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Penn State Pollinator Webinar Series: The three most important steps to ensuring honey bee colony survival over the long term (Dr. Robyn Underwood)

Posted: June 23, 2020

In this second installation of the “Penn State Pollinator Webinar Series”, Dr. Robyn Underwood, an Assistant Research Professor at Penn State, goes in depth on beekeeping and how to best care for colonies.

Beekeeping is a very popular hobby with an ever-expanding community. There are many reasons why one may consider taking up beekeeping as a hobby, including to obtain honey and wax, or increase pollination for their gardens. But for many people, beekeeping is a fascinating hobby that lets them learn more about the fascinating social behavior of bees and be more connected with the environment. However, in addition to being very rewarding, beekeeping also comes with a unique set of challenges. A survey from the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers found that 44.8% of colonies died over the 2019-2020 winter. Such high losses are very expensive and unsustainable for beekeepers. In this webinar, Dr. Underwood discussed strategies for managing colonies throughout the year to maintain healthy and productive bees.

Managing honey bee colonies requires understanding how the bee societies are structured. Honey bees have a caste system with three main castes: queens, workers and drones. The queen bee is the mother, the workers are the daughters, and the drones are the sons (and future fathers of other colonies). In addition to being the mother of all the members of the colony, the queen also is primarily responsible for population growth through the production of eggs and chemical pheromones. Worker bees collect pollen and nectar, care for the queen and their developing sisters, clean and protect the hive, maintain hive temperature, and more. The drones are the result of unfertilized eggs and are produced seasonally. Contrary to popular belief, the drones do not fertilize the eggs of their queen. Instead the drones go out to spread the genetics of their queen to other colonies by mating with virgin queens from other colonies.

The three major challenges that beekeepers face are swarming colonies in the spring, Varroa mite infestations which can reduce colony survival in the winter, and poor food stores which can cause wintertime starvation. Swarming is when a queen and a large portion of the population leaves the colony in order to find a new home. Preventing swarming is very difficult, and Dr. Underwood discusses the key approaches for recognizing the signs of swarming and strategies for managing the colony if swarming occurs. One of the first signs of swarming is the production of many new queens (queen rearing is discussed in the next webinar of this series). Ensuring that the colony creates a new, mated queen is essential to the continued viability of the colony. Varroa mites feed on adult and immature honey bees, and can weaken the bees by removing nutritional stores and transmitting viruses: uncontrolled Varroa populations are a major cause of winter colony losses Beekeepers can use many strategies to manage Varroa mites, ranging from cultural, mechanical, or chemical, with cultural geared towards prevention, while mechanical and chemical are mainly used for direct intervention. Beekeepers can reference the integrated pest management (IPM) approach in order to see which method best fit their situation. Finally, lack of food is also a major concern for colonies during the winter. The recommended amount of stored food for honey bee colonies is about 60-80 lbs. If food stores are below this threshold, then there is a high risk of starvation. If a colony is underweight, feeding them extra liquids in the fall and adding solid foods in the winter can help combat low food supplies.

While beekeeping is very rewarding, it is also very challenging. Understanding the natural history and behavior of the bees is critical to being a good beekeeper, and managing problems as they arise throughout the year. Keeping a journal on queen behavior, Varroa mite populations, food storage, and more is a good way to ensure that you are up to date on the overall health of the colony. Being proactive in the colony’s health is important to set a colony up for success in the long term and ensure their survival. This webinar and others in our series on pollinator issues will help provide you with the knowledge you need to manage healthy and thriving honey bee colonies.

Written by Ashley Moak

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