Shenandoah beekeepers help hives survive winter

Lynne Phillips, manager at Natural Art Garden Center, checks on her honey bees near the garden center in Toms Brook. Rich Cooley/Daily

TOMS BROOK – As the weather starts to grow colder, area beekeepers try to ensure their hives survive the winter by encouraging eggs and keeping an eye out for pests that play a large role in the dreaded colony collapse disorder.

Three-year veteran hobbyist beekeeper Lynne Phillips checks on her colonies periodically for varroa mites – pests that have spread almost worldwide since the 1980s and can mean discovering a dead colony in March. The mites spread viruses to the bees and although they’re found in every hive, hobbyist beekeepers can make sure their colonies are below the threshold of a fatal infestation.

When Phillips goes into her hives periodically, she checks a sticky platform under a screen at the bottom of the structure for mites that have fallen from when bees groom one another. She’s been lucky thus far – she’s only seen a few mites drop, which is a good sign for the survival of her colonies.

Phillips is one of around 30 hobbyist beekeepers in Shenandoah County who are in the process of organizing a club. Other beekeepers involved in the effort with a little more experience, like Scott Currie, from Toms Brook, share their knowledge as mentors with beginner apiarists. Many of those involved have taken classes that master beekeeper Brenda Kiessling has taught in Woodstock since 2011.

New beekeeper Julie Richman took Kiessling’s class and said that when she bought her first two hives from Currie in June, she wanted to help increase her family’s crop yield.

Honey bees swarm on their comb inside the bee hive. Rich Cooley/Daily

“Just the fact that there is support out there from other local beekeepers to help educate, to me that has been invaluable,” she said. “I didn’t even realize that there were so many people doing that in Shenandoah County.”

She initially looked into applying for financial assistance from the Virginia General Assembly’s Beehive Grant Fund, but found plenty of support through buying cheaper hand-me-down equipment. Created in 2012, the fund offers up to $200 per hive for fledgling beekeepers setting up new colonies.

Richman didn’t tap her hives for honey in July so that the bees would have plenty stored for the winter, and she said she is hoping to use guidance from her mentors to eventually split her colonies and create new ones.

In the fall, queen bees lay eggs for winter bees – those with longer five-month life spans. To encourage those eggs, beekeepers decrease the amount of sugar in their feeder solutions. Those winter bees will die in March after helping to raise summer bees and keep them warm while sustained by the honey they’ve stored up since July. But if the mites have infected the bees and larvae, there won’t be much of a colony left after the cold winter.

Currie said one possible method to controlling the mites – as opposed to treatments that they can grow resistant to – is artificially selecting the bees for the ability to detect when mites have burrowed in cells with larvae. Those bees would then dispose of the infested brood cells.

Backyard beekeeper and small business owner Adam Smith said efforts to weather a hive through the winter are important to growers throughout the county.

“Our county here is in the top five agricultural producing counties, and the more local beekeepers you get and the more that we can populate the county with honeybees, the more the county benefits and the farmers in the county benefit,” he said.

Along with area agribusinesses come pesticides, and Shenandoah’s beekeepers are as concerned as any about use of neonicotinoid insecticides that are believed to play a role in colony collapse disorder. In fact, Kiessling said that the U.S. lost a bid for the world bee organization Apimondia’s congress partly because of a lack of control on neonicitinoid use.

When only around one-third of colonies are expected to survive the winter due to these various threats, backyard beekeepers like Philip and Richman do the best they can to learn the best practices from mentors to help boost the local bee population. Richman said she’s sure to educate her children about how docile the pollinators really are – and what plants in their garden wouldn’t grow without their help.

“We say that we rely on pollination efforts of bees to sustain our modern food supply – that’s a complete understatement,” she said. “We don’t understand that most plants, food and otherwise, would go extinct without the honeybee.”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com