‘Same in the bee world’: Drought has keepers worried bees won’t make enough honey to survive
Chris Bradley’s bees aren’t doing so well this year. He keeps them at his home up on Seedhouse Road, but it isn’t the Morgan Creek Fire that has been the issue.
Last year he had seven hives each with between 30,000 and 40,000 bees. Each hive wanted to swarm, which means the bees want to split the hive into two and make a new queen.
He was optimistic, but after he split his bees into 14 hives, the flowers dried up and only four made it through the winter. This year just two of his hives are doing well and two are not. His bees are not making drones either.
“My hives are producing no drones, and I have no idea why,” Bradley said. “I think it has something to do with (drought), but then they are making queens. Queens without drones are useless.”
As drought has ranchers looking woefully at hay barns that should be fuller than they, beekeepers find themselves in the same boat, with many honeycombs nearly bare of the nectar and honey the bees need to survive the winter.
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“We can supplementally feed them and keep them alive, but we cannot replace the nutritional value of Mother Nature’s pollen and natural nectar,” said Perry Baker, who owns Hayden-based Outlaw Apiaries with his wife, Bethany Karulak-Baker.
Baker said he could lose anywhere from 30% to 50% of his bees this winter.
Almost 20% of Colorado is currently in exceptional drought, which is the highest level the U.S. Drought Monitor records. All of this is on the Western Slope, with almost all of Northwest Colorado and Routt County entrenched at that driest level.
June saw just 1.42 inches of rain in Steamboat Springs, less than the average of about 1.6 inches. But July is outpacing the average, though it still has not eclipsed an inch total as of July 18, according to the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
Honey bees are not native to Colorado, but they are important pollinators, especially for many non-native crops grown in the state. Locally that is alfalfa, vegetable gardens and the wildflowers that sprinkle the landscape. Baker also brings his bees to California to pollinate almond trees in February.
“The continued drought that we have seen over the past couple of decades, but especially in the last two years, has really just created a lot of stress for the bees,” Baker said.
Outlaw Apiaries has about 500 hives spread across Routt County, but drought has Baker collecting almost no honey right now, which is when they harvest most of the honey they sell — their main source of income.
“The drought has effects on everybody. Don’t have enough water, don’t have enough hay. Cattle ranchers don’t have enough pasture to graze their cattle,” Baker said. “It is the same thing in the bee world … so it does definitely affect the bottom line.”
While there are flowers, they lack the moisture to produce enough pollen and nectar for the bees to collect. Beekeepers will feed them sugar water or another imitation food, but this lacks the nutrients the bees need to maintain a strong hive.
Bees are not necessarily dying now, but they could this winter due to a lack of food or because their immune systems are weak from being fed sugar instead of natural nectar.
“You may not see it right now but get into winter and especially in February and March when they are in the almonds in California, those issues start to arise, and the colonies start to weaken and eventually fail,” Baker said.
Richard Chard, who has 20 hives and calls beekeeping a hobby gone awry, has been beekeeping since 1972. He has hives in North Routt and to the west of Steamboat.
“We’ve got wildflowers, but there is not any rain,” Chard said. “The flowers are dry so there is just no nectar.”
The hardest part of keeping honey bees in Routt County is getting them through the winter, said Becky Edmiston, a biology professor at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and president of the Routt County Beekeeping Association.
They need 100 pounds of nectar stored up, and the hive needs to stay dry and somewhat warm. The harsh winters often lead beekeepers to feed their bees with sugar water in the spring, but many are doing it this late into the summer.
“It is really strange to me, to be feeding this time of year. I don’t love doing it.” Edmiston said, likening feeding bees sugar water to feeding a person junk food. “Can I feed them 100 pounds of sugar? I don’t know that I physically can.”
For the bees at CMC and her own bees near Twenty Mile Road, Edmiston hopes the feeders are able to get the bees the boost they need, but she expects to lose bees too.
“Honestly, some of them are not going to make it,” Edmiston said. “Looking at them right now I am like, none of you are going to make it through winter, but I don’t know.”
Edmiston’s bees are not making drones, just like Bradley’s. Drones would normally be kicked out of a hive in the fall, so they don’t put a drain on the hives resources. Since the hives are not strong enough to prepare to split, Edmiston suspects they have forgone making drones to preserve resources.
Edmiston and other beekeepers are hoping the area will see more rain in the coming weeks, which would help flowers produce more nectar and help bees bolster their stores before winter, but fall flowers are not as prevalent as those in June.
“I am kind of hoping that if I feed them some, they will keep doing their thing, and there will be rain and some flowers,” Edmiston said. “But, this year has been kind of depressing.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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