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.
Honey Bee Suite