It started so beautifully in May 2019: suddenly a swarm of bees was hanging in our garden and from then on we were beekeepers again. We have been sharing our experiences of beekeeping in Portugal on this blog.
Today for the last time, because unfortunately, it turned out last February that our bee colony had not survived the winter. And now we’re beeless.
What did the bees die of?
That is hard to answer but there are several things that have had an influence:
First, honey bees in Portugal are greatly plagued and weakened by Asian hornets. These are large, exotic wasp-like insects that have settled in Europe for several years and have no natural enemy here. The Asian hornets capture hundreds of honeybees in the air from the month of June onwards. And from September, they also try to invade bee colonies to eat the brood nest with larvae and eggs. European honeybees do not know how to defend themselves against these killers. And apart from the fact that hornets kill many bees, their hunting already causes a lot of stress and nuisance for the bees. The continuous presence of 10 hornets around the hive makes it difficult for the hive to collect water, nectar and pollen. In the second half of summer, the nuisance of hornets is at its highest. And it is precise during this critical period that the hive is preparing for next winter. The consequences are dire: A too-small, too-weak hive with too few provisions cannot keep the temperature in the hive high enough during the cold winter months, and dies.
Secondly, we have noticed that our hives are being robbed of their honey by bees of neighbouring beekeepers. This too causes a lot of stress and turmoil. It keeps the hives from preparing properly for the winter months, on top of the stress already caused by Asian hornets.
Third, last year (2022) was extremely dry. And drought is reflected in the number of flowers, and thus in the amount of pollen and nectar available for bees to collect. My impression is, there was actually too little food for bees in our area during the summer. This impression is confirmed by the fact that neighbouring bee colonies go robbing. If there is enough food in the surrounding area, robbing is not necessary. In the Netherlands, I learnt: an average hive (30 thousand bees in summer) annually consumes 25 kg of water, 15-30 kg of pollen and 60-80 kg of nectar.
That said, our hive did not die of starvation, as there were at least 4 kilos of honey left in the hive. There were remarkably few dead bees in the hive, though. This could indicate two things: the queen laid not enough eggs, resulting in too few bees being born in September. Or too many bees, which were supposed to nurse and feed the eggs, were captured by the hornets.
Fourth, the queen did not lay enough eggs. This could also have several causes. Either, the queen reacted to the shortage of water and food that could be brought in by the worker bees. Or, the queen was too old and had no fertilised eggs left in her. Last year, I saw no queen bee pupas in the hive at all. And that means the population has not wanted/been able to reproduce itself. As a result, the current queen, with no successor, may have died. And then the colony is doomed to die.
Fifth, we as beekeepers may also have played a role in the death of the bees. We have not been able to protect them sufficiently against the hornets. And we may have given them too little attention and care. Since Nuno had a serious allergic reaction to a bee sting, we moved the colony to a neighbouring piece of land. Some people attribute super-sensory qualities to honeybees, so who knows, we may have deeply taunted them with the banishment from our garden.
Dusting off and try again?
As we cleaned up the hive, collected the last honey from the combs and cleaned everything thoroughly, we drew the conclusion that we will have another go at beekeeping in a few years. But then I would like to change a few things. And so I come up with a few tips for beekeeping in Portugal (learn from our mistakes).
Tips for beekeeping in Portugal:
• Build an apiary
I’ve never seen one in Portugal, but I think an apiary will make beekeeping a lot
easier and it offers opportunities to protect the bees more. It protects the hives from the scorching
sun and from the huge amount of rain and moisture, which also makes the climate inside the hives
somewhat more stable. It is much more comfortable for the beekeeper, and you can fence off the front with chicken wire. Through which honeybees fly easily, but hornets won’t. This way, you avoid having 10 or more hornets continuously swarming around the hive and the honeybees can fly in and out safely.
• Keep at least 3 hives and preferably some more. Beekeeping, if you want to do it right, is quite intensive. But to keep 4 or more hives is not that much more of an effort than 1 or 2. With only 1 or 2 hives, it is more difficult to react well to what you see in the hive. With more than 3 colonies, you can make a better judgement of behaviour, problems and causes. And as a beekeeper, you are less vulnerable to setbacks. For example, it will give you the opportunity to only let a strong colony reproduce or to replace the queen of a weak colony with a young new queen from a strong colony.
• Remember to check whether the bees can get enough fresh water near the hives. If not, place containers of water close to the hives. But beware, these are often places where Asian hornets easily make their move.
• Familiarise yourself with local beekeeping practices. Seek the company of a local beekeeper. Learn his tricks or habits. And, also important, ask when neighbouring beekeepers control varroa. In areas where all beekeepers control varroa mites at the same time of the year, you will see that the overall presence of varroa in the hives decreases.
• Finally, for everyone who cares about bees: plant and sow bee-friendly flowers, plants and trees. Especially in the second part of summer, bees are in great need of high-quality pollen. And high-quality means containing lots of good nutrients, specifically for honey bees. Pollen is classified into 5 grades. Pollen from maize, for example, is abundant in our area but is actually not particularly beneficial for honey bees. However, pollen from linden, sunflowers, hedera (ivy), Virginia creeper and heather is. So if you can plant or sow those; please do!
Want to read more about our beekeeping experiences?
All posts by As Rolhas on beekeeping in Portugal