75% of swarms in nature ‘fail’ as do first year beekeepers. A few leaders in our beekeeping community invited me to share my first year ‘fail’ [victory!] in efforts to help other new folks and I thought you guys might enjoy learning something too.
Murder mystery theatre! Bee-style
My first year hives were bubbling over with bees and overnight had a *massive* die off [Sept 2021 Vlog: Buzzkill]. I sent several cups of dead bees and wax to the Cornell Entomology lab. Results showed the main culprit was a combination of apivar build up and pesticide.
“One thing of note is the high value of DMPF in the wax from the dead hive. DMPF is a breakdown product of amitraz, so I’m guessing you may have treated your bees with Apivar a short time before taking the sample from the dead hive? Amitraz is…well-known to synergize with other pesticides and increase its toxicity to bees.” - Cornell lab
The supplier’s-supplier verified to me and to others they do treat with apivar. Wait, What? How could this be? I thought I bought “treatment free” bees and no one in the 2000 acre radius uses pesticides (yes I called my neighbors and our county officials to inquire). Huge bummer, but a lesson that has given me the opportunity to learn more about treatment free beekeeping.
In fairness, I am not condemning those who opt to treat bees with apivar. Simply- my personal goals are to run a treatment free backyard operation with transparency and integrity for our bees, honey, food, ecosystem, and hive products. I don’t want apivar in my honey or in my soil. And I don’t want to weaken bees' natural resistance against varroa (thereby helping varroa grow stronger).
***Takeaways from my experience***
1. If you’re in your first year, and your colonies failed—it may not have been your fault. The bees may have come to you looking healthy—but silently suffering as toxic chemicals are building up in their home. Apivar builds up in frames over time and if met with even a very trace amount of fungicides causes a chemical reaction that kills massive amounts of bees.
2. While VSH Queens help establish good genetics, it’s *not enough* to ReQueen a treated colony that came with chem-wax frames.
3. It’s also not enough to trade out old frames of treated comb. Wax is lipophilic and acts as the superorganism's liver to filter. The bees themselves can carry toxins and spread them to the new honey cells, wax, and fruiting plants/food supply. For example: our blossoming elder tree also had black wilted flowers the day of the massive die off (the tree recovered).
4. We don’t live in a 100% chem-free world. But we can’t claim to have organic farm operations and TF honey products with previously treated bees/comb onsite. And how do we know the honey/wax products used for health, wellness, and food purposes are “ok”?
5. If you want to have a treatment free bee / honey and farm operation, it’s important to ask your supplier enough correct questions to really understand what you’re getting—so you know how to manage your livestock accordingly. What state are they coming from? What have they been treated with? How often do they trade the frames out? What is their survival rate? (I have a huge list of questions now and am happy to share with anyone).
**Here’s what I did last Fall that worked in my colonies best interest**
1. I combined the 2 suffering colonies into one [here's how I did it].
2. I combined most of that combo with a local feral cutout colony on non-treated comb. This is thanks to the generosity and kindness of a fellow beekeeping leader in the Big Country club who donated the cut out. I fed sugar syrup 1:1. So far so good!
3. The remaining frames of bees I left Queenless in a second box with emergency sugar syrup and wished them luck. They made it!
4. I froze the old toxic frames, then made candles [candle-making vlog]. I opted to not make soaps or salves, because at that time I didn’t know what type of chemicals were involved.
5. I am adding to the apiary with local bees this year instead of ordering. I have two cutouts to perform - fingers crossed I can do right by them!
This was an expensive lesson, eh? The two Nucs, equipment, education, and lab studies were costly, but it was well worth the personalized education in why treatment free is important to me. And for the first year beekeeper—fuel yourself with research, get involved in your local club, attend the conferences and bee schools, volunteer in the bee community, equip yourself with knowledge so you can make the best decisions for your apiary.
Other notes: Even feral bees have some level of pesticides. We are not in a purely organic environment. But we can do the best with what we have. And when we know better, we can do better.
Your friend in beekeeping,