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October is the Cruelest Month

BEE CULTURE, October 2009

by Joe Traynor

It’s October and you’re a European honey bee colony in North Dakota (or S. Dakota, Minnesota, Montana). Decreasing day length in the previous months has triggered an eons-old message: get ready for winter. In case you missed the early signals, a couple of recent frosts re-enforces them. Your body fat reserves are hoarded, your metabolism drops and you go into a state of suspended animation – a state of hibernation not unlike that of your age-old enemy, the bear.

Clouds form, precursor of a coming storm, and out of nowhere you hear a familiar clattering of equipment. Some of your housemates peer out the entrance of your domicile, report some giant forks approaching and spread the word: we’re moving again. You don’t know it, because no one has survived the return trip to tell about it, but you’re going to California!

After a couple of days on the road, you stop at the California border and, sleepy-eyed, suffer the indignity of uniformed humans with flashlights peering into your living room (who are these people?!). You’re soon on the road and several hours later you find yourself in the great Central Valley of California. The next day breaks warm and sunny – it will hit 90 degrees that afternoon! – and you awake from your torpor. The word soon spreads – worker bees unite:\its summer again — get out there and hunt & gather!

You and your fat-enriched housemates do your duty, searching for pollen and nectar in an ever expanding circle – up to a four-mile radius! Upon returning to the hive, all reports from foragers are the same: “What the # %#*&?! there’s nothing out there! Is our keeper out of his ##&** mind?! He’s never done this to us before!” The fruitless foraging trips continue for a few weeks until cooler weather again gives the signal you originally got back home: prepare for winter. Some of the fellow-colonies in your apiary, out of desperation, start practicing some distinctly anti-social behavior for a social insect: they rob their mates of their hard-earned stores with the fittest colonies robbing the weaker ones to the point where the weak ones can no longer survive. Because weak colonies are more likely to harbor pests and diseases, such robbing behavior serves to exacerbate conditions by spreading these nasties throughout the apiary. The weak colonies exact their revenge from the grave.

As you again prepare for winter you look at the depleted population of your housemates with concern – instead of fat healthy bees, they, and you, have turned into tired, skinny, sickly bees. The food reserves in your pantry are dangerously low, your immune system is weakened making you more susceptible to nosema and every kind of virus out there. You watch helplessly as your housemates succumb to various maladies. From fat happy bees back home, your colony has turned into a demoralized population ready for the nursing home. Winter die-off continues and when almond bloom starts, your colony is a long ways from the 8-frames of bees that your keeper has promised his almond grower. October in California is no country for old bees.

Beekeepers that haul bees from the northern tier of states to California for almond pollination are familiar with the above scenario. They learn early on that the last loads of bees they haul (in early December) fare much better than those hauled in October. Out-of-state beekeepers are faced with a classic Catch 22 dilemma: bring the bees out in October and they will gradually go downhill; wait until December and you risk getting snowed in or having to transport bees on dangerously icy roads.

Beekeepers in North Dakota must get their bees out before they get snowed in. Beekeepers in western Montana and northern Washington have more time and many delay the California trip until December, keeping a close eye on the weather for an open window in which to haul. Some of these beekeepers have their own trucks and can easily coordinate trucking schedules with road and weather conditions. Beekeepers that must hire commercial truckers don’t have this scheduling luxury so most opt to get their bees to California early enough to neutralize later weather challenges.

Some beekeepers have solved the problem by putting their bees in storage – many use old potato sheds in Idaho. These storage sheds are temperature controlled and are provided with air-circulation fans; the sheds serve to maintain bees in a hibernation-like state until they are hauled to California in January or February (many Canadian beekeepers successfully over-winter their bees in storage sheds). Wintering bees in sheds has its own set of problems: without cleansing flights, dysentery and other diseases can more easily spread through a colony; a breakdown in temperature control or air circulation can cause problems. Through years of experience (including some trial and error) a number of beekeepers have been able to successfully winter their bees in sheds. Don’t try it yourself without first getting a lot of input from a veteran of shed storage.

Other beekeepers have minimized the “October problem” by slapping supplemental protein-pollen feed on the colonies as soon as they hit California. This feed can reduce or eliminate the energy-wearing fruitless flights that would normally occur and can also reduce robbing. Some beekeepers have access to coastal or southern California locations where fall and winter flowers serve to maintain the health of colonies. The San Joaquin Valley though, where most out-of-state bees wind up, is a desert for honey bees from September to February.

In contrast to out-of-state bees that are hauled to California, bees that are maintained in the San Joaquin Valley throughout the summer and fall fare much better. They “know the territory” through months of experience and, come October, they know enough not to make fruitless foraging flights. They hunker down in October, protecting the colony from robbing and when cooler temperatures arrive in late November, followed by cold foggy weather in December-January, they are able to emerge in February in reasonably good condition, especially if they have been given a supplemental protein-pollen feed in September.