I’ve dreamed of keeping bees since I was in my early twenties, pouring over Harrowsmith Country Life and Mother Earth News magazines. When a girlfriend invited me to help with her father’s fall honey extraction while I was living in Nova Scotia, that was it, I was smitten.
I did a lot of reading over the years, even wrote a few book reviews, and about 5 years ago we finally took the plunge and sank several hundred dollars into setting up a hive (a traditional Langstroth style); we added a Warre hive a couple of years later. It’s been a steep learning curve, but I love seeing them busily zipping around the yard, and it’s not unusual to catch me carrying on a conversation with them while I work. They’re also the subject of a large percentage of the photos I take.
Having two active hives is a very good reason to hold off on mowing, and we are thrilled to have a lawn full of clover and dandelions (it would have driven our city neighbors mad!!).
Since these two forage crops bloom at different times, you can often tell which honey was produced by what flower just by looking at its colour. We make an effort to keep them as separate as possible while extracting, as we enjoy experiencing the different flavours.
Our bees did exceptionally well this year, and we started to feel like maybe we were finally getting it. We even got a decent amount of honey (a first for us, despite being a dry summer). We did a check and added insulation about a month ago, and both hives were in great shape, looking forward to a cozy winter in the hive (that was on a Sunday). The following Thursday I paid them a visit, and I was horrified to discover that there was nothing but wasps coming and going from the Langstroth.
I quickly checked the Warre, and they appeared to be doing better, keeping any would be intruders at bay. I reduced the entrance down to about an inch (from two) just to make it easier for them to guard.
I opened the Langstroth to assess the situation, and there wasn’t a bee to be seen (aside from a few dead ones in the bottom). I’m still not sure what that means exactly. Did the wasps take the bees for food for their babies (I’ve seen them poaching individual bees in the summer), or did the bees abandon the hive?
Long story short, we kept an eye on the remaining hive, but within a couple of weeks, it succumbed as well, despite the fact that I put the hive on total lockdown for several days. The wasps were relentless in their assault, even though they were no longer being able to get in (I have another photo where you can see a gang of about a dozen wasps trying to find a way in).
According to the leader of our local beekeeping group, wasps have been a force to be reckoned with this year, and many hives have been lost. At the annual convention in Kelowna, he saw videos of beekeepers using flaming torches to defend their hives from swarms of wasps. Our situation was nowhere on that level, but the result was the same. Are the wasps more aggressive this year, or are bees in a weakened state for some reason and more prone to predation?
The upside to all of this is that we now have an abundance of honey stored away, but it’s a devastating blow, as it costs roughly $200 to stock a hive with bees. We’re seriously considering not continuing.
You hear a lot about the importance of “saving the bees”, but from what I understand, it’s the wild bees that are most in danger, not honey bees, and they may actually make things more difficult for native pollinators. I read a great article that said the needs between wild and domesticated bees are so different that “raising honeybees to save pollinators is like raising chickens to help birds”. We will of course continue to care for and encourage those occupying our mason bee houses, and I’ve been seeing an increase in the number (and diversity) of wild bees in recent years (not turning the soil may be helping with that, as many bumble bees are ground nesters), so I’m happy to know that our bee-friendly plantings will be well used even if we leave our hives empty for now.
We’ll see how we feel come spring, but beekeeping hasn’t exactly given us a good return on our investment to date (far from it!). We do feel that our garden and orchard benefit from their efforts, as does my photography portfolio, so my inclination is to try again, but we’ll see.
I would love to hear if any of you have suffered at the hands of the wasps this year (or previously), and how you dealt with it.
Have a great weekend!