Last fall, and early winter, we experienced some significant rainfall events. One large storm after another sent water racing down our slopes, and off into the creeks. By December we were genuinely concerned that if that pattern persisted we’d slide into the creeks by February.
However, when the New Year arrived, it was as if someone flipped a switch. The clouds parted, and a cold, dry weather pattern set in.
It was only January though, and we still had plenty of opportunity to accumulate more rain before the end of our rainy season.
What we didn’t realize was that the significant wet weather was already behind us. We went from record rainfall in winter 2012, to a record dry weather pattern by spring 2013. In fact, January and February were the driest on record here. We knew that wouldn’t bode well for the gardens, or for wildfire season.
We’ve noted the results of the drought in the gardens, but we’ve also seen the drought’s effect in our apiary.
An early season check, in January, on feed levels in the hives, showed the colonies were robust, and building up quickly.
We’d had recent ample rain, and lots of gorgeous afternoon sun, providing plenty of perfect foraging weather for the bees.
As hive populations were soaring, by late winter we were concerned about repeating the previous season’s swarm-fest, so we decided that this season we were going to be more proactive about winter colony management.
We noted plenty of drones were present in the apiary by February, and elected to do some early season hive splits to reduce the likelihood of the colonies swarming in the spring.
We made a note for the next recheck to be prepared to take a spring honey harvest to prevent the colonies from becoming honey-bound.
The beautiful weather persisted, but as we slid from March into April it seemed less likely that we’d accrue any significant rainfall for the remainder of the season. Indeed, there was very little to speak of. The video below is what the farm should look like at some point between February and March, but this year we were dry.
By April, during a recheck of our hive splits, we marched out to the apiary with honey harvesting gear in tow. We expected, with all the glorious weather, that we’d be performing more hive splits, and taking honey. However, the colony build up had slowed, dramatically. There was no excess of honey, or population.
The previous year, by tax day, our apiary was throwing swarms left and right, despite spring splits. This is what healthy bee colonies do in the spring.
This spring there wasn’t a single swarm cell, or queen cup, in any of the hives. None. None of our colonies had any intention of swarming this year.
We are now squarely in the midst of a drought. In the garden some of the effects of this season’s drought have been expected, albeit relatively subtle.
The majority of plants here are endemic native plants, those plants aren’t irrigated, and our soils are relatively loose and sandy. In late winter we noted significantly fewer Calochortus, and Fernald’s Iris in bloom.
Then, most notably, the large stands of native deerweed (Lotus scoparius) on the slopes barely seemed to bloom at all.
The blooms that were produced didn’t persist for as long as normal here. I might not have noticed, except the advantage of maintaining a blog, a diary of sorts, is I have visual and written records from previous seasons to compare to.
The entire garden has seemingly been ahead by at least a few weeks all season. In some respects it hasn’t been bad. It’s a banner year for tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, although it’s been a challenge keeping the vegetable gardens sufficiently watered.
However, the effects on the native vegetation have been marked. It was obvious by the end of June that the dearth was already setting in.
Dearth (noun): a scarcity or lack of something. Origin: Middle English dearthe (shortage of food).
By mid-July in the apiary I noted hive entrance traffic was decreasing, and for one hive, the Rosemary colony, the drop in entrance population was precipitous. An inspection revealed that hive was empty, except for a few robbing bees exploiting stores. No bees, no dead bees or brood present, and no honey either. The Rosemary bees were gone.
The adjacent Lavender hive wasn’t looking particularly lively either.
Honey and nectar resources were low, at a time when we’d expect to be taking our last summer honey harvest. Consequently, the population in the hive was also low. There was worker brood present, but a notable absence of drone brood.
The Chamomile hive was a different story. A fairly robust colony, with decent honey reserves, and significantly higher population. For whatever reason, perhaps a stronger Queen, this colony was doing much better. However, despite the higher population, again no drone brood.
The Salvia colony had struggled continuously last year after it swarmed. Queen after queen failed. We know that colony went through at least four Queens last season. Thankfully, combining hives at the end of the season, with a colony we had split from that hive earlier that year, paid off. Salvia finally stabilized, and produced enough winter bees to make it through the winter months with flying colors. By mid-summer this year the Salvia colony was once again absolutely formidable!
All of the hives in our apiary are sourced from the same original feral bee colony (sadly, this robust feral colony, situated in our neighbor’s attic, finally died out this summer). Overall feral bees tend to produce very little honey, but instead, when the colonies are thriving, they do produce a LOT of bees. This colony was most definitely thriving. The advantage is they have more workers to task to foraging when resources are scarce.
However, they also have more bees to feed. We’ve never had a colony as aggressive as this hive, and I can honestly say that during that inspection I’ve never been happier to wear a full bee suit in 85 degree weather! Four boxes of brood and bees! A normal reaction to seeing that many bees in any hive would be to split it, and we would have, except for one small problem. No drones!
Of course, the advantage of no drones, meant no July drone trapping for Varroa mites.
We did consider removing brood from the Salvia hive, along with some extra nurse bees, and transferring them to the weaker Lavender hive, but by that point in the inspection the airspace in the apiary was nothing short of frenzied, and it was clear we were inciting a lot of robbing behavior. Even the yellow jackets were invading the airspace and attempting to gain entrance to the open hives.
The hives were closed up, and a month earlier than in years past, entrance reducers and robbing screens installed at the hive entrances. It seemed rather surreal to start managing our hives for fall robbing, in mid-July!
We did succeed in taking a very small honey harvest in July, but only from the two strongest hives, Salvia, and Chamomile.
In the meantime we’ve been feeding the Lavender colony in an attempt to help bolster the population. We’d prefer not to feed at all, both because we’re
lazy busy, and because it’s not the best nutrition source for the bees. In fact, we haven’t fed any of our colonies in almost two years, but sometimes it becomes necessary. The challenge though was what to feed? The apiary is clearly heading into fall mode, with the absence of drones, but it’s still early in the season, and although winter bees are long-lived, encouraging the bees to produce them now really didn’t make sense. It seemed too early to start a fall feeding regime, even though by all accounts it looked more like fall in the apiary. Instead, we opted to summer feed, and help to make up for some of the lack of nectar producing plants in bloom.
For now we’ve been summer feeding, with 1:1 nectar, and pollen substitute. This stimulates the bees to think there’s more forage available, and encourages the queen to produce more brood. Of course, the problem is, there isn’t more food. One of our prime nectar sources here in the fall is Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis), but it’s blooming at least a month ahead of schedule.
This means that to support any increase in population, we’ll need to keep a close eye on the colonies through fall, and continue to feed as necessary. The question now though, is when to revert to fall feeding of 2:1 syrup. Usually we’d start that in late September, but with the gardens, and the apiary, running ahead of schedule this season, do we push that up?
Our next inspection we’ll be looking to see how well Lavender is recovering. Judging from entrance activity, all of the remaining hives are clearly contracting at the moment, although Lavender seems to be holding her own. However, over the next couple of weeks we’ll be striving to balance the population in the hives. Borrowing brood from the stronger colonies, to help bolster the weaker ones if necessary.
The risk of transferring brood in the late season is accidentally transferring a queen, so if we choose to do that, we’ll have to be especially careful, as any new replacement queens raised at the moment are unlikely to be well mated.
Population alone though won’t be our deciding factor. Queen strength will be. Despite feeding the Lavender hive, if that Queen still isn’t producing sufficient brood, and seems weak, to give the colony the best chance of survival it may be more prudent to combine Lavender with the Chamomile colony before winter.
This year has been a difficult one, both for the gardens, and for the bees in this area. As we’re already down one hive, with another teetering on the edge, we’ll be grateful if any of our colonies succeed in overwintering this year. I only hope that fall through spring will see the return of a more favorable weather pattern, so any surviving colonies can recover enough to be split by next February-March. For now, we’ll have to wait and see what the rest of this season brings.