Capitol Honey Bee Project Update

In spring of 2016, two honey bee hives were installed on the grounds of the Governor’s mansion in Olympia. Both hives began collecting pollen and nectar from local blossoms, carrying it back to their new “homes.” As the Olympia Beekeepers Association project team continued to check on their progress, one of the hives demonstrated signs of a problem with its queen.

For a honey bee colony to thrive, the queen must lay at least 1,000 eggs per day during the spring and summer months. The queen was not producing enough eggs and hive failure was inevitable without intervention.

New queen

Introducing a new queen to a bee colony can be tricky. The existing bees are used to their original queen’s pheromone, or signature scent. If the existing bees do not accept the new queen, she will be killed and the colony will collapse. Despite using techniques to ensure the new queen’s success, it took multiple trials to get the failing hive back on track.

Both hives continued to bring in nectar and create honey throughout the summer months, the bees’ winter survival food. The team was hopeful that the bees had built up their population enough to make it through the winter. Both colonies had also been treated for varroa mites - an external parasite that attacks honey bees. Monitoring for the hives showed the treatment had been successful.

Monitoring and results

In late December, an opportunity to peek into the hives to observe activity level and food supply presented itself. In the mansion hives, plenty of honey was observed but sadly, no sign of bee life.  

Beekeepers monitor hives to troubleshoot and intervene when conditions require assistance to ensure the bees’ survival. These hives were carefully monitored and supported since their installation. A single cause of failure could not be identified.

The cause was likely a combination of factors, such as: difficulty finding suitable plants for foraging (particularly when conditions get hot and dry and food sources are limited); pesticide or herbicide exposure or nectar, pollen or water that had been contaminated with pesticides; or some other unknown factor.

Hive survival trends

Many other beekeepers are observing similar fates to their hives. While the colony loss numbers for 2016-17 are still forthcoming, beekeepers across the United States lost 44 percent of their colonies in 2015-16. The Olympia Beekeepers Association losses were at 48 percent in the same time frame.

Honey bee colony loss is no longer just a beekeeper’s problem. Washington State has a vibrant and vital agricultural economy. Honey bee and pollinator losses, should they continue at these high levels, will have an impact on our agricultural economy. This impact could potentially affect the cost and variety of food that is produced.

What’s next

Two new honey bee colonies were installed at the Governor’s Mansion on April 21. Working in collaboration with the Governor and Mrs. Inslee and the Department of Enterprise Services, the Olympia Beekeepers Association will monitor the hives throughout the coming months. The public is encouraged to support a healthy environment to help the bees thrive.

Honey bees are interested in pollen and nectar, and not people. You are not likely to get stung by a honey bee unless you step on it, threaten its home or swat at it. Honey bees forage for their food as they look for flowers and weeds (like dandelion and clover) within a four-mile radius from their hive location.

What you can do

People who live on or manage property near the Capitol Campus can avoid spraying nearby plants with pesticide or herbicide. Doing so can be problematic because one honey bee can sip the nectar of a hundred flowers on a single foraging trip, carrying a toxic load back to its hive. Considering there are tens of thousands of bees in each hive, this can produce both long and short-term toxicity and destroy the entire colony. Pesticide exposure can also kill bees outright.

You can choose to be bee-friendly by planting things like various herbs and flowers, growing fruit trees and berries, letting the dandelions and clover grow in your lawn, naturalizing with native plants, and replacing noxious weeds with plants suitable for bees. Their survival in the long-term is a problem we all need to have a hand in turning around.