Reading through the 2020 news headlines is like peeling an apocalyptic onion. Each layer seems worse than the one before it. The headline that grabbed attention in October was that a nest of Asian Giant Hornets, aka Murder Hornets, was located in the state of Washington. These large invasive insects are like the stuff of science fiction movies, and they made for perfect click bait. One of the insect’s more undesirable qualities is that it feeds off smaller insects like honey bees and can decimate entire hives of bees. When the story broke, many of my friends forwarded articles to me. (I have great people in my life who support my hobbies.) People still mention murder hornets to me regularly, so I thought it was time to write a post about to let everyone know that murder hornets are not keeping me up at night. (Very little keeps me awake at night thanks to the anxiety relieving effects of my dogs. You can read about the dogs in my previous post.)
For years the state of Kentucky where I live has monitored for Asian Giant Hornets. None have been reported in our state. Our state apiarist, Dr. Tammy Horn Potter, established monitoring stations for the insects at strategic locations. Kentucky is at risk for invasive species because of our horse racing industry. Many horses from foreign countries arrive to our state via airplane. Horse bedding is an excellent carrier of invasive insects, so the state apiarist is taking a very proactive approach.
You may wonder what does worry Kentucky beekeepers if we aren’t worried about Murder Hornets. Here is my top ten list of worries as a beekeeper.
10. Developing a severe allergy to bee stings. – I know several beekeepers developed severe allergies to bee stings. Stings that used to be annoying become life threatening. These allergies can cause beekeepers to abandon the hobby they love.
9. Foulbrood – Foulbrood is a deadly bacterial infection. If your bees become infected, your bees die and all your equipment and hive boxes have to be destroyed. The losses are devastating to hobby and commercial beekeepers alike. The only alternative to destroying all of your equipment is to sterilize it in an autoclave. Kentucky State University has a large mobile autoclave that they make available to beekeepers impacted by foulbrood. This infection is rare, but there are cases in Kentucky.
8. Covid related shortages and price increases – Covid has impacted nearly every facet of our lives including beekeeping. Shortages of jars and bottles mean that some beekeepers have to store their honey in five gallon buckets until they can obtain the supplies they need. Hive boxes and related equipment are in short supply, and prices have risen steeply. We are hearing from our supplier that the cost of equipment will likely be 25-50% higher this year. Beekeepers who want to make their own hive boxes are facing steep price increases on plywood. Many beekeepers store frames of honey in freezers over the winter. Freezers are nearly impossible to find due to increased demand and decreased production.
7. Suburban sprawl – Open land all around us is being sold to developers for high density housing and retail space. The increased development results in lack of food for the bees. We have found that our primary location for the bees can only support three full size colonies. The way we overcome this challenge is by trying to convert available land to pollinator habitat (click here for info on that) and by locating our hives on other people’s land (click here to see a post on that).
6. Large animals that eat bees – Our bees are more likely to be eaten by skunks and wild turkeys than by Murder Hornets. In other parts of the state, beekeepers have to contend with bears as well. Not all bears are as gentle as Pooh.
5. Small hive beetles – The small hive beetle is another invasive species, but it comes from Africa instead of Asia. A good strong colony can usually keep small hive beetles in check. If you have a weak hive, the small hive beetle will be happy to overrun your hive and contaminate your honey.
4. Late summer drought – In our area, spring and late summer are the two times of years when nectar rich flowers are abundant. In late summer and early fall, the golden rod and wild asters bloom. The late fall honey flow is very important because it allows our bees to build up their honey supply to get them through the winter. A late drought means no nectar and no fall honey flow.
3. Swarms – Preventing bees from swarming is one of the most challenging aspects of being a beekeeper. Bees are hardwired to swarm because it is the mechanism by which nature produces more bee colonies. Swarms aren’t good for beekeepers, though. Imagine if you were a chicken farmer and you went to the barn and saw that half of your laying hens just vanished overnight. You wouldn’t be very happy. We try to prevent swarming by giving our bees lots of room and by splitting the hive so the bees think a swarm has already happened.
2. A late spring frost – Some things can be managed by beekeepers and some can’t. A late spring frost that kills blossoms and bees is one that beekeepers can’t control. Last year we lost an entire colony of bees due to a hard freeze in late spring. Weather in the Ohio River Valley has always been unpredictable. Climate change has made things worse.
1. Varroa Mites – This is the top worry of all beekeepers. I have written about varroa mites previously. Beekeepers have to regularly test and treat their bees for mites. Mites can devastate entire colonies. They weaken the bees and allow viruses to infect them. Colonies with high mite counts rarely survive the winter. As a beekeeper, you can do everything right with respect to testing and treating and still lose your colony to mites. The best you can hope for is to minimize your losses.
You may wonder why anyone keeps bees given all of these challenges. A member of our bee club has a t-shirt that says “Beekeepers = Farmers + Crazy”. Maybe beekeepers are all crazy, but we live in a crazy world anyway. The current mood seems to be that everyone must chose a side for everything, and there is no middle ground. In this crazy world, I am going to choose the side of the bees.
The featured image of the Asian giant hornet came from Wikimedia Commons and is available for use through the creative commons attribution 2.0 license.