Early spring weather this year has been less than ideal in the Southeast part of the country. It's been cool for much longer than usual, and wet and rainy often enough that local ducks are beginning to complain. Record lows in Florida and parts of southern Georgia actually brought snowfall to some areas, taking residents, and honey bees, by surprise.
The USDA maps that document this are all blue, showing temperatures averaging 7-12 degrees below average. That's a significant difference when it comes to plant growth rates.... Everything just sloooowwws doowwn.
From a beekeeper's perspective, this sort of adds insult to injury this season. It's been a very, very hard winter almost everywhere except the Pacific Northwest as far as bees are concerned.
For starters, long stretches of below 40-degree temperatures in the far South have restricted bees from flying and finding food. It's here that beekeepers have been trying to get bees to build up their populations on what are normally lush southern flowers. This slower than usual growth caused some beekeepers to forgo pollinating California's almonds last month, and may restrict both honey production and further expansion in the next month or so.
A queen producer in Georgia will put the queen she holds in her right hand, in the cage with a few workers. The trip north takes only a couple of days.
Photo: Kim Flottum
Perhaps more importantly though, beekeepers in the far South who raise queen bees and extra bees to sell to those of us in the north have faced hard times this spring because of the weather. To raise queen bees there must be lots of good forage available for the bees who are feeding these queens, and the drones they will mate with, to gather, and then, when the queens and drones are ready, if the weather doesn't allow flight... the queens and drones don't fly and queens don't get mated.
And what happens then is that queen producers have to make sure they are mated or risk sending still-virgin queens to their customers. A virgin queen is worthless because all she can produce are more drones... not the workers in colony who do the work, gather the honey, pollinate the plants and take care of the queen and the young. An unmated queen is a disaster.
Beekeepers up north, who have had to endure a much more difficult winter than normal this year have really suffered too. Long stretches of very cold weather means that no matter what they did, some of their colonies will starve to death, only inches from the food the bees stored last fall. It's the greatest tragedy beekeepers face because there is just nothing they can do to help. It's what separates the really tough bees from the average bees... and why more and more beekeepers are turning to the breed of bees that hail from Russia. But more about them at another time.
A queen bee. She's the big one, in her traveling cage. She has a few workers in with her during the trip to take care of her.
Photo: Kim Flottum
So because of the lousy weather, queen producers have to delay shipping queens to those customers who really need both queens and bees to replace what they've lost until they are sure the queens are mated, or cancel those orders because they have thousands of customers who are eagerly waiting their turn. Miss a round of queens and you have a real problem filling orders for the rest of the season. It can be a real mess.
And if you are one of those beekeepers waiting... well, just wait, because without a queen (and the bees she comes with) you don't have a colony. If you are lucky perhaps you can get the queens and packages of bees you need from bee producers in California, where the weather has been more cooperative this year. But if you are one of the beekeepers who took the colony collapse disorder hit this year and are looking for hundreds, or thousands of queens and packages of bees from one of the producers in the Southeast... it could be difficult. Or at least slower than usual.
Just be glad you aren't a queen producer in south Georgia or northern Florida this year... it could get messy, and beekeepers can be very unforgiving customers.
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