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A hive’s struggle: Giving bees a helping hand 

  • Martin Marklin marks a queen bee from one of his hives with a yellow paint dot in Contoocook on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Martin Marklin prepares a smoker near his bee hives in Contoocook on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A queen bee, marked with a green dot, is seen inside a display hive at Der Markt at Marklin in Contoocook on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Martin Marklin points out a drone, or male bee, inside a display hive at Der Markt at Marklin in Contoocook on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Worker bees surround a queen bee, newly marked with a yellow dot by Martin Marklin, in Contoocook on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Martin Marklin holds a queen bee from one of his hives in Contoocook on May 4. New Hampshire beekeepers lost more than 60 percent of their hives from 2009 to 2016, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, which collects national data on the decline of honey bees in the United States. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Martin Marklin prepares a smoker near his bee hives in Contoocook on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Martin Marklin points to a queen bee from one of his hives in Contoocook on May 4.

  • Martin Marklin, owner of Marklin Candle and a Contoocook village market, tends to his bees in Contoocook on May 4. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Thursday, May 11, 2017

When the sun finally showed its face, it was time for Martin Marklin to crown his queens.

Marklin, owner of Marklin Candle and a Contoocook village market, knew the day of sunshine in an otherwise forecasted stretch of rainy and cool weather was a critical time for his bees, who can only fly and collect nectar and pollen when the weather is warm and clear. And after losing about 35 percent of his 100 or so hives over the winter and seeing his bees struggle to produce with the cool spring weather, encouraging his bees to thrive was more crucial than ever.

“You can tell how well a hive is doing by what’s going on around it,” he said, removing a tarp from a hive. “Things like how many bees are coming in and out, the amount of eggs the queen is laying.”

But a slight frown creased Marklin’s brow as he pulled a frame from the hive revealing rows of geometrically perfect hexagons crawling with bees. Some were dotted with tight, while coils; others were vacant, the queen nowhere to be seen.

“This hive’s doing okay,” he said. “But they’re not ramping up fast enough.”

Hive loss is nothing new for beekeepers.

New Hampshire beekeepers lost more than 60 percent of their hives from 2009 to 2016, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, which collects national data on the decline of honeybees in the United States. Reasons for hive loss range from parasites to a lack of diversity in bees’ food sources, but beekeepers are facing an extra challenge this year: a scarcity of food brought on by the recently ended drought and stretches of warm weather in January and February that threw off the pollen-producing season by one to two weeks.

For bees, this means their schedule of collecting nectar, laying eggs and building a strong hive is out of balance, Marklin said. It also means the window of time fruit growers, particularly the state’s apple growers, have to utilize beekeepers’ hives to pollinate their crops for the growing season is shrinking. Bees’ pollination services to the agriculture business is worth $200 billion worldwide, according to the Bee Lab at the University of New Hampshire, and is crucial insurance to local fruit growers, who can’t afford to go a season without a crop and can no longer rely on local pollinators to do the job.

Marklin got up before the sun last Thursday, ready to get to work. Standing in his bee yard, Marklin removed a wooden frame crawling with honeybees. It wasn’t hard to find the queen, which is twice as big as the others and surrounded in a star pattern by her attendants.

This queen was a young one, not yet crowned with a spot of paint, a system Marklin uses to track his queens’ ages. Later, he picked up a queen sporting a white dot, signifying she’s survived a winter – the oldest queens, around 4 or 5 years old, are marked with blue dots.

Hives revolve around their queens, so Marklin held her gently but firmly by the thorax and crowned the new queen with a dab of yellow, to signify she was born this year. He gently blew on her to dry the paint, knowing she’ll die if any rubs off on her antennae, and placed her back among her workers, which rushed to tend to her.

A matter of time

It takes 21 days for a female honeybee to hatch, and about six weeks for her to die.

Once born, worker bees have a lot to do, Marklin said. They change jobs quickly, going from nursery bees to worker bees to foragers, who have the critical task of bringing nectar and pollen back to the hive. Both plant materials are important food sources for bees, particularly in the winter, when the colony shuts down and focuses on keeping the queen warm until springtime.

Marklin said last year’s drought affected the amount of nectar plants were able to produce, which bees use to make honey. And beekeepers, who collect honey throughout the year, couldn’t anticipate that bees wouldn’t have enough food to make it through the winter. To supplement the bees, keepers can turn to artificial food sources, like sugared water, but even that’s not a guarantee they will survive – if bees don’t have enough time to process their food into honey, they can get sick and die, he said.

It’s not as though honeybees don’t have enough threats to deal with: Varroa mites, parasites, and nosema disease – which can cause anything from reduced life spans to the infertility in queen bees – are widespread threats to colonies, Marklin said. Then there are human-made threats, such as a lack of diversity in diet caused by moving hives around for pollination during the growing season.

“It’s like if you ate almonds for a month, then carrots then broccoli,” Marklin said. “You’d have food, but you wouldn’t be healthy.”

Combine those factors with the threat of insecticides and herbicides, and it’s not a matter of whether a hive will lose bees, Marklin said. It’s a matter of how many.

“You basically have to go into the winter with as twice as many bees as you think you’ll need during the spring,” he said. “That’s hard to work around.”

And thanks to the unusually long January thaw and unseasonable temperatures in February, pollen-producing season was thrown off, meaning exhausted and hungry bees were struggling to find their earliest food source, Marklin said.

The last few days of gray, chilly weather haven’t helped, either. Forager bees fly only when it’s sunny and warm, when the hive can survive without their added heat, Marklin said. This presents a small window of opportunity for fruit growers who use insecticide on their trees to do so without harming the bees.

Even the decision to use insecticide has to be timed right, said Chuck Souther, owner of Apple Hill Farm in Concord who commissioned about 16 of Marklin’s hives to pollinate his 30 acres of fruit trees this week. He doesn’t use a pre-bloom insecticide to lower the risk to bees, but said he’s seen the results of waiting too long after full bloom to spray for insects.

“Last year due to weather and crop load, I waited a considerable time after bloom to apply an insecticide, despite all of the models and my on-the-ground observations,” he said. “I waited too long and suffered about 11 percent loss due to one insect. Ouch.”

Full bloom is more than just a pretty sight – it’s the only time when pollination and fertilization is possible, and only lasts for five to six days. If a tree doesn’t get fertilized, then there are no apples. Souther said it’s become harder to predict when his trees will flower and be ready for pollination. He’s tracked the bloom of his McIntosh flowers for years, and dates have ranged from May 1 to May 20.

Souther agrees pollination this year is about a week ahead, but as the cool weather shows no signs of letting up, he reckons that could change.

“If we’re lucky, we might get one or two windows of sunshine for bees to do their work,” he said.

For Souther, Marklin’s bees have got to fly – despite Souther’s personal efforts to sustain pollinators with on-site hives and plots of bee-friendly plants, the local population of honeybees and solitary pollinators (such as bumblebees) just isn’t enough to do the trick.

“I would say in general the bees are responsible for 99 percent of the pollination of my fruit trees,” he said. ” In a way, it turns into risk management.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)