LYME — Warmed by the October sun, bees flitted from flower to flower in a patch of pink Sheffield daisies, collecting nectar to bring back to John Pritchard’s nearby beehives Monday afternoon.
“You can see it’s almost like a landing field with a gazillion planes. All those bees hovering in front are waiting to go in and you see the bees coming out and they’re going out to forage,” said Pritchard, of Lyme, observing the entrance platform of one of his two hives. “These are worker bees. They’re in the last three weeks of their seven-week life at which point in time their job becomes going to forage for nectar and pollen.”
The bees were landing at a rate of about one per second, with about 25 bees hovering and waiting for clearance to enter.
“Normally you can see the little pollen baskets on their hind legs but I’m not seeing very much of that right now so that means they’re out principally gathering nectar,” he said, noting that bees have two stomachs, one of which holds nectar that the foraging bee regurgitates into the stomach of a waiting bee, who passes the contents to another bee, and so on. Through a number of transfers, the nectar turns to honey and is put into the hive’s honeycomb where worker bees fan the honey to dry it and make it more sticky.
Pritchard, who’s been beekeeping for about 15 years, said he started because “I just thought it would be really cool to keep bees. I also read The Dancing Bees, which is a riveting book — it is really very interesting, about the life cycle of the bee.”
This time of year, pollen and nectar supplies begin to run low and bees need to build up their honey supply for the winter. Pritchard supplements his bees with a sugar-water mixture provided in clear mason jars outside of each hive.
“Since nectar is really sugar water, you can give them fake nectar as in the form of concentrated sugar water. This is two parts sugar to one part water that I’m feeding them. In the spring in order to get them going you feed them one to one,” he said. “I’m trying to get them to store that sugar water in the honeycomb.”
He said he’s also feeding his bees because he lost both hives over the last two winters, despite having taken very little honey.
“I was stunned last year, I opened the hive up on a warm day in early December and there was no honey left in the hive. They had eaten all of the honey from the entire summer,” he said. “In the last two years, the fact that … there was no food left in it tells me that there was a very poor nectar flow, so the more days like this that they have to forage and more days that will produce lots of nice flowers, the better their storage.”
Stress on bees
When Steve Dinsmore, of East Lyme, started beekeeping 22 years ago in his backyard, some early successes got him hooked.
“I had gotten two hives and I just happened to do it in one year that was one of those phenomenal years … and I really didn’t know what I was doing, but the first year I had three swarms, which I managed to catch and hive. By the end of the year I had five colonies and we still had 80 pounds of honey,” he said during a visit with CT Examiner at his home in late September.
Now the president of the Connecticut Beekeepers Association and caring for 18 hives at home and 60 more in upstate New York, he said he was concerned about man-made environmental factors that impact bee health.
“The stresses that bees are under are what’s [behind] the bee colony declines. People need to think about it, everybody wants the perfect lawn,” he said pointing to a neighbor’s manicured lawn and then to the variety of longer grasses and plants in his yard. “You can see I have the perfect lawn over here, it’s more bee-friendly, it’s got more native plants.”
Dinsmore said he rarely applies pesticides and doesn’t use herbicides to remove the invasive plants. “As far as beekeeping, everyone kills the flowers in their yards, there are nice native flowers that you can plant that will look nice in your yard, that you don’t have to apply pesticides to, because they’re adapted to the local pests,” he said.
A growing population
Despite rumors of a bee apocalypse, bees populations are growing worldwide, said Mark Creighton, the state apiary inspector, by phone in late September.
“I think that generally bees are in not bad shape — I know we hear a lot about bee population and the bee declines from a global perspective, but the bee populations have risen tremendously over the past few years,” said Creighton. “For 2019, we have maybe two trillion bees worldwide so bee populations outside the United States are certainly growing.”
Creighton said bee colony populations saw a sharp decline at the end of World War II, from about six million colonies to about 2.6 million in the United States in 2018.
“A lot of that was due to needing the honey to support the war effort. There were sugar restrictions so a lot of people started keeping bees,” he said. “Historically there has been a decline in beekeeping in the United States and just recently it started to tick up just a little bit. Certainly the bee apocalypse that you hear about in the media has caused a lot of people to get into bees and beekeeping and that’s been positive.”
In 2017, Connecticut had about 8,500 bee colonies and 1,600 beekeepers. In 2018, the state switched from a manual to an electronic reporting format, making it more difficult to obtain accurate counts, Creighton said.
What ails the honeybee
Creighton is tracking two major honey bee ailments — Varroa Mites, which suck blood from adults and drones, resulting in a shorter deformed wings or legs and shorter lifespans, and Nosema disease, a gut infection that gives bees dysentery.
Since January, he has traveled around the state collecting bees to supplement the data supplied by beekeepers through an annual survey.
“I’m over 125 colonies to date,” Creighton said. “By the time this year is done, my goal is to have data on over 200 colonies and I think I should be able to do that and then I’ll put the data in a spreadsheet and see what our mite problem is in Connecticut.”
Creighton said it was imperative for beekeepers to check their hives for mite loads in the course of the beekeeping season. He said a recent survey, done by the Bee Informed Partnership, a not-for-profit collaboration of research labs and universities working to understand honey bee declines in the U.S., showed that only half of all beekeepers check for Varroa Mites.
“That’s a shocking number, it should be in the 90 percent range — and in order for us to tackle a problem we first have to identify the problem,” he said.
According to the Bee Informed Partnership, about 69 percent of beekeepers don’t use any miticides at all, a statistic that is “shocking,” said Creighton.
Bee health is affected by parasites, pathogens, climate change, nutrition, pesticide exposure, and the beekeeper’s management style — but it starts with the beekeepers themselves, Creighton said.
“My challenge is to try to get beekeepers to manage their bees in a healthy way, in a respectful way,” he said. “I have to educate the beekeepers in reasonable and sound beekeeping practices so that we can keep our bees healthy.”
A beekeeper who does check his bee colonies for mites is Thomas Hall, of East Lyme, who started beekeeping when he lived in northern Minnesota, before moving back east in 2015.
“I bought some apple trees and thought if I want a good crop of apples I should have some pollinators. I tried it with mixed success,” he said. “It’s a real challenge to keep these over the winter there and I succeeded a couple of seasons and failed a couple of seasons and had to buy new bees. At one point I was up to six hives and then I lost them all and gave them up at that point … But then when I moved back here I thought with the milder winters that I’d try it again,” said Hall, who spoke with CT Examiner at his home in late August.
Hall, who keeps two hives in his backyard, said he checks for mites using the “sugar shake” method.
“You put a bunch of bees into a dishpan and then scoop up a measured amount — say, a half of cup of bees — and put them in a jar with powdered sugar and you shake it. That shakes all the mites off the bees into the powdered sugar and then you let the bees crawl back into the hive,” Hall said. “Then you pour in water and it dissolves the sugar and you figure out the number of mites and if it’s high you have a problem.”
He said he is aware of commercial and unconventional treatments for mites, but so far his bees are healthy, enjoying the plants and flowers in his meadow-like yard.
“I’m doing it just for the pleasure of having bees in the yard and the entertainment of watching the hive from time to time,” he said.
Starting a hive
“First of all, it’s not difficult and if you want to get into it, the best thing to do is get a book on beekeeping and read it through, and that will tell you what kind of equipment you need to order,” said Pritchard, when asked how to get started in beekeeping. “There are all kinds of places that will ship you the hives bodies and pieces …The only other thing you need to do is buy a package of bees and there are very easy instructions about how to do that.”
He also stressed the importance of buying a beekeeper’s suit complete with veil and gloves, and added that the practice is endlessly interesting.
“It’s very entertaining to learn about them because they’re fascinating little creatures — I hate to even call them insects — and it’s very satisfying when you can take some honey without robbing them of what they need to get through the winter,” he said.
Dinsmore encouraged wanna-be beekeepers to go to Bee School, a program offered by the Connecticut Bee Association every January.
“In six to seven hours you’ll get a crash course, it’s an introduction to beekeeping. It’s not everything you need to know, it’s a start and then we have seasonally relevant workshops throughout the year,” he said. “I do a talk about setting up the hive — where is a good location in your yard, things to consider.”
With beekeeping, there’s always something more to learn and to discuss, Dinsmore laughed. “When I do my presentations, I like to end by saying, ‘It’s always easy to get a beekeeper to talk, getting him to shut up is a lot harder.’”