back in the 1980s when I had 30 hives that I could visit, take honey, close up for winter, revisit in spring, smile all the while. Nowadays I find I’m frowning just a bit too much.

    • Roger,

      According to some of the commenters, I should be encouraging you to keep on. But you’re obviously an experienced beekeeper. The problem, I think, is the mites are winning. When I read that some people are treating 12 times a year, it takes my breath away. Then last week I read that some people are using a once-a-week oxalic fogging protocol. I know that I will not treat 12 times a year, let alone once a week. To me (and I realize this is a personal thing) it doesn’t seem fair to keep bees alive by continually fogging them with acid. Maybe it doesn’t bother them, but maybe it does. Do we really know? I don’t want to keep an animal alive just so I can torture it.

      People assume that bees don’t feel pain or discomfort from these processes, but I don’t have any proof one way or the other. Treating three or four times a year seems like it might be a fair trade-off, but I don’t really know that either. We are doing a lot of guessing.

      I too am mostly a hands-off beekeeper, interfering as little as possible in their lives, but that no longer seems possible. And certainly, I won’t encourage someone to keep going if they feel conflicted in any way. Our attitude toward other living things is deeply personal, and I think being too encouraging is just as bad as not being encouraging enough. We must each find our own way.

      • The mites are definitely winning. Randy picks ~30 hives/yr from his 1200 that prove most resistant to varroa and grafts queens from those hives. The process requires constant testing (he prefers alcohol washes) and culling. Resulting nucs run $260 a pop. While it seems effective on paper, I’m curious how long the resistance holds up when bees are moved out of such a controlled environment into the hands of someone who expects a magic fix. Btw, I treated 4x last year – one Apistan cycle, one Formic Pro, and two OA/glycerine-soaked cellulite sponges (Randy’s new miracle cure) – and then only when I saw significantly higher mite drop. Less is more IMHO.

  • I love the old hive pic. Wonder when the last time it was inspected. Anyway, in my first year, I lost 1 of my 2. I remember the feeling. I bought 2 more packages the second year and lost one that winter. In my 3rd year, I bought 2 nucs and tried making splits increasing to 6 hives. When I lost 4 of the 6 that year I felt like an utter failure. I decided I needed to make it sustainable somehow because new bees are very expensive. In my fourth year, I bought 4 more packages and increased back to 6 hives. I discovered Michael Palmer’s videos on sustainable beekeeping that gave me the information I needed. He is in Vermont and I live in Western Montana. I created 4 nucs that summer and overwintered all 6 and 3 nucs. My sixth year (last year) all 6 hives and 1 nuc swarmed and I increased to 14 hives. During last fall’s inspections, I discovered my long lang hive was queenless. Within a few minutes, I was able to requeen that hive with a 4 frame nuc and a young queen. As you say Rusty, easy peasy. So now I am trying to downsize back to 6 hives.

  • Rusty, thank you so much for your reply to my post from a couple of days ago. It does seem to me that we share both the scientific observational approach and the emotional humanist love for living critters.

  • My first year I went into winter with 5 colonies and came out with 5 colonies. I felt like a beginner superman.

    My second year (this winter) I went into winter with 9 colonies and two nucs. I have one colony disappear at the end of January (CCD). I have no dead bees and there was honey in the super they just left. I have one other colony that is hanging on low populations. I just checked my two nucs 1 side was empty the other side full of bees. I didn’t see the queen or eggs hopefully I’m just blind.

    At this point in 2021, I have 7 strong colonies 1 weak colony. I combined my 2 nucs to 1 and I am hoping for a queen. If it ever stops raining and warms up to the mid-50s again, I’m going to look for the queen again and if I don’t see her I’ll combine the nuc with the weak colony.

    I did thinking about swiping some bees from the stronger colonies if the nuc is still viable and give those to the weak colony.

    I try not to feel like a failure. It is just lessons learned I hope. But since I am calling it CCD I don’t know what my lesson is, LOL.

    I treated for mites in Dec. with oxalic acid vapor and I treated in fall.

    I’m just venting into the void. Hopefully, we will have a beautiful spring and I can build back up. My neighbors might revolt if I grow over 12 colonies.

  • You can sugar shake them and it doesn’t kill bees. I assume they get dizzy. You only need to treat if the mite count is high.

  • We have a problem. Our vital colony consists of a deep lower with frames. We have two supers without frames and a third super with frames. How? Well, in 2019 we had a wonderful colony. We harvested a reasonable honey crop and buttoned them up thinking all was well. We put one full frame and three scraped frames in the freezer. THEN, some raiders stopped by and found our girls resting on their laurels, wearing housecoats and playing bunco, with tons of honey in the attic. Long story short, before I realized it (not too bright) our colony had been raided, killed, destroyed, robbed and finished off. So, we salvaged what we could, had a ceremony for the departed, and left it all sitting there. What we left was a deep with frames and two supers without frames. We intended to put frames in the supers before swarm season. (Usually May 1 or so, here.) A swarm moved in late April (amazing). The problem is that we now have our most successful (ever) colony but it is a mess. Just put a third super on top with frames, added the full frame and the three scraped frames, plus six clean frames. The bees are going crazy any time it hits 50 F. I have done everything wrong and am (apparently) a huge success at long last. How can I ever fix this nightmare? Oh, I have an engineer joke if you want to hear it.

  • Keeping bees is difficult enough without all the factors that can go into managing hives in various climates and locales. Your response is great. I think the best thing we can do for new beekeepers is to keep providing practical and proven information to them and encourage them to find a seasoned beekeeper local to them. There are many internet beekeeping “influencers” whose information has killed many new beekeepers’ hives because their methods are not applicable to anyone else.

  • Rusty,

    Thank you thank you, thank you I can now finally make a real fondant for my bees!😊 I had tried three other recipes and they all came out crumbly but you know how to do it right I am so pleased to thank you again.

    This is my second winter. I started with one hive and now I have three from splits. I am trying to get them to build up more honey but I guess that takes time. I did lose one swarm and I keep wondering if they are the ones that I saw on the news that had landed on a beach towel (had a floral print) in the summer in a crowded beach.

  • I thought my hive died back in December when I was getting no heat images from my FLIR one thermal image camera. I pulled the cover off yesterday 2/22/2021 and sure enough, they did not make it. We did have a very bad drought last year and, I notice in the fall they were not bringing much in. The two deep boxes are heavy with honey. I may extract it this coming weekend. I have a friend about 4 miles from me and he lost 3 out of his 4 hives. He said the same. He believes the drought may have had an impact on them. This is in eastern Massachusetts.

    • Hmm. Drought usually leaves the bees with no stores because water-starved plants don’t produce much nectar. But with two deep boxes full of honey, it doesn’t sound like drought was the problem. Did they have any pollen stores?

  • The successful beekeepers I know keep records of mite samples and treatments on their colonies and they read to learn as much as possible about beekeeping: American Bee Journal, Bee Culture Magazine, Dewey Caron’s Honey Bee Biology, The Hive and the Honey Bee, Swarm Essentials, Increase Essentials, The Buzz about Bees, Honeybee Democracy to name just a few journals and books plus Randy Oliver’s Scientific Beekeeping and this website. If you are not reading about honey bees and how to become a better beekeeper, you will probably keep losing bees.

  • Love the old hive.

    One thing I am learning in my fourth year is you do not have to inspect the hive every month. It creates too much of a disturbance. And in the tropics of Australia at this time of year, it is almost impossible to put a suit on without experiencing some form of heatstroke. We are lucky here as Varroa has not yet arrived.

    If and when it does a lot of beekeepers will pull the pin. Those that battle on may and should reap the rewards. Anyway, I’m starting to sound like that old hive.

    Cheers from Cairns.

    • Mykl,

      I agree on inspection frequency. I make sure I can state my specific reason for inspecting before I do it. If I can’t state a clear reason, I don’t do it.

  • I’m also in western WA. I’ve had bees for six years. I had beginner’s luck the first two winters and did not lose a colony. Since then, not so good. I went into this winter with two hives, Last weekend, I noticed that one of the two is dead. Just bums me out 🙁 I treat for varroa, also using your winter blanket design this year in both hives.

  • It’s increasingly difficult for laypersons (e.g., hobbyists) to keep bees. I retired after 36+ years at a federal R&D lab in northern CA in a completely unrelated scientific field, having taken up beekeeping only a few years ago. While I find it fascinating, challenging, and yes at times frustrating, I can’t imagine how anyone without a scientific background can comprehend the ever-growing glut of information regarding integrated pest management.

    Gone are the days where bees could self-manage in a makeshift environment without constant monitoring. Now successful beekeepers must have significant expertise in (or at minimum be able to successfully comprehend) entomology, microbiology, chemistry, botany, meteorology, and geography.

    As an example, I got four bee-related emails yesterday. Of the four, one was Randy Oliver’s latest data on selective breeding for varroa resistance and another was from my local beekeepers’ group re- an upcoming zoom on microbiota in the honey bee gut and its effect on pathogens. (One was yours, prompting me to write this.) Far be it from the dedicated and well-meaning hobbyist to understand half of what Randy posts on his site, while the topic alone of my group’s zoom would intimidate a good many newcomers with the best of intentions.

    There is no easy fix. IPM is real, as are the effects of climate change and a myriad of other entities affecting bees and bee management. While this is no excuse for lack of education, dedication, or demonstrated ability, it’s a shame things can’t be easier for the small apiarist.

  • Keeping bees is an art and being able to read what’s going on can’t always be taught. If beekeeping is no longer fun and enjoyable then why should someone want to continue on? It isn’t for everyone and one must learn to live with losses and try to figure out how to overcome our shortcomings. I don’t treat for mites and never have. If I had to treat I would quit, no desire in creating weaker bees and stronger mites. Part of the problem in beekeeping is Lang equipment, designed for migratory beekeepers. Long Langs and Warre to me are a more natural way bees use the space and I think are less confusing for a beekeeper.

    • This was my second winter with beekeeping and I am very interested in the long Lang. Do you know how it compares when it comes to robbing? There seem to be neighboring bees whether they’re native or not I don’t know but they’re making it a routine stop at my hives even though I have grown to three, from 1 to 3 hives, (with not much honey) and I really hate using any treatments on them. The only thing I have done is some patties with essential oils and one time with the oxalic and I really prefer not to use anything.

      • Lilli,

        I don’t think robbing has much to do with the type of hive you have. It occurs whenever bees find a colony weak enough to invade, so keeping a strong, healthy colony is the first defense against robbing. Additionally, you can buy or make robbing screens. I use robbing screens year-round so I don’t have to worry about it.

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