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Bee management practices continually changing

MOUNT VERNON – If there’s a stressor on Alan Schroeder’s beehives, he knows what to do.

Schroeder, of the Mount Vernon Bee Company and president of the South Dakota Beekeepers Association, has learned a few tricks in the past 42 years about maintaining his hives against varroa mites, pesticides and viruses.

These stressors have contributed to bee mortality throughout his 1,200-hive operation. But to combat these stressors, each of his hives are strategically placed in his 41 state-registered locations throughout South Dakota in Davison, Hand, Hutchinson, Turner, Aurora and Faulk counties.

The hives are kept in groups of 32 to 40 in an area less than one-half acre. This allows him to manage the bees himself, along with his employees.

Determining locations for each of his hives has become a challenge as “farming practices have changed a lot,” Schroeder said.

Ideally, the hives would be located around clover crops, such as alfalfa, and have a small amount of row crops within 1½ miles from the hives’ location.

Over the last two years, he has tried to set hives in locations that keep the bees away from row crops, which is “hard to do in South Dakota,” he said.

This is to detract the likeliness of neonicotinoids or other chemical being found in the pollen and brood.

After federal researchers came and performed a study on Schroeder’s bees, he found he had 17 different chemicals, which he did not introduce, within the brood and pollen.

While these chemicals may not impact the bees during the summer months as the insects are pollinating and making honey, it can have significant impact during the winter dormant season. This is when the bees feed on their stored pollen.

“When all the bees are in one area and they are not active it’s just feeding grounds for anything that can get to them,” Schroeder said.

Mortality rates high in winter season

Since there is less activity within the hive during the winter months, Schroder said this is when most of his losses occur, with mortality rates as high as 40 percent.

“During the summer they are reproducing bees faster than the mites or any predator are producing. It’s when the (queen bee) starts shutting down and quits laying in the fall when the bees dwindle down,” Schroeder said. “ … That just makes the mites able to get to them a lot easier.”

For the winter months the bees are sent to California to pollinate almond trees, which Schroeder has done for more than 20 years. For these few months, the bees do not produce any honey and Schroeder drives to California four times each winter to feed the bees liquid sucrose.

And in California, there are also more hives in a condensed area in California, leading to the spread of diseases.

“There are thousands upon thousands of hives within a mile of where you are at so if there are any diseases or viruses anything like that. You can pick them up from somebody else,” Schroeder said.

But the lesser activity and condensed areas of California are not the only killers. Viruses and diseases can also be carried and transferred through varroa mites.

To combat those losses, Schroeder started administering probiotics to his bees in the spring before honey production and in the fall after the honey has been taken off. Adding this to his management program has helped with viruses, Schroeder said.

Also in early April, Schroeder “splits” his bee hives to make up for his losses that are obtained over the winter months. He buys new queen bees and adds bees from an established hive, splitting between 500 and 600 hives each spring.

“I’m just making up the losses basically. I’m not enlarging my operation by any,” Schroeder said.  

The hives take approximately six weeks to become productive and the goal is to have the bee numbers back up before the winter months begin again, Schroeder said.

Since his bees are harder to manage while they are in California and diseases can be more likely, Schroeder has since been considering wintering the bees in South Dakota.

“Rumor has it that some of the people that winter them here seem to get away from that (diseases and viruses) because their bees aren’t exposed to that,” Schroeder said. “So I think I might try that and see how it goes.”