Last season (2017-18), after a bumper year, we had the worse drought in a decade with many people losing hives and others struggling to keep their bees healthy. It was so poor, the European Wasps were in plague proportions and were attacking bees and eating out honey stores. Our hopes were high for this season and the Spring promised good honey flow following the rains. But there were early indications that while the drought may have broken, the bees were starting from a low base and were still struggling.
The worse thing about a drought year is not just the lack of nectar. It is the very poor protein quality coming in the pollen. In drought, pollen is in low quantity and variety but also lacks the essential vitamins, minerals and other proteins needed for healthy food, healthy brood, healthy queens and strong foragers. Mating was poor, queen laying was delayed and the bees lacked vital essentials to winter well.
When our late Spring arrived and the weather warmed, we eventually got to do our Spring maintenance, replacing bottom boards, removing bottom boxes and checking food stores for the girls. Initially we had some patchy spring honey flow, then in late November the annual dearth seemed to hit hard. Many beeks were reporting reducing honey stores in the hive, wax production slowing, and swarming slowing.
We have had poor weather throughout December.
Two interesting issues have appeared this season. Firstly, we have had significant outbreaks of AFB, EFB, Sacbrood and Chalkbrood, with a secondary disease also taking hold. So intervention has been important to ensure clean and safe conditions to reverse or contain the diseases. It is not surprising such outbreaks have happened following poor nutrition last year and mediocre conditions this season. The gut microbes of the bees and immunity is low and any sugar feeding weakens the gut even further. The wasp may have brought another disease as they can be the source of Nosema Ceranea, a microsporidian beginning to infect Apis mellifera. While there are few signs of the disease it does lead to a failure to thrive, then possibly chalkbrood and sacbrood before nastier diseases take hold. We need to start testing for this disease and understand how to improve the health of the bees naturally.
The second important aspect of this season is many people are reporting the brood remaining high in the hive. Normally the honey flow moves the brood down to the lower boxes in cool climate beekeeping. So many hives have a mass of empty space at the bottom often attracting wax moth, and making it difficult for the bees to keep the comb clean and healthy. The density of bees becomes markedly reduced and disease can take off. We are encouraging people to remove further boxes from the bottom if they are empty. The bees will love being in a denser environment.