Some of our bees are sick. We added several new colonies this spring, which were installed as packages back in March. From the beginning, only 2 of them were growing strongly. 2 died out almost immediately, despite requeening and other efforts. The third succumbed recently. Honey beekeeping is often described as legalized gambling. And my game is not looking so good. When your child is sick you call a pediatrician. Your dog = vet. Your bees? The NC State Apiary Inspector.
A few weeks ago, we called in the expert, Don Hopkins, from central NC to take a look at our colonies. Based on my description of the symptoms, he told me how his counterparts up and down the East coast have been reporting similar problems; new colonies failing to thrive and showing illness symptoms despite best conditions. These inspectors are scratching their collective heads wondering if this is yet another new disease ‘vectored’ off the notorious varroa mite. Mites themselves are a bit like ticks to humans. They weaken bees but worse, transmit viruses which deform bees and interrupt their ability to forage among other things. This is the kryptonite plaguing our nation’s honeybees.
Don and I went through the living 2 colonies for signs of disease. Virus? Bacteria? BOTH?? There are several possibilities but Don didn’t see any classic textbook signs of the worst disease – American Foulbrood. It is a bacterial disease for which there is no treatment.
Equipment can be fumigated but is often destroyed by burning. Ouch. Expensive ouch. After reviewing our hives, Don wagered that we might be facing the slightly less horrific, European Foulbrood. It too is a bacterial disease spread in larval tissue but is treatable by antibiotic. But we don’t know yet. Sigh.
How did they get sick? Where did it come from? Well, we still don’t know what ‘it’ is. But given the incidence of similar happenings in other hives this spring, it may have come with mites on the new package bees. But it could have come from my equipment or they may have picked up mites as they were foraging. Although satisfying, the important point is not to point at the snotty toddler who infected your kid, but to make the little ones better.
Don took 2 of our frames as samples back to the NC State labs. It takes a while to culture the samples, so I’m stuck waiting until next week to get feedback. Depending on the diagnosis (if there is a clear one), there are a few treatment options: replacing the current queen, treating with antibiotics, and/or replacing equipment. It’s hard to know what to wish for.
In the meantime, I am wrestling with a tough call. To treat with antibiotics, or not? These bees are not currently honey producers. Some of those girls are in the mountains and some are at Ninja Cow Farm. New colonies (like these sick ones) generally need a year to build up before they can put up enough honey to be a production hive. So it’s not an issue of antibiotics in the honey. Any treatment will be long gone before these girls are producing, if they survive. (Honey is not regulated, and some beekeepers do treat hives and sell the concurrent honey. Yuck.) This is a bigger philosophical issue of raising healthy, sustainable colonies.
We will post an update once we hear back and make a decision about treatment and the future for these girls. For now, I do believe my luck just crapped out.