I saw a bumper sticker once that said,”I’m a professional gambler- I keep bees”. At the time I thought it was humorous, but as I thought about it more and more, I realized there was some level of truth in the humor. Sometimes it seems that keeping bees alive and healthy is a game of luck and odds.
So how do you stack the odds in your favor? As in-“Doing specific things for the intentionally purpose of increasing your chances of successful outcomes in beekeeping”. For this philosophy to work one needs to establish a starting point of what the odds are. Normally we might approach it by saying, “If I do nothing, I have a 50/50 chance of success”. In today’s beekeeping “doing nothing” with your bees reduces your chances or odds of success to less then 50/50. Under normal, natural, healthy conditions in the wild, a new swarm with no human intervention has about a 20% chance of surviving their first winter. Nearly every winter loss is due to starvation. Interestingly enough, a colony of bees that survives that first Winter has a 75% chance of surviving it’s second Winter. The first Winter is tough for a new colony but the odds of survival triple if we can get it through the first Winter.
What can beekeepers do to increase the odds of a new swarm/package to survive it’s first winter? The answer is in the reason why the majority of them die- starvation. Feed them new colonies. The minute a package or swarm clusters in it’s new home in early Spring, it begins to prepare for the coming Winter. Everything they do requires energy in the form of nectar/syrup and pollen/patties, the comb building, brood raising, gathering propolis, water, etc. It is estimated that a new colony must produce the equivalent of over 40 pounds of honey by Fall to prepare the colony for the coming Winter.
Another method to increase odds of success- keep more then one hive. If you start with one hive and it dies, you have lost 100% of your bees. If you have 2 hives and lose one, you have only lost 50% of your bees. It reduces the chances of total loses. If the hives are the same style it retains resources for the keeper to reinstate lost hives by working from the surviving hive.
Also retaining the old comb from your die outs. Safe, old drawn comb is like a gold mine to bees. Swarms actively seek out abandoned hives, previously occupied tree cavities and swarm traps baited with old comb. Making comb takes time and a lot of energy, having ready made comb gives the new colony a jump start. My personal method of “sterilizing” bars and frames of old comb for reuse is carefully packing them in the freezer for a few days. Be super careful! Frozen comb crumbles very easily.
There are many ways a keeper can manage their bees to increase the odds of success. I feel the most important way to stack the odds in your favor is knowledge. Surround yourself with like minded people, join a bee club, read books, watch videos, find a mentor. Don’t depend a whole lot on luck, simply getting bees and hoping for a good out come. Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of luck involved in beekeeping. However, I have found unquestionably, that the smarter I get, the luckier I get. So how does one separate the difference between the odds, knowledge, luck, or being good at beekeeping? You don’t- You mix the first 3 to get the 4th.