Overwintering in San Francisco
A couple of weeks ago the San Francisco Beekeeper’s Association offered a class on overwintering at the Randall Museum. As a new member of the SFBA as well as a new beekeeper, I was excited to spend the afternoon with “my people”.
I have only attended a few SFBA meetings so far, but I’m really impressed with the diversity and passion of the group. It’s great to see people with different perspectives on beekeeping involved in constructive dialogue.
At the overwintering class, I was most interested in learning about the signs that indicate the colony is preparing for winter. I learned that the colony will begin to store honey in comb formerly used to raise brood and that the size of the brood nest will shrink – the queen laying less eggs during this time of year. The decrease in numbers will necessitate less space, and the colony will not draw new comb. All of these signs were consistent with what I observed about a week prior while inspecting the hive. At that time, I removed the two empty frames I’d added on a previous inspection – it was clear that the bees were done building for the year.
Now is the time of year when the beekeeper is faced with some difficult decisions. Fewer numbers in the hive mean a weaker line of defense against pests and disease. This is when losses occur – colonies often become overwhelmed by a number of threats from pests and parasites to bacterial and viral diseases. Perhaps the most insidious of these threats is that of the Varroa mite.
The Varroa is a parasitic mite that was first identified in American bees in 1987. It feeds on the bees in all stages of life and is a carrier of the Deformed Wing Virus, which inhibits a bees ability to fly and, therefore, to forage. Since its discovery in the United States, Varroa has decimated multitudes of colonies and has been at the forefront of conversations about management. In the spring and summer, Varroa does not pose much of a threat, as the colony is generally strong enough to combat it. Growing mite populations can overtake a hive preparing for winter, however, and destroy the colony.
As the days grow shorter and colder and I watch my colonies become smaller and less active, my thoughts turn to the Varroa mite and my philosophy of a more holistic form of apiculture is seriously challenged. There is of course concern that I will be seen as an irresponsible beekeeper by my peers if I choose not to treat for mites but more than that: I do not want my bees to die.
Up until this point I have tried to provide them with the most natural and loving environment I could. They have freely built natural comb and arranged their hives however they have seen fit. I have not used queen excluders or cut out drone comb. I have not taken a single frame of honey. I have performed inspections with the utmost care and without the use of smoke so as to disturb them as little as possible. Finally, I have refused to treat them with any chemicals, natural or otherwise.
There are times when I really want to intervene – when ants attacked my colony at home a few weeks ago I stood by, nervously biting my nails, waiting to see if the bees could effectively fight back on their own (they did). I had a moment of panic when they told us at the Overwintering class that a colony not treated for mites had a less than 50% chance of surviving the winter.
So why won’t I treat?
I am learning – slowly – that oftentimes that which seems to be the best course of action in the immediate moment can have disastrous effects in the long term. In 1923, Rudolph Steiner warned us that the mechanization of natural processes performed in the hive would have catastrophic effects in 80 to 100 years. Eighty-three years after Steiner delivered his now famous lectures on the honey-bee, American beekeepers were hit with crippling losses – an epidemic that came to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). While the cause of CCD is still somewhat of a mystery, it is difficult to ignore Steiner’s prediction. Is it true that we are gradually making ourselves into the architects of our own demise? Isn’t there something terribly wrong when the bees can no longer navigate the changing seasons without our “help”? Are we weakening the bees while at the same time, creating stronger mites, more resistant to all of the chemicals we throw at them year after year?
While it may be true that colonies treated for mites have a better chance of surviving this winter than those which go untreated, it is my belief that the survival of the species on the whole in the long term is dependent upon its ability to develop stable bee-mite relationships on their own. Recent studies show that this is happening in feral colonies (Seeley). If this is true, should we not encourage our own bees to foster such relationships? Here in San Francisco, the mild winters and available forage throughout these cold and rainy months provide us with an ideal proving ground for a new approach to living with bees.
Seeley, Thomas.“Honey bees of the Arnot Forest: a population of feral colonies persisting with Varroa destructor in the northeastern United States.” Apidology. Cornell University, 29/11/20016. Web. 7 Nov 2011.