Beekeeping in Carlisle

Written by Ernie Huberernie

The video link to the TED talk by Marla Spivak on this website is an excellent introduction to what’s happened to US honeybees in recent years and what we can do about it. Marla lays the blame for the disappearance of our pollinators at the doorstep of several sources-(a) lack of good bee nutrition because of loss of diverse food sources and our increasing use of crop monocultures,(b) increases in the number of foreign pathogens which have arrived in the US like the varroa mites, and, most importantly, (c) a change in the types and efficacy of the pesticides which are in use today.

I have been keeping bees for 34 years in Carlisle and have seen many changes through the years. Beekeeping used to be easy before the foreign varroa mites came to Massachusetts in 1988. The first hive that  my kids and I set up in 1979 yielded about 300 lbs. of honey. Beginners luck, perhaps, but a 100 lb. yield  per hive was common  and expected in those days..When the varroa mites (alluded to by Marla Spivak) arrived thelosses the in first year  were cataclysmic- maybe 90% over the State.  A few years later Roger Morse, Chair of the Entomology Department at Cornell, told me that he thought that all of the feral (wild) colonies of honeybees in New England had been wiped out by the mites.

Ernie Huber opening a hive at a house on Westford Road .  All the little dots are bees in the air. (Photo by Steve Kirk.)

The intervening years between then and now were marked by resurgences and setbacks. The arrival of tracheal mites, also from abroad, the arrival of the “old” nosema, (nosema apis) , and the arrival of the “new” nosema (nosema ceranae) seemed to come one after the other in waves.  Many beekeepers responded to each new wave with increased use of chemicals in their hives-primarily  miticides and antibiotics.  As time went on I became more and more stubborn about trying to keep my bees alive. I went from keeping only one or two colonies to ten or more because of the losses. I went from having only one location (home) to three or four locations in Carlisle. I eventually eschewed the use of chemicals and was able to do that by having enough hives to ensure that  there would always be at least a few survivors. My honey yields remained large enough through all of this that I could always sell a little honey at Old Home Day or at church (FRS) events.  If a hive survived, a reasonable honey yield of at least 70 lbs was expected.

Bee on FlowerI always got a little honey that is UNTIL 2006 when there was again a cataclysmic shift. This one seems permanent.  Since 2006 my honey yeilds have been 1/10th of what they used to be and my winter losses have been much greater than before. Last  winter I lost 4 of 7 colonies and only one was a stong survivor,  and , again, no honey yield for this year. I wasn’t  alone. I read that US losses last winter averaged 50% among hobby beekeepers like myself and I was told by the president of the Mass Bee Association that he thought that Middlesex County losses among the hobbyists averaged 85% last winter (2012-2013).

I attribute this cataclysmic shift in 2006 to the arrival of the new systemic pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Particularly the neonics- as Marla Spivak referrers to them.  Current thinking of many researchers is that these pesticides not only result in the insect memory losses that Marla alludes to (along with an inability to return to the hive with the good nutritious food that the young developing bees need) but also that trace amounts (sub lethal doses)in the larval food result in a compromised immune system and an inability to fight off the increased assualt of the new foreign pests and pathogens. A veritabe perfect storm of coinciding bee attack mechanisms.

Amazingly the interest in beekeeping is at an all time high. The bee schools are full. Last Spring the Worcester County Beekeepers Association had a record bee school application of 300 students. Middlesex County Beekeepers Association (MCBA) was running several bee schools. For all you would be beekeepers I really don’t have any good advice except to learn all you can about the subject before committing to it- and don’t have high expectations. Check out the MCBA public web site at
BeeAnd consider becoming an MCBA member ($15 per year)  and coming to the monthly meetings.   The indoor meetings are right here in Carlisle. You will get lots of advice. The saying is that for every 10 beekeepers there are 10 ways of keeping bees. Frequently, it seems to me, that the new beekeepers will have great initial success. Possibly that is because of all new uncontaminated equipment and new uncontaminated bees. Many new young beekeepers are having success by rigorously controlling the varroa mites that Marla has alluded to in the video. By controlling these mites you are elliminating two of the stressors on the bees- the mites themselves and also the viruses that they would have vectored into the bees. Unfortunately, in my opinion, that is fighting a new wave of chemically induced problems (the neonics) through the use of more chemicals in the hive (formic acid, oxalic acid, thymol, etc.) Something I’ve also done but again am eschewing. I don’t want to believe that we have to fight problems created by the agrichemicals in our environment (the neonics) by using our own chemicals in the hive.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to get a starter nucleus colony that has had a locally bred queen, perhaps starting on what is called “small cell foundation” you may be better off. But be prepared for the possibility of cataclysmic losses further down the line.

Good luck.

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