I made an interesting observation this past summer which again reinforced how the summer honey crop affects the health of the queen bee. Most of my hives are spread out in fourteen bee yards in two different valleys. Both of these valleys generally average the same honey crop per hive each summer. Two years of drought conditions have caused both valleys to underperform, but in comparing the two areas with each other, one has produced significantly more honey and in effect had a much lower rate of queen failure.
The hives that performed poorly last summer were in the lower valley which is at an elevation of 5592 feet. In June there were 152 hives in this valley. They were a combination of package hives and splits. They had already spent a month pollinating cherry and apple orchards and had built up nicely. By early July their second box was established and I started putting on some honey supers. As the summer progressed the nectar flow tapered off and only the strongest hives filled their honey supers. I removed all the honey supers by mid August in hopes the hives would add needed honey stores, but they didn’t. I was surprised at how many queens were failing, especially the unusual amount of drone layer hives.
I began weekly feeding in early September to stave off a catastrophic loss of hives. The honey supers were harvested and the crop averaged thirteen pounds of honey per hive. By October there were 134 hives still alive – a twelve percent hive loss.
The upper valley had a much better outcome. It started the summer with 104 hives. This valley is at an elevation of 6486 and sixteen miles north of the lower valley. Here I had a mix of my strong overwintered hives as well as some late May splits. The honey crop was harvested in late August and the total for the upper valley came in at thirty-nine pounds per hive. Most of these hives had plenty of honey stores and needed little supplemental feeding. By October there were 95 hives alive – about an eight percent hive loss.
There were most likely additional factors that caused the higher loss in the lower valley, but poor honey yields certainly added a significant amount of stress to the hives. Quite often many queens will slow down or stop laying eggs during a prolonged nectar dearth and the cluster size will decrease. The smaller clusters become more susceptible to other stresses (mites, disease and robbing) in the hive.
Another factor has to do with the conditions when a hive is raising a new queen. I attended the Utah bee convention in February and listened to two presentations about raising queens. One presenter was a scientist from the University of Washington and the other was a commercial queen breeder from Northern California. It was mentioned that there is more supersedure going on in hives today than in the past and that this usually occurs every one to two years. It was also discussed that when a hive is producing a new queen an ample nectar source is required. Plenty of sugar syrup should be given if there is a dearth. If there is a lack of food during this critical time the hive won’t be able to draw out extra wax and the queen cell won’t get the needed nutrients.
As I put the pieces together it would make sense that with so much supersedure going on all throughout the summer months combined with sporadic nectar flows and dearths you’ll have less hives successfully replacing their queens. Seasons with large honey crops equal seasons with lower queen failure because the hive has the needed resources to adequately replace their queen. Heading into this new season I will monitor more carefully the nectar dearths throughout the summer and either move the hives to a better location or remove the honey supers and feed the bees earlier if their is another drought.