No Straight Lines in Beekeeping

My first year I had 1 hive. The following spring, in March, it swarmed twice two weeks apart and left me with nothing for all my hard work getting them through the previous summer, fall, and winter.

But, having been hooked with the fascination of that first hive, I had already purchased 6 packages and had spent that first winter building boxes, frames, bottoms, and tops. I had lost that first hive earlier in the month but I now had 6 fresh starts. That spring, in the first weeks, I spent a couple tanks of gas driving around collecting swarms, some failed and some succeeded. By the end of summer I had 13 hives. In autumn I lost a couple to their being weak but I learned a few things and combined a few more to strengthen them and went into winter with 7 hives.

By the next spring I had lost 4 of those 7 colonies because I failed to adequately ventilate and reduce moisture during the winter. In fact I had promoted moisture by wrapping the hives “for their protection.” The learning curve can be brutal in beekeeping. By this time I had spent some time over winter reading about splits so I split those 3 remaining hives (remember I’d had 13 the previous year) and had about 8 hives at the start of the flow, Again on the swarm trail, I added another half dozen colonies and did some more fall splits. I actually made honey and sold a bit and closed the season with 18 hives.

That winter took less of a bite out of my bee yard and as I recall I lost about 5 hives and came out with 13 in the spring. Hey, maybe I’d learned something! Up to 21 that season and made honey again. Always spending the money on more boxes, frames, wax, lumber. Learning the dangers associated with mites, moisture, weak colonies, hive beetles. Learning the seasons from my mentors and when to do this or that. Like a dedicated AA member, never missing a meeting because Frank, Danny, Wes, Staci, Dave, Todd, Patrick, William, a visiting speaker, or someone would be there to tell me what I needed to be seeing in the hive and what I needed to be doing over the coming month. I am an information addict and those folks repeatedly told me what I sometimes resisted.

By the next winter I had a couple notebooks worth of meetings’ notes. Also, I had attended the beginning beekeeper class not once but twice – only a bee nerd would do such a thing. I actually sat down and wrote January, February, March… on blank pages and copied three years of meeting notes on each month’s respected page. Not surprising, year to year the information was very similar but I had some gaps in my notes and combining the notebooks helped me learn a few things. By then I had also attended a few conferences; I added to my notebook and beekeeping calendar.

The winter I signed up to be MSBA Secretary I lost less than 10%. I learned a great deal from visiting the bee yards of many of our members. I continued attending conferences, meetings, hearing it over and over; sometimes it took multiple times before I relented and relinquished some of my bad ideas. In the spring I decided to save gas money and stop chasing swarms. It had become easier to make splits. I still caught one or two to get it out of my system but my problem became one of more colonies than I had boxes. And still my own bees swarmed. By this time I had kind of stabilized at 20 hives and fluxed up or down a few at any given time.

The next year, again less than 10% failure rate over the winter. I think primarily because I had become convinced the previous year that treating for Varroa actually produces positive results, as does feeding them when needed, and strengthing colonies with combines in the early fall. I had bought only queens for two years, no packages or nucs, and increases were made when the bees cooperate in the spring. I was starting to think like a bee.

And here we are again going into winter. I failed to make the few combines I should have this fall because I’m a hard head so I lost a few. But I grew to 40 this year and whether I had made combines or let them fail I’d still be down to about 35 now. It’s flux; ups and downs. I hope to come out with a good survival rate in the spring of 2017. I’d like to make queenless splits and get a little closer to a true sustainable bee yard.

Sustainable is possible but straight lines aren’t. I wrote an article some time back for the MSBA newsletter speaking to flexibility in beekeeping. It was based on a lecture Danny gave at a meeting a couple years earlier. That lecture changed the way I view beekeeping by helping me see the big picture a little clearer. Roll with the punches, always learn, be ready for change, capitalize on times of increase, brush yourself off and accept times of decrease, follow the bees’ nature and ride that wave whenever you can, enjoy the ride.