Whether beekeepers have experienced Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in the past few months or have been fortunate enough to avoid it they still have to attend to business, and the business of beekeeping right now deals with harvesting honey. Pollination plays an important income role for many beekeepers, often the most important part because of the only modest honey prices being paid right now, but harvesting and selling the honey crop remains a critical component in both management and marketing of almost every beekeeper.
But for commercial beekeepers harvesting honey is only the first step in getting colonies ready for the coming autumn. Right after harvest beekeepers begin preparing colonies for the winter if they are staying put. Or they start getting them ready to move to southern locales for additional honey crops and to expand their colony numbers. Or, they simply harvest one crop so there is room for the bees to store another in a couple months, whether near to home or far away.
Those beekeepers who experienced CCD last winter and spring have been looking at their colonies especially close this season ... looking for telltale signs of colonies not responding to a honey flow, not foraging in proportion to the amount of food available, or populations dwindling for no apparent reason.
But believe me, every beekeeper is looking closely this summer for those same signs. Nobody wants to experience the kind of colony losses seen last season, and everybody is paying attention.
When harvest crews go to a beeyard this month they aren't just interested in how much honey there is, but how are the bees, really. It takes longer to examine a colony this closely and of course this adds to the cost of doing business -- time is money. And that factor must be considered later this year when honey is being sold and colony rental prices are being discussed.
Moreover, if these colonies will be used later this season they need to be in top shape -- large populations of healthy bees -- and getting them there, and keeping them there is what beekeeping is all about. And CCD has challenged that business plan to its limit.
So while the scientists and politicians dance and dally with funding and publication issues, beekeepers still have to make a living.
One activity is to monitor all pest levels in their colonies ... especially those tiny, pesky varroa mites ... but all the other troubles their bees encounter also. Things like that new microbe from Asia -- Nosema ceranae -- shown not to be the cause of CCD but certainly one of the many stresses bees have to deal with that can be avoided. Tracheal mites, too, are being looked at and if colonies have them they are being treated this season ... this hasn't been common for years, but again, these mites add to the stress levels in a colony that can be avoided.
The biggest stress our bees are encountering this year however is the same one many ran into last year ... nutritional stress. Erratic weather -- primarily drought -- stressed the common honey and pollen plants bees foraged on last season, and stressed plants produce less nectar, less pollen and poorer quality pollen. Storing poor quality pollen is definitely detrimental to a colony that's going to be moved several times for pollination contracts.
Another huge stress on a colony is when it gets divided, usually after harvest if colonies are moved south, or in the early spring if colonies remain in the north. Beekeepers divide colonies to increase their holdings, to replace colonies that have died over the past season, or to sell to other beekeepers. To do this, they divide the adults, brood, pollen and honey from one colony into two or more smaller colonies. This, too is stressful for both.
Beekeeping is a fascinating business, and next time we'll look inside to see how the honey harvest works.
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